The power of now

Poetry Dennis O'Driscoll has long been recognised as one of our most astute, fastidious and persuasive commentators on poetry…

PoetryDennis O'Driscoll has long been recognised as one of our most astute, fastidious and persuasive commentators on poetry, one who has done much to uphold the standards of a rather diminished critical climate in recent years.

At times, however, this vital work has occasionally distracted us from a full appreciation of his own considerable poetic achievement, which is a great pity. O'Driscoll has always been a poet with an eye for the finer details of everyday life, and he has used that keen, almost forensic sense of the everyday to discover, sometimes the sinister, and sometimes the sublime, in what might seem mere banality to a less perceptive mind.

In Reality Check - his seventh collection - that gift is evident from the beginning: in Diversions, for example, where the poet's vision shifts back and forth between the impulse - aesthetic, traditional, personal - towards some Arcadian, even pastoral view and the incontrovertible data of the quotidian: roses and recycling bins, "hormone-puffed cattle" and "hedge-perforated fields", or later, in There Was, a cool, reflective yet profoundly moving poem that is not only one of this poet's best, but also one of the finest I have read by anyone in recent years, the everyday details of rural life are mined for signs - fleeting and provisional, yet capable of being detected nonetheless - of some richer life than we usually give "reality" credit for:

there was a moment


it had a waftage of frankincense

logs came from a toppled trunk

your uncle dragged bodily

from the hilltop forest

like the antlered stag

its mounted head still flaunted in the hall

opposite the mildewed looking-glass

that tarnished everyone alike

Reality Check is full of such "moments", sure sign of O'Driscoll's continuing ability to renew our vision of the seemingly ordinary world, but the best work of all comes at the end, in Skywriting, an extended meditation on light (and darkness) which ends in typically laconic fashion, yet manages at the same time to be both threatening and deeply moving:

Difficult to second-guess what might

happen next, what climate of fear

we have coming to us in the future.

But, over today's horizon, May

appears in perfect working order,

seen in the best possible light

The book ends as it began, with sunlight falling on the hills and with a tender, but risky image of regeneration that only a poet of O'Driscoll's immense gifts could pull off.

THE EVERYDAY IS also the subject of Eamon Grennan's wonderful, searching poetry and Out of Breath, his latest collection, is both a careful and attentive study of the rich quotidian and a visionary quest - in the fullest senses of both words - to go beyond mere appearances and "feel in the day by day/the way things are". Grennan is both assured and skilled enough to state this project overtly when he needs to, as in Beholding the Hare, which begins by bringing the flesh and blood animal itself to life on the page as vividly as Dürer does in his famous study, before drawing us into another realm altogether, in which the hare's separate, yet divinable reality is glimpsed, and contrasted with our own:

free of memory and forecast, being one

with possibility like that, and not at odds, not split in the middle

and out of focus, not feeling the very ground nerved and veined

with tremor cordis, fault lines branching every which way

from the lost centre, the heart itself out of tune, unable to contain

itself. Not, that is, one of us: soul-searching in our skin of reason.

This sense of human limitations is one that recurs throughout the collection, the tone sometimes elegiac, sometimes impatient, but there is always the possibility of a breakthrough into the wider real, always a chance that "something in you knows how it was", always the sense that:

it might be possible to pierce

the mist of things rose-tinted

and conjure from that tattered sleeve

some sign

that the way, though strait,

was passable, even in winter.

In this marvellous book, the world seems both richer and more elusive, a reality constantly on the point of being lost through inattention but also "rife with promise" - because the immediate and the eternal are only breath away, and we are surrounded by signs and by guides - the heron, the goldcrest, the hare - who could lead us into that promised reality, if only we could follow.

John Burnside is reader in creative writing at the University of St Andrews. His latest novel, The Devil's Footprints, is published by Jonathan Cape John Burnside

Reality Check By Dennis O'Driscoll Anvil, 79pp. £7.95 Out of Breath By Eamon Grennan Gallery Press, 79pp. €11.95