Sound, rhythm, a soft-top and a disco ball’s bright distortions
John McAuliffe enjoys the music in Conor O’Callaghan’s new poetry collection
The first poem, Lordship, in Conor O’Callaghan’s new collection, The Sun King (Gallery Press, €18.50/ €11.95), begins in a coastal writing retreat, then shifts to a novel that the protagonist is supposedly writing, before segueing into a feverishly imagined depiction of a London affair.
The three intertwined stories might be material enough for a novel, but they are vividly, memorably brought to life in the three pages of Lordship. O’Callaghan’s lines sing, compressing stories into images, so that ordinary details crystallise and are magicked into mysterious flares of significance, as in “the antique Nokia on the butcher’s block in the bathroom”, which “vibrates at all hours like tropical wildlife”.
O’Callaghan likes to zoom in on things as they fall apart or are unexpectedly reintegrated. In one of Lordship’s interiors “Whitewashed horsehair plaster shed magnolia petals. // Whatever glare each fresh day uploaded / made a disco ball in the double glazing’s exterior smash / and blissed splinters of violet all over the upstairs.”
The poem ends, maybe thinking of the way it has distracted itself with such glittering images, by declaring of its narrative: “This is its safest keeping; nobody’s going to see it.” Such slant, shimmering, sidelong notes are a speciality in The Sun King, O’Callaghan’s best book to date.
O’Callaghan’s writing often seems to mimic that disco ball’s bright distortions, primarily through his distinctive use of sound and rhythm. These poems concentratedly apply assonance and the bang-bang emphasis of spondees and trochees: the striking, slow-mo rhythm of “Whitewashed horsehair plaster” or “blissed splinters of violet”, where “blissed” does its work as a verb but is really, overwhelmingly, there for the chime with “splinters” and the exotic, unwarranted happiness, the bliss, that the poem wants to convey.
Exhilaratingly contemporary in its idioms, The Sun King is also reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s experiments with different metres.
O’Callaghan was, of course, associated with the poetry magazine Metre (and poets associated with the magazine, including the present writer, are namechecked in the book’s acknowledgments). That magazine’s title gave a clue to its interest in experimenting with poetic forms and its iconoclastic attitude to the often loose-limbed poetry of the preceding generation of poets. The Sun King could be seen as the consummation of that impulse in Irish writing, exercising its use of sound and rhythm in striking ways in page after page.
The Sun King also impresses with its unfussy shifts between poems set in Ireland, the US (Philadelphia and North Carolina), England (London, Sheffield, Manchester’s Chinatown) and Italy (Tuscany, Naples). What’s markedly different about O’Callaghan’s use of these places (which reflects Metre’s determined internationalism) is how they do not lead him into arguments about Ireland’s closeness to Boston and Berlin but are all equally and matter-of-factly at the mercy of his imaginative transformations.
That transformational imagination is clear in the way the poems set out to inhabit a future rather than revise or correct the past. The Sun King accesses particular moments that offer a way out of predicaments. “Mid-March on the daily a.m. drop-off,” begins Swell, recounting not a St Patrick’s Day epiphany but how “a refrigerated dairy produce truck / keeps catching almond and dogwood branches so that blossoms blizzard / the windscreen and moonroof”. But by the end of the poem the “swell” of ordinary life, which threatened to overwhelm the poet, can no longer be avoided. “That truck and blossoms story gets longer, / hokier with each retelling”, but now the poet is “not bothered” and begins to ride its new rhythms: “Our local Y widens its opening hours a smidgen. / The clay courts opposite pock and shuffle. / I learn to swim.”
Swimming pools recur in O’Callaghan’s previous collections, and he returns to the pool a second time in The Sun King, in The End of the Line, a very long-lined sonnet (so long that it is printed sideways). Now the poet’s swimming lesson magnifies into something else:
I climb a lane, balloon my lungs to the diaphragm
(where did the balcony go? Where did you? Where has this pool arrived from?)
and fall too hard for that point of no return where the water looms deep and black.
This is when it comes: drained of noise, night without rungs, no lifeguards around.
This black vision aside, O’Callaghan’s book is all about light. The protagonist of the brilliant long poem The Server Room surfaces from a sea of information technology whose institutional language the poem refreshes, while the Celtic Tiger gets an indulgent nod in Tiger Redux, which borrows the (trochaic, again) rhythm of William Blake to remember “fibre optics, soft-top wheels, / tax-incentive movie stills, // Xerox plants like pleasure domes” before waving a fond goodbye to “All that North Atlantic bling’s / rising tide, its waves and boom / charging in an empty room”.
That soft top reappears in Comma, one of the book’s many beautiful, quieter lyrics, which observes a moment’s silence as an “Infinite / blip that / a flyover / sped beneath / scores into / a down- // pour on the / soft-top’s / timpani”.
That kind of sonic image is also the method of The Pearl Works, the diary of a year with which the book ends. In 52 140-character tweets, almost all of which address the sun, O’Callaghan eulogises “the carnal surface” in percussive couplets that will leave any reader open-mouthed, in both senses of the phrase, as they breathlessly run out of full stops: “O slow coach, freeze mode solar yellow yoyo O hand-thrown old gold snow globe / O rose most blown O whole whorled ‘out there’ lodestar de l’aube”.
John McAuliffe’s third collection, Of All Places (Gallery Press), was a Poetry Book Society recommendation in autumn 2011. He co-directs the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester, where he also co-edits The Manchester Review.