Mountains, tinkers, the natural
world and a poem called 'Aisling' Ð 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 'Dœn an îir': 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 earthÉ' Ð 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.