‘The Well Review’ confirms Irish literary journals are in good health

Poetry round-up: Sarah Byrne mixes new and established poets, as Niall Bourke fails to disappoint

Joseph Woods’s new book Monsoon Diary (Dedalus, €12.50) charts the travels, but also the visits home, of the former director of Poetry Ireland.

Joseph Woods’s new book Monsoon Diary (Dedalus, €12.50) charts the travels, but also the visits home, of the former director of Poetry Ireland.

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Joining Gorse, Banshee and The Tangerine, the second issue of The Well Review (€15) confirms that new Irish literary journals are in good health. Editor Sarah Byrne mixes new and established poets: there are terrific poems by Leontia Flynn, winner of this year’s Irish Times / Poetry Now Award, and smart, surprising poems by younger writers like Michael Naghten Shanks and Dean Browne, for whom God is “most apparent / when turning away, as if I were entering my pin in a supermarket. // He says put on this blindfold and find me. Wrong.”

The issue also includes a lively primer of new poems by young Bosnian women and a real collector’s item, a new pamphlet by Anne Carson, a typically funny, shady and enigmatic piece entitled Ghost Q&A.

While it does not feature any reviews of new poetry (a gap in the market, surely), there is real range to the material, which features not only an interview with poet Vona Groarke but also one with neuroscientist Bassem Hassan, who speculates on the relationship between science and poetry (“The most beautiful scientific papers are those that appeal to your sense of awe”) and also demolishes the idea that the brain is a computer: “The main problem with this metaphor is that it ignores all the central defining features of a brain that a computer lacks in any meaningful sense: it evolves, it develops, it’s plastic. It requires noise and imprecision and all of these features are self-organised and intrinsic.”

Groarke and Hassan separately despair of poets (and scientists) “doing the same thing over and over”, as Hassan puts it, or as Groarke says, using “the same material (more or less), the same tone, the same shape on the page”. The Well Review is a refreshingly enterprising assembly, and avoids the charge of serving up the same old same old: its subscribers and readers will enjoy a strong aesthetic which privileges wit and thick, inventive description of the world.

Bourke’s mock epic

London-based Kilkenny man Niall Bourke can hardly be accused of repetition or lack of originality: even his daft title, Did You Put the Weasels Out? (Eyewear, £10.99), does not capture his book’s zany premiss.

Bourke’s mock epic follows the adventures of one Mark Setanta as he quits his job in finance and is then variously thwarted as he attempts to bring a gift home to the girlfriend, Jen, with whom he thinks he has rowed.

As Mark’s surname indicates, the hero’s progress alludes regularly and with comic inappropriateness to The Táin. The Fight with Ferdiad involves a drunken encounter with a forward ex-sailor, while The Remscéala includes a long monologue of one of the sons of Uisliu, in exile in a Craggy Island-like monastery (sample lines: “Abbot Uisliu. He was forced to wave adieu / to the monastery due to unspecified dishonesties.”).

Entertaining, occasionally echoing At Swim-Two-Birds and sometimes Rubberbandits, some of the best lines of this hit-and-miss debut are reserved for the closing section, The Warp Spasm, when Mark Setanta is finally pushed too far as he tries to buy alcohol on his way home: “Unexpected item in the bagging area,’ says the only / working machine and you re-scan the bottle of Prosecco.”

As a motley, increasingly irritated queue forms behind him, the machine repeats “Unexpected item in the bagging area,” until Mark explodes into a Cuchulainn-like battle rage, albeit on a more domestic scale: “Your anger / froths out like milk boiling over. White rolls of rage / bubble down you and puddle on the floor. You begin / to beat the machine.”

The travels of Joseph Woods

Joseph Woods’s new book Monsoon Diary (Dedalus, €12.50) charts the travels, but also the visits home, of the former director of Poetry Ireland, whose work has taken him and his family to Myanmar and more recently Zimbabwe.

Woods is catholic in his formal choices. Shorter poems operate bare, often short-lined stanzas which feel sparse: quickly sketched scenes take familiarity for granted while Woods’s informal phrasing and tone are sometimes broken up and moved unduly centre stage by the compressed form, juggling internal rhymes, run-on lines and allusions, as in the otherwise affecting Keeping Time:

I resented how the season furiously

presented and longed for your last winter back

and the bitter cold when ice banked

for an eternity and distant fields eluded

and were restive in a Caspar Friedrich finery.

Longer, more loose-weave sequences draw out Woods’s best writing, and read like richly atmospheric letters to friends, sometimes acerbic about the cultures in which he finds himself and at other times simply at a loss.

The larger stanzas allow Woods room to develop observations. Here he is in Let us fly away to the famed cities of Asia:

At street level, a woman walks with a tin basin balanced

on her head, imploring the sky

with her burden of fish tails and chicken feet.

Late afternoon, noise abated, my daughter calls me

to the living room for the faint tinkling of a bell

neither of us can find, too soft for the monastery.

Then overhead, glass lozenges in the garish Chinese chandelier

shake and make music to the latest earth tremor.

Likewise, in A Rose from Franschhoek, which begins with a whalewatching trip in South Africa’s Western Cape, Woods uncovers ways of thinking about his mother’s dying:

a carbuncled back

or head half-reared and then water was blown with impunity,

as we waited the declarative tail-flip our daughter wished for.

But the underwater shadow we see, I tell her,

is the size of ten elephants and its accompanying shadow

is of a calf.

Free in the longer form to be observational, Woods notes then that the town’s bookshop owner remembers Ian Smith fondly “a gentleman to the last”, but the poem returns to its main theme all the more effectively for having conjured up other worlds. Driving back to Harare, Woods zones in on imminent loss, “The phone put to my mother’s unconscious ear, I tell her / gently to let go.”

John McAuliffe’s versions of Bosnian poet Igor Klikovac, Stockholm Syndrome, will be published later this year. He teaches poetry at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing.

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