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Sunday, October 04, 2009

Conor O'Callaghan

Not for the first time, earlier typos fixed now.

Rereading Conor O’Callaghan ahead of his visit here next Tuesday, I am pleasantly reminded that he got to Hull before I did, in ‘Ships’, from Seatown, that key collection of late 90s Irish poetry:

Lately I find I can lie here
listing their grey ports in my head –
Hull and Bergen and Bilbao
and Riga – without drifting off.

There’s a lot of water and a lot of drifting in O’Callaghan’s work: a swimming pool on a headland, closed for the winter; a second pool, entered with a step ‘from the edge into the shallows / [that] makes no ripples on the white day that follows’; the river at night ‘where I am floating in darkness’; the blue of a computer screen as yet another swimming pool; the Plath-inflected (‘This is the sea, then, this great abeyance’) sea-missing anxieties of ‘Inland’; and the endless aqueous humours of Seatown, culminating in the masterful, slow windings of a Sunday drive around the Louth coast in ‘Slip’.

O’Callaghan was already quipping years back now about being tired of his party-piece poem ‘East’:

I know it’s not playing Gaelic, it’s simply not good enough,
to dismiss as someone else’s all that elemental Atlantic guff.
And to suggest everything’s foreign beyond the proverbial pale
would amount to a classic case of hitting the head on the nail.

But give me a dreary eastern town that isn’t vaguely romantic,
where moon and stars are lost in the lights of the greyhound track
and cheering comes to nothing and a flurry of misplaced bets
blanketing the stands at dawn is about as spiritual as it gets...

– so I can only imagine how he feels about it now. I well recall Mary O’Malley’s ‘The Loose Alexandrines’ and its pot-shot at ‘East’ (a poem that mentions Bray, let me say, to complete my auto-toponomical double-whammy) – condemning the poem for its implied defection from the Sturm und Drang of the Atlantic shoreline, not to mention its West-Brit cultural cringe (‘more Larkin, less Yeats, no Plath’), though as Venn diagrams go ‘West-Brit’ and ‘Dundalk’ will already have the more practised travellers among you up and down the Irish east coast guffawing into your pints of McArdles, or do I mean Harp.

Implicit in O’Malley’s flyting of ‘East’ is the perennial charge-in-waiting against anyone deemed to be versifying under the influence of Larkin – those lowered sights and patiently diminished expectations, even making allowances for a vaguely Mahonesque condiment of lurking apocalypse, very quiet apocalypse, somewhere in the background. But if this kind of critique suggests that O’Callaghan writes about the familiar world, what it misses is that he writes about a world we know not just well but too well. ‘It’s a view that seems too familiar’, ‘Landscape’ begins. The first line of the first poem in The History of Rain, begins ‘It must be a cliché to think...’, but it is plain wrong to imagine these poems are in the business of tying us down, imaginatively, to the this-and-only-this world of familiarity and boredom with which they play. Althusser’s hoary old theory of interpellation, whereby ideology shouts ‘Hey you!’ in the street and, in looking round, we recognise ourselves in its beaded-eye gaze, holds all too true for these poems that stage and restage the pacts we make with habit; but at the same time (let me insist) repeatedly circle with a kind of hypnotized fascination the moment of original choice, identification, and freedom, or was it surrender. ‘Landscape with Canal’:

So this, the means to an end, is chosen
as the landscape of a private fiction
where the tracks you make are all-too-well-known.
Though this time, since whatever will happen
will happen most likely in the open,
you set it in a derelict autumn
when all its symbolic fruit has fallen.
This action is yours alone to govern.
As long as you make the silence broken
by the presence on the bank of someone
that’s both anticipated and sudden.

But if Mary O’Malley sees Larkin, I see Edward Thomas:

Walking back the shortcut none the wiser
through the mill and the gates of the manor
there must always be some faceless other
on the towpath by the slick of water
who’ll call in the murk ahead, ‘Who goes there?’
and call once more when you don’t quite answer.

Or consider the title poem (one of them) of Seatown, the familiar bric-a-brac of its opening lists achieving epiphanic... not quite lift-off, more a muddy tidal flux and reflux of mixed feelings that are as good as it gets. No really, they are:

Point of no return for the cattle feed on the wharves
and the old shoreline and the windmill without sails
and time that keeps for no one, least of all ourselves.

May its name be said for as long as it could matter,
or, failing that, for as long as it takes the pilot
to negotiate the eight kilometres from this to open water.

One of my favourite poems from O’Callaghan’s third collection, Fiction, is ‘Shanty’, which jumps across the page as fitfully as the poet jumps radio station on the car stereo, its ‘ditty from home’ ‘flicked across three provinces /inland of any shore’, ‘with chorus enough to keep /the memory of a squeezebox company’. The poem loses a lot deprived of its proper visual format, but you’ll have to make do with lowly line-break indicators here, alas. O’Callaghan has lived in Philadelphia and North Carolina, and while his stylistic response to the US may be like Mao Tse Tsung’s response to the French revolution (it’s too early to say), there are signs of a loosening up, which may lead him further away again from the conservative caricature of him we find in ‘The Loose Alexandrines’. Adorno intoned about two torn halves that no longer made a whole, but the flick of a wrist across the line-break after ‘whole’ soon puts paid to even that much attempt at mirages of holism here. ‘the phrases don’t recall if they are /warm of half /measures become a whole /new frequency: the carriage lights of an island /stopped in black or a swell /between passing cars /there and there again /the air as yet unsung’. There is a large gap in the line between ‘there’ and ‘there again’ in that penultimate line, and it is in that absent ‘there’ that O’Callaghan is perhaps most at home.

Something similar is going on in the fine recent poem ‘Emergency’.

I mentioned ‘Slip’ earlier. I’ll finish with the slow release of its final letting-go, a moment I find among the single most satisfying in all the poetry written by my contemporaries:

There is just long enough
to saunter down
in shirt sleeves,

spill some shingle from
one hand to the other
and wonder about the patch

of charred cans and ash,
the gulls scattering,
the pristine life-ring.

If the glazed window
piercing the haze
is dusk in Port Erin.

To whistle strands
of an unplaced air,
then call it a day.

Before the haze swells.
Before the tide
comes around again.


And just in case the foregoing seemed like a slobbering pitch for him to buy me a drink on Tuesday, I now forfeit all the credit I have just earned by dredging up from the hard-drive of history the following picture, from a Leinster Leader of 1997. From left to right: Emmett Tinley, Bill Tinley, a turtleneck-wearing (for shame) DW, Conor O’Callaghan.

1 comment:

Mike Giggler said...

What's Boris from Goldeneye doing in that photo?