Friday, November 16, 2018

from 'A Man Made of Rain' - Brendan Kennelly (1998)



‘What is my body?’ I asked the man made of rain.
‘A temple’, he said, ‘and the shadow thrown
by the temple, dreamfield, painbag, lovescene,
                          hatestage, miracle jungle under the skin.

                        Cut it open. Pardon the apparition.’

                        ‘What is my blood?’ I dared then.
                        ‘Her pain birthing you and me,
                        the slow transfiguration of pain
                        into knowing what it means to be

                        climbing the hill of blood, trawling the poisoned sea.’

                        ‘Where have I been when they say I’ve returned?’
                        ‘Where the beginning and end
                        combine to make a picture, compose a sound
                        reminding you that love is a singing wound

                        and I could be your friend.’

                        from ‘A Man Made of Rain’


                        A man made of rain.
                        Nobody intended that.
                        Yet he had to happen.
                        When he happened my world outgrew itself.

                        He is not born of intention.
                        He is what might happen.
                        He never heard of reason.
                        If he did, he pities it.

                        How do I know that?
                        Is the rain longing to be human?
                        Is there a human somewhere
                        longing to be rain?

                        A human being
                        to flow forever,
                        to pour forever, yet be contained,
                        to fall on houses anywhere,
                        on first love, last words,
                        plans hatched in darkness,
                        bloody murder, fields of wheat
                        ripening through summer days

                                    longing to fall
                                                like blessings

                                                            like praise.


                                 When I see a word
                                    into the rain of his hands
                                    I see a hand
                                    shaping the word
                                    My eyes of a man
                                    of flesh,
                                    explore the eyes of a man
                                    of rain
                                    and I see
                                    there is no beginning,
                                    no end.
                                    There is now,
                                    that cannot be grasped
                                    so let me invent
                                    my past
                                    my future
                                    to stop me knowing
                                    the radiant nothingness
                                    of now
                                    the drugged pain
                                    of now,
                                    the terrifying speed
                                    of now
                                    all through my slow carcass,
                                    my slow soul.
                                    This little now
                                    is so beyond me
                                    I’d better make haste
                                    to invent
                                    Stranger at my door
                                    help me.


                     Hacked, bruised, foul. ‘What is flesh? I asked the man made of rain.
                        ‘A kind of everything waiting to be nothing’, he said.
                        ‘Great worker, but servant on earth, dustpoem,
                        lovething, vivid presence in the process of vanishing.’

                        ‘Where do I vanish to’, I asked.

                        He smiled, started walking.

                        I wanted to rise and follow quickly
                        but something heavier that the world prevented me,

                        whispering, Stay, you cannot do without me.


Brendan Kennelly is a much-loved poet in Ireland though also, strangely, under-appreciated in some regards. I wanted to look at these poems from his collection A Man Made of Rain of a piece since they come from a long sequence and explore similar themes and ideas throughout. In a way, the poems operate through a kind of mutual refraction and augment each other through this process. (Unfortunately, the standard dips in places, but the high notes are very high indeed.)

What interests me here is Kennelly’s exploration of consciousness in, and of, the body. I have vaguely attempted to examine this subject in some unsuccessful poems which try to get at the point where consciousness and the physical being meet. This is a clear elaboration of the notion of presence which extends from the inanimate world of stones and rivers, on to the animal world (Hughes, Rilke, Montague), and finally to the place in ourselves where these two meet – the body (Kennelly, Sexton, Boland).

The whole idea of presence (to echo the French poet Yves Bonnefoy and theorist Gaston Bachelard), is to see the reality behind the surface of things, to somehow be aware of the deeper structures which remain hidden and obscured by mental habit. It is a question of concentration and in these poems, by Kennelly, this concentration is turned towards his broken body (the visitation of the man made of rain comes after a triple heart by-pass operation) and lives, for a time, in the blood and arteries that could fail at any moment. In a way, the entire sequence relates a near-death experience and the man made of rain is really a manifestation of pure spirit (‘to flow forever, to pour forever, yet be contained’) who has cast off the physical body, becoming a body of energy. Perhaps it is better to say that it is not so much a question of ‘casting off’ the corporeal but the necessity to let it go, a letting go that the poet wishes to make but can't quite:

                        I wanted to rise and follow quickly
                        but something heavier than the world prevented me
                        whispering, Stay, you cannot do without me.

Here, the body is the nesting ground of the spirit (the “bone-house” as Heaney calls it echoing that beautiful Anglo-Saxon word 'banhus'). It must not be reduced to mere flesh as it has been in most religions. Presence is the quiet sublimation of all that is considered other, including in the end the body which is often (particularly in a Judeo-Christian framework) seen as 'fallen' or, in Oriental traditions, as 'illusory'. The world is not absence. The absence is in ourselves. The world is an echoing chamber waiting for us to speak. We stay silent. “The spirit, if anything/ is first flesh” as Thomas Kinsella once put it.

It is also a question of first origins - the way the theory of evolution locates our birth out of the mire and muck of the physical, the animal. We were not simply posited in an already formed human reality. We struggled towards it. Yet, we don’t necessarily have to go back to the primordial beginning in an anthropological (Hughesian) sense. Each moment relives this struggle towards becoming. Obviously, some moments make this more apparent and sharply realised than others. For Kennelly (and Sexton and Plath for quite different reasons) it is the possibility and immanence of death.

The challenge is to climb inside, to see the presence wrapped in the blood-cell, bound in the chromosomes, to transmute the knowledge of science at that level into something that cradles the hidden, mysterious meaning at the centre.

What is the body?

                        ‘A temple’, he said, ‘and the shadows thrown
                        by the temple, dreamfield, painbag, lovescene,
                        hatestage, miracle jungle under the skin.
                        Cut it open. Pardon the apparition.’

Friday, October 26, 2018

'Mercy Street' (for Anne Sexton) by Peter Gabriel

I'm interested in the ways that poetry slips its way into the more mainstream media and most especially, recently, in how songwriters respond to poetry or the lives of the poets themselves. I first heard Peter Gabriel's album So in the mid-eighties and it was a rather special occasion as it was the first time I heard music on CD (a richer childhood friend of mine had just got one!). Anyway, said friend played this album over and over and, to be honest, it sounded great on the new technology and almost seemed designed to showcase it, along with Kate Bush's The Hounds of Love, released around the same time. In any case, I especially loved the track 'Mercy Street' but the dedication to poet Anne Sexton meant nothing to me at that time. Obviously, all these years on it most certainly does and, knowing a fair amount about the poet now, I feel this is a beautiful response to her - often troubled - life. So here is the song and official music video. I hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A Day Without Words - drama-poem (2003)

In 2003 I started an MA in Writing at National University of Ireland, Galway, on the scenic west coast of Ireland and 'far from the madding crowd' of Dublin. I really went there to try to complete work on my first collection of poetry but the ethos of the programme was to encourage us to experiment with all forms of writing. During the first term, I took a course in playwrighting. The teacher was very practical in her approach and threw us poor writers in with actors for free-improv and the like, but I thoroughly enjoyed it even if it dragged me way out of my solitary writing habits.

We were given various assignments throughout the 10 weeks and for one, I chose my own theme: to write a cross-talk monologue that was dramatic in intent not comedic, since cross-talk is almost always used for the latter effect. The teacher wasn't sure it could be pulled off. In any case, this was the piece I wrote, which I rediscovered recently (while nosing around old files) and decided to share here as I doubt it will appear in any future collection (though you never know). I hope I did meet my own challenge and do something worthwhile with the form. I call it a 'drama-poem' (which may be a misnomer) but I think the repetitions and intercuts create a poetic impact as much as a dramatic one. See what you make of it!

A Day Without Words

A Man and a Woman stand at opposite sides of room each lit by a single spot-light. They speak directly to us.

He:      I was waiting for a letter.
She:     I never opened his post. He never opened mine. We didn’t pry on each other’s
lives in that way. There was nothing to hide. But…
He:      Just waiting on a letter to arrive. That was all. I had waited all day. All week in
fact. Maybe all my life or so it felt. What was most difficult was the, the… –
She:    He had gone out. I suppose he couldn’t bear it anymore. Silence, I suppose, is
worse than –
He:      …the not knowing.
She:     I opened it because… Well, to spare him if…
He:     One way or the other. I just needed to know –
She:    To know I suppose. One way or the other –
He:     So, I could move on if…
She:    …for his sake.
He:    …for her sake.

He:      The letter came. Weeks later of course. It didn’t say yes but “Dear Sir, we are delighted to say” … (like stones in his mouth) Delighted to say…
She:     He did write. Some days. I never replied. It was too late for that for the letter was
from someone else, not intended for my eyes.
He:      My book: the story of a group of friends. Responsibility. Success. Lack of it. How it changes them.
She:     We had changed too much. The both of us.
He:      I based it on myself, in a way, though didn’t see it at first. A man who can’t stop. Can’t rest. Life just happens to him and all he can do is react until it feels like what he wants.
She:     We lived with each other till we didn’t see each other anymore. Just what we wanted. For ourselves. Not each other. Not anymore.
He:      And all he really wants, though he doesn’t know it, is silence. And I realise now that that is what I wanted too. Days of silence.
She:     If we could’ve just stopped for a moment.
He:      And now I have. At least until tomorrow when I start to promote my book.
She:     Tomorrow I start another play. Leading part. Important role. And now I can’t stop.
He:      And I want words again. Though not mine. I want hers; to hear her voice, to have a day filled with her voice. I almost think I cannot remember a single thing she said precisely. A single sentence.
She:     There will be a full house. People in their seats waiting to be moved.
He:      I could go to see her. But she doesn’t belong to me in a theatre full of people. Never did. There she belongs everyone else. Or maybe just herself. And though she is not mine anymore I would still be jealous. And lonely. And would deserve no better.
She:     I will stand on the stage and try to break their hearts, yet feel with every word and gesture that somehow, I haven’t deserved it, despite all my long work to be there: that I’m a cheat, a fake, a fraud knowing that he wrote me the part of a woman wronged. Stupid I know but… But I can’t stop.
He:      I will go away tomorrow and read from my book.
She:     I will speak my lines –
He:      I will read my words –
She/He: …and think of the one person who truly matters who won’t be there to hear


The spot-light holds on both their faces then fades out slowly to BLACK.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

My sweet old aunt etcetera... More on e.e. cummings

I have written before about what an impact the poet e.e.cummings made on me. Perhaps, I can say, he was the first poet whose work I fell in love with. Truly so. Sadly, for me, in my very earliest writing I tried to imitate him and failed miserably.

I'm currently working on a new poetry collection and I generally avoid reading poetry when I'm writing. I once read a great deal of Alfred Lord Tennyson one summer long ago and, Lord God, I spent the next three months writing like a high-Victorian!

So, as I write, I've been revisiting Cummings, not for influence but because his style is so far removed from this new work that there is no possibility of influence. Therefore, I can simply enjoy it!

I found this short piece of documentary footage about e.e.cummings on YouTube and thought to share. Shame it seems to be only the first part of a full-length piece, but you may be able - unlike me - to find the rest if you search hard enough! In any case, it's great that this old archive stuff is available to us now. Here is, then, an introduction to the early years of edward eslin, in his own poems and words. He was truly the most rhapsodic of 20th Century American poets so it is no surprise to learn that Dylan Thomas was a friend and admirer.

To flesh out his life-story more, here is a talk that was given by Cummings' biographer, Susan Cheever. Really the story she presents, particularly regarding that with his daughter, is quite remarkable. The question and answers session that fills the second half is even more informative and more directly addresses his poetic style and content and how it related to his life. Cheever herself is also a very warm and witty companion to guide us all this.

So, here I post all this to try to whet the appetite - as much for me as anyway else - in revisiting more of cumming's poetry. As I said, there is no point in trying to imitate him, but rather just to enjoy his unique work for what it is!

Okay, hope you like these clips. I continue to make my own small efforts in poetry and if the results turn out to be half as good and original as those of old e.e., I would be a very happy poet, indeed!

You can find my earlier post on cummings and The Nerdwriter's excellent analysis of 'i carry your heart' right here!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

'Bella' on 'Poems & Pictures' website

I was contacted a few weeks ago to contribute some poems to the Mary Evans Picture Library. This project has been one of the most long-standing picture archive galleries in the UK, operating since the 1960s and one that far predates iStock Photo and Alamy and so on. As such they have a fabulous and unique collection of images.

I will have four poems appear over the coming months, but the first is an old poem written in the voice of the painter Marc Chagall in old age, which appeared in my first collection In the Library of Lost Objects (2011). This poem is, in fact, one of my earliest pieces, written when I was 25. It somewhat amazes my present self to realise I wrote it at that age as it is almost half a lifetime ago. That said, I still like it very much.

In the end, poetry is about the act of sympathetic engagement but we live in a world where writers are increasingly being accused of the appropriation of other people's experience. I would contend that it is actually our core duty (perhaps even talent) to try to understand, and write, from different perspectives and refuse to be stymied by such (glib) criteria. I am clearly writing beyond my 'experience' here but that's the challenge. If such a poem succeeds or rings true as being authentic that is the only measure. If it fails it will be forgotten.

Anyway, I hope this one does achieve the act of sympathetic resonance with the subject. 'Poetry & Pictures' are doing a great job in marrying word and image and my thanks to them for inviting me to contribute to this intriguing project. So, here's my first offering then on their site.

Marc Chagall, circa 1913
© Mary Evans Picture Library

Monday, June 4, 2018

Five Poems @ Live Encounters: Poetry & Writing

I'm really delighted to have five new poems appear in the current (June) issue of Live Encounters, an online journal dedicated to poetry and writing, edited by Mark Ulyseas. It is beautifully designed by Mark and is always of a very high standard (and broad in its concerns) in terms of the work that appears there.

Some more pieces from my next collection feature here, along with a couple of outliers that I will find a place to use elsewhere, I'm sure.

You can find my page at Live Encounters: Noel Duffy.

You can download the pdf of the entire issue HERE, featuring the excellent work by these many and varied writers. I'm delighted to be included along side them.

In any case, I very much hope you check out the issue (and the many back issues available) and enjoy the work therein as much as I have.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Stillness, Movement - the Line-Break in Poetry

I have noticed when talking to friends who are interested in poetry but perhaps not dedicated readers of it, that the use of the line-break in modern poetry often confuses, or even confounds, them. So I decided, as a challenge, to tackle the problem head-on and write this short essay to explain why (and how) poets use this device in their work. I also think it is very helpful for poets starting out to have a very clear grasp of why they are using 'the break' and the wide possibilities it presents to them. I hope, then, that this piece might be of help and interest to both groups: readers and purveyors of poetry. 

This essay first appeared in Poetry Ireland's literary pamphlet Trumpet, issue 7, late last year. My gratitude to editor Paul Lenehan for including it.

Stillness, Movement - the Line-Break in Poetry

When discussing the ‘line-break’ in poetry it is first necessary to talk about the difference between the ‘sentence’ and the ‘line’ itself. For the prose writer, the ‘sentence’ is their cornerstone. Through varying the sentence length, and manipulating it by adding cadence and pause, they create a complex craft from it as its unit of meaning. However, for the poet there is one added technique which is the line-break – the way a poem measures itself out in lines rather than sentences, most often to convey ‘movement’ through the poem. This gives rise to many intriguing and unique possibilities.

To begin, though, I will start with a ‘counter-example’: a poem that eschews the use of the line-break to convey its meaning and doesn’t rely on it for its movement. In the well-known poem ‘Gift’ by Czesław Miłosz, the poet simply uses nine simple statements ranging from the visual, the abstract and the emotional, with each line in the poem matching the sentence precisely and therefore shunning the obvious aspect of the ‘break’. Here are the four opening lines:

A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.

The absence of line-breaks here creates a sense of ‘stillness’, of tranquility, yet the poem continues to move (subtly) forward due to the variation in the length of the line/sentence, an effect sometimes referred to by prose writers as ‘modulation’.

A sense of harmony and stillness in a poem can proceed also, of course, by using a sentence that extends beyond one line. In Anne Sexton’s ‘The Truth the Dead Know’, written after her mother’s death, the piece opens with these lines:

Gone, I say and walk from the church,
refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June. I am tired of being brave.

The statement of her ‘refusing’ the procession ‘to the grave’ is mirrored in the tightly controlled processional feeling of the lines, the effect somehow heightening the restrained grief. The first three lines ‘run-on’ but in such a way as there is a balance between the clauses and speech rhythms contained within each. Each line-break has a ‘soft’ quality until, quite brilliantly, Sexton uses the two short sentences embedded in one line to create a sense of deflated closure. Modulation can be a useful tool in poetry also, as proven here, as an inversion of our expectation that poetry mainly utilises the run-on line.

The line-break can also be used to enable a sense of strong movement through the lines of a poem, acting as a propulsive force, offering tension and then resolution with an ‘end-stopped line’. The Romantic poets often stretched the limits of the line-break to employ momentum through and across ‘the line’. An instructive example, from William Wordsworth, show us, in these lines, the ‘new’ expansion of the language of poetry:

It is a beauteous Evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity…

Enjambment (as run-on is technically called) essentially changes the balance between the sentence and the line, establishing a tension and forward movement that forces the reader not to pause at the end of the line but to move expectantly to the next, the line-break encouraging a semi-pause or, sometimes, no pause at all. Yet, when it comes to the various effects of the line-break we can’t fully itemise these unless we consider also the added aspect of ‘music’ in poetry that serves to emphasise its impact and meaning. In such cases, music reinforces the effect of ‘the break’, the run-on line, in a sense, keeping us off-balance and acting as a kind of regulatory valve as we move through the lines of a piece: such a dramatic idea, that we take for granted today.

An example of this effect can be further heightened by ‘internal rhyme’, which intensifies the ‘swing’ over the musical line to the next line as a musical echo. A similar, if more immediate, effect is to look at what I call ‘swing-rhyme’. Here, the rhyme at the end of one line is immediately followed by a rhyme at the start of the next. This is a stanza from the poem ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ (which translates as ‘Forget-me-not’) by the Second World War poet, Keith Douglas:

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

I love this poem, despite its difficult subject matter. The ‘swing rhyme’ from line 2 to 3, coupled with a general rhyme scheme, serves to amplify the action expressed, exploiting the line-break to dramatic, almost explosive, impact.

For me, one of the most interesting uses of the line-break is how it enacts (or should enact) the meaning of a poem, its rhythms perfectly matching the movement and subject. A great example of this are the hesitant, off-balance, lines of Paula Meehan’s piece ‘Take a breath. Hold it. Let it go.’ The young poet is about to leave the family home but watches as her sister make-pretends a circus act on the boundary wall in the garden. She views it with a sense of foreboding:

She steps out
on the narrow breeze block fence. If I shout,
I’ll startle her. She’ll fall …


She falls anyway. I could not save her.

The movement and sense of the lines here make for an off-kilter feeling. It’s interesting also how the short sentences punctuate the line (rather like Anne Sexton’s use of modulation), giving us the ‘high-wire’ act of her sister, enacting both form and meaning to achieve this by utilising the line and line-break to brilliant effect.

Finally, one of the most powerful effects of the line-break is that it can be used to place ‘heavy’ emphasis on the last word of a given line. A compelling example of this can be found in Derek Mahon’s poem ‘After the Titanic’. Here are a few lines as the liner sinks and the speaker says:

... my poor soul
    Screams out in the starlight, heart
Breaks loose and rolls down like a stone.                          

The phrase ‘heart breaks loose’ is a powerful one, but more powerful still by breaking on the word ‘heart’. It intensifies the meaning of that word and, added to this, the absence of a pronoun before ‘heart’ further develops the sentiment: in a way, it is the heart of everyone on that sinking ship that is captured at that moment. Not ‘my’ or ‘your’ heart, but simply ‘heart’. It’s a powerful expression of communality, powerfully expressed in the poem’s extreme context.

The line-break is perhaps the quintessential aspect of poetry, defining it as a distinct form in literature. It allows the poet to manipulate language in a way that no other technique can quite achieve. Being in control of it, is as close as we come in poetry to realising the careful rhythm of a master film editor’s hands, or a great painter’s articulated brushstroke; the line break is as characteristic as both in generating the pace, energy and signature of a given work.

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Poetry of Science - essay

This piece first appeared in Poetry Ireland News in summer 2012. I write from a personal perspective here on how I moved from the world of science to the world of poetry, reflecting on what I see as the relationship between science and art and their necessary functions as different approaches to knowledge in contemporary society – an increasingly relevant question, I feel. In any case, I hope you find it interesting.

For more essays  from Poetry Ireland's archive, you can find a full index here. Well worth a visit!


The Poetry of Science

Look into the cup: the tissue of order
Forms under your stare. The living surfaces
Mirror each other, gather everything
Into their crystalline world...

- Thomas Kinsella, 'Phoenix Park'

The first poem that filled me with a genuine excitement was encountered one day in a stuffy classroom in my final year in secondary school. It was Thomas Kinsella’s ‘Mirror in February’. I enjoyed poetry but this poem seemed different and more immediate. It was written by someone not distant from me in time and language, but a poet still writing as I read it – Kinsella then being the only such living poet on the English syllabus.
I faced a dilemma as I approached my Leaving Cert exams. As well as English and History I was also passionate about Maths and Physics. The question was which would I prefer to study at University? In the end, I chose Natural Sciences and found myself in Trinity College, daunted at first by the transition to higher mathematics, chemistry and physics. Thankfully, after the terror of the first term, I settled in and was an eager student, choosing to major in Experimental Physics under the guidance of my supervisor, one Prof Iggy McGovern – known to many of you now as the author of two excellent poetry collections.
At that time neither Iggy nor I talked about poetry, though I had continued to read it as I headed towards my finals, with friends in the English Department recommending poets like Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and other modernists. Whilst I was sometimes baffled by these poets, I enjoyed the challenge such work provided. After graduation, I worked for about a year as a research assistant at the Department, but found I had no stomach for the often repetitive and slow nature of research physics. Despite my passion for the subject I didn’t see a direct future in it, and after a period of crisis decided to revisit that earlier moment of reflected encounter in ‘Mirror in February’ and try my own hand at writing poetry. My progress was reasonably quick and within a few years my first published poem, ‘Apple’, appeared in Poetry Ireland Review 47, edited by Moya Cannon, in autumn 1995. It was a piece about Newton.
I had no concept of myself at that point as a ‘scientist-poet’. It just seemed natural to me that with a background in physics – and a passion for all the sciences – that this world-view would seep its way into what I was writing as subject matter, explored in the unique vocabularies that science also provided me with. For example, in an early poem, ‘Dragonflies’, I describe the dragonflies as ‘they dart from one point to another / plotting the water’s surface / with their ghost geometries’. For me, nature poetry after Darwin had to somehow reflect this altered view of the natural world. I also found in scientific figures rich material for poems, writing pieces about Einstein (‘Einstein’s Compass’) and Galileo (‘The Moons’) as well as Newton. I also became quite fascinated with natural history and a series of poems followed about paleontology, geology, insects, astronomy and even mathematics.
At the same time, I naturally also wrote about more immediate and personal concerns: family, lovers, friendship, loss and grief. The type of material that perhaps we expect to see in a contemporary poetry collection. The difficulty I faced was how to make these different types of subject-matter work in some unified way to form a collection itself. It took me some time to achieve this, but eventually I realised that these subjects- the philosophical and the personal - could exist side by side, the intimate, personal dramas placed against the grand backdrop of geological and even cosmological time, perhaps in the way the gods provided the epic context for the lives of mortals in classical literature. For me, the fleeting moments of lived experience are placed against the vista of what we might call ‘deep’ time.

Inevitably, I faced the question in doing this: what is poetry’s relationship to science? I think we have to be clear here and say that the arts and the sciences serve different, though no less important, functions. Science’s job is to examine disparate phenomena and find a law or theory that shows how they are connected. This hypothesis is then tested and if proven true gives us an ‘objective’ truth. Poetry also tries to find patterns of connections and draw unexpected material together to form a coherent poem, but it can never aspire to the empiricism of science, nor should it. In the end, a poem can only persuade rather than prove. It captures something of the ‘subjective’ experience of living, though by means that make such an experience recognisable or comprehensible to another person. We might borrow an important concept from science and call this a form of ‘resonance’.
And perhaps by writing about science I’m attempting to bring these seemingly abstract and even distant ideas into some kind of imaginative resonance with the nature of our lived lives, so that they too may form part of the fabric of our experience in the process; that such ‘ideas’ may also be felt as the ‘tissue of order’ that Kinsella speaks of in ‘Phoenix Park’ – an order that both disciplines search for, albeit in very different fashions. That is, at least, something of what I hope to achieve in my work.

June 2012


Red of course. The colour
of blood. Shining and smooth,
its form perfected and round.
An emblem of the human

mind, nestled up there
among the leaves innocent
of its fate, swaying
in a green dream about

to waken. Ripe and
waiting for the final
nudge, the soft slap
              of the breeze, to fall

              down to the ground
              with a thud beside
              the place he sits, to
              start again the ancient act

              of the naming of parts.

              from In the Library of Lost Objects (Ward Wood Publishing, 2011)





Thursday, March 29, 2018

'Crime Scene' - poem

I hadn't planned to write another collection after my last, Summer Rain, for quite some time. The thing is, the lead in time for publication is often 18 months to two years and, frankly, I got bored waiting so decided to write a short sequence called 12 Imaginary Postcards, a vague idea for a suite of short, imagistic poems I've had for a long time.

In the end, the idea grew beyond its initial (short) intention and became a full-length semi-narrative collection called Street Light Amber: A Metaphysical Love story. The publication date is yet to be set in any firm way, but I hope it will appear early next year if my publisher sees fit etc.

For now, here's a slightly eerie poem from the book. As the 'story' unfolds there is an ever growing sense of uneasiness that creeps in, to the point of (let's call it) suburban disturbia. I think this piece best captures that aspect of the work so here it is. I hope you like it, even if subtly unsettled by it. I was when I wrote it.

The poem first appeared in journal Studies in Arts & Humanities produced by Dublin Business School, where I once taught screenwriting in the Arts & Media Department.

Crime Scene

I pull the curtain back, the day ending
to a dull turquoise above the rooftops
of the neighbours’ houses on the square,
the lined sentinels of the bins by their gates
that seem to stand in watch recording us.
The streetlights flicker on, one by one,
the hoods of the cars in the driveways
a shimmering metallic, the tail of yesterday’s
storm ghosting in the branches above them.
Sometimes I dream there’s a body
buried out there under the cedar tree
beneath the camouflage of autumn leaves
and all our fallen memories. I let the curtain
fall back, passing like a shadow across the brain.
I watch you lying on the bed, half asleep,
no shining light to disturb the eye just
the bulk of things hiding in darkness.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

My intro to 'All the Barbaric Glass' by David Butler (2017)

I was flattered when David Butler asked me to launch his latest collection All the Barbaric Glass last spring. David really is a marvelous poet and I am also a huge admirer of his debut collection Via Crucis - so much so that I wrote to his publisher to congratulate him for publishing it. David manages in his poetry a delicate mix of verbal dexterity, vivid imagery and heartfelt feeling. I recommend his work highly to you if you've not encountered it yet.

For now, here are my introductory remarks on the collection. It can be purchased directly from his publisher Doire Press, who are doing great work in finding - and publishing - original voices in contemporary Irish poetry - including, of course, David Butler himself.

A Question at the Shoreline: ‘All the Barbaric Glass’ by David Butler

All the Barbaric Glass was launched at the Irish Writers’ Centre, Dublin, on 23rd March 2017.

The opening lines of the first poem, ‘Breaking’, of David Butler’s second collection, All the Barbaric Glass, acts as a statement of intent for the work, one which he steadfastly adheres to throughout:

                        There are times you need
                        to step outside of colloquy;                
                        to mute the looping newsfeed,
                        the tinnitus of the immediate.

This is a collection that consciously steps beyond ‘the newsfeed’, the constant information thrown at us both in daily life and in the online sphere. That world occasional encroaches on this mission in certain stray moments, but David resolutely stays the course to give us something beyond mere reportage or internet chatter.

The striking imagery of the collection reminds us that this work exists at a boundary, most obviously, that of the physical landscape of the shoreline, the place between land and sea. The shoreline is a very real and concrete location throughout the poems, but subtly reaches the level of metaphor also, representing as it does so the space between life and death, loss and love found, the solid ground of the present and the less certain waters of past and future.

This notion of the blurring of boundaries is heightened also by the fact that many poems take place in the gloaming, the dusk-light, that liminal space between day and night, becoming the shadowland of the poets inner, self-questioning thoughts.  The passage of time is marked out through these scenes as when a young child finds a dogfish washed up on the beach and the poet observes:

                                                            ...Small wonder
the child with bucket stands and stares
                        and starts to hear the song of sand;
                        the whisper in the hourglass.

Such philosophical preoccupations are threaded throughout the work but there are also more emotionally direct pieces, most particularly those about his father and late mother, such as ‘Death Watch’, ‘Watcher’, and ‘Family Album’. His father’s descent into Alzheimer’s is not just observed, but observed closely and felt to the core. In the poem ‘Father’, David takes us far beyond cold statistics or even, indeed, the powerful testimony of loved ones seen on a segment on the TV news, to a fully articulated statement that captures the heart-breaking reality of the condition as experienced by both the father suffering it and the son’s efforts to try to understand it:

                        What unsigned city is it you wake in,
                        featureless, or with such altered features
                        the streets are not familiar, or if, with
                        shifting familiarity, like dreamscapes
                        you wake from?

The autumnal/wintry setting that pervades the collection also seems to suggest that the work exists in the wake of such loss and questioning, where we view the shoreline differently again – not just as haunting but as one now ‘haunted’ by personal grief.

It should be obvious by now how beautifully written these poems are. However, this isn’t achieved through a relaxed, easy lyricism but rather a starkly elegant one. There is an exactness and precision to these poems, an angular beauty, we might say, somewhat reminiscent of the that most descriptively rigorous of Irish poets, Thomas Kinsella. Take these lines from ‘Correspondence’:

                                                There are more
                        tongues here than in a metropolis
                        gorse and cowslip and insect
                        all flash their intimate semaphore;
                        a corncrake croaks Morse; while a skylark
                        hoisted high as radio-mast,
                        is twittering its incessant machine-code

It is this sense of rigour which offers a controlled, formal elegance to the language, the observational accuracy perhaps reflecting David’s studies in engineering at university. There is an eye to detail, as ‘Correspondence’ shows, that other writers may well miss.

However, there are also moments of counterpoint placed in the lattice of such a grief-work, where splashes of colour interrupt the wintry shoreline scenes and present their own vivid reality. In ‘Grand Bizarre, Istanbul’

                        Suddenly the senses are ablaze: scent
                        has tumbled into an Aladdin’s cave
                        that illuminates the throve of memory...

while in ‘Mellifont Abbey’, bees

...fumble inside auricular lilies          
drunk on summer’s insistent song.

At the same time, the contemporary world of the ‘looping newsfeed’ and internet babble breaks through on occasion (as it must), impinging on the other reflections of natural setting. Yet found amid this ‘tinnitus’ is more important news, news that matters and captured in the vision of “all the suitcases, empty as grief / that bob on the Aegean...” bringing us closer to the scene, however briefly, of distant calamity.

To end, I just wanted to note something I only fully appreciated on a second reading of All the Barbaric Glass and one that strikes me as important and central to this books appeal. That thing is the presence of the question mark throughout these poems. So often when poets ‘question’ (especially these days) they are questioning others in accusatory tones for their social or political ineptitude, their incompetence, faults and lack. The ‘other’, in this sense, is always an easy target for lazy vitriol.

Here, though, the questions are those asked of oneself, offering a form of self-reflection and self-questioning that, in the end, is a method of self-interrogation that leaves no place to hide for the poet in these poems. This is not, in the end, a collection that offers easy resolution or explicit consolation, though nor is it one lacking in humanity or tentative hope.

The last two poems of the book demonstrate this unerring honesty. In ‘The Injunction’, the poet remembers the Deutsche Grammophon records his father would play on the old record player in the living room when he was a child, and how: “Still it reverberates / like a paternal caveat: /the cough of the stylus defluffed; / the circuitry clearing its throat; / the expectant static...” In the beautifully strange, and slightly chilling, final poem ‘Restless’ two lovers look out onto the sea as they walk the shoreline. She imagines she spies a body bobbing in the surf, just beyond the rocks. They peer out together, more alert now. He questions her assertion, then responds:

                        It’s not, I say again, less sure.
                        Less sure of myself, too
                        and of us,
                        with the sea and wind and world enormous about us.

March 2017