THE IRISH TIMES
Blind Stitch. By Greg Delanty. Oxford Poets: Carcanet. 52 pp,
£6.95 in UK.
An Awful Racket. By Rita Ann Higgins. Bloodaxe. 71
pp, £7.95 in UK.
The Nowhere Birds. By Caitríona O'Reilly. Bloodaxe. 63 pp, £6.95
These three lively collections
exemplify the diversity of contemporary Irish poetic practice. One
by an established poet, another by a writer who has steadily been
gaining in competence and esteem over the last decade, and a third
by a new poet still in her 20s, they are the products of radically
different aesthetic value systems.
The books project very different Irelands of the mind, or Irelands
of very different minds. Rita Ann Higgins is by now deservedly
well known internationally for her rasping, sceptical and yet
insistently good-humoured protests against social exclusion and
the misuse of power in an increasingly brash and materialistic
Ireland. Her poems focus on the experience of harassed mothers,
maladjusted sons, narcotically dependent young people and other
victims of economic disenfranchisement. Her voice is that of a
survivor quietly exhilarated by her own staying power but weighed
down by the knowledge that others have lacked the resilience or
the luck to come through.
The language of Higgins's poems exists at a tiny, crucial remove
from actual speech. Its stylised colloquialisms create urgent,
sometimes haunting rhythms in monologues by edgy, earthy,
unimpressed characters who understand suffering and are yet quick
to see the funny side of things. Higgins's poetry has gained in
flexibility over the years, and her admirers will be delighted by
the extravagant fantasy of 'Good Friday in Majorca' 'Black Dog in
My Docs Day', a powerful, affecting elegy on a young male death.
An Awful Racket is perhaps the strongest collection yet from this
laureate of the dispossessed.
Ireland for Greg Delanty is the place he left behind two decades
ago to take up a teaching position in St Michael's College in
Vermont. He writes with an exile's affection for his native Cork,
a city honoured in The Blind Stitch in its own colourful (though
insufficiently glossed) dialect. If social justice is Higgins's
ultimate value, Delanty's is poetry itself, and many of the pieces
in this collection speak of his labouring quest for lyrical
perfection. Yeats wrote in 'Adams Curse' that "A line will take us
hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought, / Our
stitching and unstitching has been nought".
Delanty's stitching can seem all too visible, with wobbly syntax
and uncertain diction slowing the pace of the weaker poems here.
His book exploits an elaborate figurative machinery, linking the
Cork of his childhood to the India of a recent sojourn through the
figure of the leper priest Father Damien, to whom he was devoted
as a boy. The poet's mother's remembered needlework connects to
the sewing of children in Third World sweatshops and to the
relentless poetic stitching of her son.
The Indian detail interestingly defamiliarises Ireland at a number
of points, and a handful of achieved pieces - ' To My Mother,
Eileen', 'The Emerald Isle, Sri Lanka', 'Behold the Brahmany Kite'
and the lovely title poem - vindicate Delanty's faith that poetry
can be built by a combination of graft and fidelity to the
promptings of his own genial personality.
Caitríona O'Reilly is a far less social poet than either of her
seniors. Ireland exists as a backdrop to many of her poems, but
their focus is private and philosophical rather than public.
O'Reilly is a strict formalist, who has produced in The Nowhere
Birds what must surely be the most startlingly accomplished debut
collection by any Irish poet since Paul Muldoon's New Weather in
1973. Many of the poems chart the growth of a young girl's
awareness from early childhood through anorexic adolescence to
tentatively stable adulthood, but they are written with such cool
finesse that it would be vulgar to speculate as to whether they
are autobiographical and absurd to call them confessional. Her
lyrics are utterly wrapped up in themselves like the bats in the
remarkable 'A Lecture Upon the Bat'.
O'Reilly's technical command is dazzling when she puts the sonnet
and sestina through their paces in poems like 'Thin' and 'Augury'.
Some of the pieces towards the end of The Nowhere Birds seem less
taut and less inevitable in their word choices than the other
lyrics, giving the impression of a slight rush to make up a
book-length collection. The Nowhere Birds is none the less a most
arresting volume. Watch this space.
Patrick Crotty is Head of the English Department at St Patrick's