Peadar O’Donoghue’s The Death of Poetry
The Death of Poetry by Peadar O’Donoghue. £10.00. Poetry Bus Press. ISBN 978-0-9576903-7-0
For the most part, reading a poetry collection feels like reading a poetry collection. Which might sound like a stunningly obvious thing to say, but bear with me. Pick up your average poetry collection, start reading it, and you’ll get 50 or 60 pages of work that might stimulate you intellectually, move you emotionally or do neither; it might amuse you, bemuse you or just plain bore you. Read enough contemporary poetry, particularly with a reviewer’s hat on, and a sense of ‘much of a muchness’ can settle on you with the weary inevitably of ants and midges turning up at a summer picnic. Read the stuff voraciously and in significant amounts and it’s easy to form the impression that many poets produce safe, unchallenging manuscripts designed to gel with publishers’ house styles. Peadar O’Donoghue has a beef with such poets, and with the insular and cliquey poetry establishment that not only permits but rewards such behaviours.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was talking about how, much of the time, reading poetry feels like reading poetry. In the same way that reading genre fiction comforts and coddles you with a specific set of narrative tropes. Crime fiction, for instance. Outside of poetry, crime fiction accounts for most of the hundred or so books I read each year. And I enjoy it. But a point can easily be reached where it all becomes interchangeable. P.J. Tracy, James Patterson, David Baldacci … all much of a muchness. Then you pick up a James Ellroy and it’s like you’ve had your synapses shoved into an electrical socket and nitroglycerin injected into your blood stream. It’s visceral and unflinching and it goes to some pretty dark places. And by God you feel alive as you read it.
Reading Peadar O’Donoghue’s The Death of Poetry is less like reading a poetry collection than sticking on a punk album in the car and cranking the volume and driving round the back streets of your home town at three times the legal limit with an open can of beer in your hand and zero fucks given if the cops pull you over. It’s less like reading a poetry collection than going to a Sleaford Mods gig and feeling sorely tempted to quote a tranche of their lyrics at the office team meeting tomorrow. It’s less like reading a poetry collection than sitting in a pub with a mate and getting progressively drunker and progressively louder and using choice language as you put the world to rights, the staff and the other patrons periodically shooting dirty looks at you but nobody actually coming over and making something of it.
The Death of Poetry pretty much takes its jacket off during the acknowledgments page and asks the poetry establishment to step outside: having thanked the virtuous, O’Donoghue rounds on the less so, lambasting ‘all the … editors, poets, and media types who … black-balled me or our magazine [and] never failed to surprise and disappoint me in so many shocking and fundamental ways’. To further the pub analogy in the last paragraph, I strongly suspect that the poetry establishment’s response will be to shuffle further into a tight circle around its table and pretend it hasn’t seen or heard anything even as it drinks up a bit faster and thinks about going somewhere else.
O’Donoghue addresses establishment clannishness in ‘The C Words’, a poem short and blunt enough to merit quoting in full:
See You Next Tuesday.
(Bring a second.)
He follows it up with a sequel (several of the poems in this book have sequels, while one presents as a triptych), ‘Caveat’, subtitled ‘More C Words’:
Beware the cheek
of the cheek of the same arse.
One nest of vipers is pretty much the same as another,
they may hiss a different tune …
O’Donoghue has some pithy words for Irish poetry in particular, made more caustic by invoking one of Ireland’s most famous sons. ‘The Death of Poetry part 657’ (subtitled ‘Irish Poetry, a Poet foresees its Death’) begins:
I know that it shall meet its fate
somewhere below the clouds above;
the poets I fight I do not hate
though they defile the one thing that I love …
He’s just as scathing about Irish politics. ‘Background info’, written in response to the Irish elections in 2016, opens with this litany:
God bless them, God bless them and
the inside pocket of their own trousers.
God bless us for turning out, and staying at home.
God bless the farmers, God bless the GAA.
Elsewhere, O’Donoghue sticks it to racists, fascists, intellectual snobs, the media, the “arty” crowd, the upwardly mobile, the Catholic church, performance poets and people who run workshops. But it’s not all venom and rolled-up sleeves. He writes with hard-earned pragmatism of ageing and the shadow of death, and when he looks back to his youth the results are lucid and avoid the easy pitfalls of nostalgia. But then again, anyone whose writing references The Clash, The Fall and X-Ray Spex is hardly likely to be a rose-tinted-glasses merchant.
Throughout, O’Donoghue utilises a style that makes virtues of accessibility and concision. Only two of the 50-odd poems spill onto a second page, while many are distilled into just a few lines. ‘Late Fragment’, a heartfelt homage to Raymond Carver, is a notably effective example of this technique. Like Carver, O’Donoghue’s writing comes directly from life, rather than a filtered and/or intellectualised concept of it, and the results are raw, outspoken and more than likely to get hauled off to the cells for anti-social behaviour. Contrary to the collection’s title, poetry isn’t dead, it’s just bolshy as all hell.
Triptych by Korliss Sewer, Fran Lock & Fiona Bolger edited by Peadar O’Donoghue
Triptych by Korliss Sewer, Fran Lock & Fiona Bolger edited by Peadar & Collette O’Donoghue. £10.00. Poetry Bus Press. ISBN 978-0-9576903-8-7
Edited by Peadar and Collette O’Donoghue and released under their Poetry Bus Press imprint, Triptych brings together three pamphlet-length collections by three poets with very different voices but a shared and vehement rejection of pretentiousness, flim-flammery and ocular accoutrements of the rose-tinted variety. Pugnacity is at work in each section, and none of the punches are being pulled.
Unlike, say, Take Three – the recent Soundswrite Press collection showcasing the work of emergent women poets from the East Midlands – the poets in Triptych are established, having between them racked up publishing credits that include Culture Matters, Delhi, Salt, Salmon Poetry, Out-Spoken Press. Nor is the project defined by geographical parameters. Lock is London-based, Bolger is Irish, Sewer lives in Pacific Northwest. Bringing their work together seems less like the O’Donoghues were searching for parity than going all out for raw power.
Lock’s section of work, entitled ‘Everything Burns’, opens Triptych. The title is apt. Lock uses language chosen for its incandescence. These are poems of loss, rage, and urban and social realism – or rather hyper-realism, since everything seems, not exaggerated, but more brightly saturated. Perhaps the key to Lock’s style lies in the second poem, ‘a revenger’s tragedy’ where “pain sits prising tiles from a church roof … / beserks an extravagant sorrow under a mario / bava moon”. The reference to Mario Bava, a director of lurid but stylish giallo thrillers, his aesthetic comparable to that of Dario Argento, is deliberate and specific, even though Bava’s work isn’t exactly mainstream or embedded in the popular consciousness.
The Grand Guignol of Bava and the giallo movement is a good match for Lock, though. Take these lines, from the same poem, where the poet’s response to a suicide is rendered in lines so intense and furious that they seem to burn on celluloid rather that sit in neat delineation on a page:
a grief that isn’t soluble in gardening: the thumb,
that little numbgineer, anaesthetist in pale green
scrubs. it will not work, this tedious ethic of roses.
pervert the turning earth with salt. this poisoned
soil, these halting sites. the rocks we sow, the stones
we hoe and rue. ours is fire, the soft machine we
feed you to. and twist my gimmel ring until
the index finger bleeds …
So many barbed and brilliant turn of phrase, so many scalpel-like images packed into these lines! And isn’t ‘numbgineer’ a splendid neologism?
In ‘nothing could be worse than that which you imagine’, Lock deals with a different kind of aftermath: the lack of closure, the eternal enigma, that follows a disappearance. Rejecting the anodyne assurances of officialdom (‘a uniform with folded face / explains how absent isn’t missing isn’t lost’), the poem instead describes the onrush of fear and paranoia, while simultaneously trying to reclaim as much of the missing person as possible. It’s such a precisely constructed piece that trying to isolate a four- or five-line excerpt is pointless. Buy the book: read the poem. I guarantee it will stay with you, as will much else in Triptych.
Fiona Bolger’s section, ‘Loose Threads’, is just as uncompromising and emotionally resonant, but Bolger attains her results via a linguistically starker, almost minimalist approach. Compare Lock’s two- or three-page poems with the distillation of Bolger’s ‘Threat’, here quoted in full:
I expect some words
a fair exchange
I gave you some
charged with energy
you have them in your head
this is no empty threat –
That ‘concentrated’ and ‘volatile’ each occupy their own line is nothing less than a statement of intent. ‘Dark Materials’, a list poem that suggests a chilling narrative, consists of just 39 words partitioned out across 20 lines. It’s the kind of poem that has a physical effect on the reader. Several times during ‘Loose Threads’, I set the book down, took long slow walks, thought about violence and how it is directed according to gender, race and ideology. ‘Numbers’ bears the dedication ‘i.m. Yussef Mohamed, died 2013 aged 11 in Aleppo’ and begins:
we’ve stopped counting the bodies
the doctor said at the start
but now the medics can be counted
on one hand
and children whose ages are barely
double-digit, are nursing the injured
Another elegy, ‘Sathya Sutra’, its title a reference to the virtue of truth, boasts a similarly plaintive opening:
it is in the details
put side by side by side
that we find the truth
the whole picture
sharp and clear
The rest of the poem makes good on this promise and, like Lock’s ‘nothing could be worse than that which you imagine’, doesn’t really lend itself to being excerpted. Again: buy the book, read the poem.
And then read the slabs of deconstructed Americana that populate the closing section, Korliss Sewer’s ‘Urban Grace’. If Lock’s work keys in to an explicit cinematic imperative, the first line of Sewer’s opening poem, ‘Great Suffering Urban Mothers’ – “This town’s a death sentence” – put me in mind of Bruce Springsteen (“born down in a dead man’s town”; “it’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap” – from ‘Born in the USA’ and ‘Born to Run’ respectively). The masculine obsession with cars and a freewheeling lifestyle that categorise early Springsteen obviously has no place here, but the small town reality of shit jobs, economic depression and precious little hope for the future – also mainstays of Springsteen’s lyrics – is scoured into Sewer’s work. Also from ‘Great Suffering Urban Mothers’:
… I’m in love with this dying city.
I bask in winds which pull smoke and profanity southward.
I dodge plastic tumbleweed cups that litter potholed streets.
I dance in the insignificance of the common man.
‘Big Little Rock’ is a finger-on-the-pulse evocation of how community and economics are intertwined with immigrant labour. The poem darts like a drone or a documentarist’s camera from the ‘Koreans … harvesting greens / from drainage ditches’ to the Russians and Koreans who ‘harvest crops for the old country’ even though ‘neither group speak to each other / as they trawl side by side along dirty, oily roads’, while ‘the bruthas … swarm like fruit flies / … buzz around the remains of our community’. Throughout, there is one constant:
Razor-thin third world immigrants marvel at American excess:
At how everything is over-the-top.
How we eat and drink too much
without considering how the rest of the planet is starving.
American indolence is nailed satirically in ‘Happy Birthday, America!’, a poem set in the kind of city where ‘electric trains roll like clockwork / along roads lined with anorexic houses’. Against the Fourth of July festivities ‘an Uncle Sam impersonator / searching for a place to piss’ becomes a stand-in for the national psyche in the age of Trump. Granted, Sewer never mentions the presidential ogre’s name, but the hangover of his grotesque brand of post-truth politics seeps through the poems. Which is how it should be. Poetry is an art form with a particularly robust set of literary tools and a commitment to the truth. Take these lines from ‘Shit for Tuesday’:
Tonight, we will fill our empty picture frames
with life and movement:
know that to the homeless,
there’s a certain comfort in hunger.
Or these from ‘The Dead Man’s Suit’, in which the poet stops for’a lukewarm Coke’ at what turns out to be a militia outpost in the Nisqually Valley and grows apprehensive at
a foreboding display
painted on the broad side of the building
of an American flag and weaponry.
A long drive for a short distance
down anyone’s two-lane highway.
‘Urban Grace’ adds up to a portrait of an America where ‘Elvis has indeed left the building’. Sewer’s voice is as vital and direct as Lock’s and Bolger’s. These three poets are well-matched. The O’Donoghues are perspicacious editors. Future Poetry Bus Press publications of this quality are to be anticipated.
Neil Fulwood is the author of two Shoestring Press collections, No Avoiding It and Can’t Take Me Anywhere. He lives and works in Nottingham.