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by Maram al-Masri, trans. Theo Dorgan



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Cal Doyle reviews the newest poetry collection from Theo Dorgan




Cal Doyle

Cal Doyle’s poetry has appeared in a number of magazines and journals, including The Penny Dreadful, The Burning Bush II and Penduline. An alumnus of Poetry Ireland’s Introductions Series, he has participated in many literary events and festivals around the country. A bookseller by profession, he also works as the poetry editor for The Weary Blues. He divides his time between Cork and the internet.





Theo Dorgan's Nine Bright Shiners

Nine Bright Shiners

Theo Dorgan

(Dedalus Press, 2014)

ISBN: 9781906614980

€12.99 paperback

Buy from Dedalus




In Nine Bright Shiners we find the esteemed poet, novelist, memoirist, editor and radio personality Theo Dorgan confronting both a spectrum of loss (siblings, friends, loved ones) and the spectre of the poet’s own mortality. The poem from which the book takes its title, ‘Nine for the Nine Bright Shiners’, is a sequence of deliberately altered sonnets – each one running to thirteen lines – a poetic, and honest, offering to lives that have ended before their time. In the eighth, and most moving, section of the sequence we find Dorgan’s mother lying “in a dark bedroom, staring up at nothing” which is the culmination of a deft shifting upward through registers from the child-like naiveté at the beginning of the poem, where Dorgan’s young speaker declares “We like this man. / Today he stands at the top of the steps” through to the “shiny, shiny car” of the doctor. The effect is nothing short of profound, and Dorgan reminds us that tragedy escapes the eyes of nobody, not even a child.


Nine Bright Shiners itself is a book divided into five sections (Messages from the World; The Dead Stand All Around Us; Chorus; The Sea, The Sea; House of Echoes) and each one has its own (rough) theme. But, as Dorgan is tackling the ‘big’ themes (death and love) there is much cross-pollination throughout. In the poem ‘It Was Him Alright’ from what this reviewer guessed might be the most self-indulgent section of the book, The Sea, The Sea, Dorgan is confronted by the figure of Death who appears as “some slight seagoing demon, / he sat there a moment, lifted that neat-eared head / and looked right through me.” The poem is convincingly haunting, and Dorgan doesn’t deny a space for death in his place of leisure; it is “a time to see things as they are” and the poem stands comfortably alongside some of the strongest poems in the book, such as ‘The Laughing Girl’, ‘The Lost Gaeltacht of Manhattan’ and ‘Time on the River’.


In his superb review of the late Dennis O’Driscoll’s The Outnumbered Poet Dorgan ascribes to the poet-critic a “casual and unexamined confidence”, citing O’Driscoll’s manner of holding forth in essay form, and disingenuous humility by assuring the reader that what he writes is “his own opinion”. The review is as brave as it is true, and when Dorgan writes “there is a danger that the colder-eyed reader of this many-virtued book might fall out of sympathy with the author as a result” we are reminded that he is an alchemical writer capable of delivering near-scathing criticism with unaffected empathy and considerable tact. But, a “casual and unexamined confidence” is a trap into which Nine Bright Shiners occasionally falls. The poem ‘Police Check’ in full:


In order to frighten us, he reads out a list of names:

Victor Jara, Salvador Allende

In order to sober him, we recite a list of names:

Salvador Allende, Victor Jara


On the following page Dorgan name-checks Lorca, Dante and Osip Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda: one must assume that by invoking these figures, Dorgan is attempting to contextualise his poetry as radical, or something fierce to be located in opposition to the paradigms of power. But the book seldom pitches itself above any other frequency than nice. To look at the work of the poets, politicians, radicals and writers that Dorgan invokes is to look at a literature that is charged with electricity throughout every fibre, Nine Bright Shiners by comparison feels like an electric blanket to take a comfortable nap in.

Furthermore to this, poems such as ‘The Buddha in Connemara’ (where “the lights were coming on, / and everywhere there was music, dancing, song”) too often slip into an easy, unimaginative Ireland as seen through the green tinted looking-glass; which is unusual, as Dorgan is one of our more continentally inflected poets. Chorus is perhaps the strongest section of the book, and Dorgan shows himself as being more than convincing as a ventriloquist of a wide range of European (and Irish) voices.


At 142 pages Nine Bright Shiners asks a lot of its readers, one feels that a more ruthless editorial eye could have fit the book into a comfortable 80. But, Theo Dorgan is a man with quite a bit to say—who could deny him that privilege? When he is on-form, there can be no stopping him, and Nine Bright Shiners does offer some glimpses of that poet. There is much music to be found in Nine Bright Shiners; it’s just a shame that it is a music which is occasionally played in the wrong key.



©2015 Cal Doyle


Author Links


Poems by Cal Doyle in Burning Bush 2

'An Evening Prayer': a poem in Penduline (Issue 9)

Poems and reviews by Cal Doyle in Southword






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