A SHARED WONDER OF LIGHT:
Afric McGlinchey reviews a collaboration by poet John Kinsella
and photographer John D'Alton.
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Afric McGlinchey’s awards include the Hennessy Poetry award, Northern Liberties Prize (USA) and Poets and Meet Politics prize. She was one of seven writers chosen to go to Italy for the 2014 Italo-Irish Literature Exchange. Her début, The lucky star of hidden things, was subsequently translated into Italian. Afric appears in issue 118 of Poetry Ireland Review, which features the editor’s selection of Ireland’s rising poets. She received a Cork County Council Arts bursary to enable her to write her second collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat, which has been nominated for the forthcoming Forward Prize for Best Collection.
A Shared Wonder of Light
John Kinsella (poems) & John D'Alton (photographs)
(Whyte Books, 2016)
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When I first received this book to review, I experienced a sinking feeling – the title and font hinted at an excess of sentimentality, and the cover image made me wonder if I was going to be facing a series of kitch images designed to appeal to the American tourist market.
The poems and photographs, unsurprisingly, are suffused with light. But more than that, they capture a drama, with suggestive undertones I wasn’t expecting. I was also relieved to find that Kinsella’s ecological poetics involve a clear and clarifying focus not only on the landscape itself, but also on the excavation of collective cultural memories embedded in the valleys, mountains and coastline. A seasoned, award-winning writer – he has written over sixty books of poetry, fiction, drama and non-fiction – Kinsella’s poems here are lyrical odes and philosophical meditations, with political and historical contexts and stories: “an undercurrent of wreckage and fertility” (‘Clefts’). The poems are also a subtle warning about what increasing “progress” might destroy.
The constant ebb and flow of the sea is a dramatic backdrop for Kinsella’s restless interrogations. Each poem engages with a particular setting, teasing out its unique significance. The complexities of possible interpretations evolve gradually into an entire tapestry. Human interference in the landscape is regularly alluded to:
…the sandhills, once targets for farmers carting Liston-
hurled earthquake sands as far inland as Drimoleague
to spread over hungry fields.
–‘Looking Down from the West onto Barleycove Beach’
The photographs create an extraordinary ambience, diverse in composition and texture, but always shot through with light. One dramatically contrasting photograph is paired with the poem ‘Barnacleeve Gap Erotics’, where a rocky outcrop is vividly, brightly golden between a black sky and shadowed road. I found myself wanting to seek out each location on the map. The images that had the greatest impact on me were full of texture, rush and motion, tidal confluences, the sky and sea sharing a vast symbiosis of mood. Although most of the pictures are of the natural world, many hint at our human presence, in the form of domestic animals or walls, hedges, skiffs. One of the most exciting compositions is of a bridge, steeply angled, with glorious light cast through its curved arches.
Resonances abound. In the list poem, ‘Sweeney Prototype (Outdoors, West Cork)’ Kinsella writes:
Don’t drink from the piss pot,
Don’t love but damn the Church….
Don’t shoot the fox nor drain the cow….
Welcome the blowback,
‘Or worse’, a foreigner – accept ex-
Communication from entire townlands….
Co-habit with a quiet but fiery woman
Who will keep gossip to herself.
Line-breaks are thoughtful (note how the word “communication” evokes an alternative meaning compared to its hyphenated pairing). Such subtlety is also present in the photographs, where for example, a dull field under a gloomy sky is enlivened by the red pop of colour-coded sheep, balanced by a red corrugated makeshift tent and – now you see it – a murmur of red under the sullen pewter clouds.
Poets are usually wary of a superfluity of adjectives, but in Kinsella’s case, his are so precise, they prompt a smile of recognition:
…a thin but volatile stream…
– ‘Nameless Stream’
…bloody and soothing, the crossing over…
–‘The Pass/the Gap’
in whose thrall
we all are, whether
we know it or not,
are shining bright
and fierce, so hard
– ‘Nameless Stream’
The poems are filled with the music of place-names. In ‘Day After the Storm’ a rhyming villanelle (one of at least four):
Clouds draw energy and give back rain
Over Goat Island in Long Island Bay,
And the clouds reset the sky’s tain.’
The acoustics of our natural world are echoed in well-crafted metre, rhyme, and synesthesia. Considering the specificity of the book’s title, form and content, theme and treatment are surprisingly diverse. The details woven into the poems ensure that they are linguistically rich too – and words like ‘mattocks’, ‘shims’, ‘quoins’ and ‘skuas’ thrilled, while sending me scurrying to the dictionary.
The book is a conversation between the two men: “It’s the light carves the rock, John/ and not the sea, which comes in later/ to dress the wounds.” Throughout, Kinsella pays respect to the bond between the two men, the relationship evolved through their shared love of light and the landscape:
We said nothing in the shock
of context but later I remarked:
I saw a chough rising
Over the cauldron.
You confirmed the sighting.
Then we talked of the silence
of heath milkwort and black
bog rush divinations
of the lake’s edge.
The dangers of the sea are all-too evident in the images. As D’Alton puts it “The sea has eroded the rock, creating knives that jut out… at the places that look most welcoming…”
Kinsella, though Australian-born, is journeying back not only to his Irish roots, but also to the source, taking a “massive palette texturing knife” to disrupt the apparent calm of the ocean, cut it back to reveal the ancient continuum of its force: “Incoming. Taking Back. Laying / groundwork for an antediluvian replay – then another and another.” In ‘Seefin’: “There’s only the agitation of an eternal here.”
Poems such as ‘They’ll Approach from the Land, not the Sea’, draw the reader back to uncover a foreboding, possibly unintentional prophecy that resonates differently in the light of current political contexts: “each clan wanting in, a black-browed albatross / at our backs, and their steady, remorseless / approach…”
Like humanity, seabirds also attempt to colonize space: “The kittiwake and fulmar over three castles – their risks, their claims, downturns…” (‘Clefts’). D’Alton’s photograph, one of my favourite, captures the social beings nattering on a rock together, the gesture and angle of each head evoking a personality.
This collaboration allows D’Alton’s and Kinsella’s shared passion to open up possibilities of communication, with each other and with others:
What do we telegraph out?
What do we tap tap across
the water to Fastnet, Clear Island
all the way to America…
we continue to stare, blinded
acting as points of contact.
– ‘Crookhaven Blown With Light: Failed Lines of Sight?’
These are moving explorations of our place in the universe, inspired by the free-wheeling light and spaces of the southwest coast. John Kinsella’s sensibility is distinct from D’Alton’s often otherworldly capturing of light, yet both register a similar mode of feeling. Don’t be put off by the cover—this is a compelling and transformative collaboration.
©2016 Afric McGlinchey
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Afric McGlinchey at Salmon Poetry
'A River of Familiars': Afric McGlinchey poem at Numéro Cinq
More by Afric McGlinchey in Southword Journal