‘The Well’ is a wel­come new source, Joseph Woods trav­els home and away, and Niall Bourke’s mock epic

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - JOHN MCAULIFFE

Join­ing Gorse, Ban­shee and The Tan­ger­ine, the sec­ond is­sue of The Well Review (¤15) con­firms that new Ir­ish lit­er­ary jour­nals are in good health. Ed­i­tor Sarah Byrne mixes new and es­tab­lished poets: there are ter­rific po­ems by Leon­tia Flynn, win­ner of this year’s Ir­ish Times / Po­etry Now Award, and smart, sur­pris­ing po­ems by younger writ­ers like Michael Naghten Shanks and Dean Browne, for whom God is “most ap­par­ent / when turn­ing away, as if I were en­ter­ing my pin in a su­per­mar­ket. // He says put on this blind­fold and find me. Wrong.”

The is­sue also in­cludes a lively primer of new po­ems by young Bos­nian women and a real col­lec­tor’s item, a new pam­phlet by Anne Car­son, a typ­i­cally funny, shady and enig­matic piece en­ti­tled Ghost Q&A.

While it does not feature any re­views of new po­etry (a gap in the mar­ket, surely), there is real range to the ma­te­rial, which fea­tures not only an in­ter­view with poet Vona Groarke but also one with neu­ro­sci­en­tist Bassem Has­san, who spec­u­lates on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween sci­ence and po­etry (“The most beau­ti­ful sci­en­tific papers are those that ap­peal to your sense of awe”) and also de­mol­ishes the idea that the brain is a com­puter: “The main prob­lem with this metaphor is that it ig­nores all the cen­tral defin­ing fea­tures of a brain that a com­puter lacks in any mean­ing­ful sense: it evolves, it de­vel­ops, it’s plas­tic. It re­quires noise and im­pre­ci­sion and all of these fea­tures are self-or­gan­ised and in­trin­sic.”

Groarke and Has­san separately de­spair of poets (and sci­en­tists) “do­ing the same thing over and over”, as Has­san puts it, or as Groarke says, us­ing “the same ma­te­rial (more or less), the same tone, the same shape on the page”. The Well Review is a re­fresh­ingly en­ter­pris­ing as­sem­bly, and avoids the charge of serv­ing up the same old same old: its sub­scribers and read­ers will en­joy a strong aes­thetic which priv­i­leges wit and thick, in­ven­tive de­scrip­tion of the world.


Lon­don-based Kilkenny man Niall Bourke can hardly be ac­cused of rep­e­ti­tion or lack of orig­i­nal­ity: even his daft ti­tle, Did You Put the

Weasels Out? (Eye­wear, £10.99), does not cap­ture his book’s zany pre­miss.

Bourke’s mock epic fol­lows the ad­ven­tures of one Mark Se­tanta as he quits his job in fi­nance and is then var­i­ously thwarted as he at­tempts to bring a gift home to the girl­friend, Jen, with whom he thinks he has rowed.

As Mark’s sur­name in­di­cates, the hero’s progress al­ludes reg­u­larly and with comic in­ap­pro­pri­ate­ness to The Táin. The Fight with Fer­diad in­volves a drunken en­counter with a for­ward ex-sailor, while The Rem­scéala in­cludes a long mono­logue of one of the sons of Uis­liu, in ex­ile in a Craggy Is­land-like monastery (sam­ple lines: “Ab­bot Uis­liu. He was forced to wave adieu / to the monastery due to un­spec­i­fied dis­hon­esties.”).

En­ter­tain­ing, oc­ca­sion­ally echo­ing At Swim-Two-Birds and some­times Rub­ber­ban­dits, some of the best lines of this hit-and-miss debut are re­served for the clos­ing sec­tion, The Warp Spasm, when Mark Se­tanta is fi­nally pushed too far as he tries to buy al­co­hol on his way home: “Un­ex­pected item in the bag­ging area, says the only / work­ing ma­chine and you re-scan the bot­tle of Pros­ecco.”

As a mot­ley, in­creas­ingly ir­ri­tated queue forms be­hind him, the ma­chine re­peats “Un­ex­pected item in the bag­ging area,” un­til Mark ex­plodes into a Cuchu­lainn-like bat­tle rage, al­beit on a more do­mes­tic scale: “Your anger / froths out like milk boil­ing over. White rolls of rage / bub­ble down you and pud­dle on the floor. You be­gin / to beat the ma­chine.”

The trav­els of Joseph Woods Mon­soon Di­ary

Joseph Woods’s new book (Dedalus, ¤12.50) charts the trav­els, but also the vis­its home, of the for­mer direc­tor of Po­etry Ire­land, whose work has taken him and his fam­ily to Myan­mar and more re­cently Zim­babwe.

Woods is catholic in his for­mal choices. Shorter po­ems op­er­ate bare, often short-lined stan­zas which feel sparse: quickly sketched scenes take fa­mil­iar­ity for granted while Woods’s in­for­mal phras­ing and tone are some­times bro­ken up and moved un­duly cen­tre stage by the com­pressed form, jug­gling in­ter­nal rhymes, run-on lines and al­lu­sions, as in the other­wise af­fect­ing Keep­ing Time: I re­sented how the sea­son fu­ri­ously pre­sented and longed for your last win­ter back and the bit­ter cold when ice banked for an eter­nity and dis­tant fields eluded and were restive in a Cas­par Friedrich fin­ery.

Longer, more loose-weave se­quences draw out Woods’s best writ­ing, and read like richly at­mo­spheric let­ters to friends, some­times acer­bic about the cul­tures in which he finds him­self and at other times sim­ply at a loss.

The larger stan­zas al­low Woods room to de­velop ob­ser­va­tions. Here he is in Let us fly away to the famed cities of Asia: At street level, a woman walks with a tin basin bal­anced on her head, im­plor­ing the sky with her bur­den of fish tails and chicken feet. Late af­ter­noon, noise abated, my daugh­ter calls me to the liv­ing room for the faint tin­kling of a bell nei­ther of us can find, too soft for the monastery. Then over­head, glass lozenges in the gar­ish Chi­nese chan­de­lier shake and make mu­sic to the lat­est earth tremor.

Like­wise, in A Rose from Fran­schhoek, which be­gins with a whale­watch­ing trip in South Africa’s Western Cape, Woods un­cov­ers ways of think­ing about his mother’s dy­ing: a car­bun­cled back or head half-reared and then wa­ter was blown with im­punity, as we waited the declar­a­tive tail-flip our daugh­ter wished for. But the un­der­wa­ter shadow we see, I tell her, is the size of ten ele­phants and its ac­com­pa­ny­ing shadow is of a calf.

Free in the longer form to be ob­ser­va­tional, Woods notes then that the town’s book­shop owner re­mem­bers Ian Smith fondly “a gen­tle­man to the last”, but the poem re­turns to its main theme all the more ef­fec­tively for hav­ing con­jured up other worlds. Driv­ing back to Harare, Woods zones in on im­mi­nent loss, “The phone put to my mother’s un­con­scious ear, I tell her / gen­tly to let go.” John McAuliffe’s ver­sions of Bos­nian poet Igor Kliko­vac, Stock­holm Syn­drome, will be pub­lished this year. He teaches at the Univer­sity of Manch­ester’s Cen­tre for New Writ­ing

Trav­el­ling man: for­mer direc­tor of Po­etry Ire­land Joseph Woods

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