Five Remarkable Poetry Collections from 2013

Originally published in Rí- Rá in The Irish Post, Thursday December 12th, 2013

Loath as I am to pick just five books, here are some collections of original poems from poets writing in the English language that made my 2013

The Water Stealer by Maurice Riordan (Faber)

The Water Stealer by Maurice Riordan

A long- time resident of south- London and a native of Lisgoold, Co. Cork, Riordan, like James Joyce, never fully left Ireland. In ‘The Cross’, one of the collection’s more remarkable poems, Riordan conjures the image of a hurling match being “broadcast live from Thurles or Birr” from a toy model car in a model village. It is Riordan’s seemingly effortless ability to blend the traditional with the modern that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Similarly, Riordan’s elegy to Michael Donaghy, the late Irish- American poet, is one of the more memorable elegies composed in memory of the much- memorialised and much- missed poet.

Pluto by Glyn Maxwell (Picador)

Pluto by Glyn Maxwell

Narrowly missing out on this year’s Forward Prize for Best Collection, Glyn Maxwell’s Pluto confirm’s Maxwell as one of the most original and under- appreciated poets of the current era. Brimming with language of the day and subtle rhetorical flourishes, the rhythm of opening poem ‘The Bye Laws’ is rooted in song, making it feel like an overture for the poems of consistent technical skill and formal versatility to follow. In ‘The Case of After’, the centre- piece of Pluto, Orpheus reaches into the underworld by logging on to a dating site: “She wore dark glasses in the only photo / I could access yet. I was peering at that window / like peter sodding Quint I had the blue glow.”

Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts (Cape Poetry)

Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts

Described as a “religious poet for a secular age”, poet Michael Symmons Roberts followed good on the peaks of previous collections Corpus and The Half Healed with Drysalter, his sixth collection of poems, which won this year’s Forward Prize for Best Collection. A novelist and a librettist as well as a poet, Drysalter finds Symmons Roberts working on a smaller canvas than he is used to; all 150 poems were composed to the formal constraint of 15 lines. Symmons Roberts’ great skill is in reinvigorating the familiar with striking images. Take ‘Hitchcockian’: ‘The birds are taking over. Not in rows on high wires / chittering on rooves at passers- by, fixing a lone child / with their red- ringed, sink hole eyes…”.

The Mining Road by Leanne O’Sullivan (Bloodaxe)

The Mining Road by Leanne O’Sullivan

Cork poet Leeane O’Sullivan aligns herself as closely to the Irish lyric tradition as is possible with The Mining Road. The strong influence of the late Seamus Heaney weighs heavily in O’Sullivan’s fourth collection of poems, but O’Sullivan has the confidence and experience not to allow the great man’s influence overpower her work. The theme of discovery recurs again and again in The Mining Road. In The Boundary Journey, a two-part poem- the first mentioning the Atlantic ocean, the second alluding to the Irish Sea- finds O’Sullivan wedged between two different places, two different zones (‘Not to the boundary waters / that part our two counties’). In these subtle, slow- burning and sensuous poems that reward with successive readings, The Mining Road is a step in the right direction for O’Sullivan and, indeed, for Irish poetry.

Consent by Kimberly Campanello (Doire Press)

Consent by Kimberly Campanello

Dividing her time between both Dublin and London, American poet Kimberly Campanello’s first collection of poems from Galway publisher Doire Press is one of poetry’s most auspicious débuts in recent years. Formally exciting and full of surprises, Campanello is a poet who knows that darkness is a necessity in order to appreciate lightness; her poems veer from humorous observations (opening poem ‘Consent’ contains the nugget “My bowels are bound / by cheese and fear”) as well as poems that pack a powerful emotional punch; in ‘Grandma’, Campanello uses the conversational register so prevalent in her work to devastating effect, when describing a woman’s deterioration due to Alzheimer’s disease: “You burn the bottom / of four coffee pots. / You serve your grandchildren / raw sausages on Sunday / When you’re hungry / you eat ice cream.” A stunning début from an exciting talent.

Poetry Reviews: Stick on Stone by Micheal Gallagher and ‘Linnane in London’ by Kieran Furey

Both Michael Gallagher and Kieran Furey offer strong, poetic insights into Irish life in London with Stick on Stone and Linnane in London, respectively. 

Stick on Stone by Michael Gallagher
Revival Press, 107pp, €12

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.

Linnane In London by Kieran Furey
Furey Publications, 120pp, €10

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.

Poetry Review: The Mining Road by Leanne O’Sullivan

The Mining Road: Cork poet Leanne O’Sullivan’s latest collection is available now from Bloodaxe.

Originally featured in the print edition and online editions of The Irish Post on Saturday June 8th, 2013. To read the original, please click here.

Bloodaxe, 64 pp, £8.95. ISBN: 978-1852249687

CORK poet Leanne O’Sullivan’s fourth collection aligns her as closely to the Irish lyric poetry tradition as is possible.

The work of Seamus Heaney, particularly the Heaney of Seeing Things (Faber, 1991), appears again and again in poems that, quite literally, dig deep into memory, into the past, into the earth; taking what it is they need to fulfill a poetic vision. As Heaney writes in ‘Lightenings viii’, ‘…and the man climbed back / Out of the marvelous as he had known it’.

Indeed, O’Sullivan wastes no time in plunging us into the underworld of The Mining Road and opening poem, Townland, is a brilliantly subtle poem, which, like the best poems, works its magic on the reader over repeated readings.

The poem’s sound pattern creates a tension between consonants and vowels; between cutting, guttural sounds (‘A hankering in the skull, uttered and worked’) and the long, assonant ‘O’ sounds (‘Old stone walls’, ‘Old homes’), which embeds in the reader the tension between overground and underground; between past and present.

Soon, however, we are also brought into the world of the domestic: You Were Born at Mealtime, again, strengthens the idea of one’s mind constantly being in transition between two different places, finishing with the telling couplet ‘a silence quickens me, / throws open the door again’; the door, perhaps, being Seamus Heaney’s Door into the Dark.

The theme of discovery threads through O’Sullivan’s collection quite consistently. The Boundary Journey, a two part poem- the first mentioning the Atlantic ocean, the second alluding to the Irish Sea- again, finds O’Sullivan wedged between two different places, two different zones (‘Not to the boundary waters / that part our two counties’).

Perhaps the most successful poem in the collection is A Parcel, a brilliant mediation on emigration, which, like The Boundary Journey, is split into parts, again emphasizing the difference between one thing and another. True, the third and final part of the poem could easily have been cut, the poem standing strong enough on its first two parts, which describe domesticity with great vividness. It’s the feel of the parcel which is best achieved, ‘It smelled of heat and a stretch- marked pull / where the brown paper had word out / against the cardboard, its sides broadening’, writes O’Sullivan.

Subtle, slow- burning and sensuous poems that reward with successive readings, The Mining Road is a step in the right direction for O’Sullivan and, indeed, for Irish poetry.

Go Giants by Nick Laird

Multi Laird: Tyrone poet Nick Laird

Originally featured in the print edition of The Irish Post on Wednesday February 13th, 2013.

Faber & Faber, 80pp, £12.99. ISBN: 9780571288182

Go Giants, Tyrone poet Nick Laird’s third collection of poems, is undoubtedly his most accomplished, fully realized and ambitious collection to date. Two years shy of 40, Laird- who now divides his time between London and New York- has crafted a collection which is marked by juxtapositions and ambiguities that the poet establishes to emphasize the intensity of one thing’s relationship to the other. Indeed, in an untitled poem, playfully featured on the book’s dustjacket and  which could easily be interpreted as Laird’s Ars Poetica, Laird declares poetry “…a juncture of two kinds of real, the act caught in the act, as the fingertips pressed hard against their mirrored selves establish an ambiguous exactitude…”. In many ways, Go Giants feels like a welcome companion to Don Paterson’s seminal, 1993 debut collection, Nil Nil . What ties both collections together is how they both convincingly rejuvenate Rimbaud’s dictum, “Je suis un autre” (“I am another”)- Rimbaud’s idea of the constructed self- and make it feel rhetorically fresh and urgent for contemporary readers.

While the collection’s title primarily echoes the chant commonly uttered by fans of NFL team the New York Giants, it equally echoes, in the context of Laird’s extraction, The Giant’s Causeway. Perhaps more pertinently,  however, it suggests the two giants of Irish poetry, whose presence is very much at the heart of Laird’s work: Derry poet Seamus Heaney and Armagh poet Paul Muldoon. Like New Jersey- based Muldoon, Laird’s recent move to the U.S. has opened up his access to American demotic, as well as Irish- English and British slang. Nowhere is this more evident than the collection’s title poem, a playful poem that echoes the “choose life” mantra of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. A collision course of registers and culturally distinct clichés that assonate seamlessly with one another, referencing everything from sporting clichés (“Go Patriots…Go Saints…Go short…Go long”), socially acceptable clichés that contain violent imagery (“Go under the knife…Go for the throat…Go against”) to instruction (“Go first…Go and get help”), Laird’s title poem blurs cultural, social, functional distinctions, reflecting the globalized society in which we now live. It easily is one of Laird’s most memorable and accomplished poems.

Concluding with ‘Progress’, the long poem which borrows part of its title and the titles of its sections from Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, Laird treats memories of his hometown of Cookstown much like Muldoon would The Moy. Through effortless, unlaboured lines, Laird’s long poem echoes Heaney’s ouevre in confirming the inescapability of memory (“The problem with home is home follows”), which, like the poet’s  curiosity attempts, unsuccessfully, to reject regionalism (“What if you felt nothing more walking down/ the streets of Cookstown that you ever felt/walking in New York or Rome or London…”).

As ambitious and impressive as ‘Progress’ may be, Laird’s most successful poems here are found in tighter, more modest spaces: the most memorable poems are companionable, smaller scale and almost anecdotal. The collection’s opening poem ‘Epithalamium’, a light- hearted love poem with, if nothing else, an unforgettable opening line (“You’re beeswax and I’m birdshit.”) turns in the finishing lines, which hold true the ideas central to Go Giants (“If I’m the rising incantation / you’re the charm, or I am, or you are”), betraying a fiercely intelligent and persuasive rhetoric bound in Laird’s collection. This is all wonderfully built upon by ‘Condolence’, an eight line elegy composed in couplets in which the speaker, a young boy who “half follows” his mother’s laboured (“with such slow deliberation”) communication  of writing letters “to write out in good/phrases to wives and the parents of husbands”. In a celebration of the now- almost obsolete act of writing letters, Laird suggests the power of the mother’s hard won phrases, “the fire consumed by its ashes”. It is only fitting that it is a poet of Laird’s enviable skill and boundless imagination who reminds us of the rewards that are reaped by language that is both hard won and powerfully executed.