Colin Graham, ‘Words on the wing’, review of collections by Dermot Healy, Seán Lysaght, and Michael O’Siadhail, in The Irish Times (20 Nov. 2010)

[ Bibliographical note: available at Irish Times online, also in part at Gallery Press online]

Dermot Healy’s poetry has an intensity to its sparseness. In A Fool’s Errand, his first collection since The Reed Bed, Healy’s voice is as concentrated and confident as it was in that 2001 collection. A Fool’s Errand is a series of poems contemplating loss and the passage of time through the migration and return of barnacle geese. While the migratory patterns of geese are a relatively well-worn theme in recent nature writing, Healy finds formal and thematic ways to make the subject his own.

Each poem is a sonnet, weighted in the middle with two sections of three lines each, longer than the lines that begin and end the sonnet. The visual effect is to imitate the V of geese in flight. The small and quiet beginnings, then expansion, and then contraction to a conclusion allow Healy a variety of ways in which to think about the noise, behaviour and constancy of the geese as tangentially reflective of human life. Early poems in the book move between the geese and the death of a musician friend. The enigmatic to and fro of the geese’s yearly patterns make them an “orchestra of memory”, something close to being reassuringly repetitive, as the funeral of the musician comes to a close in a “long silence”. Elsewhere in the book the geese are waited for, their “wild symmetry” in flight is wondered at, and the circularity of their lives hints at consolation.

What Healy describes, in the final phrase of A Fool’s Errand, as an “ebbing song” is this book, one that is alive to the sounds and mysteries of natural phenomena. And Healy is wise enough never to think that his metaphors or his poetry can turn the flow of the natural world into anything other than “unsure knowledge”.

Birds also dominate Seán Lysaght’s verse. His Selected Poems (Gallery Books, 86pp, €13.90) reaches back over five previous volumes, and Lysaght’s interests, as a kind of poetic naturalist and ornithologist, are persistent. Lysaght’s poems map landscapes and, with the passions and obsessions of a twitcher, seek out the animals that inhabit those landscapes. There is a hint of the primal in each bird that Lysaght meets, and his poetry is at its most effective when it realises that it cannot quite manage to see the fauna as a parallel to the human. “Kestrel”, for example, in its single, turning, swooping sentence, catches not only the flight of the bird but also its self-absorption and distance from human comprehension. In that poem the bird “threads” and “sews” the poet into the sky in a fragile metaphor that is reconfigured elsewhere in Lysaght’s verse.

Birds are not only seen in Lysaght’s poetry. Sometimes they are missed. In “Cuckoo” the poet remembers seeking the bird by following its call, only for the sound of his uncle calling out “Seán” to scare the cuckoo off. In this, and other poems, there is not only disappointment but a kind of failed promise in nature that is the flip side of the perambulatory romanticism that Lysaght enjoys. In Bertra the “waves are tired” and the “beach has been rinsed of its opinions” so that the “you” who admires the man out walking, “almost lost in thickening light”, might think again about the attractions of solitude and why the seabirds have left the scene.

Despite such signs of foreboding, Lysaght’s poetry largely strives for a respectful equilibrium with nature. At the end of “The O___” a salmon is returned to the water by a fisherman in an act that takes this long poem back to its, and the salmon’s, watery origins. Lysaght’s versions of the Sweeney myth, which end the volume, appropriately bring together the human and the avian, with Sweeney’s bird existence in the ascendant.

Micheal O’Siadhail’s Tongues is avowedly a collection of poetry about language and translation. Tongues is loosely structured around aspects of language, such as in the linked series of poems in “Words” or the contemplations of Japanese characters and scripts in “Under the Sign”.

The transcultural potential held within a contemplation of world languages animates O’Siadhail’s poetry. But the poems in “Under the Sign”, for example, seem too respectful in their explications of the Japanese characters, while the poems in the section entitled “Wonder” often fall into an etymological speculation that is driven by a desire to see, buried in single words, deep and historical connections between cultures.

Similarly, “Adages” attempts to untangle the wisdom within proverbs from many cultures in poems that are sometimes too much in thrall to their sources to have any real purchase on their subject. For all its linguistic delight and accomplished bravado, Tongues is conceptually tongue-tied, able to say only that language is the beginning and the end. In his foreword O’Siadhail writes that he is aware of the many philosophical views of language, particularly those of the 20th century, which encourage a suspicion about the ability of language to convey reality. Yet, O’Siadhail says, “I must trust”. Perhaps more scepticism, and less “feasting on the fullness” of language’s multifariousness, would make for poetry with a little more hunger about it.

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