Loving the life he's shown

Poetry: Michael Coady's earlier books earned him affection and admiration in equal measure, for the way poems, prose pieces …

Poetry: Michael Coady's earlier books earned him affection and admiration in equal measure, for the way poems, prose pieces and illustrations all worked together, especially in All Souls in 1997. One Another is a similar mix, but now, in the book's very various 10 sections, there is more consistency of purpose, writes Bernard O'Donoghue

This sounds like a paradox, given that there is even more diversity: poems of great humanity, prose pieces and wonderful black-and-white photographs again, but now also mock-epic with cod-serious commentary, side by side with haikus and multiple Celtic prose versions of the heroic feats of a local talker.

So what provides the common element? The answer is in the title poem, which salutes civic virtue and common human purpose in the affairs of Coady's native Carrick-on-Suir. It is a variation on Auden's much-quoted ideal: writing which, like a mountain cheese, is local but prized elsewhere. Coady's variation is that with him it is also important to be prized locally. In 'Ambush' a local drinker waylays the poet and talks to him about Tagore before having the devastating last word: "What hurry is on you, mister poet?" In Coady's work the local is never patronised; without ever being sentimental or mawkish, it is an accepting view of the world.

This is evident in the last of the book's 10 parts, 'The Place of Hurt and Healing', about Coady's bypass operation, which represents the poet's own traumatic experiences in the context of other people's. 'Recitals from the Cross' is an extraordinarily unsettling telling, through musical terminology, of the story of Richie, whose aged mother comes on the bus from Bandon every day to visit him. Devastatingly, the suffering is described in a language associated with the comic.


The same refusal to bow before the tragic is portrayed wonderfully in 'The Weight of It', an unforgettable teacher's elegy for an ex-pupil who committed suicide:

I ask forgiveness

of him if I ever

was unkind

when his was one

among the upturned

faces reading mine.

It is hard to imagine this teacher ever being unkind.

At the end you still wonder how Coady does it, how he achieves this humane sense of natural goodness, the most difficult of all things to represent convincingly. I think it works because of the sureness of his technique, not so much in the expert haikus as in the secure, unlaboured control of dialect in the "overheard" prose stories, such as 'Blood and Ashes' about revenge killings (recalling Coady's fine plain-style translations of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill in Pharaoh's Daughter); or in the flawless ballad mock-heroics of 'The Carrick Nine'. This latter poem reminds us that Coady's country is the home ground of great popular songs of place, such as 'The Rose of Mooncoin', and of bathetic masterpieces such as 'Sweet River Suir'. The Carrick beer-thieves are pursued up the river by the guards:

So here beginning was a chase most thrilling

That would continue for several hours,

This naval tussle would test the muscle

And sailing skills of the civil powers.

Of course this is not Coady's usual humane-elegiac voice; but it is partly confidence in this metrical mastery that enables that voice. The book's blurb ends appositely by quoting from the witty 'Updated History of Sexual Intercourse': "The carnal war/ with time that's always lost/ but never conceded." But this belief in perseverance is not just blind sexual impulse; Coady's pre-eminent virtue is (in Seamus Heaney's great phrase) "to love the life we're shown". And it is this that makes his work so compelling and heartening.

Bernard O'Donoghue's latest collection, Outliving (Chatto & Windus), was published last year

One Another. By Michael Coady, The Gallery Press, 179pp. €22.50 hbk/ £13.90 pbk