Expensive Irish Whimsy?

 
Farmers Cross,
Bernard O'Donoghue (56pp, 9.99, Faber)
 

Mountains, tinkers, the natural world and a poem called 'Aisling' yes, we must be back in Ireland again. However, O'Donoghue's poems are more than just the same old whimsy dug from the shadow of Seamus. There are historical currents at work here within a fairly lush pastoral world, but all is not peaceful and calm.
 
In many ways, this is an Ireland of the world: wandering tinkers, vagabonds, those whose lives might have taken other courses, like Educated Flanagan, who 'had books to beat the band' and carried them around whilst labouring. The first few poems set out this world, where historical memory is passed down across generations and travellers drift across the cold fields. Other pieces focus on the pathetic remnants from these lives: the 'neat pile of dockets' that speak of an ordered life ('Dockets') akin to the ecclesiastical.
 
These are affecting enough, and lyrical, too, but my problem with them is that at times they feel like glimpses or fragmentary drafts, rather than finished insights. There is craftsmanship here in a longer poem like 'Town Planning' or the elegy for the late Mick Imlah, 'Clegs at Totleigh Barton', but some of the more minimal poems don't seem willing to muster the energy to reach a resolution.
 
Take 'Tontine', for instance, or 'Dn an ir': the latter is simply a quick seven-line sketch of packing away on the beach, whilst the former is certainly lyrical, dedicated as it is to Michael Donaghy,  but it seems only a brief, imagistic flash in homage. In his earlier collections, Gunpowder
(1995) and Here Nor There (1999), O'Donoghue seemed to produce more substantial pieces. 'The People through the Meadow Straying', a version or Piers Plowman, is certainly wry and well-balanced, but 'The Wanderer', another long piece, wavers between the demotic - 'Oh I know..', 'how on earth' and the exile of the title's spiritual consolation: 'All you can do / is to place your trust in the god in the heavens/ where alone is stability/ if it is found anywhere.' I guess the lack of certainty is the point here, but it doesn't really make for a satisfying read.
 
The book-jacket describes some of these poems as 'idylls', but I'm not sure this is entirely accurate: some feel like poems-in-waiting or images in draft form. On occasion, as with 'Magic Lantern', a meditation on memory and shapes observed, this works well, combining reverie and attention. More ambitious poems, such as the shaggy-dog tale 'Menagerie' create a sense of magic and good humour, but I miss the distinctive voice of one who points a tale beyond the merely tentative.
 
By turns entertaining and uncertain, this is certainly a worthwhile collection, but it does seem rather thin. There are 52 pages of poems here, 10 of which are very brief, each comprising 10 lines or less; Faber will charge you a tenner for that, thank you very much.
 
      M.C.Caseley 2011