Au­then­tic, if you can get past the hype

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - CAITRIONA O’REILLY

Kate Tem­pest is a phe­nom­e­non. At 33 she has a list of prizes and ac­co­lades as long as your arm, in­clud­ing the ul­ti­mate es­tab­lish­ment nod, fel­low­ship of the Royal So­ci­ety of Lit­er­a­ture. Her suc­cess has led to con­sid­er­able pearl-clutch­ing among the more con­ser­va­tive el­e­ments on the UK lit­er­ary scene, and – one sus­pects – some muti­nous but strik­ingly less audi­ble mut­ter­ings among those po­ets who write specif­i­cally “for the page”. The back cover blurb pro­claims Run­ning

Upon the Wires (Pic­a­dor Po­etry, £9.99) to be her first book of “free-stand­ing” po­etry since Hold Your Own, way back in 2014.

This prompts the ques­tion: what ex­actly is “free-stand­ing po­etry”? Po­etry? The ques­tion is only partly vex­a­tious: clearly, what is meant is that Tem­pest in­tends these po­ems to be less de­pen­dent than some of her other work on her com­pelling, ur­gent, im­pas­sioned vo­cal de­liv­ery.

The col­lec­tion has a tri­par­tite struc­ture, be­gin­ning with The End and end­ing with The Be­gin­ning, and charts the painful end of one love af­fair and the new life an­tic­i­pated in the start of an­other. For all her sup­posed rad­i­cal­ism, this is a rather fa­mil­iar nar­ra­tive arc, but then Tem­pest’s work is over­all less rad­i­cal than her rep­u­ta­tion would sug­gest. There is in­ten­sity here for sure, but the ques­tion re­mains whether in­ten­sity can sub­sti­tute sat­is­fac­to­rily for skill in the more con­ven­tional as­pects of com­po­si­tion such as scan­sion, lin­eation, im­agery, ver­bal con­no­ta­tion, mem­o­ra­bil­ity.

Tem­pest’s ex­per­i­ments with bal­lad me­tre (see Awake All Night Think­ing of You) tend to be rather ragged, her rhyming rudi­men­tary and ac­cent-de­pen­dent (jaw/ door; straw/ floor; hear/ idea), her gram­mar on the ques­tion­able side of col­lo­quial (“my eyes fall out my sock­ets”).

Some lovely im­agery emerges, as when she de­scribes her girl­friend’s name as “like a bird/ Try­ing to burst out of my throat” or cap­tures the de­tail of a mo­ment in the af­ter­math of pas­sion: “I watch the dark/ Trees and I feel the slow/ Wind and the flame is a globe on the wick,” and po­ems like At Your Mother’s Funeral and We Went to the River to Swim are vivid and ten­der. There is an au­then­tic sen­si­bil­ity here if you can get past the hype; but over­all the reader may ask whether the ex­tent of that hype is not the ex­pres­sion of a cul­ture that values po­etry too lit­tle, rather than the re­verse.

Af­ter Kate Tem­pest’s bold, self-rev­e­la­tory style it is al­most shock­ing to read the po­ems of Medbh McGuck­ian’s Love, The Ma­gi­cian (Arlen House, £20). These are po­ems that ef­face their oc­ca­sions al­most en­tirely, and do so slyly and know­ingly. McGuck­ian’s has al­ways been an elu­sive, con­tin­u­ally self-mask­ing aes­thetic, a space where, even when the reader lacks the fog­gi­est idea what the poem is about – a not-in­fre­quent oc­cur­rence – the se­duc­tions of her tech­nique and the sen­su­ous plea­sure of her lan­guage are com­pen­sa­tion enough.

The strength of McGuck­ian’s po­etry lies in her ca­pac­ity for phrase-mak­ing; her prosody has the ring of com­plete con­vic­tion even when it deals in gor­geous ab­strac­tions, her nouns unmoored

“Faith­ful as rain with its senses open, its deep, earthy colour puts a well of silky fins around the house. The lean tri­an­gle of its head is down and gov­erned, while its sec­ond head in­side its head (the head in its head) gets up hun­gry from the con­ver­sa­tion, goes un­fed”

There is no doubt a highly coded pri­vate mean­ing here, but such pos­si­bil­i­ties of de­no­ta­tion come im­pen­e­tra­bly cloaked in her fa­mil­iar vo­cab­u­lary of flow­ers, fab­rics, jew­els, weather ef­fects. With McGuck­ian one con­fronts head-on the fa­mil­iar, tired stereo­types of Ir­ish cir­cum­lo­cu­tion or fem­i­nine ver­bosity: there is the sense that McGuck­ian has been play­ing with and sub­vert­ing such stereo­types through­out her ca­reer, that avoid­ing be­ing pinned down is, for her, an ex­is­ten­tial ne­ces­sity.

Prufrock’s ex­as­per­ated “it is im­pos­si­ble to say just what I mean!” is here raised to the sta­tus of a virtue. Then there is the con­tro­ver­sial is­sue of her “bor­row­ings”, the found el­e­ments in her work. “We are what we bor­row” the nar­ra­tor of The Mar­cella Quilt slyly re­marks, kit­ting her­self out in sec­ond-hand fin­ery. This has de­vel­oped into some­thing of an in­dus­try. Send­ing schol­ars scut­tling to un­cover her source-texts must make for an amus­ing aca­demic game. (A few min­utes’ desul­tory Googling will un­cover sev­eral sources for these po­ems, among them Nurs­ing Yes­ter­day’s Child by May Spauld­ing and Penny Welch; and Will Pritchard’s Out­ward Ap­pear­ances, both stud­ies of the early science of pae­di­atrics.)

The ul­ti­mate point though is that McGuck­ian’s voice is not re­duc­ible to this or any other “ex­pla­na­tion”; her his­tor­i­cal ven­tril­o­quism is sim­ply an­other layer in the multi-lay­ered, self-con­scious, and shim­mer­ingly sym­phonic work of which Love, The Ma­gi­cian rep­re­sents an in­trigu­ing in­stal­ment.

No­tions (Dedalus Press, ¤12.50pb, ¤20hb) is a rather self-dep­re­cat­ing ti­tle for well-known broad­caster John Kelly’s de­but col­lec­tion; a self-dep­re­ca­tion that be­lies the real ac­com­plish­ment and ma­tu­rity of these po­ems. The short poem that serves as the book’s epi­graph, The Small Things, hints at his ap­proach: a care­ful at­ten­tion to de­tail, a cher­ish­ing and rel­ish­ing of the quo­tid­ian beau­ties that are the lyri­cist’s stock-in-trade and, above all, a valu­ing of hu­man con­nec­tion.

In his obit­u­ary of Louis MacNe­ice, Philip Larkin re­marked that “he could have writ­ten the words of ‘These Fool­ish Things’”, and there is a sim­i­lar poignant glam­our to Kelly’s work, as­sisted by the ac­tual glam­our of many of the po­ems’ oc­ca­sions.

P.J. Clarke’s, for in­stance, de­scribes an un­ex­pected en­counter with Frank Si­na­tra in a New York bar, sur­rounded by – bril­liant de­scrip­tion – “a mus­cled tes­tudo of goons”, and records Si­na­tra’s gnomic ut­ter­ance about Bil­lie Hol­l­i­day: “you know, kid, Lady was the best./ She walked side­ways, she talked side­ways/ and she sang side­ways.” Of this the nar­ra­tor can make lit­tle, “but as I set­tle up that night/ I send a JD to the back room.”

Else­where there are po­ems of great ten­der­ness and lin­guis­tic skill in de­scrip­tions of the nat­u­ral world (es­pe­cially birds) and of the poet’s chil­dren and other close fam­ily mem­bers. The work bris­tles with names: “I was play­ing Aura Lee/as sung by The Shel­ton Broth­ers,/ a song from the Amer­i­can Civil War// a.k.a. The Maid with Golden Hair – / the very same tune as Love Me Ten­der/ as sung by (sav­ing your pres­ence) the King // and by Freddy Fen­der too . . .”

This is well-con­nected, so­cially sit­u­ated po­etry, a po­etry that ex­em­pli­fies that old mantra of Forster’s, “only con­nect!” but it also owes some­thing to the jokey, anec­do­tal, and proper noun-laden strate­gies of Paul Mul­doon. This is far from the de­but col­lec­tion of a writer who has swal­lowed and failed to di­gest his in­flu­ences, how­ever. The po­ems here show ev­i­dence of long, slow mar­i­nat­ing, and are all the bet­ter for it.


Above: Run­ning Upon the Wires is Kate Tem­pest’s first book of “free-stand­ing” po­etry; Left: The strength of Medbh McGuck­ian’s po­etry lies in her ca­pac­ity for phrase-mak­ing.

from their con­texts, her gram­mat­i­cal struc­tures unan­chored from their ref­er­ents:

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