The unusual health of the Galway poetry scene

EVELYN WAUGH said you should always give positive reviews to your friends, as it is terribly rude to give a bad review to a book you have not actually read.

Waugh’s comment came to mind as I approached this review because, although I have read each of these poetry collections from cover to cover, I do know the four poets in question. Two of them, Deirdre Kearney and Mary Hanlon, are participants in the advanced poetry workshop at Galway Arts Centre. That said, I do not, as far as I remember, owe any of them money, and I’ve been known to give mixed reviews to friends in the past and have the scars to prove it.

Such interests declared, it’s a reflection of the unusual health of the Galway poetry scene that there are four new books of poetry to be reviewed here - The Essential Guide to Flight by Celeste Augé (Salmon Poetry ), At Grattan Road by Gerard Hanberry (Salmon Poetry ), Spiddal Pier by Deirdre Kearney (Lapwing Press ), and Dear Beloved, by Mary Hanlon (Lapwing Press ).

And before the Basil Fawltys start their predictable grumble about standards having gone to hell, none of these is a naïve collection rushed into print. Reading each of them it is obvious that the poems have been worked on and worked on some more with great love and unfailing attention to those details which, in the end, are the making of any poem.

In The Essential Guide to Flight, Celeste Augé shows herself to be a versatile poet who has very much come of age. ‘I Dream in Solid Pine’ is wryly confessional: “The bed is solid, framed in pine./It passed the shake test/the day we bought it, tired/as always, in a hurry.”

However, in a poem such as ‘Coming Home’ she shows herself seriously capable of writing in voices other than her own: “The doctor says it has spread./My early days bloom every time/I close my eyes, red dots/of cherries we stole from Fox’s tree.”

A stand out poem is the wonderful ‘Email Me’, which mixes science and religious doubt in a way that would probably cause a small amount of steam to be emitted from each of Prof Richard Dawkins’ ears.

At Grattan Road is Gerard Hanberry’s third collection of poetry. ‘The Earth Circles The Sun’ is a moving poem about a school friend with a “big head of red hair” who was killed while on a tour of UN duty with the Irish army in the Lebanon.

The poem is light and jokey most of the way, recalling their classroom escapades, and then hits the reader with the devastating last few lines: “a sniper put a bullet in his head./His red hair an easy target,//even from a mile away,/like the sun, it was said,/against that perfect Lebanese sky.”

‘Manhood’ is a nice piece of near absurdism inspired by an article he read about “the museums of the world/where curators store all the penises hacked/in former times from ancient marble figures”.

This is a fine book full of too many good poems to mention.

Spiddal Pier shows Deirdre Kearney to be a poet who can write about anything, from the great and terrible issues of the day – there are poems about the Iraq war and the Omagh bomb – to reality TV and cowboy novels.

In ‘Saturday 7th March 2009’ Deirdre mentions both Jaffa cakes and Jade Goody in a poem about the murder by the Real IRA of two British soldiers at Masereene Barracks, Co Antrim.

A favourite is her ‘Hypothetical History of Ireland’: “What if James Connolly had survived 1916?/Would we be the former Soviet Union of Ireland?” There’s a question to keep socialists of every stripe up all night.

‘Arts Centre’ takes an affectionate look at the venue where our poetry workshops take place. Who, I wonder is “the tall urgent man,/Bare feet in sandals” at whom Deirdre has Lady Gregory’s ghost looking?

Dear Beloved by Mary Hanlon is a collection I am delighted to have seen born. Mary has a subversive inability to avoid telling the unvarnished truth, which makes her poems quite startling, as in ‘How To End A Relationship’: “My methods don’t work,/I’ve tried/ …’goodbye’ only lasts/until the next time./Even death doesn’t end things,/memories inhabit the conscience.”

‘Waiting For Broadband’ is a satirical sestina about the rubbish we talk and ‘Ode To Ballinasloe’ an ironic ode to her home town which calls to mind Philip Larkin’s poem about Coventry, ‘I Remember, I Remember’. ‘Thirst’ is an excellent poem in praise of Hugo Chavez.

The day she first presented it at the Arts Centre workshop, Mary came up to me afterwards and said she thought she was developing “socialist tendencies”. I told her I know what that can be like and gave her absolution.

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