NEW DOGHOUSE COLLECTIONS:
Dave Lordan reviews Tommy Frank O'Connor, Mae Leonard & Aidan Hayes.
Dave Lordan was born in Derby, England, in 1975, and grew up in Clonakilty in West Cork. In 2004 he was awarded an Arts Council bursary and in 2005 he won the Patrick Kavanagh Award for Poetry. His collections are The Boy in the Ring (Cliffs of Moher, Salmon Poetry, 2007), which won the Strong Award for best first collection by an Irish writer and was shortlisted for the Irish Times poetry prize; and Invitation to a Sacrifice (Salmon Poetry, 2010). Eigse Riada theatre company produced his first play, Jo Bangles, at the Mill Theatre, Dundrum in 2010. He has lived in Holland, Greece and Italy, and now resides in Greystones, Co Wicklow.
Meeting Mona Lisa by Tommy Frank O'Connor
I Shouldn't Be Telling You This by Mae Leonard
Meeting Mona Lisa
Tommy Frank O'Connor
(Doghouse Books, 2011)
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When reviewing I try to be as fair as possible, going out of my way to find something to like, even if the book is not to my personal taste, which is sometimes the case. A book that has made it to publication will usually exhibit some competence or novelty that can be praised. However, being fair also means not giving the book under review an easier ride than any other. Each book must be equally subject to criticism as well as praise. In this way, however subjectively, a reviewer can introduce some notion of aesthetic standards that might be of benefit to everyone involved in the art; we can learn from one another’s mistakes.
The serious self-reflection that stinging criticism might eventually force is surely a greater aid to artistic development than the narcissism that high praise, deserved or not, naturally encourages.
I also try to remember that the most useful and immediate function of a reviewer is to filter for the benefit of potential readers, advising whether or not, out of all the poetry books one could select, they should choose the one under review.
Regretfully then, I admit I can find very little to recommend about Tommy Frank O'Connor’s Meeting Mona Lisa. Much of the collection is close to unreadable. O'Connor often unintentionally and simultaneously loses control of syntax and simile, to poor effect, producing such confusions as:
"Questions/ bounce off customer services/ faces flustered eyes across the counter"
('Weather Permitting', Lines 5-11).
"The territory meant for tenure/ may be found/ in the design of aspiration"
('Promised Land', Lines 15-17).
"Tomorrows revere maternal seed of yesterdays/ that propagate a premium for hereafter"
('Mona Lisa', Lines 24-25).
At best, these can be called lines of accidental surrealism, and the book is replete with them.
In ‘Banking', O'Connor tries his hand at social commentary but unfortunately – and one again assumes unintentionally – he ends up producing something nearer to gutter-press poetry instead. The poem tells us of a beggar who spends his days panhandling outside the Bank of Ireland, and then returns, at night, in the shade, when nobody is looking, to deposit his day's takings in the "night-lodgement box of the Bank of Ireland". The tale is so reactionary an urban myth that one hopes it is written in a kind of imitative irony of one of those right-wing sociopaths mobbing the columns of the Sunday Independent. But there is no sign of irony. Reading metonymically, it seems it’s those thieving beggars—(in the real world, workers who have been impoverished and demoralised by the recession) that are ruining us, rather than the speculators. As my Kerry relatives might say, what are you on about, Tommy?
Meeting Mona Lisa does have some interesting rhymes and a few arresting couplets, but these are wiped out by the sub-poetic white noise which surrounds and ultimately engulfs them. A much stronger editorial intervention would have been required to bring this book up to publishable standard and I am left feeling that a privately printed chapbook, for distribution among sympathetic friends and family, would have been better all round.
I Shouldn't Be Telling You This
(Doghouse Books, 2011)
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Mae Leonard often has her work broadcast on Sunday Miscellany, which will recommend her to some, and warn others away. Sunday Miscellany, as befits its intentionally para-religious scheduling, is often a droll sequence of pious dronings. However, it also broadcasts the occasional gem of a broadcast poem, which makes it worth listening to. Leonard’s erotic poems like 'The Man from Labasheeda' and 'Passion Sunday' are livelier and more subversive than her conservative broadcasting associations might suggest: "Your thigh warm/ against mine/ on the hard pew/ in the middle aisle" ('Passion Sunday', Lines 5-8).
Leonard’s verses are concerned, in the main, with the domestic life as she knows it and the lessons it has taught her. We witness both her son and her daughter grow up here, and her tenderness and patient understanding of them is recorded in such poems as 'The Day Before the Results', and 'Bad Boys'. Many with similar experiences will pleasurably identify with such poems for sure.
Leonard is capable, now and then, of matching her consistent clarity and fluency with a striking image, amplifying her effect many times over:
In the ensuing silence
the grandmother clock on the wall
ticked with anvil strength
and the fire danced
like a clown at a funeral ....
('Garda Síochána in my Parlour', Lines 10-16)
Leonard displays good economy throughout the collection and never cloys her lines with poor diction, as O'Connor constantly does. The macaronic 'A Curragh Wren' is crisp and clear, resounding with uaigneas:
I am a jenny wren
nesting between prickly stems
singing my love songs in reply
to his illicit mating call;
for he has a wife in other parts
serving sweet cake on porcelain plates,
whilst I await the crumbs
she casts from the table
Notes Towards a Love Song
(Doghouse Books, 2011)
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Aidan Hayes also writes lonely and sometimes writes it well. The love that motivates this collection is distant and fading, a past affair which has never been shook off. The sadness of the vanishing love is magnified by the constant employment of the past tense. There is no hope of recovery. The love is well and truly over. The lovers can no longer hear or speak to one another:
How much consolation now in saying we
Took the risky way, braved the ordinary
Jostling of living side by side?
Had we cared to make the less reckless choice,
We might have escaped the night
When you tried not and tried not to speak
That word, and I tried not to hear you.
('Consequences', Lines 24-30)
The best of these lost love/ lost time poems, such as 'August 1964' and 'Statio Bene Fida' are exercises in sunlit nostalgia, redolent with loss and regret. They are like fading snapshots of summer holidays long ago, containing people and places we once knew well but can now no longer put a name to. They do not, that is, record events and memories. Instead, they record our inability to record them. They foreground the inevitable disintegration of events and memories. The poem is a ruin or a fragment which survives an event, crystallising its excess, for a time, until it too inevitably dissolves.
Many of the poems in Notes Towards a Love Song take place in transit, in airports and train stations, narrating passage and passing away, adding to the sense of a life continuously in motion and continuously in decay.
Particularity makes the poem. When Hayes focuses on the detailed recollection of intimacy his poems have merit, when he offers us cliché they lose it. In ‘Certain Knowledge’ he assigns his lover "the imperial majesty of an eagle", a comparison that neither an eagle nor a beloved could be flattered by. What the heck is "imperial majesty" anyway, and how many natives does one have to slaughter to gain it?
Finally, I’d like to point out that, thankfully, Doghouse have maintained their high production values in all three books, with proper binding and impressive colour covers.
©2012 Dave Lordan
Lordan page at Salmon Publishing
'Surviving the Recession', Lordan poem at the Human Genre Project
Articles by Dave Lordan in Irish Left Review