Poetry on the political end of the spectrum

New collections from Karen J McDonnell and Karl Parkinson

THE NEW poetry collections by Karen J McDonnell, This Little World published by Doire Press, and Butterflies Of A Bad Summer, by Karl Parkinson, published by Salmon, have two things in common.

Both are by writers early on in their careers - McDonnell’s collection is her debut – and both see writing poetry as often being a political act. McDonnell’s poems reference Syria, the hunger strikes, and the Third Reich; while Parkinson’s name-check Malcolm X, Fidel Castro, and others on that end of the political spectrum.

McDonnell worked for many years in international banking in Dublin. Her poems are formally assured, like the sonnet for Magda Goebbels – wife of Josef – in which the lady in question, having killed her children: “Out in the cold Berlin morning she stands./She swallows cyanide drenched in their names...//She clasps Hedda’s milk tooth – a final treasure,/Magda’s husband shoots her – for good measure.”

McDonnell is drawn towards the political dark. However, my favourite poem here, ‘A Bad Dose’, is a glorious satire in the style of Wendy Cope about a blocked writer who checks into the local A&E in search of a cure and finds the place “completely overrun by adverbs”, a condition which said poet catches: “Staff walk briskly, wards are run efficiently/patients watch guardedly./Nurses kindly fetch water,/gently insert cannulas...”

Less successful is ‘Glory O’, a poem in two parts which implies there was nothing more than thuggery and intimidation to the anti-interment demonstrations in 1971 and the H-Block marches a decade later. This smacks of posh liberalism of the Colm Tóibín variety which is all for the Catalans, the Palestinians, and the Bolivian tree people but finds the Bogside a little, well, grubby.

Parkinson’s poems are formally far looser than McDonnell’s; for better or for worse there’s not a sonnet in sight. Among the giants on whose shoulders Parkinson attempts to perch are Whitman, Rimbaud, and Malcolm X. Parkinson’s lines are long, except when they are extremely short; his tone conversational, Dublin inner-city, street.

In ‘Making Love To Frida Kahlo’ he writes “Tell fat Diego to fuck off,/and let’s you and I dance/in the Mexican dust,/with monkeys at our side.” His elegy for his nephew, Graham Parkinson who died in his twenty-second year is the centrepiece of this collection. Anyone who has had someone close to them die far too young should read this poem, every line of it dripping with compassion and empathy.

The witty ‘Poem for My Body’ is a rare example of an Irish male poet writing about his own physicality: “I smile,/because I still have a head/and to go grey is wonderful”. The final stanza of ‘To Write Something That Will Last’ is one of the truest things written by an Irish poet this century: “Words pure as spring morning,/that stink like a dog’s shit/when coming out of the mouths/of presidents at inauguration speeches,/but rise again like mountains from secondhand books/in the hands of poor boys and girls...”

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