by Daniel Tobin
[179pp, $14.95 plus post $5, Four Way Books, POB 535 Village Station, NY 10014, USA.]

Predominantly this book is a volume of narrative chunks and sequences, no individual poem being much longer than a couple of pages. The poet's chosen metiˇr is narrative-anecdote by which to explore his own family history. Much of this history is commonplace and uninteresting to most readers; yet, oddly, as one gets into the book a sort of compulsion gathers about it. One does become interested, despite oneself, in the two, fairly lacklustre persons who were the poet's parents. So that, eventually, one does get interested in them, not so much in their own right, as interest in their son, the poet's, view of them. Lastly, as the Irish soul in exile from Ireland, and in exile from his childhood in New York, the poems form a cumulative study of place and relationship to place. In the notes appended to the book, Tobin quotes John Montague, 'One must start from home, so the poem begins where I began', and this could equally be Tobin's own 'policy statement'.

When the epic poem was the only vehicle for recording a people's history and myths, narrative was a central
- perhaps the central - device of the long poem's structure; and those other, more 'poetic', features like metaphor and image, lyric song, dithyrambic intensity, deep craft, formal musicality, etc., were subordinated to the narrative drive and subsumed, like the narrative, under the generic term poem/poetry. However, narrative and information communication have passed largely into the world of the prose vehicle like the novel and the textbook. One would not go readily now to epic for history, nor expect to find science presented like Lucretius' De Rerum Naturae in verse. What one goes to poetry for is, in Coleridge's words, 'the best words in the best order', namely, the verbal strung together in a manner as close to perfection as possible. In other words, it is the aesthetic and most appropriate, rather than the indifferently but accurately recorded factual, that we think constitutes poetry today. Consequently, viewed from this perspective, as cumulatively interesting as the largely private history of the Tobin family is, the narrative is indistinguishable from prose. Eamonn Wall has said of Daniel Tobin that he is 'The Robert Lowell Irish America has been waiting for...' But the slightly earnest yet leisurely paced narrative of this poet lacks that neurotic tension of either the long couplets of 'By The Ocean' or 'Lord Weary's Castle, or many another of Lowell's broken-backed but vigorous narratives and family portraits.

What Daniel Tobin is capable of in the non-familial way comes across in 'Pallbearers At Emily  Dickinson's Funeral':

     She died at sunset facing west,
      her own society
     this room
-her soul-its offing
     a vastness like the sea...

     Incense of apple blossom drifts
     with bell notes in the trees
     and resurrection's skiffs embark
     at dew's velocity.

'At dew's velocity' is beautifully put; but there are few phrases like that in the more narrative pieces; or where there is, it is somehow a comment on the process and main intent of Tobin's writings in The Narrows,
for example, 'to preserve a life from the recordless'. The sequence 'Twentieth Century Limited' leaves one aware that there is a sort of decency-in the sense of civilized not merely conventional-about this poet; while in 'The Rainbow Cafe', a five part later sequence, one becomes aware that he is a prolix poet, strong on incident and detail, but prone to repetition and, I suspect, reluctant to cut.

In their better lines poets always tell the truth about themselves, provide phrases that the critic can exclaim over ,'told you so!', and these six final fine lines of the poem 'Ballsbridge, Dark Night' are a sort of self-summing-up:

     You know all this who are yourself
     en route and rootless, as I am.
     To be neither one thing nor the other
     is to be other always, our sad truth.
     You are my one home in transit,
     with me always never soon enough.

While I fear that Eamonn Wall's description of  The Narrows
as 'passionate, complex, and original' is way off the mark, I do admire Daniel Tobin, and poets like him, for having the initiative to attempt the longer making in poetry, and for their courage and intelligence. It remains vital for all poets, at some time or another, to attempt the long poem because it is a mode that will often reveal and cast light upon areas that are closed to the shorter poem.

            © William Oxley 2006