Bernard O’Donoghue, review of Peter Sirr, Selected Poems and Nonetheless, in The Irish Times (23 May 2005), Weekend: Book Reviews.

Nonetheless is Peter Sirr’s sixth book of poems from Gallery Press since Marginal Zones appeared in 1984 when Sirr was 24, as prodigious a debut as Paul Muldoon’s a decade earlier. It is now published simultaneously with his Selected Poems which draws on the five preceding volumes. It is a measure of the strength of Sirr’s corpus that the Selected subjects those volumes to such rigorous pruning, leaving out such things as the admired title-poem of Talk, Talk (1987) with its great closing epigram. Few contemporary Irish writers can match this corpus, either in substance or in technique.

The transition to the new book is neatly indicated by the closing lines of the Selected, taken from the sequence “Office Hour”, where “our working lives” resume their tasks at the desk and “our hands fallen into the air / nonetheless persist ...” The two words of that last line are typically unportentous, but it isn’t only as a segue to the new book that they have significance. Despite the sheer difficulty of living and of the writer’s professional task of representing it, the task must nevertheless be persisted in. Even if it sounds pretentious to put it in these terms, Sirr’s abiding and restlessly pursued subject is the components of a life: the things that, make our life be what it is in particular. So in the brilliant and haunting poem “Hunting the Bricks and Mortar” from his much praised 1995 collection From the Ledger of Fruitful Exchange, the speaking voice goes foraging through the streets, finding a brick, flowers, the corner of a garden - all the things we recognise as the elements of someone’s life. But the guidebook (his poems are full of books) fails to direct the speaker to the essence of a life, “the way ... the light will strike a window” to form life’s hearthstone.

In this search Sirr might be called a mystic of the ordinary. The ordinary makes this poetry sympathetic and appealing - even familiar - but the mystical makes it challenging. Occasionally indeed Sirr can sound like Muldoon for instance in the last line of “The Nth Draft” from Talk, Talk which remembers an amorous encounter in the fog “that stayed for days, or lifted that night, I forget”. However, the elusive allegories they both favour are put to very different purposes. Muldoon’s focus is on language which he makes you scrutinise; Sirr has you reaching out to find a statable significance.

If this makes his poetry sound abstract or clinical, it must be stressed that Sirr is a wonderfully affecting, personal writer, especially in the elegies for his father. These poems should be better known and more generously anthologised. Through the Window in Ways of Falling (1991) has a wonderful image of the memory’s restoring the dead father to an earlier time and strength:

I see him running backwards, arms
up,
face serious, catching the ball I’ve thrown
to test him, his safe hands seeming
to grip the future.

Sirr’s perfection of this mode (as Metre phrased it) is again in evidence in Nonetheless: but the father elegy, like much else in the book, has a sharper definition now (in “Strike”). There are many other continuities of theme and concern from the predecessors: language and translation (in “Doktoro Esperanto”, recalling the “slow debate / on the futility of translation” of “Already” in Talk, Talk ), climate, urban place, books, hands as artistic shapers. But Nonetheless marks more of a change from its predecessors than any earlier volume-transition, particularly in its second part, “Edge Songs”, a 21-poem series of “workings, adaptations, versions, ‘skeleton’ translations of poems in Old Irish, Middle Irish and Latin, as they might be remembered or misremembered by an imagined Irish poet” (according to Sirr’s note). This is a significant development in two ways: it makes real the learning which has before been metaphorical in Sirr, and it is a specific recognition of Irishness by it writer who has often been called a cosmopolitan rather than an Irish poet. Now the place and imagery which were metaphorical of relationships and of life (“the grubby city” and “the dampness of the climate” in Already ) has sharper realisation.

The poem that the new book will come to be remembered for, and which will join the group of Sirr’s indispensable items, is the title poem which ends the book’s main body. It again begins with a Muldoon echo (of Incantata ) but ends again with with the triumphantly persistent “nonetheless”, despite all the terrible things the verbs have to be learned for: “feeling low in a new place”, “waking in a panic of lost / three February mornings / in a row”, “living / in the endless promise / of language” (a promise, it is implied, ofter unfulfilled). This major poem is a distillation of Sirr’s strengths, which are tc seek with dedication what poetry can do distinctively. Nobody keeps to this central pursuit more persuasively than Peter Sirr, in spite of everything. Everyone who takes poetry seriously should read him attentively.

[Bernard O’Donoghue’s most recent book of poems was Outliving (Chatto & Windus 2003).]


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