Poetry round up: New work from Julie O’Callaghan, Gerry Dawe and Vicki Feaver

O’Callaghan never loses her fine sense of absurdity

Detail from the illustration to I want! I want!, by William Blake, 1793. Photograph: The Fitzwilliam Museum

The title sequence of Julie O'Callaghan's Magnum Mysterium (Bloodaxe £10.99) is a chain of heart-break from the 'I'm not doing that well./I bow my head' of CAN I BE HONEST WITH YOU to MY LIMIT, 'Just don't ask me/ to walk around Dublin/without you/I tried it yesterday/and had to grab a building/to stop myself falling'. Expressing maximum grief with a minimum of words, O'Callaghan never loses her fine sense of absurdity; it pierces through in FORMATIONS underlining O'Callaghan's horror at losing her wittiest best companion:

Den, there go those
damn birds
squawking and flapping
above us all…
in those hatefully beautiful formations.
Vs flying somewhere…
I'm crying for you
at my desk in Trinity
watching this horrible
magnificent rotten sight
I can't tell you about.

But O’Callaghan’s brand of funny has always been deadly serious. In ‘Mother in a Twister’, fear and existential dread are brilliantly wrapped up in her genius killer-humour:

from under her door
illuminates my foot.
Deep night
high in the apartment.
Ear to wood
I hear
the ferocious
tornado roar on
the other side.
A gust blasts
my ankles.
Her rosary sways on the handle.
Is she asleep?
I imagine
she must be swirlingaround the room on her bed.
I'm paralysed.
What to do?

Water drenches everything here, from the opening poem Island, where 'Water sloshes uncontrollably…', through car washes, floor mops, Irish rain, back to her roots by the Lake Michegan still haunted by her 'bridge tender' father 'Jack' so poignantly mourned in Tell Me This Is Normal (2000). Water doesn't stand still, time and space are not stable and as human lives move online, O'Callaghan shows with delicate precision how technology provides an addictive but ultimately tantalising approximation of immortality:


I need to see you
living and breathing
- I go to YouTube
and there you are being you
(the tiny you)
with the tie I bought you
for Christmas.
Sitting on a chair
on a stage in Santa Fe
asking Seamus questions.

(Cyber You)

A typically imagistic poem opens Gerry Dawe’s The Last Peacock (Gallery, €10) with deceptive casualness:

Not a bad day today
by all accounts. Little bits
of mist hang above
our encampments-

The encampments are, 'villas wedged into cliff face,/ The grand terraces/ overlooking the bay;/ an older order of things.' Dawe's great subjects, time and place are here already, effortlessly. Although a very different voice, like O'Callaghan's, Dawe's poems are fearlessly minimalist, open to the demotic, not without humour, 'Along with the sprightly/there's one or two giving out,/ on the latest iPhones…' It ends:

I keep to the east pier
under this cold blanket
of sky, patches of mist
like smoke from a fire.

a few deft strokes enforcing that sense of an encampment. This is not a wild encampment but an urban area seen as it truly is-temporary. Time ravages our sense of place while we’re busy on our phones or like the ‘swooping gulls’ who ‘fall/upon a crab shell/and play. This is it./ This be all.’ (Rock Bottom). Yet if change is unavoidable, the paradox remains that the past is always with us as in John Cheever’s Dublin:

'Less of the old,'
I hear you say.
But what can be done
about the boozed-up
late night caller's
rant down the phone-

Memories of friends and writers also appear but it is the freshly rinsed images of his mother that really stand out:

In the long cool pantryat the back of our house
my mother prepares salad;
lettuce floats like sea-
creatures in the ice-cold
water gushing from the tap.

(The Wound)

Or when family history and chance collide in the startling, fresh Selfies:

I look in the mirror
and my mother looks back,
the fall of the nose, brown eyes.
For her too there's a grandmother lurking-
Those tiny feet and hands;
layers of taffeta and lace.
when she was no age
a cheetah chased her into a tent
in India while her tipsy father
paraded on his dancing horse…

Vicki Feaver's I Want, I Want (Cape,£10) takes as its starting point William Blake's illustration of a tiny naked child with its foot on a ladder to the moon, crying, "I Want! I Want!" A perfect illustration for the immensity of human desire erupts from us 'bare forked' animals. In Feaver's case, the desire is for climbing the ladder of social and academic success:

My family were perched
halfway up: my mother
pushing us from behind;
my father beginning to fail…


Yet she longs for ‘a parachute/to land me gently/on earth’s springy turf, restored to the child/ who ran, fully-clothed,/into surf-bowled over/by waves…who wandered alone,/through dark woods.’ Alongside her deeply sensual images, conflict has always been the strongest component of Feaver’s poems, especially her famous Judith which asked how ‘a good woman can murder’. A family tug-of-war is the source of that darkness and depth. Beginning at the end of World War Two, her grief-stricken mother and grandmother fought for control: they are the lifeblood of this brave, vulnerable collection:

When Grandma wasn't going to die
of pneumonia, and the doctor
told Mummy, 'Your nursing
has saved her life,'
she burst into tears.


This high-octane conflict reaches its apex in Grandma's Bed:
…I remember the day
it was decided that Grandma
couldn't live any longer
in a house with my mother
without one killing the other…
We climbed dark stairs:
to a cramped bedsit…
Then we were all crying,
like when there's a truce in a war,
…my father took the bed
to pieces again and strapped it
back on the car roof-rack.

Fragile, broken things represent the conflict throughout I Want, I Want but the memories are unbreakable. As Feaver ages, the image of the bed as a place of refuge returns powerfully with a neat nod to the jingling coils of Molly Bloom’s dream bed:

The house would burn like a marriage
leaving black grease and ash.
My bed I'd bring out intact:
brass coils jingling…

(My Bed)