I FIRST heard Neil McCarthy read his poems in 1998 at the open-mic in the now long defunct Apostasy Café, Dominick Street, back when Neil was a university student, Bertie Ahern was popular, and history had temporarily ended.
Later, Neil McCarthy was a leading figure in the spoken poetry scene which grew up around the Cúirt Poetry Grand Slam and North Beach Poetry Nights. Ten years ago his poetry was already vastly superior to that of your average Holly McNish wannabe who can these days be typically found wiggling around a government-sponsored stage pretending to hate the establishment.
McCarthy has read his poetry around the world, from Los Angeles to Australia, and is a captivating performer who has on occasion – and I’ve witnessed this – woken the otherwise dead with his words. However, as his new collection, Stopgap Grace (Salmon Poetry ) shows, his work also has the substance to survive the absence of his speaking voice and is just as pleasurably thought-provoking when read on the page.
His poems are like love songs to all the places he has visited and lived, from California – “I expected them to tell me that my bacon/had come from a happy pig, one that had had a full life,/was corn fed and had free range, did yoga in the mornings” – to Vienna, where he now lives with his wife and child – “I imagined naked the girl at the bar in Café Carina,/her skin surrendering tattoos her parents would/never have approved of” – to Russia – “There are mirrors in the ice pools on the roads/and I am a ghost yet to be reflected.”
McCarthy is a lyric poet of the first rank. Some unnamed ache floats close to the surface of his best poems but never exactly reveals itself. And then, in ‘The Widow’, an elderly immigrant forces a rose into his hand in Austria, and the fact history is back on is acknowledged: “Twenty years since the Wall came down;/since, as a child on Christmas Day,/Ceausescu keeled over on my television set./We deliberately cut the knees out of our jeans/and taped Sinead O’Connor off the radio./ / In Museum’s Quartier I considered the rose,/the widow in her mantle of repose,/and wondered how far we had come.”
McCarthy has come a long way since that Monday night I first saw him nervously read his poems aloud. If you like poetry, or even if you think you do not, you must buy this book.
Stopgap Grace will be launched by Little John Nee at The Black Gate Cultural Centre, Francis Street on Tuesday February 6 at 7pm. See www.neilmccarthypoetry.com