The mirror and the mask

‘Poetry is the genre in which I’m least likely to introduce a distancing mechanism’

I’ve been fortunate. It’s a little over 10 years since I quit lecturing to try my luck as a fulltime writer. At the end of that rollercoaster decade, it would appear I have eight books in print with six different publishers: three novels; three poetry collections; two short story collections. The tally surprises.

The day to day is far more Beckett-like: “Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.” True, I’ve won a scattering of literary awards to keep the spirits up. I’ve even had a couple of one-act dramas and a radio play produced. That said, the combined royalties for all of the above would scarcely keep body and soul together if it weren’t for supplementary income as a creative writing tutor and occasional reviewer, along with an odd Arts Council grant, a writing residency, a poetry commission.

But that’s part and parcel of what it means to be a writer in Ireland these days. And if, like the majority of my writing colleagues and peers, I’ve largely flown beneath the radar of media attention, I feel privileged to be able to count myself among their number.

Looking back over the various genres I’ve both tutored and attempted down the years, one inescapable conclusion I’ve come to is that, for my own practice at least, poetry has always been the most direct genre. By this I mean that, when addressing a topic or issue or concern, poetry is the genre in which I’m least likely to introduce a distancing mechanism, or adopt a mask.


A Yeats or an Eliot might spontaneously generate other poetic selves: a Crazy Jane, say, or a J Alfred Prufrock. It’s not my way. Many years ago, shortly after I’d translated a selection of Fernando Pessoa’s poetry from the Portuguese for Dedalus Press, I went on to publish a monograph entitled Joyce and Pessoa, the Mirror and the Mask. The punchline was that where Pessoa, whose name actually translates as “persona”, invented an entire population of personalities to write under, Joyce wrote in the tradition of Stendhal and Flaubert, authors who claimed they held a mirror up to reality. Joyce once characterised himself as “a scissors and paste man”, and the fidelity of his fictional universe to the personalities and minutiae of Edwardian Dublin is the stuff of legend, not to say many an academic parlour game.

How does this mirror/mask distinction work in practical terms? For my own writing, when trying to deal with my late father’s Alzheimer’s, say, or my sister’s or mother’s terminal cancer, or the Syrian refugee crisis, or the madness of Brexit, or the topsy-turvy universe of Covid-19, my poems address the reader directly, without the invention, or intervention, of a fictional framework or a stylised narrative voice. My father in my poems is my father, my sister my sister.

As an example, here’s a recent poem which recounts the memory of a walk in the Phoenix Park with my late mother:

Leaf Storm

Some days after the diagnosis
set time, a death-watch beetle,
ticking, you set out undaunted
for the Park. Your time of year –
air cold as water, the trees
touched with fleeting majesty.
As we rounded a beech copse,
a puckish wind stirred up and,
like Dante's fugitives, drove all
about a streaming leaf storm,
shoal-dense and endless, brass
after brass, chattering, sheering
in great murmurations, showing
there is raw grandeur in letting go.

The “you” to whom the poem is addressed is my real mother, the “we” incorporates my actual self. The leaf fall, the poetic “event”, actually occurred. Likewise, in poems which take as their theme my late father’s dementia or my sister’s cancer, a similar physical fidelity obtains. By way of contrast, such stories and dramas as I’ve written which tackle these same concerns and anxieties tend to represent them mediated through fictional plots and characters, sometimes with changes in gender, or to the underlying family dynamic. Often, I’ll invent a distinctive narrative voice to recount the story. Which is not to say these fictional efforts are any lass true, or valid. As Wilde famously phrased it, “Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.”

Would I consider myself, then, to be a confessional poet? Not really. Certainly, all three of my collections to date contain personal poems, all three deal directly with family issues. But in none is this the centre of gravity. The impetus for the new collection, Liffey Sequence, was a 2017 Arts Council commission which led to an eleven poem cycle loosely following the Dart line from Booterstown Saltmarsh out to the 40 Foot. The poems explore the history, geography, geology and ecology of eleven chosen sites. A hand-printed limited edition illustrated by my brother, Jim, won the World Illustrator’s Award, 2018, and copies have been purchased by the Tate Gallery, the British and Bodleian Libraries, Yale and Cambridge Universities and, in Ireland, by the NCAD. One of my brother’s illustrations adorns the cover of the new book.

A second poem cycle, this time following the Liffey from Islandbridge to the Docks, bookends the collection. The focus of this cycle is broadly social, though once again with a historical overview. It takes as an overarching theme the dispossessed – the unemployed, the drug addict, the rough-sleeper.

In between these two sequences are poems which respond to all sorts of stimuli, anything from a seascape to a work of art to the hazards of global warming. I’m no prolific poet. Months can pass without a single poem being written – or writing itself, as often seems to be the case. I can guilt myself into writing fiction or even drama, sketching out scenes or allowing a voice free rein to start telling their story. That never works where poetry is concerned.

One final illustration, as we begin to emerge from the Alice in Wonderland alternative reality of Zoom calls and social distancing. My fictional response, so to speak, was to adopt the mask of a woman trapped in her home with an abusive, stir-crazy husband as she’s on the phone to a neighbour. When it came to writing a poem, holding up a mirror to a world already virtual, this is what I found there:


Now we are wintering – the whole hive stupefied
to silence, each in their cell who isn't soldiering,
an inmate of a new Shalott – the cities, simulacra:
drone-shot piazzas; enchanted palaces; empty
trainset trains; vistas dreamed by de Chirico;
traffic-lights sequencing the memory of traffic –
confined while, ineluctably, somewhere else,
the toll, the toll, until we're numbed by
the scale of it; each week, the heat and bustle
more distant, more unlikely; nothing to feed
but waxing apprehension: what will eclose
this long cocooning, and on what tentative wings?

Liffey Sequence by David Butler is published by Doire Press in paperback on October 7th at €13