Tim O’Leary’s Manganese Tears reviewed by reviewed by Wendy Klein
Manganese Tears by Tim O’Leary. £6. Poetry Salzburg. ISBN: 987-3-901993-68-8
Tim O’ Leary has had a career as an archaeologist before becoming a photographer and both influences are evident in his writing: the historical knowledge of the former and the eye for angle of the latter. The poet Robert Etty comments on the back cover of this 2018 pamphlet that ’These fine poems address the surfaces and depths of life and love with originality, care and insight.’ This praise is echoed by the eminent William Bedford who mentions the ‘…wonderful elegies for the village community of the poet’s childhood…’
Indeed, from the apt and clever title signalling the chemical benefits of crying, this pamphlet, only 34 pages long, is suffused with elegy from the opening poem which broods poignantly on his mother’s failing health and mental faculties:
Her thank yous mean as much as
amens muttered during mass –
religiously bare. (Walking to the Bridge)
In the third poem, Home Visit, the poet notes how ‘Her life has moved downstairs’ —
on the side by the sink where
expectorated cornflakes harden
next to Colgate smears, Camay lumps
and blue, disintegrating Wonderloaf.
The detail here is chosen with care and heart-rending in its precision, a particular skill of O’Leary. This gift for finding the best wording to fit the image occurs again when he reflects, following her death, on her mothering:
She comes to me now
on a phosphorescent raft
laughing with a message
from another time
and pledges in new accents
to wake me as she used to do
on mornings cold with air
and warm with kin. (Beachcomber Blues)
See how the very sparseness of the layout: short couplets, primarily simple words, lends this image a particular poignancy.
It would be unjust to dwell on the elegiac quality of Tim O’Leary’s poetry when there is so much more to admire about it. This poet has a range of skills and techniques at his disposal, which he uses to good effect. The way he turns observation neatly into fresh imagery is a real delight, dropping in original verbs: ‘droplets from night’s icicles / stud the dank vweranda // and rime on the iron roof cracks’. In Morning Appraisal, the protagonist is ‘A kind of man in stocks // feigning couldn’t-care-less / while practising disappointment.’ I had to grin in admiration. Or take ‘…an alcove chilly as sin / dank limbo for the Bible class,’ (Funeral in a Dark Wood). You can smell it.
There is lavish layering of language defining a relationship in earth and moon pull different ways, where ‘we are given ‘the heckling of rain on a rusty roof’
and you losing yourself in dreams
of weather forming warmer fronts
as you feed the story that’s undoing your life
to men who write down storms
This quality is even more evident in The Birthplace, a poem about breaking free of home/old ties:
I stare till the glaze on my eyes is broken
by the glint of a splinter dislodged in the wind
and your stick’s no more stout than a withy
from the pollarded willow on the lawn.
Again, in Breakfast in Puglia O’Leary demonstrates this skill. You can smell this wild breakfast, taste it.
Wind of wolves. Dog-pack rain.
We were lost in the dead of night just past
till candles in a once abandoned farm
drew you on singing pizzica
through maverick chills, returning
with offerings of white mulberries and herbs.
It would be possible, I believe, for a poet to over-use this brilliant, but ornate layering, though it would difficult to fault O’Leary’s use of it here.
The poet also offers an intense distillation and what I can only describe as a breathless compression in shorter poems. In eleven lines Job’s Equinox presents an almost cosmological picture of the turning of the of the year, the seasons, its effect upon the heart and mind.
remember the berries
that grow in the dark
until the vernal urges stir
until the sky’s corona
throws light on the gravity
of your journey’s tears.
He achieves a similar feat in Sacro Monte where
Wedding bells from San Nicolao
marry church to bird to cirrus to sky,
tie wild mountain to municipal hill
and in the second stanza:
Then, no bells, only echoes in the wood:
squirrels in the hornbeam, sparrows in the lime,
beach nuts cracking on a chapel roof
The way he encapsulates the human activity church going, within the natural world, the community is both deft and satisfying; almost like magic.
It would be a shame not to mention O’Leary’s entertaining use of extended metaphor here
In Leave of Absence, the poem-portrait of a childless couple on sick leave together, he uses the anvil and related industrial accoutrements as metaphor for their drear existence:
Feathering an anvil.
And as they hammer vainly on,
they cannot live without themselves,
so riveted inside a world
that is too much with them…
and in the final stanza:
They claim iron constitutions
but the steel is in their gazes
and the gazes at the abyss.
Hammering down an extended metaphor is a calculated risk, which may irritate a reader, but this poet handles it with aplomb: skilfully, even playfully.
The variety of styles and forms in this short pamphlet is also impressive: an exquisite sonnet, Caveat, is another snapshot of a relationship, perfectly rhymed and metred and witty as well:
You dare fall for her, that’ll be the end!’
She said ‘I’ll kill you if you marry her’
as if passion should be a barrier
to everlasting love, invoking clown
suitors whose bloom had perished, pounded down.
A delicious love poem jumps out to delight the reader close to the end of the book:
I’m watching gulls make landfall in the olive
groves on turbines that usurp the ancient saints,
lording the plateau, hoarding the wind,
condensing the scent I remember of you… (Careless Rapture)
To add to his other strengths, Tim O’Leary displays real craft in laying out poems on the page: astute line and stanza breaks that never seem forced. How Sea is Seen is set in a pattern of short lines off-set:
You, at the cliff-edge, screwed up
xxxxxand wet, expecting the lot…
I dare you to drink from palmsx
xxxxof my imploring hands:
The final poem in long loose stanzas synthesizes all the strengths which make this pamphlet unique, along with the layering of language and image mentioned earlier. The Rituals pulls together themes of life, death, fantastical afterlife, through a real or imagined clearing out/cleansing/moving on through the main actions, large and small, which hold us together in our respective worlds until we are no longer. The poem opens:
What is it we do when they’re gone?
To sounds of scaffolding and maintenance
the starry-eyed collect themselves –
But ostracism this is not – the tokens vote
for convocation and illustrate the way
we might better use the heft of us, connoting how,
before family history turns to myth,
the children are undoing complicatedness at will.
On Homer Row, a siren charms the rain, softly falling.
With material this rich and multi-textured, the trick is to stop before the mixture becomes too rich. Tim O’Leary does just that, apparently mindful of the risk. And oh, I do want to hear a siren that charms the rain, softly falling …
Wendy Klein was born in New York and brought up in California. She leftt the U.S. in 1964 to live in Sweden, France, Germany and England in 1971, where she has lived ever since. A retired psychotherapist, she began writing poetry seriously in 2002. She has published two collections with Cinnamon Press: Cuba in the Blood, (2009) and Anything in Turquoise, (2013), and a third Mood Indigo with Oversteps Books. She is now working on a selected for The High Window.
John-Paul Burns’s The Minute and the Train reviewed by Carole Bromley
The Minute and the Train by John-Paul Burns. £6. Poetry Salzburg. ISBN: 13 978-3901993701
Having watched the development of John-Paul Burns’ poetry at Poetry Business Writing Days and been so impressed that I invited him to read in York, where his quiet delivery took the room by storm, I was eager to read his first collection and I was not disappointed.
Kim Moore observes on the cover that ‘each poem is driven by this restless, searching gaze, leaving the reader with the realisation that looking out can also be a way of looking in’ and I couldn’t agree more.
Burns is an observer with a gift for capturing landscapes, objects and people. A pear ‘waits for the hand/that will hold it, give it/its pear shape, bite into/its sweet and dripping self’, a tangerine ‘will be torn without violence/ Your oils will mist a fresh sweat into the air/ You will disappear and you will remain’, at a cricket club ‘The track curves in the grass/ with no-one running. They play/ just out of earshot, a deep yellow hour.’
I’m a sucker for a poem about Whitby and ‘Two Views of Whitby Harbour’ is wonderful. Here’s a taster;
line the Eastern Pier
crooked, athletic and shy.
The sea is a flat sky blue.
I very much like the confident way the poet uses the white space on the page in this poem and elsewhere, but only where its effect is important. In other poems the lines are left justified in the conventional way.
As far as subject matter goes, Burns is particularly good at capturing the world of bedsits, shared flats and houses. I get the feeling that the poet in him longs for solitude, while the young man with a sense of humour can enjoy company, parties, drunkenness.
‘Sharehouse’ is especially good with its wry observations of the habits of the stranger he lives with:
I don’t know where he goes though sometimes
I hear him whistling by the front door
I can imagine the postcards he would send me
knowing my tastes so well
He’s like me in some ways but mute
He tidies up the kitchen as if no one were to use it again.
In fact the poem is so intimate I felt it was partly about different aspects of the writer himself. I was also very interested in the way he uses initial capitals here to emphasise the asides which start in lower case. This is someone who has thought about form carefully and is experimenting.
So many of these poems are set outdoors, or at least in public places like pubs and cafes. A particular favourite is ‘Monday (in Saturday Café)’ which really takes off into the surreal , the edgy, the unsettling. Here’s the ending:
Shabby faces going by like carriages
the absolute nonsense in the air
there is some laughter
brittle as a pint glass
This is a good example of his effective use of non-punctuated lines. The lack of that full stop, for example, speaks volumes. The whole poem is a masterful evocation of place and atmosphere.
And I absolutely loved ‘That’s Beautiful, Thelonius’ with its brilliant imitation of jazz-like rhythm in the form, language and half rhymes. It is one of the best poems about music I have come across:
could there be a way to jangle through the graves
in a crooked solo, sleeping on the roofs till the brassy morns,
could we keep those corners peeled, our eyes like moons,
the world a silken glove full of sad fingers straight as staves
it sounds like a piano melting on a bus, but then one step
in a waking direction and the song stops, the idea stops and I stop.
This stunning debut deserved to be widely read. Here is a new voice and one to watch.
Carole Bromley lives in York where she is the Stanza rep and runs poetry surgeries. Winner of many prizes, including the Bridport, she has two pamphlets and three collections with Smith/ Doorstop, the most recent being a collection for children, Blast Off! Carole is currently working on a pamphlet of poems about her recent experience of brain surgery as well as a new children’s collection.