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On Bog Arabic and Bourdon

James O'Leary reviews chapbooks by Bernadette McCarthy and Paul McMahon

 

 

 

 

 

James O’Leary is a poet and reviewer from Cork. His debut chapbook There are Monsters in this House (Southword Editions) came out this year. He was selected for The Poetry Ireland Introductions Series in 2017 and received the Poetry Ireland and Cuirt bursary in 2016. He has written and directed several short plays and his poetry-films have screened at festivals in Ireland, Scotland, and Canada. His poems have appeared in The Irish Examiner, The Honest Ulsterman, Banshee, Magma, Southword, Bare Hands, The Incubator, Wordlegs, and The Burning Bush 2, as well as in various anthologies.

 

 

 

Bog Arabic cover

 

Bog Arabic

Bernadette McCarthy

(Southword Editions, 2018)

ISBN: 9781905002559

€5

Buy from The Munster Literature Centre

 

 

When reading poetry with the intention of reviewing it, I find I open the book with a particular attitude. I set aside time and read with more attention, but I’m also consciously forming opinions, identifying themes and trying to understand the work. This may or may not be a useful approach to writing a review, but it certainly isn’t my natural approach to reading. I tell you all of that to tell you this: if I picked up Bog Arabic as a general reader I doubt I would have spent as much time looking up words and references as I read. In most of the poems in this chapbook there are half a dozen words I didn’t know the meaning of, which certainly isn’t a criticism in and of itself, but at first it left me feeling on the outside, puzzling over what I was missing, scribbling in definitions. I was analysing rather than allowing myself to engage emotionally.

 

After taking off the reviewer hat and closing the dictionary app, I let the poems first speak for themselves and experienced what was happening under the surface—where the most interesting stuff in poetry lives. I returned to the title poem which opens the chapbook, a mourning and celebration of lesser-used words, archaic phrases and local terminology, and it connected. Instead of seeing myself as left out due to my lack of familiarity with some of the language, I chose to take this as an invitation to fall into a vernacular I wouldn’t otherwise encounter.

 

It cuts me and it cures me,

the Arabic of my fathers

as the calamus bows to the djinn

of the breezheen

 

These opening lines put us in a conflicted space, environmentally and psychologically. McCarthy’s poems often begin with a paradox, a qualification, or an element of doubt. This is deeply compelling to me. I’m always interested in poems that wrestle with where the truth lies. Just look at these opening lines and tell me you aren’t immediately intrigued:

 

The rustling map seemed sure

 

I am no anthropologist but I know

 

Inaccessible, or so the archaeological inventory states

 

I know you Aran but imperfectly

 

Beautifully self-contained lines like these, each one a unit of meaning that builds each skilfully crafted stanza, add up to twenty poems that earn their place. McCarthy doesn’t deal in abstraction. "Ghost in the Jack Lynch Tunnel" is a poem rich in specificity, from the title to the description of the spectral figure’s clothing:

 

the flat wool cap from Shandon factory,

the jacket bought in Mallow on mart day

 

Though exploring the paranormal, every detail is concrete and grounded. The poem creates a vivid reality, a physical space that engages all the senses. It also showcases McCarthy’s wonderfully sharp line endings and her knack for bringing poems full circle; an early image of 'palm lines sugar-mice pink' connects with the final image of 'rat-black traffic,' and brings a poem of intense colour and texture to a mysterious end.

 

This poet’s ability to inhabit another person’s experience is impressive. It’s most effective in "Artemis in a Bomb-blast," an ekphrastic poem based on an artwork many in Cork will be familiar with. I’ve seen the sculpture “Woman in a Bomb-blast” in the Crawford Art Gallery dozens of times and part of what I find compelling about it is how it looks almost comedic until you see the title. McCarthy captures this from the beginning and brings the subject to life, sprinkling intimate details about F.E McWilliam’s demeanour and how she holds herself. Then comes the brutal description of violence:

 

till all that seemed to be left

were pranks of thumbs and teeth

 

This image has stayed with me. In fact, I find myself recalling various lines from this chapbook as I go about my day—a sure sign that a poet’s work has left its mark on me.

 

 

 

 

Bourdon

Paul McMahon

(Southword Editions, 2016)

ISBN: 9781905002481

€5 paperback

Buy from The Munster Literature Centre

 

 

My first encounter with McMahon’s poetry was at the launch of Bourdon at Ó’Bhéal’s Winter Warmer Festival in 2016. I still remember the energy in the room, that silence that comes over a crowd paying close attention. The reading felt intimate and open, like the poems were being given to us, shared with us. The best readings are those where the poet doesn’t get in the way of the poems.

 

On the page these poems keep that quality of direct transmission. Whenever I read this book I feel an acute sadness and nostalgia for those I have lost—whether though death, distance, or another kind of separation. Bourdon is a meditation on memory and ritual, the mental snapshots we pore over and the things we do to honour the people and experiences we carry within us. These seminal moments are captured by the images that stay with the speaker in "A Junkyard Full of Flowers:"

 

…the musk of her warmth

rose from the swan of her neck

and mixed with the fog-wet

            of the cold alley wall.

 

            …the cloudy mirage

of her breath

lit up the air, leaving the rose

of its afterimage

            hanging there

 

McMahon understands that what we remember comes back to us in flares of detail, not in a continuous film reel but moments selected and magnified in our minds. Memories are these strange, ethereal artefacts, always limited by our own perception but containing so much meaning. Poems echo one another throughout this chapbook, from Bourdon’s reappearances to a specific scene with a camera fully explored in "Flash" being referenced several poems later in "The Hearth-Pit." We remember the earlier, fleshed out scene and are primed to identify with the speaker’s familiarity, their experience of remembering.

 

            …as though waved to

by someone I recognize

but don’t remember—except in

 

the sound of her laughing.

 

The opening poem, ‘"Missing," has the greatest impact on me and gains resonance after reading the poems that follow it. The opening lines are arresting and unvarnished:

 

At eight A.M., on a Sunday morning in January

I was called out to search for the body

of a young man, a predicted suicide.

 

This poem has so much happening that it demands several readings to fully take in. McMahon mostly gets away with the density of information throughout the book, but it can take some work to unpack the layers—to get full value out of the poems, so to speak. "Missing" is a beautiful study of undefined relationships, exploring how we can feel a connection to a family member we’ve never met based solely on a photograph, or how close we can feel to someone we’ve known for a few hours. After several stanzas of matter-of-fact language, we are hit with a violent, disturbing image, and from there immediately brought into warm reflection on an event from the previous night. These shifts in tone are jarring at first, working like smash cuts in a movie to break expectation, but help bring us into the point of view of the speaker by moving at the speed of thought.

 

Bourdon has a consistent voice and specific thematic concerns, making it an experience where everything feels connected. This is a chapbook you can truly become immersed in.

 

 

©2018 James O'Leary

 

 

Author Links

 

There are Monsters in this House (Southword Editions)

Roker Avenue and Broken Suitcase in The Honest Ulsterman

Admitted in Bare Hands

 

 

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