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Adam Wyeth reviews Mark Whelan's newest poetry collection




Adam Wyeth in Southword Journal

ADAM WYETH was born in Sussex in 1978, and moved to Ireland, County Cork in 2000. His debut collection Silent Music was published by Salmon Poetry in 2011 and was commended by the Forward Poetry Prize (2012). His poetry has won and been commended in many competitions, including The Fish International Poetry Competition (winner, 2009). His work appears in several anthologies including The Forward Prize Anthology (2012) and The Best of Irish Poetry (2010). His poems have appeared in many literary magazines and journals, including: The Stinging Fly, The SHOp, Poetry London and Magma. Wyeth is a member of the Poetry Ireland Writers in Schools Scheme and a featured poet on the Poetry International Web. His forthcoming book, The Hidden World of Poetry: Unravelling Celtic mythology in Contemporary Irish Poetry is due out with Agenda in February 2013. He runs an international online Creative Writing workshop at www.adamwyeth.com.





Sear of Wounds

The Sear of Wounds

Mark Whelan

(Doghouse Books, 2012)

ISBN: 978-0-9572073-5-6

€12 paperback

Buy from Doghouse




Mark Whelan’s remarkable new collection The Sear of Wounds is full of mysterious and evocative poems that hang in the memory like prayer or song. The collection examines varieties of love, faith, revelation and mystery. Taking its position from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’, as quoted at the beginning, that "All time is eternally present", the four sections search for a transcendent level of knowledge, drawing on sources as diverse as paintings by Vermeer and the song lyrics of Tom Waits.


The collection opens "with light and wind" in the poem ‘Prelude’ an overture to the four preceding sections:


Begin with something out of nothing

a type of genesis if you like

cut from stone a tongue of feathers

fabled love beneath a parasol strolling a beach


The poems are impressive for their use of compressed description, concentrating on a distinct image as an impetus for philosophical insight. The first section, ‘Part One The Sear of Wounds’ is a series of ten love, or "lost love" poems, flickering between "white cloths candles and sacred incense" and "murmuring psalms of darkness". The first part begins, "Between us there is an unopened box". The poems are notable also for using no commas or full stops; rather words have extended gaps between them creating little ruptures of silence between the text, signalling a pause for breath while also symbolizing the cracks of memory and imagination.


In 'The Sear of Wounds' sequence Whelan becomes the visionary "seer" of wounds. Many of the poems take place while travelling. 'V' is composed between Madrid and Limerick and 'VI' is composed between Slovenia and Ireland. Whelan has also written for theatre and film, and his gift of the dramatic and eye for the cinematic is evident in many of the poems. ‘V’ is a vignette about two women "clasped/ arm in arm/ along the street":


where do they go


What do they talk of


The first day of their marriage


The first day of their child



Or perhaps the first day of

the first dead child born to them

no poem can explain

nor make hope for     perhaps their talk

is a speech beyond men     perhaps


The speaker searches deeper, noticing "the echo of their footfall/ broadens the cracked flint smile/ of cobbled streets". The poem weaves along "narrow streets" containing the story of a baker:


Smiling as he wraps

up the bread to go

he says to himself

there is no scent entices longing

more than the scent of bread


As the elusive women "fade out of sight" so too does the text become more obscure, opening a wider breadth of vision.


Perhaps they

go out of distance

into the present

of who they are      perhaps


Remembered to the present

as the girls

they once are now.


The two women become "Girls full of women’s thoughts", their hiddenness symbolizing aspects of femininity and the ethereal. A poet with less experience and talent in the subtleties and nuances of language would be in fear of disappearing up their own crack. But as a poet who holds an MA in Philosophy, English and Religious Studies, Whelan is capable of taking us down darker streets without losing us.


In ‘Part Two’ the paradoxically titled ‘Secular Psalms I – IX’ takes us further into a searing silence and wounded space. ‘Psalm I’ begins:


I have learnt to bless the light of

motionless stars which no longer exist

the indifferent night

seeping into the being of things


In ‘Psalm II’ Whelan uses the extended white gaps between text to meditate on what "white may/ or may not mean":


beyond      woolly facts

of being    at home    or abroad

snowflakes fall

simple as blades of light


Whelan’s sensitive touch of mixing the mystical with the sensual is reminiscent of poets such as Tomas Tranströmer, Czeslaw Miłosz and more recently John Burnside with his collection Black Cat Bone. ‘Psalm IV’ – inspired after Johannes Vermeer’s painting Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid – is a beautifully rendered love poem containing paradox: "we are not yet empty enough to/ be full". The poem ends as a musical riddle:


Beloved    there is blindness

a will to will not to see

blindness in the will to see

and a will which wills

to see in its blindness

what must be done (?)


The ‘Psalms’ finish in a haunting in memoriam poem to the poet’s mother and father. Its thin-thread structure – containing only one or two words to each line – unravels mimetically down the page like a strand of memory.


‘Part Three Subterranean’ is a series of arias and poems inspired by different times of day, each one cascades to a soft erotic music, revealing the everyday from an otherworldly height. In the poem ‘Night’ the poet listens to his lover sleeping. Brimming with arresting imagery such as, "closed eyes bunker the vision of her dreams" the speaker listens "for what is left in silence".


The final section, ‘Part Four Come September’ is a sequence of seven poems, each beginning with the similar refrain, "And if they should say to me". The poems are a defiant defense of the visionary, a quarrel with the self. In ‘III’ we see a return to the title poem, "Nothing/ but hidden wounds/ behind the veil of distempered talk."


Whelan’s words sting within the mind long after they have been read, offering a fresh reality. While there is a spiritual element to the work, it is not conventionally religious; the poems are interested in polarities, the spaces between and the transcendency that these gaps offer. It is often said that great poetry springs from a tortured soul. Auden wrote of Yeats that "Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry", and it is from the searing wounds of this collection where the most superlative poetry seeps out.


©2012 Adam Wyeth


Author Links


Adam Wyeth at Poetry International Web

Wyeth's author page at Salmon Poetry

Nuala Ní Chonchúir interview with Wyeth






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