Colin Graham, ‘Antidote to an allergy to poetry’, review of Justin Quinn, Fuselage (Gallery), and Dennis O’Driscoll, Exemplary Values (Anvil), in The Irish Times (8 Jan. 2003), Weekend.

The term “contemporary poetry” usually, and modestly, means poetry that has been written recently. Contemporary poetry can only rarely claim that it is of the moment, that catches the sounds, images and desires of our time. Even rarer is poetry that can be persuasively contemporary with seriousness and confidence. Justin Quinn’s new collection, Fuselage, is a reminder of how stunningly poetry can say new things about an unlyrical world. Written with taut precision, and a warm yet incisive voice, the poems in Fuselage abound with metaphors generated by our technologically-driven, logo-ridden global economy.

Fuselage channels its anger at a the corporatisation of life into moments of visionary clarity. Digital patterns of data, and their potential for depersonalisation, are not simply shunned as unpoetic - they are enveloped into the writing, and revealed for the way they are altering our understanding of ourselves. The opening poem, “Laurel”, sets out the ground, its half-rhyming couplets encompassing family, sensuality and the urban, and placing the collection’s faith, early on, in a sense of wonder at the majestic possibilities of life; as one poem puts it, “Expand yourself beyond the usual frame”.

The remainder of Fuselage is a sequence of poems which are unnamed. While the individual poems occasionally visit London or touch down in Prague, the sequence has a unity which comes from its extraordinary ability to create an integrated poetic language out of a frantic world which seems to be allergic to poetry. Words and images are repeated as the collection gains a rhythmic momentum, and Quinn’s poetry uses this self-generated structure in defiance of the scattered nature of modern experience. Quinn unpicks dead language - the phrase “fabric ... of society”, for example, is cut in two by a long parenthesis on surveillance - and he replaces it with a recurrent series of tentative words and phrases which try to clear the “static”, or rise from the “ash”, “more or less intact”.

Fuselage is one of the most exciting and innovative collections of Irish poetry in recent years. Its voice is intellectual and caring. It is written with ingenuity and integrity. The collection ends with a poem on the birth of a son, and it is probably the bravest of all in the collection, since it does not sentimentally shy away from the world made so vividly suffocating in the rest of the book. As the world seems to tighten around the child a video recorder clicks on, “is focused and the footage runs and runs”. With the child’s life already, entering the electronic mediation which pervades Fuselage, the collection ends poised between the father’s “stockstill” wonder at his child and the child’s mother “emptied on the bed”. It’s a movingly honest, half-full, half-empty, image to end a collection of definitively contemporary and truly lasting poetry.

Dennis O’Driscoll’s Exemplary Damages picks up where his last collection, Weather Permitting, left off. O’Driscoll’s poetry, is stylistically restless, adopting a sometimes unsatisfying variety of voices and forms, as the occasion demands. His extended metaphors often have an understated humour about them. The grimmest of clichés have the last juices of meaning wrung out of them.

In “Heart to Heart”, the poet jauntily addresses his own heart and the poem is typical of a collection which contemplates the aging process with comic physicality. “High Spirits” has a lifting jeu d’esprit, imagining the old out-partying the young as they flit carelessly through the small hours in the years of their senility.

It’s a disconcerting switch then to a poem such as “Missing God”, which has a rare honesty about the need for religious belief in a secular society. However, the everyday details which pepper the poem never quite capture the alternative access to the God, which the poem is looking for.

O’Driscoll can be observant, jokey or serious, and is sometimes all three in one poem. At times he quietly watches the world, at others he is grumpily or comically irritable. Exemplary Damages has moments of joy, and poems which are both pleasurable and witty. But, as a whole, the collection disorientates because of its shifts of tone, and the tendency of some poems to adopt forms which are frustratingly unsuited to their theme. By the end of Exemplary Damages, the reader can not quite trust the poet’s voice to “put an accurate price-tag on life”, as O’Driscoll himself once described it.

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