St Francis in Finglas

POETRY: Reviews of Painting Rain By Paula Meehan, Carcanet Press and Downstate By David Gardiner, Salmon Poetry by RICHARD TILLINGHAST…

POETRY:Reviews of Painting RainBy Paula Meehan, Carcanet Press and DownstateBy David Gardiner, Salmon Poetry by RICHARD TILLINGHAST

PAULA MEEHAN'S poetry has always been shadowed with an awareness that life is no picnic. The privations of an upbringing in the streets and tenements of Dublin have featured in many of her best-known poems, such as A Child's Map of Dublin. But the imagination always wins out; and a father we know from her other poems as someone who does not always succeed in the daily struggle to make ends meet can appear transformed in My Father Perceived as a Vision of St Francis, where he becomes "suddenly radiant, / a perfect vision of St Francis, / made whole, made young again, / in a Finglas garden".

Meehan's new book, Painting Rain, reveals a temperamental disinclination to be anything but direct. In her elegy, Hannah, Grandmother, her granny's decades-old advice about what to say in the Confessional booth seems remarkably prescient about recent revelations of clerical abuse: "Tell them priests nothing . . . / Keep your sins to yourself. / Don't be giving them a thrill. / Dirty oul feckers".

Characters from the poet’s own past are alive in many of the poems, and she does not shy away from describing troublesome family history. Memories tug at her even as she writes “I pull the door behind me firmly closed”. And an elegiac sense extends to the changes Ireland herself is undergoing, as more and more land gets paved over and built upon, even as it now becomes clear that many of these newly built houses will remain tenantless for the foreseeable future.


The first poem in the book, Death of a Field, is among its most memorable. Paula Meehan has a gift for simply-put formulations, such as this poem's first line: "The field is lost the morning it becomes a site". She has a keen awareness of how the human and natural worlds interact. "In wildness lies the salvation of the earth," Thoreau famously wrote; Meehan makes clear how little encouragement nature needs to flourish and to enhance our own sense of being alive. In some settings the commonest weeds or wildflowers can be as life-enhancing as a forest of rhododendrons encountered on a trek through the Himalayas: "The end of the field is the end of the hidey holes / Where first smokes, first tokes, first gropes / Were had to the scentless mayweed".

Meehan has what many poets lack, a sense of humour – and there is nothing po-faced about her approach to environmental issues. In Six Sycamores, commissioned by the OPW as part of the Per Cent for Art Scheme, she riffs on the Park Superintendent's report on the damage caused on Stephen's Green during the Easter Rising: "6 of our waterfowl were killed or shot, 7 of the garden seats broken and about 300 shrubs destroyed". Her poem carries a title that still has me chuckling: Them Ducks Died for Ireland.

Some parts of the United States are familiar to Irish people. Boston is well-known as an Irish city, and at Christmas the NYPD Choir can be relied upon to be singing Galway Bay.But the Midwest, despite being explored by at least a few Irish poets including Eamonn Wall, the late James Liddy and the Irish-American Thomas Lynch, remains terra incognita for many, even in the US. This is the territory David Gardiner claims as his own. In Bungalow Belthe writes, "I was born, raised in Brute, Oblivion . . . . I come from a neighbourhood where 'regular' / Was the supreme compliment . . .".

While properly cognisant of the Midwest’s relentless insistence on conformity and homogenisation, “the vacuum that all our pasts are becoming”, Gardiner is particularly attuned to the vividness brought to this levelling culture by what is known curiously in America as “ethnic”, ie not the familiar identifications such as Wasp, Irish, African-American, but Italian, Polish and less familiar Eastern European nationalities.

He is a connoisseur of "Polish facades and Spanish billboards"; in Imaginary Mazurkashe reports, "At night, I look for the big-kettled kitchens". He likes the bartender in the club car on the commuter train who "learned to speak English twenty-seven years ago / From Old Mr. Boston's De Luxe Bartending Guide".

Second Street Pesach evocatively blends memories of Catholic and Jewish ancestry; of his great-grandmother, he writes: “Her silence knew the Kishinev pogrom. / Her husband was still; a picture in the bedroom mirror – / in a prayer shawl, standing in important pose, / obscured by the lacey dress of the Child of Prague”.

  • Painting RainBy Paula Meehan Carcanet Press, 100pp. £9.95
  • DownstateBy David Gardiner Salmon Poetry, 65pp. €12

Richard Tillinghast’s most recent book is

Finding Ireland: A Poet’s Explorations of Irish Literature and Culture,

University of Notre Dame Press, 2008