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James Harpur reviews Seán Lysaght's latest collection



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James Harpur has published four volumes of poetry with Anvil Press, including his latest, The Dark Age, which won the 2009 Michael Hartnett Prize. Anvil have also published Fortune’s Prisoner, his translation of the poems of Boethius. He lives near Clonakilty in West Cork.










Book cover image

Selected Poems

Seán Lysaght

(Gallery Books, 2010)

ISBN: 978-1852355012

€ 13.90 paperback / € 20.00 hardback


Buy from Gallery



Seán Lysaght’s Selected is commendably slim, covering five books of poetry – Noah’s Irish Ark (1989), The Clare Island Survey (1991), Scarecrow (1998), Erris (2002), and The Mouth of a River (2007) – in only 86 pages. There must have been a good few poems from those volumes baying from the limbo of Maybe-Maybe Not, but Lysaght has set his standards high and produced a book dense with prime cuts.


Right at the outset ‘Before Anthropology’ strikes a key note (flagged on the back cover of the book): "And in all I do / and say there’s the scene / the heart prefers, // of that first loneliness / of trees / and northern birds". Loneliness, trees and birds are strong themes and motifs around which to craft a poetic vocation, and it is noticeable that Lysaght’s world is overwhelmingly external in its settings: fields, woods, bogs, mountains, rivers. It is hard to imagine Lysaght camped in a room where women come and go talking of Michelangelo; his natural habitat is a "headland of thrift and stone / where July strikes cold with its bluster" (‘The Clare Island Survey’) or moving among the "golden saxifrage and strawberry / flowering precisely in Lugnafahy" (‘Summer’).


The poetry of birds has had a long lineage and Lysaght is a distinguished member of the society of poets bewitched by them. The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss observed that our fascination with birds stems from the fact they seem to form their own society parallel to ours, with their own homes, mores and language; and their habitat in the air has always connected them with the gods, as messengers or as omens. In the Iliad the sudden appearance of an eagle, connected with Zeus, is enough to stop the Trojans in their tracks. The Romans, of course, had professional twitchers in the form of the auspex (from avis, bird, and specio, watch), to gauge omens from the songs and formations of birds: battles might hinge on the behaviour of crows, eagles or owls. The direct connection to birds with augury may have waned during medieval and modern times (though politely addressing a single magpie still continues), but it has been replaced by their symbolic value to poets (Chaucer’s parliament of fowls, Coleridge’s albatross, Keats’s nightingale, Yeats’s swans, Hughes’s crow, and so on). Lysaght’s birds are less symbolic and more elusive, numbering among others, a kestrel, red grouse, curlew, guillemot, cuckoo, skylark, chough, corncrake and wren. Kestrels make use of a slight headwind to maintain their stasis, hence their local name, the windhover, immortalised by Hopkins. Lysaght’s kestrel is also riveting:


Took my eye into the air of himself

and threaded it,


sewing me to the sky

with his looped cycle of flight


up the gully

then traced a noose


around a lowland belfry

and now, in the suburbs,


can needle a spot

above the apex of a gable,


draw the skein

in circles widening out,


and glide back

to the eye of his obsession.


Here the movement is delicately stitched by the uninterrupted gaze of the poet’s outer and inner eye"his eye of obsession" describes the bird but refers to the poet too. There is a sense of a pact with nature, of a spell remaining unbroken until the end. Here, as elsewhere, nothing but communion surfaces in the relationship between poet and nature, a harmony under threat by human interference. The bird watcher, the auspex, just like the poet, brooks no interruption: the dynamic between the observer and observed is fundamental, establishing what Ted Hughes called the "sacred trance". In ‘Red Grouse’ the poet, stalking a grouse, is neatly caught between two seemingly antithetical worlds of nature and humanity, with "the grouse saying go-back, go back; / and my father’s / following calls / coming into range". In ‘Cuckoo’ the poet makes more explicit his tension between those worlds: he homes in on a cuckoo, hearing the bird’s call getting louder "when my uncle came / calling 'Seán!' / and so I lost the cuckoo." The bond – even trust – between watcher and watched is broken, and the loneliness, which for Lysaght might actually be a necessary aloneness, is implicitly re-established.


Lysaght’s gifts of observation and reflection move seamlessly from birds to sea, seals, marram grass, surfers, horses, gales and even midges, with the witty ‘Midge Charm’, which starts:


"Breeze god

             get up and scatter the armies of the itchy witch


Rain god

           ruin their gathering veil


Cloud god

           forbid this travesty of your image …"


There is authority from the start of the Selected, as if the poetic foresight of Lysaght’s younger self was predicated on the hindsight of his middle-aged self. Yet that sureness, that certainty of poetic terrain, deepens and matures further in the final section of the book, the poems from The Mouth of a River. His selections from his poem ‘The O––’ feature a man fishing for salmon, and here we have in impressive clarity and evocation not only an account of fishing but also the symbolic fable, in crystallised miniature, of the poetic process. In section 21 from the poem, urgency and drama ensure the narrative moves way beyond an ornamental tableau:


" … The fly tracked the dark water

like a satellite on its course among the frozen stars.

Lifted out at the end, it was flailed again,

taking a second purpose close to the first.

He watched it with his faith

that something had run so far upstream

when the flood was on.

                                     Suddenly, the fly locked.

A boil had spread where it had swum alone.

He lifted the rod and a salmon was on,

moving deep within the mountain’s shadow.

He had no net, and no one to call to."


The line between the man and the fish is an electric current connecting us to the voltage of the poetic process. In the following sections of the poem the drama increases when the man must choose whether to kill the salmon or return it to its element. Lysaght writes so engagingly and movingly that it seems like a matter of life or death not only for the fish but for the fisherman. The resolution, with the fish shaking "gently out of his hands to refuse him, / and then fade into the depth she came from" restores life to life, and seems to ensure that the poet will have to return – fortunately for his readers – to the fray. Throughout the book, Lysaght, the auspex, the piscator, has the eye, ear and steadiness to catch the feathered or silvery creatures that lie above, or within the depths of, our everyday world; he also has the sensitivity and insight to make poetry out them and the other-worlds they inhabit.



©2011 James Harpur




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