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Maurice Harmon, ‘Sing your own song’, review of Robert Greacen, Selected & New Poems , and Tony Curtis, The Well in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, in The Irish Times ( 9 Sept. 2006 ), Weekend.

There is an elegance in Robert Greacen’s first two collections, One Recent Evening (1944) and The Undying Day (1948), even though loneliness lurks beneath the surface. Despite that promising beginning it was not until 1975 that he published A Garland for Captain Fox which was followed, in 1979, by Young Mr. Gibbon. In these he creates a mysterious, elusive figure who, it is thought, has connections in high places, “the link-man, in touch with numerous capitals”. Greacen enjoys the suggestion of endless adventure. The manner is ironic and playful.

Not that he ignores the “sour realities” of a Derry childhood. In Carnival at the River (1990) he tackles a family remarkable for austerity and rectitude. Being dour and disciplined, they lack the inventiveness and flair of Captain Fox and in truth Greacen prefers to write about his clever fellows, Fox, Kinsky and Carrington-Smythe of the Foreign Office.

It turns out they were wrong about Fox. He was the classic Englishman, “Well-spoken, modest, tolerant”. But when Hubermann writes his life unknown things emerge: both parents Jewish, both survivors of the Holocaust. Now Fox is a hero, “A self-invented twentieth-century man / Whose business was never my business”.

It is good poetic fun and Greacen carries it off with style, although the note of sadness returns with the awareness that the dreams of youth have not been realised.

The cover photograph by Robin Buick of his bust of Greacen is a fitting tribute to a man who identifies himself in these lines:

I’m only myself.
Trust no nation’s will
Outgrow your tribe.
Listen to your heartbeat
Sing your own song
As best you can.

In “Olympians” Tony Curtis describes a race between poets.

It is poetry in motion,
like something out of Brueghel
the stillness is absolute,
for no one has moved.

With closed eyes the poets imagine the race. Some will take weeks or months to finish. Some will never make it home, “their words, their faces,/ their lives forgotten”. They turn to dust while the lanes run on forever.

There is something central to Curtis in this poem, its lightness, its freedom, and the way it glides into death. In his poems the dead are familiar, their world as present as it is in Eastern culture, where the ancestors are kept in the garden. His sense of reality serves him well in poems set in the Famine years, part of a journal kept by an Ascendancy lady. “This potato famine,” she records, “is greatly exaggerated./ In Dublin the Polka is all the rage”. The next year as she travels the whole estate she sees “little or no distress, just/two dead . . .”. The observations are wonderfully inappropriate. “All this misery has again ruined Christmas/ for everyone, ...”.

Poems about the Himalayas describe a different reality.

I have heard that if you die
in the Himalayas in winter,
the earth being frozen -
too hard to dig -
your body is placed on stones
until the bones are picked clean
by birds of prey.
Then the skeleton is gathered
and divided amongst the relatives:
the skull for the mother,
the hands for the father
the feet for a holy man.

In the Tibetan mind everything is reincarnated. “Children come back / as birds that sing in the wind”. The poems are intimate revelations of a significance we can hardly imagine. In his imagination Curtis lives on the borderline between our world and the world of the spirits. He responds in a persuasive, matter-of-fact manner to a place and a people. Curtis belongs to the distinctive generation of poets born in the 1950s. His varied achievement has not been sufficiently recognised.

Selected & New Poems By Robert Greacen Edited by Jack W Weaver Salmon poetry, 199pp. €15 The Well in the Rain: New and Selected Poems By Tony Curtis Arc Publications, 197pp. £10.99

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