Monday, October 30, 2017

John Milton - Sonnet 23

John Milton wrote this poem to his wife Katherine after her death and after his blindness had deprived him of an image of her face. It's truly quite heartbreaking, especially the last line as he wakes from his dream reverie of her to face again the blackness of his waking sight. No further words can express the sadness of this beyond the poem itself.

Sonnet 23

Methought I saw my late espoused saint
Brought to me, like Alcestis, from the grave,
Whom Jove's great song to her glad husband gave,
Rescu'd from death by force, though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom wash'd from spot of child-bed taint
Purification in the old Law did save,
And such as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind;
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin'd
So clear as in no face with more delight.
But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin'd,
I wak'd, she fled, and day brought back my night.


I was unaware of this poem till I saw/heard it on Amando Iannucci's truly excellent documentary about Milton from 2009. It is often commented that Satan, not God, gets all the best lines in Paradise Lost, but my one quibble with the documentary is at some point the presenter quotes lines from God to (I think) Adam and characterises these as drab and gnomic. I think he missed their significance as they are the most profound and subtle expression of the bestowing of 'free-will' on humanity by the 'deity' found anywhere in English language literature. You can make up your own mind. Here's the documentary.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

There is a light that enters a house... Franz Wright / David Sylvian

It's been a quiet time here at Ampersand, both in terms of my contribution and receiving visitors. I guess it is seasonal and this being summer things are quiet, naturally.

To break my silence, here is a wonderful collaboration. David Sylvian recorded some poems by Franz Wright, the Pulitzer winning American poet, in 2014. Wright was battling cancer at the time and what is most compelling about these poems is how directly Wright deals with his own mortality. Sylvian put these poems to a (continuous) musical setting and the result is a truly beautiful collaboration, released as the album There is a light that enters a house when no other house is in sight.

Franz Wright heard the finished record and, I have it on good authority, felt the project very worthwhile and satisfying. Sadly, he died, after long illness, in May 2015 around the time of the album's release.

Just to say, I don't like to post copyrighted material in full here on my blog. People like Sylvian, and Wright himself, gave us a gift in this piece and in many others. I decided to post it as it has been available on YouTube for some time now, so I can only assume Samadhi Sound don't object to it being so. If they ever do and pull it, that would be completely understandable.

In general, I would say that in contemporary culture the production of art simply isn't valued in monetary terms. Free, or near free, content is the technologist's dream and an artist's worse nightmare. If you enjoy this, please do support the artists involved in buying the recording (or by listening on Spotify) and also by buying the poetry collections that catch your eye. Trust me, this gives writers great encouragement.

Okay, enough of that. For now, here is this beautifully haunting piece. It is perhaps one for the poetry purest but more than worth the journey, though best listened to as late night fair as it runs to just over an hour. Sit back, recline and listen with an open mind. Hope you enjoy it as much as I have!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Four Poems - The Rochford Street Review: Special Irish Issue

I've been steadily working on a new book-length sequence of poems (currently titled Street Light Amber) and am delighted to report that four pieces from this sequence appear in The Rochford Street Review (out of Sydney, Australia) for their special issue on contemporary Irish poetry.

It is an excellent feature and you can full biographical information and poems by a host of Irish poets (the early mid-generation, I would call us) on their website.

You can find my four poems here and an extended biographical note with links to various interviews and reviews etc.

You can also read my introductory remarks, 'A Question at the Shoreline', written for the launch of David Butler's collection, All the Barbaric Glass, which took place at The Irish Writers' Centre, Dublin, at the end of March.

The other poets featured in this issue are: 

Afric McGlinchy
Paul Casey
Robyn Rowland
Adam White
Jessica Traynor
Susan Millar DuMars
David Butler
Doireann Ni Ghriofa
John Murphy
Annemarie Ni Churreain
Lizz Murphy
Breda Wall Ryan
Patrick Deeley
Kimberly Campanello.

You can find the full index and links to their poems here. There is truly excellent work to be found so absolutely worth the time to browse the full contents.

The issue was edited by poet Mark Roberts.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

'How to Kill' by Keith Doughlas

A poem by a poet I've flagged before, Keith Douglas, to mark D-Day (all these years on). Douglas survived the D-Day landing before being killed by a mortar in a field in Normandy three days later. He was 24. 

Here's the poem, read by actor Noel Clarke.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

'Summer Rain' Review - Books Ireland

Books Ireland has been a mainstay of the Irish publishing scene for many years. It is a subscription based magazine (print and digital) and is always worth the price of admission. I encourage you, therefore, to support this enterprise if you have the means to do so. You can find out all about it at: Books Ireland Magazine

I was delighted to learn that my collection Summer Rain is reviewed in the current (May/June) issue and reproduce here for those interested. I should say, it is a very thoughtful and considered piece on the collection by poet and children's writer Catherine Ann Cullen, whose own work is well worth seeking out.

For now, here's the review:


Summer Rain. Noel Duffy, Ward Wood Publishing, 87pp

"Closely observed trifles"

Duffy has studied experimental physics, and one of the pleasures of his work is the way it reflects the connections between science and poetry. This collection is a trilogy of sequences that help the reader appreciate the life of the eminent physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, the father of atomic theory, with stunning poems about stars, water and snow; and of ten individuals united by the presence of rain and human frailty. From the cover photograph of electric light on puddles to the last poem, ‘Autumn Almanac’, with its

                        water dripping
                        into the empty basin –
                        full by morning

this is a book of perpetual motion, of ripples constantly extending outwards.
Duffy explains in the preface that Boltzmann’s theories show ‘how the complexity of life (an ordered state) could arise without defying this fundamental law of entropy as he had proposed it’. The length of this preface, two and half pages, was my one quibble – a short paragraph about Boltzmann would have sufficed.
Boltzmann’s struggles with depression, with other scientists and with philosophy are foregrounded in ‘Games of Chance & Reason’, a series of eight poems, many subdivided into sections, named for the years between 1895 and 1907. The sparse narrative allows the drama of the story to unfold quietly. We observe Boltzmann’s moods, from buoyant to manic to depressed, as his theories fail to convince many of his contemporaries. In the opening poem, ‘1895’, he tells his students that, in return for their attention, trust and affection, he

            will give everything I have of myself,
            my entire way of thinking and feeling.

By ‘1905’ he is repeating this to another group but, ten years on, we feel his sense of desperation as a student dares to challenge his authority.
            Each of the ten poems in the final sequence, ‘Summer Rain’, is a monologue in the voice of a character on whom the rain impinges. But from Sophie, who gets soaked as she waits for a bus, to Gerard, the blind pianist, who reaches for the black umbrella his son tells him is ‘pink with yellow gorillas’, to Muriel, a nun who has lost her faith but prays ‘that it may wash away my sin, that I may believe in him again’, rain is not all that these characters experience in common: they also share a sense of movement, like Boltzmann’s atoms. Muriel’s anxiety for change is echoed in Sophie’s imagining how she might dare make physical contact with a woman she loves: ‘Will people stare if I reach for her hand?’ Ailish, who has just reconciled with her husband, feels ‘the pebble of what once was pass between us / beady and hard and durable’. Richard, the embalmer, presides over ‘the natural order, to pass from this state to another.’ Christine, the haematologist, declares that ‘most bloods are as they should be…’, but tries to dismiss mental images of those close to her as she examines the slides, and ‘to be as dispassionate as the lens’ stare’ when she sees that all is not well for a woman patient. Gerard, who lost his sight in a rugby game, asks ‘who can ever know anything for certain?’
            For me, it is the middle section of this book that is most satisfying. Its title, ‘Into the Recesses’, is a quote from Wordsworth’s ‘Guide to the Lakes’ (‘A lake carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable’). In a review of the ‘Guide’ in 1906, Virginia Woolf praised Wordsworth’s facility in giving us

                        these closely-observed trifles which only a very penetrating
                        eye after long search could have selected and described… all
                        through this minute and scrupulous catalogue there runs a
                        purpose which solves it into one coherent and increasingly
                        impressive picture… he sees them all as living parts of a
                        vast and exquisitely ordered system.

Woolf’s words could almost have been written about Duffy’s collection, which echoes Wordsworth especially in the middle section, with poems that reference his Lake District haunts of Rydal, Beacon Tarn and Skiddaw. Duffy’s ‘Snow Over Grasmere’, set in the place Wordsworth called home for fourteen years, typifies the beauty of this sequence. Duffy describes the snowflakes

                        dissolving in clusters on the water’s brim
                        returning to their element in a different form,
                        the singular structure of each untangling
                        into the molecules of their making, melting to
                        a common unity before forever fading within it.

This precise description has Duffy the scientist looking at snowflakes through a microscope, seeing their ‘singular structure’ and their ‘molecules’, while the ‘common unity’ echoes the snowfall as unifying force in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’.
            Duffy earns our trust as both scientist and poet in this collection. His ability to blend the two makes his poems echo long after they are read. He sees into the life of things, and allows us to look through the microscope with him.

Catherine Ann Cullen is A&L Goodbody Writer in Residence at St Joseph's School, East Wall, Dublin, and works on the Trinity College Access Programmes. Her most recent poetry collection The Other Now was published by Dedalus Press in autumn 2016.

Friday, April 21, 2017

W.S. Merwin @ motionpoems

I've been meaning to post this for some time now. I'm very interested in the ways that poetry can be interpreted by video (or indeed music) and this piece by former American Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin proves how successful a marriage it can be when done with sensitivity and subtlety. The people at Motion Poems are doing brilliant work in this regard, bringing together great poetry and great film-making alike. You can find more about this fantastic enterprise at their website Motion Poems

For now, here is the Merwin piece, 'Antique Sound' filmed by Evan Holm. A beautiful poem, beautifully interpreted.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Derek Walcott (1930-2017) - 'Love After Love'

Saddened to hear the news yesterday that Nobel Prize winning poet Derek Walcott passed away after long illness at his home in St Lucien. I have a friend who studied under him at Columbia University (in the year he won the Nobel, 1992) and he seemed to have been an electrifying presence in the classroom.

He will be remembered most (perhaps) for his groundbreaking, epic collection Omeros which appeared in 1990, though the poem most often quoted from him is 'Love after Love'. It is a piece of great insight and tenderness towards oneself, which is a difficult thing to achieve in a poem.

I have been trying to find Walcott himself reading this piece but haven't managed. There was a really wonderful rendition of it by Linton Kweisi Johnson (with those lilting Caribbean cadences so appropriate to the poem) last night on BBC's 'Newsnight', but that isn't available yet, alas. For now, here is a version by the fine British actor Tom Hiddleston.

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Certain Slant of Light - Emily Dickinson / music David Sylvian

The English musician and singer David Sylvian has been engaging with the work (or lives) of a number of poets over recent years. On his highly experimental album Manafon (2009) there are some beautifully pared back pieces about R.S. Thomas and Sylvia Plath. He has also produced an album-length interpretation of the late American poet Franz Wright's work (which I may post at a later point).

For now, this is his interpretation of Emily Dickinson's poem 'A Certain Slant of Light', which appears on the album Died in the Wool from 2012.

There's a certain Slant of light

There's a certain Slant of light, 
Winter Afternoons – 
That oppresses, like the Heft 
Of Cathedral Tunes – 

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us – 
We can find no scar, 
But internal difference – 
Where the Meanings, are – 

None may teach it – Any – 
'Tis the seal Despair – 
An imperial affliction 
Sent us of the Air – 

When it comes, the Landscape listens – 
Shadows – hold their breath – 
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance 
On the look of Death –

Emily Dickinson

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review of 'Summer Rain' - Dublin Review of Books

I will publish posts in the coming weeks about poetry in general (I'm very keen to share a wonderful video interpretation of a W.S Merwin poem) but for now, I thought to focus on my own recent collection and reproduce this very substantial review of Summer Rain by poet Enda Wyley in The Dublin Review of Books. 

Before that though, I will add that the DRB is a wonderful resource regarding Irish literature and culture, in all forms, and you can visit their homepage and read many excellent articles at:

So, here's the review.


'The Kingdom of Water' 

Noel Duffy’s third collection, Summer Rain, is structured into three different parts – each exhibiting a poetic range, an experimentation in form and theme which mark a departure from the more lyrical, autobiographical work of his previous volumes, In the Library of Lost Objects (2011) and On Light and Carbon (2013).
These are new sequences from a poet eager to take chances in subject matter and to push forward the boundaries of his craft. At the same time these poems protect what has been a striking feature of Duffy’s work to date – a fascination with the sciences, stemming from his studies in experimental physics at Trinity College, Dublin.
In the light of this interest, it seems entirely fitting that Summer Rain begins with a section “Games of Chance & Reason”. Here, eight poems, dated 1895–1907, follow the final years of the brilliant Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. This is an unusual choice of subject for poetry – one better suited to a physics lecture or a scientific journal, you might think. And yet it is a measure of Duffy’s development as a poet that he has created a convincing verse drama infused with a dialogue that would work as well on radio as it does on the page.
In a compact preface, he explains the importance of Boltzmann’s theories. “Using a deceptively simple starting point, he posited that atoms existed and if we measure their behavior in vast numbers using statistical methods, all the laws of classical thermodynamics could be fully understood.” Boltzmann also believed that pockets of order existed within disorder. Duffy explains how this “gave a working foundation for how the complexity of life itself (an ordered state) could arise without defying the fundamental law of entropy as he had proposed it”.
These are challenging ideas and ones which today have defined Boltzmann as one of the most gifted physicists of the nineteenth century. But in his own lifetime he encountered much opposition to his ideas, most especially from the positivists – scientists who only believed what evidence could actually prove. Chief amongst these was the forceful proponent of positivist philosophy Ernst Mach.
It is out of the conflict between Boltzmann and Mach that Duffy develops an intriguing poetic argument. Ideas and counter-ideas battle for the truth.
Ludwig stands in the small wood-panelled
lecture room, a dozen or so students facing him
in rows. ‘I ask you to place your faith in me,
for there are those who say I am a charlatan
or a fool. And some who say I am both!
Of course, he was neither a charlatan nor a fool. And ultimately, it is his genius that Duffy celebrates, in poems which expose the thrill of Boltzmann’s discoveries, the excitement of his ideas – as well as the disillusionment and ultimate tragedy of his story.
Now all seems lost; lost to him in dispute
and the over-labour of duties. He knows
this cannot go on, that he falters more
with every step he tries to take, each ending,
it seems, in failure and regret.’
“Into the Recesses”, the second section of Summer Rain, moves us into a new imaginative zone, with an epigraph from Wordsworth as our guide. “A lake carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable.”
Sixteen observational nature poems follow, using twenty-first century knowledge as a means to reimagine pantheism. The poems succeed because of their powerful attention to detail and their allegiance to Duffy’s interest in physics.
In “Surface Tension” carefully chosen words like “membrane” and “meniscus” are subtly scientific, helping this small poem to lodge itself memorably in the reader’s imagination.
Water too has a skin,
that membrane that separates
its world from our own, the meniscus
that trembles in the light
late evening breeze, not breaking it
but forming small rivulets
upon its surface, a flickering
of light playing on the eye
separating our world from theirs;
the kingdom of water;
the kingdom of air.
Water flows purposefully throughout the poems in this section. In “Storm over Skiddaw” sheep huddle together while “rain falls down / heavily about them”. A waterfall is wonderfully described as a “cascade of quicksilver/ force”, finally slowing down to a “cantering measure” in the poem “Tyneware Waterfall”, while in “Molecules in Motion”, waters are “flowing downriver towards the lake / and the human scale of the waiting landscape”. These are poems which skilfully celebrate the cycle of water in a diversity of natural settings. They are carefully honed, complement each other and make for an arresting second part of an intriguing collection.
Duffy concludes his third collection with a series of ten intimate monologues, set in contemporary Dublin – although the city is secondary to the voices of each speaker, all specifically named and all very different in their concerns and experiences. Broken marriages, drugs, emotional problems, disappointments are the fabric of these poems as we are introduced to the troubled and disaffected of the poet’s making. And yet there is an overriding humanity flowing like the rain through the days of each speaker, which offers some consolation for the future.
Muriel, though devastated by her loss of faith, tightens her coat about her, walks out onto the streets, hoping the rain will wash away her sin “that I may believe in Him again / Jesus who no longer lives with me / Pray for me …”. Richard’s job is to clean dead bodies and yet he ponders how “there is a tenderness, in the end, in this work I do”. “Caroline”, the final poem of the collection, encapsulates the humane, enquiring voice which flows as consistently as water throughout the three sequences of Summer Rain – a collection, which for all its exactness of structure, should ultimately be enjoyed for its great empathy and craft.
I pick another canvas
from the pile stacked along
the studio wall, blank and waiting
for a truer mood. I will paint
the smell of rain instead and start
with earthen brown and red.
Enda Wyley is a poet and children’s author. She has published five collections of poetry with Dedalus Press – most recently Borrowed Space, New and Selected Poems (2014). She was the recipient of The Vincent Buckley Prize for Poetry and the Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship for Poetry (2014). She is a member of Aosdána.