Technical mastery and peculiar intimacy: new Irish poetry
Review: Strictly No Poetry by Aidan Mathews and Europa by Sean O’Brien
Aidan Mathews: his poetry is assured, confident and self-delighting. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
The career of Aidan Mathews is an interesting case study. Mathews published his first collection of poetry, Windfalls, in 1977 with Dolmen Press. There have been only three since, each appearing at increasingly lengthy intervals and with a different publisher on each occasion (The Gallery Press, Jonathan Cape, and The Lilliput Press, respectively). If he were puckishly conniving at his own obscurity he couldn’t manage it better, so counter to the prevailing ethos of brass-necked, twittery self-promotion does he seem. The pressure to push product with grinding regularity – driven by the twin demons of overproduction (“Elbow room! Elbow room!”) and the haunting, pervasive anxiety that no one actually cares about or reads much contemporary poetry, except the poets writing it – seems to have left no mark on his work, judging by the poems in Strictly No Poetry. He’s been here all the time, quietly getting on with it.
The material in Strictly No Poetry could not be described as a departure for Mathews. The voice here is still assured, confident, self-delighting in the true Yeatsian sense, and still circles around familiar themes: family, history, religion, the persistence of memory, illness, the body. But such a neutral gloss cannot give a flavour of the peculiar intimacy of a Mathews poem: the clash of sacred and profane; the sui generis brio of his image-making; the obsessive sexual synecdoche; the breadth of reference; and the weirdly hippyish buoyancy that sustains it all. I cannot think of another male poet, for example, who has written a poem of celebration on the occasion of his daughter’s first period. Yet Mathews has done this in the tender love poem Menarche. There is little that he cannot turn to poetic account; he makes syringing an ear seem like a profound metaphysical event: “Now the other ear is light as a moccasin slipper/Tracking the stickiness of a slug’s slow glister/Through the pulverised grass outside, the Jew’s harp//Of the hairs in the cashier’s nostril at reception…”
In many ways Mathews’ work is an embodiment of Samuel Johnson’s famous, and famously critical, description of the metaphysical poets: “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions”. If there is a problem with this, it is a problem posed by his brilliance: that it is on occasion uncomfortable, taboo-breaking and risks tact. Admirers of Mathews will recognise nothing new in this: many of the poems in Strictly No Poetry sail close to the wind in this regard, particularly the ones that touch on the Jewish Holocaust. Whether the “heterogeneous ideas” method employed by Mathews is appropriate in all circumstances is debatable: yoking the trivial, or seemingly trivial, to the tragic is a high-stakes strategy. All brilliant metaphor says “look at me”, and any hint of “look at me” with reference to Auschwitz is an impertinence. In Covenant of the Oven, Mathews links “Christmas trees” surrounding a death camp to the startling description of “a chimney in which every Santa letter/Went awol finally from the bipolar planet…” If this makes a reader feel slightly uncomfortable I think it is intended to; on subsequent readings, the cultural significance of those Christmas trees deepens and resonates. And this is a characteristic sensation on reading Mathews’ poetry: no other Irish poet is as prodigiously gifted a metaphorist. It is to be hoped that he has a loyal readership that has kept faith with him over the 20 years since According to the Small Hours, and that Strictly No Poetry will bring him the new and appreciative readers he deserves.
“I wage perpetual war against the anecdote,” Sean O’Brien remarked in an interview at the London Buddhist Centre in 2012. “There are an awful lot of well-intended workshop poems which are “oh I remember granny’s mangle, it used to live in the scullery and she’d chase us round it on Sunday mornings with a meat-cleaver – those were the days.”’ Against the flat anecdotage which infests so much contemporary poetry, O’Brien’s work stands out as unusual in its formal and cultural ambition: this is work which passionately and obstinately asserts that poetry does not need to beat a retreat either to the disenfranchised sphere of the private self or to the ghetto of specialism, but can stand against the separation of the realms of history, politics and art in useful ways.
Europa, his ninth collection of poems, situates his familiar preoccupation with the condition of England and Englishness against the recent political earthquake of the Brexit referendum. It does this in ways that are never simplistic, obvious, or tub-thumping, and such is his immense skill that you never see the joins: his cultural reference points are not furniture cluttering up his stanzas but an essential part of the structure; the impression is that the poem emerges at a late stage in thought, with all its awkward edges rubbed off, each detail a carefully assimilated piece of what Wallace Stevens called “the whole, the complicate, the amassing harmony”.
The excoriating opening lyric You Are Now Entering Europa sets the tone; seeming eerily to participate in a kind of perpetual poetic exilic, set in a deep Europe of the mind, where “the grass moves on the mass graves”. The higher cultural consolations which are the poet’s stock-in-trade are of no use here, however, despite the desperate assertions of the poem’s speaker: “I may not be disturbed,/You understand, I have my work,/ So near to its conclusion now/That I will never finish it. The grass/Is at the door, is on the stairs,/Is in the room, my mouth, is me…” This is a poem that has something to say about isolationist art, art that considers itself safe from (or purer than) wider political upheavals, and the remarkable thing is that it does this by means of exemplary lyrical form. O’Brien is, first and foremost, a lyric poet of tremendous technical skill, and in Europa this is brought to bear both on direct satirical targets (The Chase, Sabbatical) as well as on more “conventional” lyric subjects (From the Cherry Hills, Hotel Marine).
It is the brilliant and unshowy concision of these forms that is most impressive: not a syllable is out of place in the muscular, flexible line O’Brien wields with such ease he makes you forget how difficult it is to do. In both technical mastery and his belief in the seriousness of the poetic art, O’Brien is WH Auden’s true inheritor. It is reassuring that poetry of this quality is still being written.
Caitríona O’Reilly is a critic and poet