Nick Cooke, review of Other People’s Lives by Dermot Bolger, in The High Window (29 Nov. 2022)

Source: Posted by Bolger in Facebook (1 Dec. 2022) with ‘My thanks to Nick Cooke for such an insightful review of Other People’s Lives in the British poetry magazine, The High Window, published on 29th November 2022.

The author of thirteen novels, eighteen plays and (before this) ten poetry collections, Dermot Bolger has also found time during his prolific career to play a huge role in Irish publishing, into which he broke with precocious brilliance, as an eighteen-year-old, in 1977, when he founded Raven Arts Press, a springboard for many future leading lights, including Colm Tóibín and Sebastian Barry. A universally popular figure, known for great depths of warmth, humour and humanity, he is the kind of person whose work one hopes, as well as expects, to like. Fortunately this eleventh volume of poems, a 120-page tour de force, does not disappoint.

Sparing in his use of what might be termed ‘classic poetic’ techniques, such as metrical mimesis and enjambement, he at times sounds deliberately prosaic, almost as if he has chosen to split up lines lifted from some form of memoir or biography into an appropriate length for verse. But far from bathos or flatness, the effect of this is to emphasise the humility and naturalness of his voice. There may not be much attention to rhythm or tempo in the opening of ‘The Valley Hotel, Woodenbridge, 1944’, about his parents’ honeymoon in Wicklow, but one cannot help being engaged by the ease and narrative skill with which he draws us in, by evoking powerful feelings from the outset, some of them intriguingly inexplicable:

August sunlight dapples the orchard behind the hotel,
Its proprietor so besotted by my mother’s bliss
That he insists on picking a bag of apples as a gift
For her to enjoy with her groom on the journey back, …

In ‘The Broken Bread Van’, the family retrospective goes back to his grandfather, who died just before Bolger was born in November 1959, and whose belatedly accelerating life only really started when he inherited a farm aged fifty, and went on to produce eleven children. In a vividly imagined biography compressed into four pages of verse, the key theme of life-as-journey establishes itself, as Bolger seeks affinities with his forebear. The poet’s unassuming nature, sense of perspective and complete lack of pomposity or self-regard, mingles with a respect for plain hard work, in a moment obliquely recalling Heaney’s ‘I’ll dig with it’:

… maybe you and I also possess some shared traits,
Both voyagers who have travelled mainly in our minds,
Even if the imaginative journeys that I embark upon
Might not fit your definition of an honest day’s labour.

He moves on to several poems based on telegrams and letters exchanged between his parents at the time of his birth and baptism. In these he sometimes hands over the authorial reins to his mother, some of whose words might have brought a smile to the face of the late Donald Davie, author of Purity of Diction in English Verse, as she revivifies clichés with disarming ease. Disappointed that husband Roger’s return to Dublin from his job in England might be delayed, the young Bridie Bolger writes, ‘Still where there is life there’s hope so I’ll keep up my heart’. The first phrase is normally used in the context of staving off despair, yet here the meaning is reverse, with ‘life’ not generic but highly specific, that of her infant son, for whom she has such hopes. And ‘keep up my heart’ replaces the hackneyed ‘spirits’ with something far more emotionally direct and powerful. It is typical of Bolger’s humble stance, and his profound appreciation of other lives, that he ends the poem with the admission that ‘For decades I have crafted poetry, slow draft after draft, / But I will never write a love poem as pure as her letter …’

Later family-related poems address Bolger’s loss of his wife Bernie, one of them (‘Never So Close’) exploring the sudden bond that this tragedy helped form between himself and his previously somewhat estranged father. ‘A father and his son conjoined in widowhood / With so much in common if we could only communicate.’ The next piece, ‘Sunday Walk’, further reveals Bolger’s honesty and emotional generosity, in a poem addressed to the widow of an older writer whom Bolger once telephoned in despair, shortly after Bernie’s death. Bolger uses the poem to, in turn, pass on to the advice given to him by this older poet who, ‘with wise compassion, assured me I’d make it through’. ‘Other people’ rather than himself take centre stage as the poem ends, with a kind of elegiac formality,

I wouldn’t wish to suggest you need any words of mine;
I merely wish to pass on his steadfast reassurance to you.

When Bolger turns his attention to attention-worthy figures from his and/or his country’s past, similar qualities of menschlich selflessness abound, in the portrayal of often unsung Irish heroes. There are some truly remarkable poems in the same compressed-life vein as the earlier celebration of his grandfather, including The Corporation Housing Architect, a kind of anti-epic homage to Herbert George Simms, who effectively re-designed the poorer quarters of Dublin in the 1930s and 40s, and eventually, at his wits’ end with exhaustion and depression, hurled himself in front of a train. The poem contains a felicitously ironic Bolgerian use of rhyme, all the more effective for its rarity, in mock deference to the self-congratulatory aristocratic world against which Simms spent his career labouring:

Paymasters had blocked your plans for more inner-city
Blocks of flats that families from adjacent tenements
Could be decanted into, leaving communities intact.
No more curved angles or such expressionist finesse
As befitted Corporation flats named after a countess.

There follows an equally impressive paean to an immigrant Jewish street photographer, Abraham Feldman, aka Arthur Fields. Despite becoming a well-known and admired member of his community, whose particular form of immortality was enshrined in the thousands of photographic images he’d left for posterity, Feldman ended his life feeling as marginalised as he had always been since arriving decades earlier from his native Ukraine:

The man on the Bridge who never appeared in any photograph,
But became an ever-present witness, on the fringe of everything.

These are just two of many memorable historical pieces, some of them dramatic monologues, several focussed on the 1916 Easter Rising and its bloody aftermath. They mainly deal with isolated figures, reminiscent of the working-class protagonists of Bolger’s novels, such as two elderly men once caught up in a devastating act of political arson ordered by Michael Collins, and the Protestant-born widow of a famous Irish Nationalist poet executed by the British, subsequently struggling for financial justice and craving recognition from her late husband’s arch-Catholic family. But Bolger does not allow his essentially uplifting collection to conclude in bitterness or regret. The very last piece, ‘The Dancers in a Wicklow Field’, joyfully and appositely recalls ‘a makeshift dancefloor outdoors’ in which the young poet and his love ‘waltz with no need for lanterns or music / Making our own magic by the light of the first evening star’. As deserving of readers as it is of awards, this collection certainly makes its own magic, one very characteristic of its admirable and wonderfully evergreen author.

[Note on author:] Nick Cooke was a contributor to the inaugural High Window Journal edition in 2016 and has published many poems and reviews elsewhere, along with short stories and several articles, in a variety of outlets. One of his poems has won first prize in a Wax Poetry and Art competition. He has also completed a number of novels, stage plays and film scripts, as well as two memoirs. He lives in West London, where he works as a language teacher and teacher-trainer.

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