EAMONN WALL has, over the past two decades, written a body of work that has made him one of Ireland’s leading diaspora poets, though he is nothing like as famous as he should be.
Born in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Wall has lived in the United States since 1982, first in New York City; then Omaha, Nebraska; and now in St Louis, Missouri. As well as being a prolific poet he is also a fine literary critic, of the less chilly variety, and author of two excellently readable books of cultural/literary criticism - From The Sin-é Cafe to the Black Hills (2000 ) and Writing the Irish West (2011 ). Wall has been, and continues to be, hugely supportive of the work of younger Irish poets; as a critic he is always the advocate, never the gatekeeper.
Junction City: New & Selected Poems 1990-2015 gathers together, alongside new work, poems from Wall’s six previous poetry collections, the first of which was published in 1994. His poetry has an openness and, in general, a positivity which brings to mind the work of great American poets such as Frank O’Hara and William Stafford.
One thing that struck me is the number of poems in which the narrator is driving some long distance or other. In ‘Great Sand Dunes/Colorado’: “We drive/on the flat roads/of a high plateau//in the Rocky Mountains/to the huge dunes”; while in ‘The Westward Journey’ the poem’s speaker is “Setting out on the westward journey/with eight suitcases and two cats.”
In poems such as ‘Blues for Rory’ [Gallagher] and ‘The Bakehouse’, Wall’s poems have a casual conversational quality that brings to mind the work of Paul Durcan, though his writing is altogether less flabby than some of Durcan’s later work, for example, from ‘The Bakehouse’: As Seán Lemass planned the/great leap forward, I walked/a concrete path between high-limed walls on the dark/passageway to the bakehouse/by sheds full of coke and anthracite/bottles of methylated spirits hidden/under blocks in the corner.
In one of the finest poems here, ‘All The Worshippers’, Wall goes for a Sunday walk through the part of St Louis in which he lives, past “churches full/from Bompart to Lockwood”. It is a poem full of the wide religious tolerance that is one of the foundation stones of the United States and, as he goes, taking in the smells of “early/backyard barbecues”, Wall reflects that to walk, or indeed, to cook are, perhaps, just other ways of praying.
‘The Road’ is a short poem which hits the reader like a small electrical charge: “To begin again/after/travelling//the white car/outside/the motel//to have to/again/have faith enough//to pull/one door firmly/then walk away.” In just 26 words Wall says more than many would in a whole book.
The publication of this fine collection of his best poems should, if there is any small bit of justice in the world at all, help establish Eamonn Wall as one of the leading Irish poets of the post-Heaney generation.