Thomas McCarthy, ‘A fatalistic viewpoint and chronicles of love’, review of Clinging to the Myth by Pádraig J Daly and Suntrap by Catherine Phil MacCarthy, in The Irish Times (28 April 2007)

[ Poetry: Dungarvan-born Pádraig J. Daly is the quiet man of southern Irish poetry, but he is not a man of few words. ]

Multi-lingual, well-travelled and an ordained Augustinian, he has accumulated a body of scholarly and poetic work that speaks loudly of the lyricism and spirituality of Waterford writing; a deeply embedded form of thought that has endured inside Irish life from Luke Wadding to Seán Dunne. His words may seem tentatively offered, but they are as likely to skin your shins as a Mount Sion hurling-stick:

I feel no need to pray for you,
Who lived your life entirely
In the shade of God;
Nor am I cheated
By the death of one
Grown awkward in the world.
What will chafe forever
Is the blank at my side
Where you were.
- Absence

At the core of this perfect collection of poems, Daly has placed a group of heartfelt but unsentimental memory-poems for his late mother. They are poems of filial love, of admiration, even adoration, of Irish domestic ordinariness. Here are long days of summer, children gathering chestnuts, the “fatted fowl” of secure childhood that seems almost a compulsory background for any life of ministry. Faith needs a strong mother as a “bright light of such presumption” and Irish Catholic and Irish Anglican clerical ranks are probably full of the seed of such strong, faithful mothers.

It is the mother’s power and the mother’s son who radiates across Clinging to the Myth to embrace other mighty themes such as alienation and war. The world tells us things “To lance your own / Suppurating soul” and Daly takes upon himself the unbelief of war, of nuclear destruction and anxiety, as well as the image of a father carrying his dead child along the margins of war: “I grow aware of an elsewhere, / Where a man / Erect and stricken, / Walks out / To lift his lifeless daughter / from a roadway.”

This poet has seen it all before. The world impinges upon him in the midst of a very private bereavement. He knows enough, through years of studying Tadhg Gaelic Ó Suilleabháin, Uilliam English and Edoardo Sanguineti, not to be shocked or revolted by the perfidious nature of politics and state-craft. There is a learned viewpoint and a steady, almost fatalistic, acceptance in much of Daly’s poetry; a transcendental ordinariness such as one find’s in the best American poetry.

In “Long Days of Summer or Bauchi” - “There is no drink to be had / For thirsty Christians” - Daly gives us that studied mildness of manner. This mildness should never be interpreted as something indifferent or weak. It is, rather, a Déise mildness; an embroidery of poems that is bloody-minded, confident and enduring.

CATHERINE PHIL MACCARTHY has also developed a confident and enduring personality in poems. Her Suntrap sparkles with life and light - and, for her, light is both a method and a metaphor. The title poem contains a timely warning about the dangers of too much light:

Now he dips
the silvery rim as if he’s fishing air
to trap the sun on newspaper, angling it
closer so it smoulders and takes fire,
and I learn for the first time how to burn.

The poem says everything: how the physical world retains its own narrative, even while critical or intellectual worlds suffer trauma and storms, and how the soul yearns for light, not just of experience, but of understanding: “treading hard against/the weight of dark / to a trap of light / was your instinct to survive.”

MacCarthy has also created a great travelogue of contemporary Irish life. Her poems move from the west coast of Ireland, with its own kind of light, to that truly sunlit porch, the suntrap of Spain or Africa. This is the poetry of experience, not escape:

cocooned by squabbles
of Breton children, a pair of fireflies dancing in the glow of kerosene
- Camping in Mesquier

But it is as love poet that Catherine Phil MacCarthy triumphs. From This House of the Tide, published 13 years ago, to the present collection, she has been a powerful, chthonic observer of love in all its forms. Suntrap continues this vein in its chronicling of the robust power of attachments, from the primal power of “Dance” to the sexual intrigue of “Another Woman”. Here is a poet, then, who becomes stronger with each new collection, a poet who understands that furnace of love while longing for late winter ice to hold firm along the Shannon.

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