Bernard O’Donoghue, review of collections by Conor O’Callaghan and Pat Boran in The Irish Times (18 June 2005)

Details: Bernard O’Donoghue, ‘A heritage in excellent heart’, in review of Conor O’Callaghan, Fiction, and Pat Boran, New and Selected Poems, in The Irish Times (18 June 2005), Weekend Review.

Sub-heading: In 1993 Adam Thorpe saluted Conor O’Callaghan’s The History of Rain, his first book of poems, published when he was 25, as displaying “an extraordinarily mature and exact voice which promises really great things”.]

Seatown, with its mythopoeic inventiveness, confirmed this judgment, and now Fiction enhances O’Callaghan’s reputation and is further proof of his versatile virtuosity. The concerns of the earlier books were very evident: they took a balanced central place between past and future, watching history being made, in the Mahon-like The Gate Lodge for example. There was more traditional Irish myth-making in Johnny and The Good Room. And most eye-catching was the caustic, raunchy wit of a poem like The Oral Tradition.

These circus animals are all put through their paces again in Fiction . The title-poem begins “None of this is true”, a reminder that the writer is never in the place to make an authoritative judgment, “smiling in the mirror / at a face / you’ve just made up”. The point is made even more unmistakably in The Narrator, reminiscent of Auden’s Novelist as “an absent-minded ’Where was I?’ / echoes through and he returns / to the place that you left off”. O’Callaghan now adds to the earlier virtuosity a more vulnerable humanity, often linked to parenthood. The operative note is no longer wit (though there is still plenty of that: in the brilliant lexical sequences of Fall and Ring, for instance), but homesickness: a surprising emotion in O’Callaghan’s sardonic and unimpressed world. It is all the more effective for catching the reader off guard: for example, in Retro, one of the poems in Hello, a wonderful fantasia on the variations on that crucial word of greeting. You ring home, dreading your own recorded message: “you secretly can’t help / but hope upon hope / it will be picked up / by some other hobo / who isn’t you. / Then your own voice, / as though recorded in a portaloo / desperate to sound human / and wallowing in its echo.” The previous poem, modelled on Li Po, is a distant address To His Two Kids, which admits that, despite the exasperated parenthesis, “daily my heart (I know) breaks in two”. In both cases we recognise the real poet’s gift of expressing a universal feeling with an exactness that makes you share the desolation. Its effectiveness is still attributable to O’Callaghan’s deeply impressive technical range and accomplishment, put to great emotional use. The great things that Thorpe saw presaged in the first book have appeared.

In Pat Boran’s poetry, stylish and learned as it is, the humanity has always been to the forefront. As Dennis O’Driscoll says in his characteristically just introduction, the publication of this ample selection of Boran’s poems is greatly to be applauded. Boran is a salutary figure in many areas - not least the generosity he expends on the promotion and understanding of other writers’ work, from Ireland and beyond. Much admired and appreciated as he is, seeing the work extensively like this is a revelation, from the complex meditations on place and home and leaving in the 1990 poems, to the unsentimental facing of his father’s death, and the sureness of eye in the elegies and observations in the new poems. Boran has throughout been a kind of lateral visionary; his poems are never only about what they seem to be about. Like Auden’s, they are stranger than they look. The lightness of his syntactic touch is masterly: a Travel Agency is “a place you go when you want to go some place”. The elegy for Michael Hartnett evokes its subject with perfect delicacy: “The skull of a martin’s nest / grins in the eaves.” The disconcerting His First Confession is a wonderfully sympathetic view of the dilemma of the young priest hearing a first confession, from a girl who says “I hate you, Father”: an impressively unclichéd - and necessary - intervention into a current Irish debate.

Living with Artists is about a dog whose “blind eye sheds white tears” (Boran is excellent on dogs). As O’Driscoll says, Boran brings a local world to life; but Portlaoise and Mountmellick and Castlecomer bear the weight of the serious subjects that are never out of his sight, lucid as his gaze is. The Castlecomer Jukebox should be in every anthology of Irish poetry.

The 1960s was the era when Irish poets suddenly dominated English poetry. Here we have two poets born in that decade, a generational proof of a fertile tradition. In their different ways they display the two sides of that heritage: Boran’s learned and amused compassion, and O’Callaghan’s sceptical and incisive wit. It has often been said of Yeats that the achievement of such a major figure makes things difficult for successors; the same has often seemed true of the heirs to Heaney’s generation. But the succession is taking shape. Neither of these major talents is given justice in the scope of this review; but between them they prove that Irish poetry - rooted and alert as it is - is in excellent heart.

[ Bernard O’Donoghue’s most recent book of poems is Outliving (Chatto Poets, 2003). Poetry by Conor O’Callaghan, Gallery Books, 75pp. €11.50 pbk, €18.50 hbk; New and Selected Poems by Pat Boran, Salt Publishing, 185pp. £11.99. ]

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