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WRONG SIDE OF TOWN

& THE BOYS OF BLUEHILL:

Dean Browne reviews new collections
from Aidan Murphy & Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.

 

 

 

Dean Browne

Dean Browne won the 2011 Cuisle National Poetry Competition as a secondary student, and since then poems have appeared in The Penny Dreadful Magazine, The Shop, Crannóg, Poetry (Chicago), and elsewhere. He is currently taking a Masters degree at UCC and lives in Cork.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wrong Side of Town

Wrong Side of Town

Aidan Murphy

(Dedalus Press, 2015)

ISBN: 978 1910251 09 6

€11.50 paperback

Buy from Dedalus Press

The Boys of BluehillThe Boys of Bluehill

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

(The Gallery Press, 2015)

ISBN: 978 1 85235 621 7

€11.95 paperback

Buy from Gallery Press

 

 

 

 

One of the stronger qualities of Wrong Side of Town is its spirit of gritty resilience, delight in the more outré aspect of ordinary happenings, and the regard for craft that typically elevates all this above the anecdotage seen in some poems therein. For all it ranges across scenes of filth and fetor the reader's takeaway is that something akin to moral goodness (distinct from 'goodiness') has been present all along in the rough, as it were—a basic stoicism, a hard-won, lenient, sometimes folksy wisdom. While it seldom shies from the seedier paraphernalia of contemporary urban existence – MDMA, Burger King, side-alleys of nightclubs, stinking taxis with casually racist drivers, to give a sample – its quiet refusal at the same time of cynicism and hardness, and how lightly worn the suffering is between its lines, are definite assets that demand recognition off the bat.

            And between the lines is where the better poems in this collection live, as in the case of the xenophobic driver in 'Taxi', where the speaker's jaded silence is assumed to be approval and thus makes him uneasily complicit in a racial prejudice:

 

...Did I have to listen to this?
I was tired, somewhat pissed,
so I took it and tuned out.

 

Cost me less in the end.
"Six euro to you," he said,
tipping me a tribal wink
as if we were lifelong friends.

 

 

Either this strategy literally did cost him less in the end, or our speaker got off before his destination: a fare this low is surely mythical. Readers can fill this in for themselves. In any case the repeated 't' words in this short poem (taxi/tirade/trade/tired/tribal) are like synoptic fragments and accentuate the tie between taximan and tipsy client all in spite of the latter's implied disdain for such bigot-speak. It's one example of the way in which the collection reports the ugly social injustice, while the relative sophistication of its detached outlook raises it above and beyond such mean insular attitudes. Those last lines say much, and the ironies are, as we say, palpable.

            One might call these attitudes meshes in the very "nets of tradition" the poet attempts to tear down in the poem of that name, "the ancient yellow nets that powdered in my hands," a tradition somewhat troublingly seen to be matriarchal. Yet this "woman of the house" surely gestures over the heads of several poems to the "screwed-up Muse" in 'Futility', a short, terse poem on un-inspiration. From start to finish the excremental reek of experience subtly belies the time-worn and proverbial so often erected like a fancy garden over it. Some poems even seem to insist on suffering with a near masochistic determination, as a condition to be accepted, and a right:

 

Anxious, you stay up all night
ruining your sight
consulting textbooks of malaise;

           

but whenever you track down
an illness that matches my symptoms
my sickness slides into another zone.

           

Why can't you let me stay broken?
Why can't you end your well-intentioned probing?
Stop singing me out of my coma, and bury me,
bruises and all, deep in neutral waters.

                        ('Why Can't You Let Me Stay Broken?')

 

The challenge is often that of acknowledging "the snares of duplicitous earth" without succumbing to them, like one of the figures Patrick Kavanagh called "the defeated". 'Skiing Lesson', for example, might be Murphy's 'Positively 4th Street':

 

When the going down is smooth
they will be dying to serve you—

 

the white slopes black with stickmen
and St. Bernards bearing brandy.

 

But when you hit the jagged teeth
that bite and slice you into strips

 

none will be there to marvel at
the vivid bloody rags upon the snow.

                        ('Skiing Lesson').

            Against this there are poems like 'Quartet' (i.m. Patrick Galvin) and 'Sisters in Exile', where the poet switches at times to a homelier, traditional register of the witching hour and the Sunday dance, of superstitious old mothers, where Cork goes shoeless with "burdensome travails" and with some charm the local asshole can pass affectionately for a "rogue". This kind of thing might occassionally turn off younger non-regionals, but the few poems like this in the collection are life studies, Vermeers guaranteed by a strong attention to detail and the odd improvised rhyme. Not a poet given to overflow himself, in Hamlet's phrase, they are too stoical by half to be strictly confessional pieces – they sometimes resist the urge to be – as a stringent social conscience keeps the gaze averted from the navel:

 

They sent clothes left by hotel guests they skivvied for—
hipsters, jeans, polo-shirts and eye-blinding jumpers.

 

They sent Dell and Marvel comics and Polaroids
of the marvels they had become—wondrous strangers
with beehives, tight sweaters, checkered slacks,
leaning on the fenders of pastel Cadillacs,
framed by sky-stabbing towers.

 

But their lives were far from glamorous.
In truth they were skinned to the bone from work and rent...

                        ('Sisters in Exile')

 

 

This is a side of the poet alive to the gravity and hardships of the past. A collection made up entirely of such poems might feel fairly dated and of little interest beyond their craftsmanship, but thankfully Murphy accommodates within his poetic more recognizably modern material that refreshes and enlivens these dusty portraits, in poems like 'J's Elegy', 'AWOL', 'The Millionaires' Club', and 'A Lifestyle':

 

...a chance glance clocked her in Dubai, cavorting
in a penthouse pool with spooks and billionaires,
iridescent on MDMA.
She was – unsurprisingly – reeled in. And then
cast out again as a sex-fuelled marionette,
to do the state some service on her back.
The alternative was a posting to Tijuana to pack cocaine
in a sweaty warehouse, in underwear and surgical mask.
She's out to pasture now. Passing her twilight days
sewing dissident slogans in clothing for teens
in between marathon bouts of Xbox.

 

 

            The detailed construction of the slightly longer backwards-looking poems sets in relief the ready-to-handness of the shorter ones, almost parabolic in tone, in the later section that begins by singing "the body unconscious" and "the hours of blissful zero / that cauterize all wounds". The atmosphere is dreamy, reflective, damaged:

 

The clasp of my will is broken
yet still I rejoice.

 

I was so weary
of its stubborn single-mindedness,
its fixed tedium.

 

Now, see how
it glisters on the rug
like scrambled landing lights:
A luminous trail of busted beads.

                        ('Broken Necklace').


            The reader bites down on this and similar tales of emotional fission like a gravel sandwich. The conscience in these poems ensures that Wrong Side of Town, while not without its levities and moments of light heart, does not gloze over the damage caused by living as this book does "off the radar", in the small hours, amongst the forgotten. As it challenges the traditional past, it duly recognizes the problems that its dismantling might raise in turn ("Do one room / you're compelled to do another," we read in 'Stuff'). Sufferers cling jealously to their suffering. Sorrow stares back from the mirror and looks a bit like Leonard Cohen. Pains are earned and the consequences of letting go are too much. There is more than enough here to leave one with an impression.

 

If Wrong Side of Town closes on a promise to no more let go of the past in favour of "the whole grip" and nothing but, Eilean Ní Chuilleanáin's latest collection The Boys of Bluehill opens with the poet's being cajoled by the wind to do just that: let go. But here it is more like a surrender to the drifts of sleep and the dreamlife of the memory, where the "ruinous past" can be gripped in an altogether different sense and re-imagined. These poems embark on retrievals of all sorts and grow out of a confidence that, in the manifesto phrase of one poem, "everything lost on the earth can again be found" ('Passing Palmers Green Station'). Time and again the poems delve into natural landscapes of personal and collective seedtime for the encoded messages they possess; they excavate into the luminous spaces, absences, left by historical action:

 

...the boat and the land swam a vacant pool of light—
and beyond that absence lay a world, that was sold
for huddling doubts and envies. She would see
across the pub lounge where the ladies ordered brandies
the discretion of light, the indigo tones
of their new suits for Easter, warm as a plum;
she would feel the gap she could not cross again.  

            ('The Distance').


            Given the collection's propensity for reading into natural scenes like the leaves of a book, that "gap" might be rendered as "lacuna". There is something very like a historian of the medieval at work in many of these poems – manuscripts, monks, scribes, oubliettes, Latin, priories – but the observant consciousness that gets drawn through each tableau vivant nevertheless asserts itself against their deep monastic chill.
            The border between memory and present is always pervious. Many of the poems hover nostalgically over the past and withdraw just at the point of sentiment. Often to the fore is the sense of guidance by a personal reading life into external fact, one prompting the other, in much the way Schliemann was guided by the tick of literature in the ruins of Mycenae. All this mention of excavation comes directly from the poet herself, where readers learn in 'Youth' that "all I have done combines to excavate / a channelled maze where I am escaping home". The poem is in a sense representative of a general desire to "take a step backwards", as she writes in 'Direction', where a father is memorably imagined as:

 

... a mountain becoming a mountain range,
a sliding dance of peaks, their names picked from his list...


            Such a preoccupation with absence finds its purchase in an equally strict attention to concrete detail, anchoring it into the very rooms in which we read about it. Moreover with the lost historical artefact, the lost article of faith, it is a pleasure to find included the poet's recent homage to the lost artificer, John Berryman, which some of us will have encountered in last year's anthology Berryman's Fate: Reception and Redress:

 

She's back. Key in the door,
Dr Proteus feels giddy. Was this the house?
Didn't she remember
a frescoed wall with resurrected limbs?
There's a thump of a hoover, a radio plays,
a dead person greets her.


She's dead too, she thinks. A smooth nude
salutes a skeleton and gestures to introduce
while another levers
a strong thigh-bone out of white clinging clay.
Flesh has fallen away.
Politeness covers,

 

Dr Proteus considers. She looks around
for the service entrance, and finds
back yard, rubbish bins,
a fire escape. She climbs, inhales,
but something grips her by the ankle,
means business. 

            ('The Signorelli Moment').

 

            Great title, and there's nothing of the big statement whatever as it understatedly siphons off the testosterone – inverts the impossibly male bravado – of Dream Songs, while compromising none of the ominous, nightmarish, alcoholic force. The evocation of Signorelli (Piranesi also gets a mention) is apt for a poet the painterly qualities of whose vision have been much noted. This is a strong collection that insists on the vibrant presentness of the past, combining a sometimes ironic historical literacy with a detailed technique and good ear to produce poems with a certain dreamy, spectral inner life, often lingering well beyond their last lines. Intellectual, mysterious, skilfully written, it is recommended.

 

©2016 Dean Browne

 

Author Links

 

'Tabernacle': poem by Deane Browne in Poetry Magazine

More by Dean Browne in Southword

 

 

 

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