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Jennifer Matthews reviews Liam Ryan's latest collection.



Jennifer Matthews reviews Dave Lordan's Invitation to a Sacrifice

Jennifer Matthews was born in Columbia, Missouri in the USA. After studying for the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Northumbria she moved to Cork, Ireland in 2003 and continues to live there now. Aside from reviews, she also writes poetry and has been published in Mslexia, Revival and Poetry Salzburg, and has read her work at the New Writers Showcase in the Heaventree Poetry Festival in Coventry, UK. In 2010 she was anthologised in Dedalus's 2010 collection of immigrant poetry in Ireland, Landing Places.




Touching Stones reviewed in Southword Journal OnlineTouching Stones

Liam Ryan

(Doghouse Books, 2009)

ISBN: 978-0-9558746-4-2

€12 paperback


Buy from Doghouse




Touching Stones is a surprising space where Kavanagh meets Edward Hopper; the poems are quiet rooms often in a rural landscape. Uniquely, it rarely feels lonely—rather, it is solitary and introspective. A good collection for its wisdom and lyrical strength, but occasionally, for me, lingered too long in nostalgia. For example, in ‘Chicago’ an account of sightseeing ends with “the day at the lakeside café/ when you took me by surprise/ and treated me to lunch”. It is crucial to discern between poems as personal snapshots (which are nice for friends and family) and memories distilled and heightened into art (including any reader in the experience). Having said that, when Ryan gets it right, he gets it very right. There are some really stunning moments in this début.

            As a reader, I’m a sucker for phrasing, and could easily love a poem that has no discernable message if the turn of phrase is just right. While Ryan always has a meaning behind his writing, what kept me going was the beauty of his language. Something he does extremely well is describing movement, which is a fairly unique claim to have. In ‘Little Back Streets of Dublin’:

Behind a red door buckets of music 

rattling like mad,  pop music falling

down a stairs with furious kicks and screams.

A mother waits in her apron at a door

Her voice rocking along the cobbles of her accent ....

The sheer energy of this poem was a joy to experience, and was a surprisingly extroverted creature to encounter in a collection which is largely so quiet and interior.

Mortality is an undercurrent through much of the book. It doesn’t rage against death—crucially, the poems look at how we live with death, how we cope with its inevitability. ‘Enamel Chippings’ is a chilling poem in which a child’s awareness of the world surfaces, gradually, mirrored intricately in the reader’s experience of the poem.  It is comprised of twelve sections, perhaps echoing the calendar year and the Ouroboros-connection of beginnings and endings. Children are perhaps so fascinating to poets because they are hungry observers and feel so intensely. This often leads to twee depictions of wide eyed tots being subjected to vaudevillian evils, shorthand to the “loss of innocence” theme. Ryan goes for realism, not vaudeville. The child is innocent, yes, but also overhears his mother telling a friend that he is “very dark”. At another point in the poem “a black cloud started following me, / flying over the trees, getting bigger”. Darkness pursues, but it also comes from within—the reader begins to not only feel for the child, but relate to his trials. Further heightening the poem are the author’s masterful images: “the television alive in the room”, “chickens sweating in the shed”, “dreams of cabbage leaves” tossed to pet rabbits.

            Liam Ryan’s skill with imagery is an asset to the collection, and I found myself wishing a couple more of the poems ('Chicago', 'Icarus') had been pushed to his potential. The series poems ‘Saturday Night at Home’ (I & II) and ‘Leavetaking’ (I & II) were some of my favourites for their visual elements:

Midnight, bedtime in this country

home where the devil never dines,

the Sacred Heart light blinking, shines 

strangely on my book of poetry.

Uneasiness with institutional religion is another theme throughout, Ryan exploring (as he does with Death) how we are meant to live with the Church—“Now in chalices of silver they / lock away their broken host”.  As I mentioned in Marian O’Rourke’s review, also in this issue of Southword, it seems very much the task of this generation to challenge the legacy of the Church—deciding what to keep and what to discard now that we have the freedom to do so. Relationships to God and to Institution are entirely different matters for Ryan. Although he criticises religion, poems like ‘Leavetaking’ are very spiritual in essence: “You are the sturdy trunk/ rooted to the earth;/ we are your palms of leaf/ open to the warm light ... ”

Liam Ryan's work joins Eileen Sheehan's as being some of the finest of the Doghouse poets. Touching Stones is a solid first collection, honest in its darkness but illuminated by its adept images and its moments of hope. 


©2010 Jennifer Matthews







Author Links


Interviews by Matthews with various poets through Ó Bhéal

Matthews poems on Poetry International Web

Yank Refugee in the PRC (blog)







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