Music, silence and the past
POETRY: DivinerBy Eugen O'Connell, Three Spires Press, 64pp €10
Forest MusicBy Susan Connolly, Shearsman Books, 106pp, £8.95
Lovely LegsBy Jean O'Brien, Salmon Poetry, 80pp, €12
EUGENE O’CONNELL’S Divineris a book of echoes, anecdotes and dedications. Many of the poems are written “for”, “after”, or “in memory” of others. Their diction is both simple and colloquial, “the best day of the year was when / Tim Carroll came to kill the pig” ( Pieta), and their subject matter is at the same time local and mythic: “After she draws the pension on Friday / I drive my mother to the graveyard”. ( Seeing the Light) There is often a straight-faced, home-grown wisdom about his lyrics, but when O’Connell writes of myth he can also be contemporaneously candid and wry. In Ostpolitik after the 9th C. IrishDeirdre has it out with Naoise, “Miffed at the lame excuse, she caught him / by the ears and lifted him off the ground”.
O’Connell has something of the seanchaí about him in two prose yarns, The Churl’s Taleand The Midwife’s Tale, and even in his favoured form, the unrhymed sonnet, he manages to spin a tale. At his best, O’Connell conjures something of the bardic tradition. In Redundant Bell Ringer, he invokes the 17th-century Irish language poet Dáibhí Ó Bruadair and bemoans an Ireland which has “more respect for SUV’s / than the seasoned hand of a bell ringer”. Divineris a most enjoyable book.
A similar connection with the past is made in Susan Connolly’s Forest Music. Characters such as the 7th-century poet Líadan, King Laoghaire and Francis Ledwidge appear throughout the short, taut lines of the poems in the first half of the book. Each of these poems has a steely clarity to them where emotion is central. In the opening poem, Piano Lessons, “Mrs MacAllister” tell us that “Though the notes are important / feeling is everything”. Connolly’s work is all about “rare moments” of feeling and much of that feeling is painful. In the same poem Connolly tells us “my life is a piece of music / I have barely begun to play”. Later, we learn “the heart is damaged” and in the title poem, Connolly reveals that
of my life
have led me
a deep forest
Music is central to Connolly’s poems, but it has always to contend with “silence”, a silence which finds its way into a series of fascinating poems exploring enclosing structures like The Cobbled Garden, The Maiden Tower,and The Old House. These poems of space then give way to “visual” poems where the words themselves form a picture, echoing a tradition as far back as the Greek Alexandrian when poems were designed as decoration for religious art-works. Here Connolly uses crosses, circles, triangles, squares and waves to capture the words. As a method it’s a fabulous and engaging departure from the inherited and conventional lyric line and I found myself entranced by the poem as image. Forest Musicis a collection which stays with you long after you’ve read it.
IN JEAN O’BRIEN’Sthird collection of poetry Lovely Legsthere’s a very telling line in the poem Photographing Air. “Things are not what they seem,” O’Brien writes. And in a book with such a breezy title, bright cover and light tone throughout there’s a much more serious and complex undercurrent at work. O’Brien’s father appears in more than half a dozen poems. He is the one waking O’Brien’s “younger me” to the news of her mother’s death in When Childhood Broke. She passes his parish when lamenting her departure from Dublin, and he is the one who populates her memories and dreams. “The dead visit me in dreams”, she writes in Scandinavian Dream. The wonder and strangeness of finding oneself in “foreign fields” has created a new imaginative space for O’Brien’s moving lyrics. Her imagery can be memorable, as in Masks, where “a man stands in a field wearing a mantle / of bees”, but darkness hovers throughout. Her mother’s gold band tightens “its golden grip” on her and a poem to the poet’s daughter suggests “the kernel of death / sits under her skin”. “Thinking of lost summers”, the past is a central theme of the collection and culminates in the moving piece Before.
This is her on that green day
skirt askew,hair streaming out,
holding the ropes of the swing taut
rushing to meet her future
The poems in Lovely Legsare like “the flickering scenes we scrutinise / in the darkened room” of the final poem. O’Brien has managed to make an effecting collage of images and memories with a tone of both pathos and resilience as she tells us, “I touch the wound and walk”.
- DivinerBy Eugen O'Connell, Three Spires Press, 64pp €10
- Forest MusicBy Susan Connolly, Shearsman Books, 106pp, £8.95
- Lovely LegsBy Jean O'Brien, Salmon Poetry, 80pp, €12
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