Alan Titley, review of Is Mise Ismeaél by Pól Ó Muirí, in The Irish Times (4 Nov. 2000)

Details: Alan Titley, ‘A stance which suits his mind and mien’, review of Pól Ó Muirí, Is Mise Ismeaél, in The Irish Times (4 Nov. 2000), Weekend Review

The danger in describing a poet is that his poetry becomes exhausted by that description. If it is said that a poet is lyrical then we get the lyricism for which we are prepared. Pól Ó Muirí is lyrical, but it is not the slushy lyricism derived from the foregrounding of happy “poetic” words. He is tough, but there is a tenderness underlying the coat of mail; one is as real as the other, because that is the way things are.

He is proud to be an “Ulsterman”, but “Ultach” carries an entirely different load in Irish than its English translation when spoken from the pulpit. And this Ulster is no happy kingdom, but a place of savagery - because everywhere else is also a place of savagery when required to answer the call of nature. He is political, but when we try to stick him with a label, he roughly tears it up.

This is a brief way of saying that Pól Ó Muiríi is his own man. He is Ishmael - and Don Quixote and d'Artagnan - who doesn't bend the knee to gods. In this, his sixth collection of poetry, he has carved out a stance which suits his mind and mien. It is a proud, independent, sometimes fighting stance against hypocrisy, but also a self-critical and searing examination of himself, born out of a fear that maybe we are all a bit too much like one another. The title sequence of poems is the finest expression of this stance where he sees himself (if that is who he sees) as a “wandering rogue”, a “hunter of the great white whale”, a disloyal son, a hermit, an argumentative person writing with blood that is blacker than ink.

But this is not posing. He goes straight to the fork in a poem like “Faidh Breige” which, we must assume, is an attack on those who made a Nazi propagandist a saoi or “wise man” in the Aosdana of our time. In “Baisteadh” his Belfast is most determinedly not that weird and lovely place of Ciaran Carson’s. “Muscaedoiri” is a satire in the old blunt sense, not meant to be subtle, not designed to be pretty.

As against that he can write nature poetry as if it never went out of fashion, and his final sequence on family life is as loving and deeply felt as we would wish to find. The language is clear and sharp, the crafting beautiful, and the reading invigorating. He must know now that he can go for it and succeed.

[ Alan Titley is a storywriter, dramatist and scholar. ]

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