Both Michael Gallagher and Kieran Furey offer strong, poetic insights into Irish life in London with Stick on Stone and Linnane in London, respectively.
Achill poet Micheal Gallagher’s Stick on Stone
AS BILLY KEANE POINTS OUT in his introduction to Michael Gallagher’s Stick on Stone, “Anyone who thinks it’s all about barbecues and Bondi beach in Oz, where the new wave of emigrants have ended up, is gravely mistaken.”
Achill- born poet Michael Gallagher’s Stick on Stone is a fine example of a book of poems that conjures an age that in the current era may now seem outmoded, though it ties both eras together with its central human concerns: a longing for home and issues of identity away from home.
The most successful poems in Gallagher’s collection are those that centre on the poet’s 40 years spent living and working in London. Two poems that are placed side by side in Stick on Stone are ‘Going Back’ and ‘Saturday Night Fever’.
Both ‘Going Back’ and ‘Saturday Night Fever’ explore what the late Liam Clancy once referred to as “bad tradition”; the former centres on barfly characters who deteriorate (Vincey, dyed locks vamoosed, / now radiates a shocking white; / sucks once plump flesh / through gaunt, gothic cheeks.), the latter focusing republican rhetoric.
Throughout ‘Going Back’, long vowels assonate and Gallagher skilfully ties the poem together: scarcely / drank / same / moist / more / strange all pick up the Back of the title, echoing that feeling of desolation at the sight of the humdrum existence endured by those the poet has left behind. The poet, however, expresses relief in the final stanza at having achieved a degree of change that is clearly visible (How strange that I, myself, / cosseted by mirrors, / shaving, grooming, preening / have not aged at all).
Similarly, the ironically titled ‘Saturday Night Fever’, an anecdotal poem, which describes the aftermath of a Wolfe Tones gig in, presumably, an Irish centre. The poem closes the distance between the rhetoric of songs such as ‘A Nation Once Again’ and ‘On The One Road’ and the violence often found in Irish centers and Irish pubs. Irony of ironies, a bouncer (The Donkey Donoghue) attempts to quell the singing of rebel songs (…No rebel songs, there’ll be none of that shite ‘round here…), only to kick anti- social Tipp man, breaking his leg.
The bigger questions about the emigrant experience are dealt with in ways in which historical events are seen afresh and anew. In ‘Party Time’, a poem which details the events of the Harrods bombing of December 1983, during which a car bomb was planted and detonated by the Provisional IRA, Gallagher’s syntactical touches imitate not only the pace of life in London, but the speed at which Irish immigrants in London sought to distance themselves from the Provisional IRA’s campaign on mainland Britain. Gallagher’s lines, in fact, echo the cadence of news headlines on radio and television: “Turning into Knightsbridge from Brompton Road / we heard the blast; our inclination, to get the hell out of there. / Nineteen eighty three, big band and a transit full of Paddys- / not good news.”
What Gallagher achieves best is using Irish- English in a context in which the language reads with a freshness and vibrancy rarely achieved in contemporary Irish poetry. What is missing from Stick on Stone, however, is a formal dimension that creates a tension between Gallagher’s enviable use of language and his oeuvre; Stick on Stone, clearly, is crying out for a poem that encapsulates Gallagher’s gift for Irish demotic within the frame of a quintessentially English form, such as a Shakespearean or Spenserian sonnet, which would give a sense of Irishness framed within the physical context of England.
Ultimately, though, Gallagher’s gift for anecdotal memorability and paraphrasable verse wins out in the end in poems that strive, successfully, to capture a sense of who were, then, and who we are, now.
Roscommon poet Kieran Furey’s Linnane in London
ON THE BACK COVER of Kieran Furey’s Linnane in London, the maverick Roscommon poet warns us about the contents of the book: “This is a very strange book: a book nearly as strange as Linnane himself. Is it a novel? A biography? An autobiography? A poet’s attempt to publish poems in the mundane company of prose?”
This well- intentioned, tongue- in- cheek synopsis encompasses many of the problems of Furey’s ambitious, imaginative work. The melting together of poetry and prose doesn’t fully work to point where one isn’t quite sure whether poetry is intruding on prose or that prose is intruding on poetry.
Opening poem ‘Seeker’ is a wonderfully achieved poem that eases the reader into a book that we are forewarned is, to say the least, eclectic. Even if Furey’s opening simile (The poet carries his pen / like the oar of Odysseus) is dangerously close to that of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’ (Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests, snug as a gun), Furey’s ability to close the distance between the metaphors of the pen and oar has an effortlessness quality that would easily be the envy of poets with weightier reputations.
Similarly, Furey’s imaginative use of form adds a necessary dimension to a book that at times is cluttered despite its best intentions. In ‘A Building Worker Thinks of Lunch’, Furey, quite aptly, plays the furniture game (His yogurt is a can of emulsion, / his black coffee a big barrel of tar, / a greenfield site his salad compulsion / his sandwich box a battered- looking car). The poem ‘A Building Worker Thinks of Lunch’ could, in effect, be the flagship poem of Linnane in London. It is Furey’s identification with the Irish site workers in London; his identification with fellow Irish emigrants and tradespeople, like himself, which creates a connection that is as rooted in the physical world as it is in Furey’s boundless imagination, echoing the collection’s dedication: To every muck savage who ever leant on a shovel: I was one of you. I still am, and always will be, though the shovel has shrunk to a pen.
At times, however, Furey’s self- identification boils over. It is Furey’s relentless fascination with the self- identification of the poet that holds back poems that, otherwise, would bring readers in closer had they been composed in first person singular; instead, Furey, by consistently referring to himself as the poet keeps his reader at an uncomfortable distance and does so unnecessarily. The rhetorical arc of Linnane in London, also, is not as tightly constructed as The History House, Furey’s strongest collection of poems to date, which centre on the role of Roscommon’s Strokestown House during the Great Famine and, in a broader context, explores famines around the world.
There is no doubting that Furey is a talented poet, though with the strong, measured hand of a good editor, he would unquestionably be crafting work that would last as long as any man- made structure built by the Irish in London.