AMERICA, WHERE Eamonn Wall has been resident since the early 1980s, is, as we know, a place where the Irish tend to become very Irish indeed.
However, in terms of his writing style, Wall’s biggest influences are the American Beat writers of late 1950s and afterwards, and this can clearly be seen in his new collection Sailing Lake Mareotis (Salmon Poetry ).
For him, The Beats, et al, are the great liberators who allow him to start a poem, in which the narrator meets an unwelcome ghost from his Irish schoolboy past in a café in the American West, with the deceptively casual lines: “A gray man seats himself beside me. Says it’s/OK, I’m not about to place my hand discreetly/Upon your knee.”
Later in the same poem the speaker expresses reservations, to put it mildly, about the nationalist rhetoric of yesteryear “Fr Murphy,/The Croppy Boy and PH Pearse, all and sundry/Bunk that passed for wisdom then.”
From its quiet beginning the poem builds powerfully. The collection closes with the 20 page satire ‘Actaeon’s Return’ about a country whose banks have gone bust and whose former “government of rogues” are now in exile “in Miami’s beach-side/Bars among sundry king-/Pins of illegal trades.”
In Wall’s poem, the societal collapse which followed the death of the banks leads to the rise of a movement called New Dawn Patriotism, which expels foreigners and seems to me a kind of cross between the Continuity IRA and the conspiracy theorist/Jim Corr wing of the Occupy movement. Sailing Lake Mareotis is a strong new collection by a poet whose work should be much better known than it is.
On the back cover of Gold Rays (The Universal Publishing Group ), the new collection of poems by Kathleen Maddy, we are told that the author “has been touched by the hand of God and has allowed divinity to pour onto these pages…”
It is undeniable that some of the greatest poems in the English language have been written by poets whose primary inspiration was religious: John Milton’s ‘On The Late Massacre In Piedmont’, with its powerful opening “Avenge O Lord thy slaughter’d Saints”, is a marvellous putting into words of 17th century Protestant radicalism.
More recently, in the poems of RS Thomas belief is again and again tested against the tough realities of life in rural Wales. In contrast Gold Rays includes 100 poems with lines like “Pray to Jesus to walk the path/Courage to heal the pain past”; “Totus Tuus the chanted grace/Blessed John Paul, behold a saint” or “Teach us dear Lord to connect to soul/Christ, a ragman adorned with gold”.
That last line is not at all bad, but mostly this reads like a New Age self help book with a dollop of Christianity thrown in to stiffen the mix. A poet preaching to the choir about the rightness of his/her beliefs does not make for good poetry.
The last time I read a poem as weak as Maddy’s one about the impending sainthood of the late Pope John Paul II was when one night, on some dark corner of the internet, I stumbled across Pablo Neruda’s ‘Ode To Josef Stalin