Frances Leviston, review of Drives by Leontia Flynn, in The Guardian (30 Aug. 2008)

[ Bibliographical note: available online; accessed 03.03.2011.]

Leontia Flynn emerged fully-formed in 2004 with a first collection, These Days, that placed her at the centre of a new wave of Belfast poets - Alan Gillis, Nick Laird, Colette Bryce - who were bearing not only the history of that city but of its poetry with admirable ease. Drives, thankfully, does not break with the rapidly shifting intelligence, wit and fluent manipulation of sound that made These Days such an unexpected pleasure; but it does explore at greater length, and with greater focus, some of the preoccupations that were already powering Flynn’s earlier work.

The “drives” of the neat title are both noun and verb, and refer to the psychological patterns that Flynn sees - with a perhaps pathological sharpness, and a certainly unfashionable interest in Freud - governing her own life and the lives of others, as well as to all the journeys we make, and the means by which we make them, in this increasingly mobile world. Flynn’s melancholic emphasis on family is reminiscent of Michael Hofmann’s work, as is the compact ferocity she achieves in some of the poems: family both drives us and drives us away, and she captures these tensions with a fine rhythmic ear: “Our fathers, / the first gigantic men / of the earth - our teachers - / have, at the end, // become creatures, / almost, of air.”

This is delicate, circumspect work, the syntax perfectly managed so the stridency of the first two lines falters and fragments toward the last, “of air”, which carries a faint echo of “our fathers”. Such daughterly tenderness, however, is balanced elsewhere by a sharp sense of the myopia such feelings produce (”don’t worry / about famine or war, here in our world / of love. Okey dokey?”) and of a parallel capacity for coldness, damage: “the weird cheerful meanness of people to each other”, or her admission that “To this place of gangsters, double deals and crime rings / I must belong: both of us like to drive / if they can love us, men off one by one”.

Never narcissistic, Flynn also applies her interest in psychosomatics and the cold scalpel of her language to the messed-up lives and bodies of other artists. The resulting portraits - all of which happen to be skilfully constructed sonnets - form a significant part of the book. Mothers loom large, like the Proustian “maman, / disciplined, perfumed, far-sighted, in blue”, the poor woman to whom Baudelaire wrote, “I think that one of us will kill the other”, or the negligent figure implied by Alfred Hitchcock’s terror of being locked “away in the dark where his terrified cries, / unheard or unheeded, are the cries of a blubbery child”.

Some of these poems ring truer than others - “Elizabeth Bishop” leans too heavily on Bishop’s “One Art”, for example, to succeed on its own terms, and “Sylvia Plath’s Sinus Condition” is hard-pressed to offer anything that cannot be found more persuasively in Hughes’s Birthday Letters. But when it comes to the self-fashioning and self-destruction of a Woolf, Lowell or Fitzgerald, Flynn moves nimbly through the chaos and contradiction of their lives, confidently weaving quotations into the poems as textural counterpoint, the way Lowell wove letters into his sonnets, “revising and revising / as though they were just lines or matters of form // the living details of a living life”.

These characters’ careless fascination with cars, like Fitzgerald’s certainty he will “buy the most impressive car / then drive it off the road”, carries through into perhaps the strongest component of Drives, the poems about travel. Flynn’s tight, vivid pieces stack up like a departures board - “Paris”, “Berlin”, “Barcelona”, “Washington” - and focus not just on specific destinations but on her budget methods of getting there and the home she has left behind, knotting all three into a satisfying tangle of consumption, confrontation and escape. The Berlin wall reminds her friend of “peace walls in Belfast”; in LA, “Freak winds are playing havoc” while “a pall of pale blue hangs above the freeway”.

Mercifully, these poems are not “about” peace treaties, or carbon-consciousness, but about the act of apprehension itself: how one navigates through culture, language, history, expectation, with both a brain and a sense of humour:

Rome wasn’t built in a day. “Rome?
We will take the lot in one short afternoon.”
Rome! I would like this postcard of the Pantheon
(in Rome!), and also this magnet of the colosseum.

... I cannot find Rome. There is too much Rome in Rome.
Where’s Catullus busting balls inside the forum?
Where’s my Roman child in the stone-white hands of Rome:
St Leontia’s remnants, robbed from her catacomb ...

Tone, here, is everything. Flynn is mocking tourists; mocking herself for being a tourist; mocking her own egotism (”St Leontia”) in researching the city; mocking the notion that “Rome” could ever be visited or even located at all; and yet, somehow, through all these layers of amusement, a genuine voice can be heard, one perhaps frightened by its own desire for something more authentic. In “Milos”, another standout sonnet, Flynn recalls meeting the survivor of a bus crash in a Bratislavan hostel - a man who had been “left, when you heard of bombs or trauma, since / with a sixth sense of how soft it is, a body”, and who treated every day as “a cup of golden light, an orchard grotto” - with a wistfulness almost like envy. Such currents of difficult feeling, beneath the wise, glittering fronts of her poems, make them all the more remarkable.


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