Waking into ecstasy, escaping into books, buzzing into death
Peter Sirr: The Rooms; Martina Evans: Burnfort, Las Vegas; Miriam Gamble: Pirate Music
‘Cock your ear and a tradition // opens”, Peter Sirr writes in Continual Visit, one of four long sequences in his new book, The Rooms (Gallery Press, €18.50/€11.95). And Sirr writes so gorgeously that you would like to believe in the “open” tradition he proposes. Again and again his speakers wake into a world that they slowly apprehend, as if for the first time, rapt and ecstatic as when, later in Continual Visit, he describes how,
you look fills up and sways, the details
slip to their places. Everything is
is the ache of furniture, the dreaming
bone-handled knives, blue willow
Last year his poems’ stand-out appearances in Gerry Smyth and Pat Boran’s Dublin anthology, If Ever You Go, made it clear that he is one of the city’s most exhilarating scribes, but Sirr’s new book has other places than the capital in mind. The Mapmaker’s Song declares, “The mapmaker downed his tools,” and turns its attention to more transient subjects, especially the body as it ends: “I want to lie in the atrium / of the museum of the fingertip / and touch, touch, touch.”
Sirr likes to place his poems in the constellation of poets from around the world that he reads with admiration. The closing couplets of Drift recognise a kindred Europhile spirit in Dennis O’Driscoll: “A room for you where poetry comes / Holub Milosz Holderlin Brecht // the door wide open for miraculous draughts / the rivers washing through us to where they began.” And it is Brecht, surprisingly, whose work Sirr ventriloquises in the book’s long closing sequence. Previous collections similarly ended with encounters with Catullus, and with the Irish writers of medieval Latin poems, and here Audience with BB translates and reflects on the great German writer.
Brecht’s dialectical imagination is a challenge to Sirr’s aesthetic, which may be what drew him to adapt the German poet:
They won’t say, ‘When the cherry trees
blossomed in Rathgar’
but ‘When the bondholders crushed the
They won’t say ‘When the boys spent all
day skimming stones’
but ‘When they were fine-tuning the
They won’t say
‘When she glided into the room’
but ‘When the great powers twiddled
And they won’t say
‘The times were dark’
but ‘Where was the poets’ tune?’
Sirr’s “they” might not be appeased by The Rooms. His poems’ tunes emphasise not Brecht’s propagandistic side but the lyrics he wrote during his 1930s exile in Svendborg: Sirr mentions drones and bond-holders but mostly sets them aside. The Brecht sequence, like the rest of The Rooms, restates the case for his sensuous lyric art.
The Cork-born, London-resident Martina Evans is one of the subjects of Marius Kociejowski’s fascinating portrait of emigrant writers in London, God’s Zoo (Carcanet, £30), and her account of her life there nicely supplements the poems of her new collection, Burnfort, Las Vegas (Anvil, £9.95), which, like Sirr’s collection, has been shortlisted for next month’s Irish Times Poetry Now Award. Evans’s poems are charming and conversational, but the talkiness disguises the surreal strangeness and bleakness of many of its connections:
my grille of black twigs, I turn the page
he’s down in his face in his own vomit
and I remember his namesake,
that traveller from Cork, Elvis O’Donnell.
Strange to think, he died in a ditch the
very same way.
The poems often return to Evans’s reading, and the Elvis biography is joined by Treasure Island and The Godfather, Ulysses and The Third Policeman among others. Reading and writing may not resolve the situations her poems describe, but books do help, as one poem has it, through the “miracle / of the black marks straightening themselves / out into sense across the page, / saying this way, this way / you’ll escape.”
And she manages to channel the New York school more successfully than most in I want to be like Frank O’Hara:
are stuffed with shopping lists
and I can’t believe that’s Frank.
Although once at 11 am looking
for the new GP surgery in Green Lanes,
I stuck my head in the doorway
of a Turkish men’s club and they
from their chess like leaves.
I felt a bit dangerous then, like Elvis
I think Frank would have liked it,
the way one brave man approached me
his hands out in front as if
he was about to catch something.
Miriam Gamble’s second collection, Pirate Music (Bloodaxe, £9.95), shares Evans’s confiding tones, and her scenes are equally discomfiting. More formally controlled, rhymes and stanzas tack across the poems’ busy surfaces. The voice of these poems is often exaggerated and highly worked, as in her fantastical poems about animals, especially horses. Gamble can be very funny as she winds up grandly rhetorical phrases for seemingly inconsequential events in Dressing Fleas and Meditations on a Dead Pigeon, when she wishes someone else would clear away the dead bird: “O ye lords steel-/shanked and sanctimonious, pray, take this from me. / Bring in after all the big boys. I can learn to live by rote.”
The book’s best poems offset that witty, jiving, occasionally arch voice with tender, slower effects, as in her long response to Piero de Cosimo’s The Forest Fire, and the playful and oddly affecting Always Autumn:
It is the season of the death of bumbles.
All buzzy resistless things
slam shut into windows
or self-exterminate in lights.
The season of the endless nights,
of tv poultices –
he who dances, he who sings.
The death of miniatures with wings,
Muddled, and mid-flight.
John McAuliffe’s fourth collection, The Way In, is published by Gallery this summer