Colm Tóibín was born in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford in 1955. He studied at University College Dublin and lived in Barcelona between 1975 and 1978. When he returned to Ireland in 1978 he worked as a journalist for In Dublin, Hibernia and The Sunday Tribune, becoming features editor of In Dublin in 1981 and editor of Magill, Ireland’s current affairs magazine, in 1982. He left Magill in 1985 and travelled in Africa and South America. One of Ireland’s most highly praised contemporary novelists, Vinegar Hill, published by Carcanet earlier this year, is his first collection of poetry.
Colm Tóibín‘s Vinegar Hill reviewed by Omar Sabbagh
Vinegar Hill by Colm Tóibín . £12.99. Carcanet Press. ISBN: 978-1800171619
I have no clue
Where I am, what
Bed this is.
But I will get up
And find you,
Alive, real, now,
And the morning starts,
E-mails, the newspaper.
I carry the night
All day, though,
A way through.
(‘Because The Night’)
These are the last four stanzas of acclaimed novelist, Colm Tóibín’s first collection of
poetry, Vinegar Hill. The night he carries through the end of this assured volume is both the contingent night of an encounter, perhaps, with a paramour, but also, simultaneously, a note of quiet defiance, gathering in much of the force of the book as a whole, in which passing and loss are treasured, not only inevitable. Indeed, the opening poem of this quite chunky volume, a sonnet, ‘September’, speaks of the ‘first September’ of ‘the pandemic’, of this being ‘the time after time’, the sky’s ‘watercolour’ of the opening matching the ‘watery eye for a watery moment’ of a chance passerby a little below; the drip-drip and the drip-away of things, as the calendar year, eponymously, begins its ending. This slightly ironic apocalyptic note marks many of the poems in this book, especially in the first half or so. But the sense of ending is not only elegy for Tóibín but nearly always, opportunity as well. Two thirds of the way, roughly, through the book, in ‘December’ now, his father’s death registered, we read of how:
From then I didn’t put my trust
In anything much. When I summon up the names
Of ones I love, for example, I recoil
At having to whisper what has remained unsaid.
The sense of sad irony seeps through from the sense of universal or public loss to the most confessional. Following directly on, in one of many implicitly-grouped batches of cognate poems, in ‘Two Plus One’ Tóibín gathers the ‘two weak hearts’ of his mother and father in his own ‘weak heart’, as ‘His slow smile, her soft side-glance / Oversee my days.’ Or, as another instance, just past the half-way mark of the book, in ‘The House’, Tóibín is recollecting a house he’d abandoned and writes:
I was the ghost in the corner who made
The sounds that never filled the house,
The cook who made no dinners, after which
No one washed up. Night fell and day came
In the dreamed-of place now out of use.
And when he returns to this abandoned house at the end of the poem, he stands in ‘the darkened emptiness’ of this house of ‘No lights, no heating, no phone’ and smiles, ‘At the thought of being home at last.’ Shadows in ‘Shadows’ are personified as predators, preying on the provender of the narrator’s subject. At the end of ‘Jericho’, a late-coming poem in two parts, after recounting memories of his days of reportage, one assumes, he returns by car to ‘East Jerusalem’ and closes with: ‘It does not matter / whether any of us look / behind or not.’ Again, telling irony, where behind is both physical topography but also metaphysics, even if as debunked metaphysics. Perhaps one of the most compelling pieces that can be read as of a piece with this opening theme, ‘Mysterium Lunae’, opens by speaking of the ‘moon’ as ‘empty in the sky’, and continues on its surface to capture the mellow apocalypse Tóibín registers from the start of the collection. ‘The vacancy / In the night sky’, the ‘Nothing to compel’ now the sea’s ‘tides’, proves for Tóibín the chosen atmosphere to ‘compose /… A description in concise // Prose, of the time before the bang, / the gorgeous vacancy,’ ‘And the sly almostness / Of atoms and particles…’ Unlike the light of ‘The stars’ doing their staple business, ‘the moon is blank, / Just a space to show // Where it might have / Been.’ The light of the Logos, as elsewhere in this book, the light of the Word, the plain, planned and plaining reason for all things, is made new in the poet’s more nuanced words.
In any case, all of these citations I’ve started by including pick up, clearly, on a thematic of passing, loss, absence, rather than of rosy presence. But they also indicate what might be construed as other aspects of this same theme, such as, the counterfactual as against the actual, the boons of indeterminacy as against the determinate, the (artistic) value of the contingent as opposed to the necessitated, a downplaying of the monumental, and overall, a quite resolutely happy debunking of easy transcendence, closure, or some sort of romance structure where all might be well with the world, God in his Heaven, so to speak. And although they are indeed like different versions of the same thing, I hope to deal with these different facets in some kind of orderly fashion, as a way of reading through the storying of this book – a book by turns sad, ironic, humorous, plain-spoken, paradoxical, but never in any sense unctuous.
There are many ways in which indeterminacy proves part of Tóibín’s poetic vision in this book. The one quatrain of ‘Cush Gap, 2007’ runs:
All night the sea-wind makes clear
Its deep antipathy to this house
Whose foundations I will steer
Tomorrow on a different course.
All that’s solid, as it were, melts here; like one of Tóibín’s heroes, Henry James (writing though about his contemporary, Joseph Conrad) Tóibín seems to ‘glory in a gap.’ In ‘Curves’ early on, a fantastic lyric of two quatrains – and a poem of more overt intensity than much of the expansive aesthetic in this book – while ‘The city curves’, we end with ‘there is / Some beauty. It is almost enough.’ Again, the ‘almost’ proves to be in a strange way more like enough said. Or, later, in a poem I see as paralleling ‘Curves’ in intensity, ‘In San Clemente’, the first two lines of the last four-lined stanza run: ‘Below the below there is more / And it is below that I belong to.’ Tóibín as I say, revels thematically in the interstices of the present, the positive. But the abyssal theme that runs through the book is contained throughout by clarity, not by any kind of self-importance, pomposity, or overbearing intentionality.
In ‘In Los Angeles’, an early poem and one that pursues the early mellow apocalyptic theme, we are made to imagine ourselves in the mind of, ‘The last man ever to walk a dog,’ and while the narrator speaks of his efforts to invoke God, ‘Even the dear old hymns would not,’ we learn, ‘Give light its shade, shade its dark.’ As against a more traditional God, we are made in this poem to wonder, idiomatically, where, ‘in the name of God’ people moving through their houses, ‘had left their phones, their / Glasses, their e-cigarettes, / Their take on what must now unfold.’ A nice novelistic pun there, in that verb at the end, rendering indeterminacy in two senses at least, temporal and spatial: what is the ‘time after time’ like, after all, but the time, as it were, when all comes apart? In ‘Morning’ there is ‘no sweetness in the heavens’ air.’ We are at ‘The end of something, taut, exact.’ There is paradox, again, closing here, in so far as the end is both precise as some-thing, but also an end at the end of things or thinghood. Finally, in the second part of the humorous poem, ‘The Nun’, another strangely playful debunking: his mother and brother dead, Tóibín finds he ‘can do nothing’ with their story, for:
There is no relationship
Between the night
And the endless night
In which they live now,
Where we will soon follow.
The sense of an ending (pace Frank Kermode’s famous book) is missing; a strange thing on the surface of things to happen for a story-teller as ingrained as Tóibín. Indeed, in ‘Two Grecos’ a woman-subject in a painting we assume, is evidence of a world turned out of sorts, if not quite upside down. ‘Nothing disturbed her except soft sounds’, ‘the creaking of stairs or pages turning, / The pulling back of sheets or a half sigh’; ‘Thunder comforted her, made her yawn.’ This is a good example of the way the monumental is downplayed, rigorously, in Tóibín’s poems. It is history with a pen, if you like, not, pace Nietzsche, with a hammer. In another painter poem, ‘Tiepolo’, much further on in the book, Tóibín’s persona wants only ‘to look // At the sky,’ and he chooses this as his ‘day-off / From peering // At Pilate, at flagellation, / At the crown of thorns.’ ‘Young Tiepolo’s sky // Is not his father’s sky.’ ‘His world is windless, / Clouds breeze in // And stay put,’ the painter not wanting ‘any more / Turbulence than was / Necessary.’ ‘Twilight, half-light,’ ‘…young Tiepolo / Must have smiled, // At how the skies he made, / Put his father’s skies / In the shade.’ On the next page, easy transcendence is once again mocked almost. In ‘Prayer To St Agnes’ Tóibín pleads for her to ‘open heaven’s gate / So I can see what really is / With no sweet terms to mask my fate…’. And then in the next poem, ‘Eve’, a poem of eight parts, we find a more sophisticated and complex version of this last sentiment being storied, counterfactually. Eve looks up the etymology of the word ‘paradise’: ‘…In all reality, // Paradise was nowhere much….’ And then Eve, replying to the notion of a return to paradise, declines the offer, wishing only for ‘yesterday to come / Again, wash itself over us, / Fondle us with its shredded beauty.’ This beautiful shredding, thus, like another kind of un-folding. And regarding Adam, who in the last section of this fabulous poem, has died ‘two years ago’, Eve wants only for ‘Adam’s fading eyes to see the sky, / Linger on the thought of what we tasted, // A beyond-place that had no end….’ The overt lack of ending here is about the adventure of the indefiniteness of a mortal life, as opposed to the banality of the infinite. Or, alternately, one might take ‘Open House’ as an eponymous metaphor for much of the book. The main protagonist at the end of the poem ‘supervises all that has been lost.
What the woman sees are sharp, clear things,
Which window picked up dawn light, what names were being called
When silence struck, how life and time seem vivid as they fade.
It seems that mutability and mortality in Tóibín’s vision are gifts, even if only necessary gifts, and not subjects for a thoroughgoing fearfulness, anxiety or plain regret. There is a presiding tone across Vinegar Hill that seems to revel in what just must be, and that is determined perhaps, to make the most of it, where the ‘making’ at hand is both practical and poetic.
Another version of the above small and partial beeline through the book, already indicated in part, can be seen by how much Tóibín celebrates the counterfactual, as opposed to the factual. I suppose this is what poetry is all about, as much as novels, say; or, perhaps better put, for the literary artist, perhaps counter-factuality just is the most signal fact that matters, as it were. Just so, in the title poem, ‘Vinegar Hill’, the hill becomes a tool for exploring shades of views and perspectives, temporal and spatial. But at the end a deep paradox closes the poem, as we learn of the pertaining ‘clouds’ that they are ‘Lost, with no strategy to speak of,
Yet resigned to the inevitable:
When the wind comes for them, they will retreat.
Until this time, they are surrounded by sky
And can, as yet, envisage no way out.
Again, it’s a bit like a metaphor for much of the book. Before the rock of the pending inevitable, the hard place of its opposite, just as inevitable. Something subtle and essential about one’s perspective on the temporal passage of a life of meaningful experience is intimated here by a spatial image. While passing is inevitable, waiting for that inevitability, living before it strikes, can be made to be just as inevitable. A kind of hale duplicity emerges – and it feels much like a redressing of one of Tóibín’s major novelistic subjects, Henry James’s major themes, about the sadness of the unlived life; that of, say, ‘Strether’ in The Ambassadors. And so, even if towards the close of the late-coming ‘Jericho’, ‘Dreams’ are ‘sliced by the sharp / light’ and ‘become the hard / facts of the here and now,’ in ‘High Up’, the headlights of a car approaching:
Shine with a purpose that hardly
Matters against the strength of things,
And then it matters more than anyone supposed.
What materializes in human experience is more than matter or what prosaically, matters. In ‘Thunder All Night’, Tóibín’s persona can jumpstart the poem with: ‘I have left it out: the beauty / Of slight things gathered and cast off.’ This it seems to me must be Tóibín in propria persona; the ‘almostness’ is telling once again, as though falling short or shy of completion were a way to be truer, or in a different sense, more complete. And so, the last way of parsing the set of dovetailing reading directions I’m deploying here, has to do with his prioritizing of the contingent or idiosyncratic details in things, as being what a novelist and story-teller must look for most; because truth to reality is in the interstices of clear and distinct states, is in the ambiguous, ambivalent and/or unexpected – which are only later necessitated, perhaps, by a narrative. These latter features of lived experience are what make a novel, for example, come-alive, and they are deeply pertinent in this first book of poetry by such an acclaimed novelist.
Reading, for example, ‘Variations On A Scene From Maeve Binchy’ (a poem whose title is about a novelist) is like reading different takes on an incident in the diary of a novelist: one famed like Henry James, say, or one, like Tóibín, famed a century later, for among other things reimagining a signal portion of James’s (imaginative) life in his The Master. And the fact that different takes on the meaning of the same incident are possible, indicates clearly that what any fact means is not uniform or necessitated; that there is effective room, an ‘open house’ for the workings of the imagination to imagine, then reimagine. Indeed, one of my favorite poems in Vinegar Hill is ‘Small Wonder.’ Here, Tóibín’s fellow artist, Titian, is seen to place an image of himself and his son at the bottom right corner of his great ‘Pietà’ like ‘a modest token, a small sign, / To be seen only by those who come / With an eye for such defenceless gifts.’ In the preceding stanza, the reader seeing him in Venice, Tóibín places a premium on the small (‘defenceless’) and incidental details: ‘a broken tile,’ ‘A plaque that has become indecipherable’, ‘A piece of slight sculpture attached / To a wall because no one knew where else / To put it.’ And so on. Wonder, which is the heart of the human as a reflective animal, is most wondrous among the chancy things in life, the happenstance. It’s the small and incidental things, Tóibín seems to be saying, that make up the art of life, and thus, the life of art.
Accordingly, witness Tóibín here, one year before Vinegar Hill, in the reimagined mind of Thomas Mann; this is from his 2021 work, The Magician. Mann is beginning conceiving and working on his The Magic Mountain.
The ordered days in this imagined Davos replaced the shapeless ones in the lowlands. The slow decline of the patients mirrored a sort of moral illness seeping its way into the life of the plain. But this was too simple. He would have to let life, rather than some theory of life, rule his book. He would have to make scenes full of chance and eccentricity….[i]
All the above given, however, it should be noted that there are other kinds of poems in this book as well. Some that are less steeped with such mild, illuminative paradox and sad irony, and that are more plain-spoken or humorous records of times gone by; whether it’s the record of the gay scene in Dublin over the decades preceding, registered with a light and engaging touch in ‘Dublin: Saturday, 23 May, 2015’, or, say, ‘Arafat In Tunis’ much later in the book, a poem just as entertaining and engaging, in which Tóibín is seen to flirt with the bodyguards of the Palestinian leader. That said, though, the hallmark of this quite assured and at times deeply-affecting volume, is a soft-souled probing of the lived and the felt, in ways that amplify the ordinary into art. And without wanting in any way to unduly label Tóibín as very much an Irish poet, I do think that some of his poetry in this collection comes close in manner and ethos to some of the work of poets like Michael Longley or Bernard O’ Donoghue. Though very different perhaps in subject matter, there remains a sense in this collection of what Fiona Sampson designated in her 2011 Bloodaxe, Music Lessons, ‘a rule of poetic density’, whereby, ‘the more complex a poem’s ideas are, the less baroque its versification may be…’[ii] Tóibín writes with immense and at times expansive clarity, but in doing so, is able to trigger multiform responses in his reader. A weathered, well-toured life emerges, all of its complexity and depth made redolent by a sure-footed lucidity. In Vinegar Hill Tóibín, now past middle-age, deploys a sustained vision by which the passing of things is relished, and made to go.
[i] Colm Tóibín, The Magician, Penguin Random House, 2021, p. 112-113.
[ii] Fiona Sampson, Music Lessons, Hexam: Bloodaxe Books, 2011, p. 36.
Omar Sabbagh is a widely published poet, writer and critic. With two novellas and much short fiction, some prize-winning, published to date, he is currently at work on a contracted Lebanese verse narrative, The Cedar Never Dies, due to be published with Northside Press in 2022; as well as having a volume of his collected short fiction, Y Knots, due to be published with Liquorice Fish in 2023. He is currently Associate Professor of English at the American University in Dubai (AUD).