WITH THE FIRST DREAM OF FIRE THEY HUNT THE COLD
Trevor Joyce [243pp, £9.95, Shearsman]
IN THE AVIARY OF VOICES
Karin Lessing [63pp, £6.50, Shearsman Books, 58 Velwell Road, Exeter, Devon
to confess I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Trevor Joyce.
Now I have a
book which calls itself A Body Of Work 1966/2000.
Even though almost half of the book has never appeared in print
before it seems I have some catching up to do.
sequence is, in part, familiar. It is a working of the Irish text
Buile Suibhne which Joyce calls ‘The Poems of Sweeny, Peregrine’.
It takes the form of two sections, a prose narrative and the poems
themselves. What is immediately striking is the energy and force of
the language, as if to imitate the flight and subsequent wanderings
of Sweeny. The poems, especially, have a particular vitality as we
are taken along the ‘pathway
of this dementia’. Joyce meditates on the suffering and distress and makes clear powerful
statements about Sweeny’s condition, and the human condition in general.
Sometimes Sweeny’s plight is shown through his desperate cries :
Christ, king of saints, hear me,
this is no fate for a monarch.
What dignity is there in this,
dodging between tree and tree ?
his vulnerability, weakness and madness are conveyed as he wanders, reduced in the midst of an overwhelming
natural world where he must seek refuge, sifting ‘the debris of the
shattered woods’. It is an eloquent and moving sequence.
poems he captures stilled moments in the landscape of the city, such
as, ‘Gulls on the River Liffey’ but not just as urban observations.
These images have a deeper resonance, perhaps like those in haiku. Joyce also delineates some of the darker quarters of the
locale in precise terms. His
observations of both the natural world and the human inhabitants are
sharply focussed and, in the case of the latter, unflinching :
are savaged as they come:
men who limp on club-leg,
men with meths-blue faces,
whose secretive survival
shuns the predatory light,
all the ashen faces of the dead.
times he creates more mysterious tableaux such as
‘Elegy of the Shut Mirror’ with its haunted images of loss
and desolation, where love ‘has atrophied’.
In the section
‘stone floods’ he makes use of a wide variety of sources, from Meng
Jiao, 17th century Irish and renga. ‘Chimaera’
features the latter and attempts to fuse the voices of Richard Lovelace
and Aloysius Bertrand among others. Voices also come into play in
the book’s final section ‘Trem Neul’. This is perhaps his most ambitious
piece as he attempts to harness an array of voices in a parallel prose
and verse text that is a form of autobiography. Unusually, he has
sought to remove all traces of the personal and include instead perspectives
and memories of others too numerous to mention, though he does name
a few. At around 45 pages it is a powerful set of narratives that
demands to be read and re-read.
I think Joyce’s work, though mostly quite accessible, does make demands
on the reader and needs time to fully engage with it. Perhaps in my
case, as a newcomer, these demands have been greater but it is worth
it and I will be coming back.
work does seem to repay the amount of time and attention, I don’t
feel the same is true of Karin Lessing. Yet I feel I should like this
work. It comes with a blessing from the poet, Gustaf Sobin, a writer
whose poetry I enjoyed immensely in the 1980s. Eliot Weinberger calls
her one of ‘the ones who keep poetry alive’. So why is this not coming
alive to me ? I look at a page and see a great deal of space, and
I do think some poetry needs that, it gives the language room to make
its resonance felt. Look at some of John Riley’s work, for example.
But here I don’t feel much sense of resonance, instead the words seem
to fall into the spaces. This is poetry that too often I cannot hear.
Is that my fault ?
tell my students that if a poem does not say something to them it
may just be that the poet is not communicating. It’s not your
fault, I say. Yet with Lessing’s work I keep feeling it is my
fault. Let me give an example :
Opening slate, your
to choose among
An ear for music
(‘The Slate Opening’)
it is only a section of the poem but it is the opening section. Setting
aside whatever ellipsis the poet intends, what am I being presented
? Why the upper-case A? What is the syntax trying to achieve ? I really don’t know. And this,
I find, is the difficulty. I am often at a loss to find a way in to
pieces, like this section from ‘Dune Light’, I find less opaque :
medusas of sand
each word, once
grows a shadow
‘as the shadow of a great rock
in a weary land’
a hiding place
it is because of the arresting opening image, or maybe the embedded
quotation, but this seems more concrete and conveys something to me.
There are other moments too, sometimes of great delicacy or sharp
focus, where I feel I am being spoken to. But overall I don’t think
there are enough to make me want to spend time re-reading in the hope
that the voice will reach me. Maybe I will feel different another
© Paul Donnelly