Searing sketches of a suburban childhood
POETRY: JOHN McAULIFFEreviews How Now!By Alan Moore Anvil, £8.95, The Darwin VampiresBy Patrick Chapman Salmon, €12 and Fade StreetBy Mark Granier Salt, £12.99
ALAN MOORE published his first book in 1986 so his follow-up collection, How Now!has been a long time coming. His contemporaries at his English publisher, Anvil, include Dennis O’Driscoll and Thomas McCarthy, two Irish poets who have drawn on urban day jobs in their poems: office lingo and the law for O’Driscoll; libraries and alternative histories for McCarthy. But although Moore shares a stripped-down vocabulary with O’Driscoll, there is little sign of his professional life (as a tax consultant) in this second collection.
Instead he has written a searingly autobiographical book which bears comparison with Paul Durcan’s Daddy, Daddy. Moore describes an unhappy childhood in the late 1960s and early 1970s in painstaking detail, often adopting the voice of a younger self, moving from a briefly sketched social world to the anxieties and terrors of the child:
Jack Lynch looks down from every pole.
Mammy likes him because he comes from Cork.
Daddy says he should be taken out and shot.
I’m walking to the shops with Timothy.
He always looks sleepy.
“My father will give me the belt tonight,” he says.
( Glasnevin North)
The poems register incomprehension in the face of the adult world: Daddybegins, “He leans down to kiss me and something squeaks. / He lifts the sheets and thirteen pairs / Of teddy eyes look back at him in fear.” When the son asks “Will you read this?” he recites a 13-line litany of the father’s excuses which begins:
After the news.
When I finish reading my magazine.
After I cut the grass.
After I wash my hands.
When we come home from mass.
When you eat your carrots.
But the poems also wisecrack and shift focus unexpectedly towards the seemingly permanent (and sometimes comic) wonders of the suburban world:
A perfect day: blue sky, milk haze;
Sunglasses and ultraviolet rays.
The lavender luxuriates:
The grass stems wave their plaits.
A bee struggles to get his legs over
The flushed, surprised clover.
While the book collects many successful, powerful poems, there’s also a deal of repetition in its 60 pages: Moore’s effects, the ways in which he uses his autobiographical material, begin to repeat and lose their power to surprise.
And the poems on the very different subjects of alcoholism and happiness that make up the last third of the book lack the odd angles, asides and surprising turns of those with a child’s perspective.
Patrick Chapman’s The Darwin Vampiresalso includes a number of poems based on memory and childhood but, although Chapman’s biographical note tells us that he has written children’s drama for RTÉ and Cbeebies, his poems on the subject feel perfunctory.
The Darwin Vampiresis at its best when Chapman places sex and death at the centre of the poems. Where mischief or joy or bravado marked his treatment of love and sex in earlier collections, the new poems are darker, ending sometimes with ironic kiss-offs or imagined scenarios which mock the inadequacies of their speakers: “For you are hardly the connoisseur / I suffer you to think you are” runs one lover’s address to another.
Chapman also writes about war and violence in The Darwin Vampires, and “political poetry” is the subject of Up, the book’s longest poem, which advises the writer, “if you fail to notice the abyss, / you may fall in”.
Chapman favours extreme close-ups in the poems where he does venture into the abyss: he doesn’t aim for subtlety here and is hardly convincing when he presents a suicide bomber in terms of his last meal, or describes an American torture chamber from the point of view of an orange-suited female prisoner.
Mark Granier isinterested in more subtle effects: he has worked as a photographer as well as a writer and these interests coincide in Fade Street, whose title poem reflects on a Victorian photograph.
These ekphrastic poems, though, are marked by their reluctance to move outside the frame of their subjects. Clearly catching the images he describes and marking the passage of time, Granier is careful to concentrate on essential details, but the poems are less sure about why we are being asked to look at these scenes.
Translations resemble ekphrastic poems, aiming to import a success from one medium into another, and Granier’s versions of early Irish poems are similar to his poems about photographs and paintings.
Perhaps influenced by Peter Sirr’s evocative and sideways glances at early and medieval Irish poems in Nonetheless, Granier’s versions avoid jangling transliterations but occasionally veer a little too close to the Celtic Twilight’s dim grey tones.
If images and other poems often inspire Granier, so too do poetic forms and his sonnets present clear images but also a sense of excess that pushes them beyond realism to suggest a different kind of grip on his subject and his medium: Lookoutends:
bendy branches: knuckly, sap-green cookers
(too bitter to sink your teeth into, too many to harvest)
and throw my weight from one foot to the other
till the whole shapeless vessel creaks and
John McAuliffe’s third book, Of All Places, will be published by The Gallery Press in July. He teaches at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester