Reviews (Journals)

                                      Poetry Reviews by Josephine Balmer: Journals

Night Sky with Exit Wounds/Ocean Vuong, Cape Poetry, £10.00.

Agenda, Vol 51, Nos 1-2, Summer 2017

Every now and again a writer bursts onto the literary world with a voice that is so individual, so of its own kind, yet at the same time so instantly recognisable, that it feels as if it has been in existence for ever. This year the debut collection by Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, has been heralded on both sides of the Atlantic as a major new work from a poet who will assuredly leave a lasting mark. Vuong’s own extraordinary story, as a refugee who arrived in the US from Vietnam at the age of two, and who did not read proficiently until the age of eleven – the first member of his family to be literate – but has since been showered with poetry awards and honours, as well as being nominated as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers, all adds to the sense of marvel.

Given Vuong’s intriguing backstory, the collection could have risked becoming biographically reductive. Yet there are several Oceans here: the refugee haunted by his homeland in ‘Aubade With Burning City’, deftly – and powerfully – juxtapositioning scenes of horror from the fall of Saigon with lines from Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’. Or the street-smart New York City resident who in ‘Notebook Fragments’ records ‘I’m gonna lose it when Whitney Houston dies’. He is both the confident lover of ‘Thanksgiving 2006’ (‘I am ready to be every animal/you leave behind’) and the hesitant boy exploring his gay sexuality in ‘Because It’s Summer’ (‘you say thank you thank you thank you). In ‘The Gift’, he is the loving son teaching his mother the English abc as a strand of her black hair becomes the fourth letter, D, ‘written /on her cheek’. In ‘In Newport I Watch My Father Lay His Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back’, he is the son troubled by his father’s violence and desertions (‘I am chasing my father/the way the dead chase after/days’). Perhaps tellingly, in a 2016 interview with The New Yorker’s Daniel Wenger, Vuong revealed how his forename is, in itself, a construct (his birth name was Vinh Quoc), deriving from a conversation his mother had with a customer at the nail salon where she works. This weaving of poetic persona and lyric first person, playfully underscored in ‘Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong’, reminds us how, in the most reflective poetry, the weaving of ‘I’ and ‘you’ is always complex, an intricate pattern of art and life.

The multiplicity of voices is echoed in the diversity of poetic forms Vuong employs. The couplets of ‘Self Portrait as Exit Wounds’ and ‘Homewrecker’ give way to the free, discursive lines of poems such as ‘Trojan’ or ‘Aubade With Burning City’ and then the split lines of ‘Of Thee I Sing’. These, in turn, disintegrate in to the line-spaced prose of ‘My Father Writes From Prison’ (‘there are things/I can only say in the dark’) and then the full prose poem of ‘Immigrant Haibun’. ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ mixes all forms in its various sections, from the prose narration of an encounter with a stranger (‘He was divorced’) to the heady, lush urgency of:

Say surrender. Say alabaster. Switchblade.
Honeysuckle. Goldenrod. Say autumn.
(‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’)

Most affecting of all is the ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’, based on a 2011 newspaper report detailing the murder of a gay couple ‘by immolation in their home in Dallas, Texas’. Here the poem is a blank space, punctured by footnote numbers which lead to the lines themselves, buried beneath, a chilling, reduced font metatext to the silence above:

  1. refuse me. / Our faces blackening / in the photographs along the wall. / Don’t laugh. Just tell me the story / again, / of the sparrows who flew from falling Rome, / their blazed wings. / How ruin nested inside each thimble throat / & made it sing               (‘Seventh Circle of Earth’)

Such variety might stem from the poet’s youthful exploration of his craft. Certainly there is a sense of exuberance throughout; ‘Yikes’ he writes (twice) in ‘Notebook Fragments’ while ‘Ode to Masturbation’, with its celebration of ‘being human…the briefest form/of forever’, speaks for itself.

Yet the reader is never left in any doubt of who ‘Ocean Vuong’ might be as a poet and as a poetic voice. In addition, his presence is so strong, as many reviewers have mentioned, that we are left wanting more. For instance, how did his family respond to his sexuality? Or to the way they are portrayed in the poems? In a conversation with Andrew McMillan, published in the Summer 2017 issue of Poetry London, Vuong explains how his family’s illiteracy gives him a freedom from ‘repercussion’ to which many poets would not have access. Yet, at the same time, as he notes wistfully, the fact that they cannot read his books also means that they are excluded from that large and hugely significant part of his life. Interestingly, a new prose poem, ‘A Letter To My Mother That She Will Never Read’, just published in The New Yorker, explores his mother’s physical abuse during his childhood with gut-wrenching precision and honesty, detailing the bruises the poet would lie about to his teachers or the ‘time you threw the box of Legos at my head. The hardwood dotted with blood.’

These incidents are not addressed directly in Night Sky with Exit Wounds where the poet’s mother is a fierce but more benign figure: ‘When they ask you/where you’re from,’ she reminds in ‘Headfirst’, ‘tell them your name/was fleshed from the toothless mouth/of a war-woman’. Instead the collection, like its apparent anchor text, Homer’s Odyssey, appears father-haunted, veined with the void of paternal absence, from the ghosted dedication ‘to my mother [& father]’ to the poem ironically named for his father’s favourite Luther Vandross song ‘Always & Forever’. As ‘Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong’ reminds: ‘Your father is only your father/until one of you forgets’. Similarly, in the dream-like sequence of ‘Telemachus’, the poet pulls his father’s body out of the water:

the way a green bottle might appear

at a boy’s feet containing a year
he has never touched.
(‘Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong’)


And in ‘Odysseus Redux’, the apparition returns:

Back from the wind, he called to me
with a mouthful of crickets –

smoke & jasmine rising
from his hair.
(‘Odysseus Redux’)

Here the wild strangeness of the imagery, not to mention the otherness of the classical setting – especially for a writer whose engagement with western language started so late – all add memorably to the sense of another, recovered world shimmering through the mist. As ‘To My Father / To My Future Son’ urges of the written book:

Use it to prove how the stars
were always what we knew

they were: the exit wounds
of every
misfired word.

(‘To My Father / To My Future Son’)

Whether writing of tangled family relationships or celebrating the healing metamorphoses of erotic love (‘The way a field turns/its secrets/into peonies’), here is inventive, mesmerizing poetry, both playful and intensely personal. A poetry that hovers on the edge of meaning like consciousness at the moment of waking yet still remains accessible, inclusive. As ‘Devotion’ explains:

the way snow

touches bare skin – & is,
suddenly, snow
no longer.


Michael Longley: The Stairwell, (Cape Poetry, 2014), Agenda, Vol 48, Winter 2014

‘I have been thinking about the music for my funeral,’ announces Michael Longley in the opening, eponymous poem to his entrancing new collection, The Stairwell. Such musings on mortality will come as no surprise to readers of Longley’s previous nine volumes which have long rattled with the skeletons of the dead; Homeric warriors and doomed Ovidian shape-shifters jostling for position amongst the poet’s lost friends, colleagues and family. But as in Longley’s previous, acclaimed volume, 2011’s A Hundred Doors, The Stairwell finds the now seventy-five year old poet increasingly contemplating his own demise. So where ‘The New Window’, from A Hundred Doors, saw Longley ‘sitting up in bed with binoculars’ to ‘scan/ My final resting place at Dooaghtry’, here ‘Ashes’:

Takes me along the perimeter fencing
To where I want my ashes wind-scattered.

There are other echoes of Longley’s previous work here too. As in A Hundred Doors or The Weather in Japan (2000) and Snow Water (2004), a sequence of poems, exquisitely introduced by the contemplation that returning Tommies introduced the lizard orchid to Britain (‘ribbons/ For widow hats’), celebrates his own father’s active service in the Great War, the firsthand accounts passed on to Longley which have enriched his poetry since ‘In Memoriam’ from his 1969 debut collection, No Continuing City (see Longley’s own discussion of such poems elsewhere in this issue). In The Stairwell, Longley senior remembers Passchendaele ‘where men and horses drowned in mud’(‘Mud Turf’) or in ‘Ronald Colman’ laughs at his fellow soldier’s ‘daydream of Hollywood stardom’ (if later going to see all his films). Longley’s mentor war poets, Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney, the former a Longley regular since 1976’s Man Lying On A Wall, also make a brief but compelling reappearance in ‘Insomnia’. Here, in one of his trademark lightning-bright imaginative leaps between past and present, a sleepless Longley, mind-walking through his beloved County Mayo tracks, thinks of Edward’s widow Helen who:

took Ivor Gurney’s hand
When he was miles away from Gloucestershire
And sanity, and on Edward’s county map
Guided his lonely finger down the lanes.
You are like Helen Thomas. Take my hand.

Such poems, in turn, usher in another recurring Longley trope, his always outstanding use of ancient epic to underscore the universal horror of total war. But in The Stairwell he moves away from Homer’s warrior heroes to the lesser-known foot soldiers who flit like ghosts through the Iliad. For example, there is Euphorbus in the perfect sonnet of ‘Boy-Soldier’ whose:

armour clatters as it hits the ground.
Blood soaks his hair, bonny as the Graces’,
Braids held in place by gold and silver bands….
A boy-soldier – the London Scottish, say,
The Inniskillings, the Duke of Wellington’s –
Was killed and despoiled by Menelaus.

Elsewhere Idomeneus, from A Hundred Doors’ ‘Old Soldiers’, returns, yet now Longley’s surgical eye homes in on one of the Cretan warrior’s victims, the otherwise unknown Trojan Erymas, as:

the spear penetrates the brain
And splits the white bones, and the teeth
Blow out and from the eye-sockets
Blood squirts…

Homer, Longley complains, ‘gets no nearer than this/ To the anonymous Tommy’. But as in Alice Oswald’s 2011 Memorial, Longley’s own deft manipulation of Homer’s original gives these grey shades substance. In ‘Boy-Soldier’, he urges us to think of Euphorbus as ‘a smallholder’:

who rears a sapling
In a beauty spot a burn burbles through
(You can hear its music close to your home)

This final unassuming parenthesis lies at the core of Longley’s poetic method, revealing the skill – almost casual in its inclusivity – with which he connects us to the ancient world. And so in ‘Grasshoppers’ the Homeric armies become ‘The old fellas/ Above Troy’s gate / Demobbed by age’. In ‘The Tin Noses Shop’, Longley transforms, like an alchemist, the dull metal of the soldiers’ crude prosthetics into Agammenon’s mask, ‘eyebrow and eyelids/ Hammered out of gold.’ In doing so, he peels back the layers of dust and scholarly convention to lay bear the universality of Homer’s ancient archetypes. At the same time Longley offers the poet’s new penetrating readings of classic works, as incisive as any professor’s monograph. As he explains in his illuminating 2009 essay ‘Lapsed Classicist’, ‘I have been Homer-haunted for fifty years’.

Above all, though, Longley is a poet not just of war and death but grief. More than any, he understands the full fury of its chaotic force which renders even the great warrior Achilles like ‘a lion, heartbroken when he finds/ His neglected cubs snatched from their thicket’ (‘The Lion’). Part Two of The Stairwell presents a superb series of elegies for what must be one of the hardest losses to bear, that of the poet’s twin, his brother Peter. Here, again, Homer provides a means to ‘wail in excruciating lamentation’, as Longley recasts himself as Achilles mourning his beloved Patroclus (‘a double, a twin’), while the process of grieving becomes Patroclus’ funeral games from Iliad Book 23. Now the sibling quarrels of the Longleys’ boyhood become entwined with epic conflict:

We were combatants from the start. Our dad
Bought us boxing gloves when we were ten –
Champions like Euryalus, say, or Epeius
Of wooden-horse fame….
(‘The Boxers’)

These intertexual shifts might at first glance seem distancing to those who, like Peter, as we discover in ‘The Alphabet’, prefer practical metalwork to learning the Greek alphabet. Yet, as the sequence progresses, the boys’ childhood acquires its own mythical, equally epic status. For instance, Homer’s lion simile for Achilles is transmuted into ‘the lion at Bellevue Zoo…Paws crossed, gazing out over Belfast Lough’ (‘The Lion’). And the slightly sad stallion manoeuvres of returning GIs, which the boys watch from behind a hawthorn in Bristow Park, are in their turn transformed into Achilles’ ‘wind-swift/ Horses’(‘The Stallion’). By the time the two are characterised as ‘the twin Moliones/ Kteatos and Eurytos, Aktor’s sons’ in ‘The Twins’, it barely matters who these fairly minor mythical characters might have been; this is the universal language of loss, of those as close as:

Siamese twins, joined below the waist,
One grasping the reins for dear life,
The other whipping the horses to win,
Two souls, one well-balanced charioteer
Taking the trophy and this epitaph.
(‘The Twins’)

As the reader arrives at ‘The Birthday’, and its bald opening statement – ‘This is our first birthday without you’ – the pain of mourning becomes almost unbearable. But, as ever, Longley’s lightness of touch brings us back to earth in a matter of lines: ‘Have you been skinny-dipping at Allaran’ he enquires of his brother’s ghost. And then, mentioning the organic beetroots cooking for supper, he wonders: ‘Will your pee be pink in heaven?’. Elsewhere the disappearance of one of Peter’s cats just before his death leads, via a translation from French of Gwen John’s sweet but slight evocation of a straying cat, to the revelation that:

The day of your funeral
In October sunshine
Milly, not the friendliest
Tabby, came back home.
(‘The Stray’)

For in the middle of death, it seems, we are always in life. Even Longley’s own ‘unassuming nunc dimittis’ is contained within the poem ‘Birth-Bed’, as he wakes in the bed in which his baby granddaughter has only recently been born (this in turn counterbalances ‘Deathbed’ which the poet characterises as a playground for swooping robins, his ‘soul-birds’). Throughout The Stairwell, grandchildren dance in and out of the lines – new-born Amelia or toddler Maisie wondering during a power-cut ‘Where is me?/ I have disappeared’ (‘Haiku’) or chattering to herself, ‘her speech-melody/ A waterlily budding’ in ‘Maisie at Dawn’. These births are offset by the deaths not just of Longley’s twin but of old friends and, poignantly, the children of old friends, for whom Longley leaves ‘unpicked/ One fragrant orchid for her to kneel and sniff’ (‘Fragrant Orchid’). There are short elegies, too, for Longley’s ‘fellow voyager’ Seamus Heaney and his family. For like Yeats, whom Longley considers the greatest poet of the English language bar Shakespeare, Longley has become the supreme poet of old age, growing in stature as he contemplates the ever-renewing cycles of decay and rebirth, moving forward into the inevitable shadow of death.

At the centre of Longley’s affirming poetry, is the solid earth of his own much-trodden patch of Mayo, the townland of Carrigskeewaun. Every inch of this, it seems, has been celebrated in his delicate verse until his readers come to feel that they, too, walk across it with the step of a local; its herons and otters, lakes and salt marsh, anemones and helleborines, the stoat ‘Sucking oxygen through/ A hole in the throat, the lapwings that ‘flap away over Lackakeely’. In ‘The Birthday’ it is this landscape that comforts the poet on his day without his twin – ‘the sandpipers eyeing Dooaghtry / For a nesting place among the pebbles’ or the choughs that flock ‘high above their acrobatic/ Cliff face’ – as he imagines Peter’s ghost flitting across his own much-loved landscape (‘Thank you for visiting Carrigskeewaun/ Don’t twist your ankle in a rabbit hole’). And in ‘The Duckboards’, he movingly follows, with Peter, his father’s ghost across the marshes, as past and present again elide:

as though at Passchendaele
Teetering on walkways that disappear
As we follow behind him in the rain.
(‘The Duckboards’)

Back in ‘The Stairwell’ , Longley is shaken from his reverie on his own demise by similar acts of remembrance. As his hostess takes him to inspect the lobby of her apartment building, suitably decorated for Halloween with ‘cobwebby/ Skulls, dancing skeletons’, he tests ‘the perfect acoustic’ of the poem’s (and the collection’s) title stairwell by whistling Great War songs – ‘Over There’, ‘It’s a Long, Long Way’ and ‘Keep the Home Fires burning’ – ‘as though for my father’. In return, he is rewarded by the reverberating sound of ‘songbirds circling high up’, instantly bringing to mind the birdsong of Edward Thomas’s ‘Adlestrop’. These echoes typify the soaring humanity of Longley’s work as it reaches back into the far distant as well as the recent past with equal clarity, yet at the same time resonates within its own meticulously constructed present. As such, Longley becomes not just a poet of old age but of any age, all ages – the best poet currently writing in the English language, bar none.


A Genuine Art: New Translations, Agenda, Vol. 46.3, April 2012
The Perfect Order: Selected Poems 1974-2010, Nasos Vayenas, edited by Richard Berengarten and Paschalis Nikolaou, Anvil,159pp, ISBN 978-0-85646-431-7, £12.95.
Selected Poems, Alejandra Pizarnik, translated by Cecilia Rossi, Waterloo Press, 296pp, ISBN 978-1-906742-24-9, £15.)

‘In translating poetry,’ comments Greek poet Nasos Vayenas in his luminous piece, ‘Eight Positions on the Translation of Poetry’, ‘the original is the experience, and the process of translation is the poetic art’.  Certainly every once in a while, a translation of a perhaps previously less known foreign language poet appears in English which not only becomes a modern classic in its own right, but also changes the face of English poetry. For example, Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard’s translation of C.P. Cavafy’s Greek poetry, first published in Britain in 1972, has since become so much a part of  both British and American literary culture that it has informed the way in which all subsequent generations have read Cavafy in English, through the filter of Keeley and Sherrard’s versions, often as if these were Cavafy. In addition, Cavafy’s demotic, unadorned style, as well as his trademark poetic historicism and dramatic irony, has proved hugely influential to later English language poets.

The Perfect Order, Richard Berengarten and Paschalis Nikolaou’s new edition of Nasos Vayenas, one of the most distinguished of the contemporary Greek poets who can be considered Cavafy’s direct heirs, looks set to prove another such classic. Despite the fact that Vayenas is a leading member of the ‘Generation of the Seventies’ and a winner of the Greek National Poetry Prize in 2005, as well as an esteemed academic, translator and essayist, this is the first full edition of his laconic yet luminous work in English. It includes selections from each of his ten Greek volumes, including his highly-acclaimed 1974 debut collection Field of Mars, the innovative Flyer’s Fall (1989) and Flyer’s Fall II (1997),in which original poems are interspersed with translations, and 2004’s prize-winning Garland, his playful faux epitaphs for fictional poets. In addition, a short but extremely welcome selection of Vayenas’s critical essays are included, their elegance and clarity highlighting Vayenas’s own interest in the work of  Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot.

Most satisfying of all, perhaps, are the poems from Vayenas’s mature masterpiece, On the Isle of the Blest (2010). This exemplifies his debt to his Greek poetic heritage alongside his connections to a wider European literary tradition. And so his ‘Cavafy’ is characterised as a chameleon performer:

The multicoloured paper masks you donned
and year in, year out, changed afresh each day,
had wrinkles, ironed their evidence away,
saved you from scorn within your demi-monde.

Meanwhile ‘George Seferis Among the Statues’ foregrounds the ironic intertextuality of Vayenas’s work, recalling not only lines of his own Greek mentor (Vayenas’s 1979 doctoral thesis was on the elder Greek poet), but also the high modernism of  Eliot’s Prufrock:
You measured out your life with coffee spoons
looking out over sluggish city rivers
from behind your consulate’s grey window
as evening fell upon the green
like a bird with a broken wing.
(‘George Seferis Among the Statues’)

As David Ricks points out in his fascinating introduction, Vayenas is ‘par excellence, a poet-critic’, widely-read and hugely discriminating, whose own verse, in its readings of others’, as well as in its own precise craft, is always revelatory. Like Vayenas’s vision of the iconic Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, the subject of another poem from On the Isle of the Blest (and also another subject of Vayenas’s studies, this time for his M.A. in literary translation at the University of Essex), the poet sees through to the soul of his theme:
Living meanings, you plucked things’ cores and forms –
leaf-veins, afternoon-hues – light’s own strings,
while others caught no more than shades of things.

Such informed – and delicate – textual layers require a very deft hand in their translation. Here Vayenas is wonderfully served by the many distinguished translators whose work is included in the volume, such as David Ricks, Kimon Friar and Roderick Beaton, as well as its editors Richard Berengarten and Paschalis Nikolaou. Together they capture the multiplicity of Vayenas’s poetic voices, ensuring that, through their skilful versions, his work, like that of his literary ancestor Cavafy, ‘speaks Greek with a slight British accent’. It will surely not be long before British poets, inspired by this exemplary edition, are returning the compliment.

Across the other side of the world, Borges was also an important figure to his young compatriot, the cult Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik, who died from an overdose of barbiturates in 1972 at the tragically early age of thirty-six; so much so, recounts Cecilia Rossi in her fascinating introduction to Pizarnik’s Selected Poems, that, on a visit to the elder writer’s house with a fellow poet to interview him for a Buenos Aires literary magazine, Pizarnik curled up in an armchair ‘like a hypnotised cat’, leaving her colleague to ask all their carefully-prepared questions. These days Pizarnik’s own eerie and incandescent verse, if little-known in Britain, is capable of inspiring similar reverence, not only in her native Argentina but also in the US where her archive is held at Princeton University. In her short life, Pizarnik was awarded both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Fulbright Scholarship. From 1960- 64 she also lived in Paris where Octavio Paz wrote the prologue for her influential 1962 collection Diana’s Tree, whose tiny yet succinct poetic pieces seem like fleeting snatches of a lost, parallel world:

I have taken the leap from myself to dawn.
I have left my body beside the light
and have sung the sadness of what is born.
(Diana’s Tree ‘1’)

Rossi’s new volume includes selections from each of Pizarnik’s six main published volumes, from 1956’s Last Innocence to 1971’s A Musical Hell, as well as from her uncollected poems, even the lines found on her writing-room chalkboard after her untimely death. Rossi’s assured and highly-skilled versions, which have already won awards in both the John Dryden and the Stephen Spender Prizes for translation, now look set to bring Pizarnik’s work to a wider audience here in Britain as well, capturing the poems’ otherworldliness and mysticism, an enduring sense of how:

the young woman finds the mask of infinity
and cracks the wall of poetry.

As Rossi notes, citing the influence of Lewis Carroll on Pizarnik’s verse, there is a sense of the child’s fairy tale about much of this poetry, if more the dangerous, threatening visions of the Brothers Grimm than the reassuring whimsy of Hans Christian Anderson:

The poem I do not say,
the one I do not deserve.
Fear of being two
the way of a mirror:
someone asleep inside me
eats me and drinks me.
(Diana’s Tree ‘14’)

Here are the words a figure in a Paula Rego painting might speak, the poems they might write; beautiful, disturbing, compelling, the view from the other side of the looking glass:

You make the silence of lilacs which shake
in the tragedy of the wind of my heart.
You made of my life a children’s story
where shipwrecks and deaths
are excuses for adorable ceremonies.

Working on such brief pieces is far more difficult that it might at first appear, calling for the sureness and accuracy of a surgeon’s hand. ‘What does it mean to translate oneself into words?’ asks Pizarnik in ‘The Cure of Folly’. As her introduction reveals, Rossi has clearly spent a great deal of careful thought and study on answering such a question, citing, as example, her six drafts of a single line from Pizarnik’s enigmatic uncollected poem ‘[…] Of Silence’. Rossi’s meticulous approach is well worth the effort as she settles on her final, suitably gnomic form: ‘I was the impossible and also riven by the impossible’.

For Nasos Vayenas, in Paschalis Nikolaou’s crystal clear English version of ‘Eight Positions on the Translation of Poetry’, ‘if the translation of poetry is impossible, then the translation of poetry is a genuine art.’ These two important new volumes, both set to become modern translation classics, are proof of such art at the highest level. As Vayenas’s own ‘Cavafy’ concludes:

Your word lays bare the ways
that the soul is what a poem’s lines reveal…

Josephine Balmer

To return to the main poetry blog click here


A Day In The Life: Three Irish Poets, Agenda, Vol 46. 2, September 2011
(A Hundred Doors, Michael Longley, Cape, 51pp, ISBN: 978-0-224-09138-1, £10.
The Essential Brendan Kennelly: Selected Poems, edited by Terence Brown and Michael Longley, Bloodaxe Books, 160pp, ISBN: 978-1-85224-904-5, £12.
New Collected Poems, Derek Mahon, The Gallery Press, 391pp, ISBN 978-1-85235-512-8, £20.)

‘A day here represents a life-time,’ asserts Michael Longley of his beloved Mayo home in ‘The Wren’, a poem from his latest collection A Hundred Doors. Certainly for the last half-century or so it has seemed that we have lived that day – and its life-time – alongside a group of leading Irish poets which includes Derek Mahon, Brendan Kennelly and Longley himself, dedicating poems to each other, celebrating their mutual milestones, mourning the death of mutual friends. We feel we know every inch of Longley’s Carrigskeewaun or Mahon’s Kinsale or Kenelley’s Dublin and Kerry. It seems, too, as if we have travelled with them through the course of their now long literary and personal lives as their poetry charts a progress from youthful promise to the rigours of old age. This impression is highlighted by a cross-referencing between the poets’ work; for instance Mahon’s early poem ‘An UnBorn Child’ is dedicated to the young Michael and Edna Longley. Many years later, A Hundred Doors finds a much older Longley, now a grand-father several times over, contemplating an old photograph of his then-pregnant wife:

Six months gone in your purple polo-neck
And blue smock, and laughing, I remember,
Because I have decorated with sea pinks
Your black abundant hair…
( ‘Foxgloves’)

A Hundred Doors, Longley’s ninth volume overall – and the fifth since he reignited his career with 1991’s incandescent Gorse Fires – is an excellent place to start this day-in-a-life journey. As ‘The Wren’ exemplifies, its exquisite summoning of Longley’s beloved Carrigskeewaun for his family’s latest arrivals should continue to delight familiar readers, as well as draw in new:

…bird’s foot trefoil
Among wild thyme, dawn and dusk muddled on the ground,
The crescent moon fading above Mweelrea’s shoulder
As hares sip brackish water at the stepping stones…
(‘The Wren’)

There are shadows here too as old age’s inevitable mourning for lost friends interrupts Longley’s idyll: Dorothy Molloy, who had just published her first volume of poetry (‘the poets you loved are your consorts now’) or former childhood companions alongside the landlord of a favourite pub in which Longley had imagined his own perfect death and for whom, in memory, he now launches ‘The toy lifeboat at my elbow with a penny’ so that, in a moment, we are all transported back there with him. Longley’s renowned and inspirational reimagining of ancient epic also makes a welcome return in ‘Old Soldiers’ and ‘Cygnus’, the latter an absorbing version of Ovid Metamorphoses 12.

But most importantly, there are new destinations here too, both geographical and poetic: the Shetlands, where Longley summons the ghost of Hugh MacDiarmid, the island of Paros, where he finds an echo of Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, or the New York Public Library in which he deciphers Edward Thomas’s handwriting for Edna and recollects how the shell blast that killed Thomas ‘still riffles the pages in the library’. The mention of Thomas ushers in a sequence of poems exploring Longley’s own family members’ experiences in the first World War, from an unknown namesake (‘My wealden-distant cousin’) chanced upon in a naval cemetery on Hoy to his father’s citation for a Military Cross (‘It is like a poem. It is better than a poem’.). These short, pungent poems form the emotional heart of the collection and maintain, in fresh and rewarding new directions, Longley’s continuing engagement with the still-reverberating past, to him the essential business of poetry:

We need more angels, cloud-treaders, cherubic
Instrumentalists, bomb-disposal experts.
The sky is a minefield. We shall all get hurt.

These poems, in their turn, give way to a return to Longley’s renowned and inspirational reimagining of ancient epic, which has so elegantly distinguished his volumes since Gorse Fires. In ‘Old Soldiers’, for instance, Longley characterises both his father and himself as the renowned veterans of ancient literature; Socrates ‘stalking the battlefield at Delion’ or Idomeneus at Troy, still just about able to throw and retrieve his spear, while the ghost of Priam ‘who loved his dogs/As my father his red setters and spaniels’ recalls Longley’s now iconic 1994 poem ‘Cease Fire’, the horrors of grief and old age still to come, when his former pet dogs will chew ‘at his pathetic corpse’s/White head and white beard and bleeding genitals.’

Such work strikes to the heart of Longley’s art – lyrical, moving, compassionate but above all connecting past and present, both distant and recent, in an urgent, common chain of humanity, looking unflinchingly into the abyss. Here he finds the perfect lyrical image or literary echo to enrich the readers such as the ‘white swan that flies above the bloody battlefield’, as the metamorphosis of ‘Cygnus’ concludes. ‘Would I add to the inventory?’ asks Longley of his uncorrected Collected Poems in ‘Proofs’, tentatively answering himself with a typical list of found objects: ‘A razor shell,/A mermaid’s purse, some relic of this windless/Sea-roar-surrounded February quietude?’. For this yet again almost perfect collection one might want for nothing more.

Longley appears again as joint editor, with academic Terence Brown, of Bloodaxe’s new selected edition of Brendan Kennelly, The Essential Brendan Kennelly, a volume published to mark the poet’s 75th birthday and including a welcome bonus CD of his own beautifully sonorous readings (his was apparently voted ‘the most attractive voice in Ireland’ in a radio poll). It opens with a selection of poems from Kennelly’s earlier works including the mythic title poem of 1964’s acclaimed My Dark Fathers and the nightmarish child’s-eye views of ‘The Kiss’, ‘The Smell’ and ‘The Horse’s Head’ alongside the typically visceral ‘The Pig Killer’ (‘he raises a knife/begins to trace a line along the throat./Slowly the line turns red’).

Things move up another gear with 1983’s Cromwell, a world away from the rural childhood reminiscence which has often characterised recent Irish poetry and, even in the deft hands of poets such as Kennelly, can begin to appear well-trodden. In Cromwell’s vast mythic sequence, the country’s arch-enemy appears in many guises, most traditionally as the chilling historical figure:

Men die their different ways
And girls eat cherries
In the Christblessed fields of England.
Some weep. Some have cause. Let weep who will.
Whole floods of brine are at their beck and call.
I have work to do in Ireland.
(‘Oliver to his Brother’)

But he is also a modern-day companion, a daemon, a blooded conscience, for the poet’s persona Buffún who has summoned him (‘The butcher walked out of the door of my emptiness, straight into me.’), existing in a parallel present, demanding our attention and controversially, in places, our sympathy: ‘ I’m a friend of these ghosts, ’as ‘A Running Battle’ concludes. ‘They’re mine’ . Here Kennelly also begins to exercise ownership over more traditional English verse forms, in particular that of another, earlier Irish oppressor, Edmund Spencer, who himself appears in the sequence ‘up to my bollox in sonnets’. As Longley and Brown note of Kennelly’s art, the sequence operates in a ‘perpetual now’ in which Cromwell’s evil is ever at our shoulder, underscoring not only its immortality but also its banality:

…I’m worn out from intrigue and work.
I’d like a little estate down in Kerry,
A spot of salmon-fishing, riding to hounds…
Being a sporting chap, I’d really love to
Get behind some of the best sides in the land.
Manager, perhaps, of Drogheda United?’
(‘Manager, Perhaps’)

Kennelly repeats this device, also to great effect, in 1991’s influential The Book of Judas where, on the point of betraying Christ, his eponymous anti-hero has a vision of ‘a bungalow two miles the Dublin side/Of Clonmel’(‘No Exit’.). Here Kennelly widens his canvas out from Cromwell as Judas’s sin echoes throughout history and culture: ‘Wars before and after/Howl through the last moments of my silver laughter’, declares ‘Last Moment’. The anthology also includes selections from 1995’s Poetry My Arse as Kennelly turns his withering gaze on the world of contemporary Irish letters (‘a map of that bashed old place/all the voices of the articulate dead’) although, disappointingly, there is only one selection from 1998’s superb The Man Made of Rain in which the poet squared up to a far more personal crisis, a triple heart by-pass.

Like Judas in ‘I Never’ – and so many of his own Irish poetic contemporaries – Kennelly also has ‘ a taste for Latin’ and it is no surprise that he was drawn to the chaotic scabrous satire of Martial in which Martial Art (2003) finds not just the wit but the lyricism, handling the Latin poet’s tricky changes of tone with characteristic bravura, underscoring with both precision and wit how ‘Poems are drifters. A mind is an ocean’. So successful is Kennelly’s engagement with the Latin poet that the latter’s short lyrical forms later become infused with Kennelly’s own work in his subsequent collection Now (2006), composed of pithy, three line poems. This is followed by 2009’s Reservoir Voices, both represented in the volume by a rather inadequate single page, leaving the reader urgently required to search out more. Nevertheless the volume represents an admirable overview to this hugely gifted, original and influential poet. As Longley and Brown note in their Introduction, Kennelly’s wide-ranging and ever-changing corpus can also lead to a ‘varied’ critical response but his poetic skill, its sui generis, is located precisely in the ease with which he can move between subject and especially tone – shifts that can confuse casual critics. As Reservoir Voices’s ‘Poem’ concludes: ‘Words are wild creatures. Fly them home.’ This excellent introduction should ensure a new generation of readers can do just that.

For Longley and Brown, the sheer volume of Kennelly’s exceptional body of work could also ‘pose a challenge to the bibliographer’. Derek Mahon’s New Collected Poems might prove an equal problem for the textual critic as Mahon replaces the revisions of his earlier 1999 Collected Poems with a second definitive edition. This latest volume, published to celebrate Mahon’s 70th birthday, now covers over fifty years of his poetry from 1968’s Night Crossing to 2010’s radiant An Autumn Wind, alongside a handful of new, uncollected poems. It opens with the youthful angst of ‘Spring in Belfast’, already exhibiting Mahon’s deftness with traditional poetic forms, as well as his trademark displaced or disappointed romanticism as the young man resumes an already ‘old conspiracy with the wet/Stone and the unwieldy images of the squinting heart’. It ends with the discursive ‘Dreams of a Summer Night’ in which the older Mahon listens to a Mozart concerto in Kinsale in mid-June. ‘Can we relax now and get on with life?’ he asks:

Can we turn now to the important things
like visible scents, how even silence sings?
How we grew frolicsome one sunny June
some sixty years ago at Cushendun
in our young lives of clover, clock and cloud…
(‘Dreams of a Summer Night’)

In between, all the early lyrics are here including the much-anthologised and still-compelling ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ from 1975’s The Snow Party and ‘Courtyards in Delft’, the eponymous poem from his 1981 collection, both, like all great poetry, continuing to offer up new secrets on each renewed reading. There are also the more expansive epistles of Mahon’s middle period sojourns in New York and London before the renewed lyricism of his return to Ireland and Kinsale. Throughout, Mahon’s irascibility at the distractions and inanities of the modern world – traffic noise, CNN, celebrity culture or ‘the unreal world of cash and babble/ipod and car alarm’ – is tempered, as ever, by his almost religious devotion to the belief that art in its widest sense is what will see us through, that ‘poetry is the real mirage’. As he claims of Georges Braque’s iconic images:

Blurring the moon, they glide down tracts of time;
abstracted from the facts and lost to sight,
they save for us something of the creative dream.’

Above all Mahon’s poetry is that of allusion – and inclusion – not just through references to his fellow Irish poets such as Desmond O’Grady, Seamus Heaney or Paul Durcan alongside Longley, but also to the wider European canon, from Sappho, Ovid and Heraclitus to Camus, Malcolm Lowry or Montale, as well as the French poets Mahon has translated so successfully such as Gérard de Nerval or Phillipe Jaccottet. But there are also mentions of old black and white films, U2, Guns N’ Roses and a perhaps surprising ‘Ode to Björk’, characterising the Icelandic singer as ‘the dark swan of ice/and secrecy’. In particular Mahon is the supreme poet of ekphrasis, here the skill of reshaping the visual arts in to word, from Uccello’s fifteenth century Gothic ‘The Hunt by Night’ through to the twentieth century abstractions of William Scott’s ‘Shapes and Shadows’ or Howard Hodgkin’s ‘RAIN’. Throughout there is always the hope and humanity that has made him one of the ten most popular poets in Ireland as well as a worthy recipient of the prestigious David Cohen Prize. And so the volume concludes:

I await the daylight we were born to love:
birds at a window, boats on a rising wave,
light dancing on dawn water, the lives we live.
(‘Dreams of a Summer Night’)

As Mahon, Longley and Kennelly all move on into their eighth decades, their poetry – delicate, dissonant or discursive – seems always to move with us, whether for a day or, as has so often been the case, for a lifetime; to have become the lives we all live. ‘There’s no stranger,’ Brendan Kennelly notes in ‘Shaper’ from his 2001 collection Glimpses, ‘like the stranger/shaping the self’.

Josephine Balmer

To return to the main poetry blog click here