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on Pandemonium

Clíona Ní Riordáin reviews Thomas McCarthy's new collection





eClíona Ní Ríordáin lives in Paris and teaches at the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle. She is the editor of Four Irish Poets / Quatre Poetes Irlandais (Dedalus, 2011); and of Femmes d'Irlande en poésie 1973-2013 (Editions Caractères, Paris 2013). Jeune Poésie d'Irlande, an anthology of Munster poets in translation co-edited by Clíona Ní Ríordáin and Paul Bensimon was published in 2015 by Editions Illador. Her translation of Michel Déon’s Horseman Pass By (Lilliput Press) appeared in January 2017.





Thomas McCarthy

(Carcanet Press, 2018)

ISBN: 978 1 784102 96 8

£ 8.99 paperback

Buy from Carcanet


Isn’t it most unkind,’ Lady Nora commented, ‘how your GAA has thrown a smoke screen over everything you yearn to expose. You can’t name the names, poor fellow.’
(‘Social Class in West Waterford’, iii Aristocracy, p. 36)


The poet Thomas McCarthy has never suffered from an incapacity to name names. In his previous incarnation as an Anvil poet, McCarthy bewitched his readers with the enchanting names of his characters. In Merchant Prince (2005), we met, amongst others, Principessa Nulana Nigonelli, Count Luigi da Pora, and the painter James Barry. In The Last Geraldine Officer (2009), we were held in thrall to the activities of Sir Gerald FitzGerald and perceived life in the Anglo-Irish world of West Waterford from 1919 to 1950. These two volumes of heightened imaginative power demand a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. They tread the line between fiction and the lyric; explore periods of Ireland’s historical past; toy with Aristotle’s distinctions regarding the functions of poet and historian. However, the temporal distance of the eighteenth century and the mask of hybrid fictional-real characters, have meant that in these collections, Lady Nora’s smokescreen may have been kept in place.


Pandemonium would then seem to mark a new beginning for Thomas McCarthy, his first volume published under the imprint of Carcanet. With Pandemonium, McCarthy has left behind the immersive approach of Merchant Prince and The Last Geraldine Officer. The volume is slim and sober. Considerably shorter than Merchant Prince, its 150 pages of poetry is tightly policed into robust stanzaic poems that display McCarthy’s superb mastery of form. We encounter themes familiar in McCarthy’s work, the nature poems of the ardent gardener in “Winter with Catherine” for instance, the love poems “Becoming Water” (p. 22-3), the cluster of prose poems, like “A Gannet Falls”, that deploy the poet’s close observational skills. McCarthy’s engagement with intellectual figures is also present in the poem “A Unionist Intellectual of the Twenties”, dedicated to the historian W.E.D. Allen. McCarthy hints at Allen’s double life as an MI5 operative, and revels in his attention to detail: “It was bad printing made me angry. It was lower case.” (p. 131)


The volume is also marked by death, as we see in the opening poem addressed to the late Dennis O’Driscoll, poet, civil servant, quotation finder extraordinare: “In truth, dear correspondent, your loss is our loss/And your absence is more than a lost quotation” (p.11). There is the touching and affectionate “Elegy for a Munster poet” (107-109), no doubt the late Desmond O’Grady. Yet, it is above all the figure of Seamus Heaney that floats over the collection, both in a memorial poem, “The Hope of Finding Something”, a form of aisling poem, and in the ghostly “Digging in December” (p.139-142), where the shades of Bowen, Milton, and Robert Graves, haunt the poet digging in the rain. In this poem, as elsewhere in the collection, we are struck by the long elegiac line, reminiscent of the dactylic pentameter and hexameter used by Ovid in his Tristia. And here too we see the Heaney connection, the recourse to classical references, the erudition that characterizes both poets.


Yet, as McCarthy acknowledges himself in “The Hope of Finding Something”, the anger of social resentment is what sets his poetry apart from that of Heaney. McCarthy’s anger burns ferociously in this volume, burns like the fire of hell on the cover illustration of this collection, John Martin’s painting from 1841“Pandemonium” which gives its name to the volume. Pandemonium is the capital of John Milton’s Hell in Paradise Lost and it is not too far a stretch to believe that McCarthy’s Ireland in Pandemonium is akin to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The excoriation of Ireland’s class system is accomplished in a powerful poem, “Largesse”, which meditates on McCarthy’s mother’s life. It contrasts the kindness and largesse of his mother with the snobbery and bitterness of Ireland’s petit bourgeoisie:


                                                  The sky of Ireland

That bitter grey unforgiving Blackwater sky, that bitter


Wind, that bitter wind of snobbery and schadenfreude, that bitter

Chill of the bitter, with their double stitches of bitterness,


With their little shit of bitterness, their little shit that fell

Upon the frozen paths, where she lay the only warm straw


She owned, the only straw laid beneath the Cappoquin shoeless;


The poet’s rage stutters through the repeated words, the predominance of the plosive /b/ and the use of “bitter” in all its various forms, moving through the lines as adjective, collective noun and elongated noun form “bitterness”. Thus the poet proves to the reader that bitterness infiltrated everything, was inescapable, all pervasive. This class anger is further developed in the tripartite “Social Class in West Waterford” (p. 30-36) and in the poem ,devoted to McCarthy’s father “A Sound in the Woods” (p. 143-44).


McCarthy’s greatest anger, however, is reserved for the bureaucrats and the apparatchiks of the IMF and European Bank who protected the bondholders and enforced a deal which wrecked the country. It is palpable in many poems, like “Bel Canto”, where he invokes Christine Lagarde and her “Louis Vuitton buttons” (p. 135), or in “Slow Food” (p. 105-106), where he juxtaposes “the snobbery of the gut”, typical of young barristers at a Farmers’ Market, with the hunger of young children in present-day Europe. “Grunewald” (p. 91-92) addressed to the late Brian Lenihan is a stern poem, rich in metaphor. Ireland is a lamb left on a rock. It is wreckage scattered on the sea, and Brian Lenihan’s decision was forced:


I can see the wreckage of us far out at sea,

Our wreckage receding still. The pilot boat,


With all its unused life-belts

Has a black stain on the prow where you


Were pushed, Brian. Black gulls return

To their roosting grounds. Brussels, Berlin.


No withholding of names there. No qualms about addressing the political issues of our times.


And so Pandemonium, while seeming to mark a new beginning, also contains within it the same strains, the same thematics, the same loyalties that characterise McCarthy’s work to date. The collection is dedicated to Peter Jay, director of Anvil Press Poetry. In the interlude offered by “At Glenshelane House, 1979” (p. 121-122), we circle back to the material of The Last Geraldine Officer, while “Frantic Venice” harks back to the world of Merchant Prince (p. 53-54). The European ideal is scrutinised and found wanting in the aforementioned “Grunewald”, as in other poems like “While it Lasted” (p. 86-87), or “Lisbon Treaty Referendum, 2008” (p. 137), with its prophetic lines:


Admit it: in the end we are all Catalan.

This one idea of Europe is dead:

Daniel Cohn-Bendit speaks for himself.


In the light of this collection, it is possible to say that the oeuvre of Thomas McCarthy has always addressed what Eavan Boland identified in her review of his first collection in the Irish Times in 1978: “unpoetic segments of Ireland being hauled into verse”. McCarthy has often referred to his original inspiration, Theodore Roethke, who gave him the courage to address issues eschewed by others, starting with what became known as the Fianna Fáil poetry of his first collection, in poems like “State Funeral” or the eponymous “The First Convention”. Since that time McCarthy has unflinchingly, and perhaps unfashionably, addressed the political in his poetry, sometimes, as in Pandemonium, telling it head on, sometimes as in Merchant Prince and The Last Geraldine Officer, telling it slant.


Pandemonium is a superb collection, written by a fearless poet at the height of his powers. If anger is infectious then this critic is angry too for McCarthy deserves more attention: he deserves acclaim, honour and recognition for the lonely furrow he continues to plough.



©2018 Clíona Ní Riordáin



Author Links


Ní Riordáin's article about Bilingual Poetry Readings

Clíona Ní Riordáin's Irish Times review of Aifric MacAodha's Foregin News

Clíona Ní Riordáin at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle

Read more work by Clíona Ní Riordáin on Southword







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