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Thomas McCarthy reviews Simon Lewis's debut poetry collection.




Thomas McCarthy

Originally from Cappoquin, Co. Waterford, Thomas McCarthy now lives in Cork. He studied at UCC under the influence of Sean Lucy and John Montague; Sean Dunne and Theo Dorgan were fellow students. He received the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 1997 for his first book and the American-Irish Foundation's Literary Award in 1984. His work includes Mr Dineen's Careful Parade (Anvil, 1999) and Merchant Prince (Anvil, 2005). In 2009, Anvil Press published McCarthy's The Last Geraldine Officer. His historical work on the burning of Cork's Carnegie Library and the rebuilding of its collections, Rising from the Ashes, appeared in 2010. A new collection, Pandemonium, is due from Carcanet Press Poetry in 2016.






Simon Lewis

(Doire Press, 2016)

ISBN: 978-1-907682-45-2

€12 paperback

Buy from Doire




It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this jewel of a poetry book. Jewish life in Cork, the life of just four hundred souls, has already had its chroniclers in David Marcus, Gerald Y. Goldberg and Louis Marcus, but this suite of poems lifts the narrative of that now lost community to a new intensity of poetic thought. There is a huge difference between memory and poetry, historic pageant and poetry, or worthy sentiment and poetry. What is emotionally significant doesn’t necessarily lead to significant poems, but Simon Lewis is a real poet, the real McCoy, so that these poems are not so much a series of vignettes as attempts at striking a permanent and unique tone. The quality of thought, the angle at which plump salmon of memory are plucked from the waters of history, is a key element in successful poetic tone; Lewis has made enduring art from an historic vocabulary. The proper effect is aesthetic rather than pietistic, as becomes clear in ‘A Sonnet for Mara under the Chuppah’—


“The first time I saw you in Shul, pink and plump

with a mole above your juiceless lip, unveiling

every hair follicle in Cork, a condensed clump

of wiry blackness as if pleading for the veiling.

Standing under the roof of the chuppah, I fixed

on a lily, a colourful white in the yellows and fuchsias,

its beautiful petals pointed like a Magen David

and I could forget I was here to sign the Ketubah …”


This poor unhappy narrator under the wedding canopy speaks for all of compromised humanity; outraged at the burden and embittered with the poor reward.  Marriage, the poor narrator seems to tell us, is the end of idealism; with marriage, more than a glass is crushed beneath our feet. And not only love and marriage, but childhood friendships—as we see plainly in ‘The Albert Road Kids’ where “Our playtimes slowed down as we got educated, / our friends learned their lessons in Mass every week. / We did play together, the Albert Road kids, / then they got older, called us kikes, shylocks, yids.’ The disappointment is heart-breaking here, the end of innocence in a universal childhood; those differences that become accentuated by a narrowing adulthood. The narrator in ‘Weight’ could be the peddler Abie Klugman out of Marcus’s novel A Land Not Theirs, running away from the insults “filthy sneak, killer of Christ” and so aware of the weight of insulting words—as Cork poet Dave Lordan recognises in the blurb, noting that Lewis’s talent is a “special fusion of the poet’s and the storyteller’s art—reminding me as much of the tales in Isaac Bashevis Singer as it does of anything in the long tradition of the story-poem.”


Isaac Singer is here, certainly, but so is O’Connor and Daniel Corkery, especially the Corkery of the great linked laneway stories of ‘The Cobbler’s Den’ in A Munster Twilight. Lewis has created a map, an anthology of place-names and family names. But this is an emotional cartography, a landscape of yearnings and half-arrivals. His Monerea Terrace, Albert Quay and Albert Road exist in an emotional Cork Arcady, the way Bernard O’Donoghue’s Cullen, Killarney and Millstreet exist as a paradigm of exiled emotional bonds and lost land. Lewis’s lines, like O’Donoghue’s, have an unbreakable attachment to memory. Such memory is deeply inside the impulse of these poems, it animates and structures the verse. In ‘The First Christmas’ we are presented with a verse structure every bit as trenchant as Montague’s ‘Like Dolmens Round My Childhood’ or Kennelly’s ‘My Dark Fathers’. The material is fully absorbed into the method; the poem becomes a cluster of essential materials—


“Mother is frying latkes on the stove, the pan spitting

shredded potato and onion liquid, hitting the fat,

stinging her skin. The buttery, salty, starchy fumes

drift out of the kitchen window around Victoria Quay,

Albert Road and Marina Terrace in the December breeze


mingling with the puffing smoke from the steam trains

and the cinnamon, frankincense and cloves .... ”


This is special material finding its proper structure through a selecting memory. It is, as Aristotle said of Myth, the arrangement of the incidents: in ‘Tashlich’ bread crumbs are cast away into the waters; in ‘When Father Died’ the narrator sits Shiva and prays Kaddish before quietly taking over the peddler’s cart and starting again; in ‘Cholent’ a traditional meal is prepared both in Kovno and Cork; and most hauntingly, most tellingly, in ‘Shalom Park’ the young poet, walking in the old Jewish neighbourhood, hears “the calls and screams of children, / their mothers shouting in Russian, / Polish, Czech”. It is an uncanny moment in Albert Road, an unbelievable moment when the languages of Eastern Europe are heard once more on Cork’s quays and lanes. History has repeated itself; a cycle of migration is completed four generations apart. Who could have predicted this? As Grace Wells shrewdly remarks in her blurb note, Lewis isn’t just writing about who we were then, he’s showing us who we are now.


Which is why I think Jewtown is a jewel of a book; and why Carlow-based, Hennessy-award winning Simon Lewis is the real thing, the true genius of the Carlow Writers’ Co-operative. There is a fine, deliberate craftsmanship at work, though the preciousness of the material could easily have tripped up a lesser talent. Lewis has so completely mastered the material of Jewish Cork, absorbed the names and flavours, and created a work so comprehensive and integral, so authentic and yet beyond belief, that this work will remain as one of the most important witness documents in Irish and Jewish literature. Their likes will never be known again, the life they made in Cork was as distinctive as the life made by Blasket Islanders—in Simon Lewis this small community has found its best new chronicler, its Peig Sayers or Maurice O’Sullivan. No third party, no scholar sent by the government, had to second-guess this life. Although a Dubliner (Gerald Goldberg or David Marcus wouldn’t hold that against him), Lewis has been a participant observer of Jewish Cork since early youth. In ‘The Last Sabbath at South Terrace Synagogue’ he captures the final ceremony of February, 2016, a ceremony of men shipped in from Dublin, yet lustily singing ‘The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee’ in Hebrew – where on earth will this ever be heard again?  – in lines of such clairvoyant beauty that one can only step back and bow as the last Rabbi passes:


“At the front of the Shul was Freddie, his silver crutch

rooted to the carpet bearing the weight of his body,

of the synagogue, of one-hundred and twenty years

of peddlers, grocers, directors. His face, red with the strain,

gave in by the first Kaddish, drooping back into the pew,

knowing he was part of the furniture, ready to be moved on.”


©2016 Thomas McCarthy



Author Links


Thomas McCarthy at Carcanet Press

Thomas McCarthy at Poetry International Web

Thomas McCarthy at Poetry Foundation

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