Poems to disturb your peace

New poetry collections by James O'Toole, Lorna Shaughnessy, and Trevor Conway

Trevor Conway.

Trevor Conway.

THERE ARE people, those with the better variety of accent, and PhDs mostly purchased for them their parents, who will use the fact that James O’Toole’s debut poetry collection, The Street, is self-published to try and dismiss it.

I know O’Toole went the self-publication route because he wanted the book to be out in his 60th year on this increasingly frail planet of ours. I have no doubt James’ next collection, which I have seen evidence of in the advanced poetry workshop at Galway Arts Centre, will be picked up by one Ireland’s poetry publishers, if they have any sense, which of course many of them do not.

O’Toole’s poetry is an exquisite combination of wildness and erudition. Like me, James did Latin at school. Unlike me, he paid attention in class. His poems are seasoned with surprising Latin phrases: “I am the proud father/ f a seven month old daughter/so I wonder/does cogito ergo sum apply here?” At his best O’Toole is one of funniest poets there is. His poem ‘Template for the Future’ could have been written by Villon or John Wilmot: “Drink water. Eat well./Have sex with rich old virile white women only…”

Lorna Shaughnessy’s well worked poems are things of often disturbing beauty. I opened her new collection Anchored (Salmon Publishing ) on the auspiciously numbered page 13 and was hit with the opening stanza of ‘South’: “The old god has ridden hard all night,/his sweat-flecked steeds straining to clear/the sky of familiar cloud.” This is poetry of the highest quality, not a slack word, the language using every muscle.

Anchored is the third collection Shaughnessy has published with Salmon. It is, to be polite about it, an absurdity that her work has not received more widespread critical attention and the audience which would come with that. In particular, it is incredible her work was not considered for inclusion in the somewhat notorious, Cork dominated, by invitation only, recent special Irish issue of US based magazine Poetry. But it is their loss, and a symptom of that magazine’s decline. A major theme she interrogates here, in poems such as ‘The Dark Topography’, is the undercurrent of loss running not very far beneath the surface of Northern Ireland’s patched together peace: “There is a country known only to the bereaved of that time,/a place not seen through the car windows of passers-by…”

The fantastically titled Evidence of Freewheeling (Salmon Publishing ) is Trevor Conway’s much anticipated debut poetry collection. Reading it, the first thing that struck me was many of Conway’s poems have a surface impersonality of which TS Eliot would approve. He is certainly not a this-is-what-happened-to-me-last-week type of poet. Several poems are observations of a somewhat philosophical variety.

In ‘Inspired’ he tells us “I have no great theory,/Just words,/Like an old friend/Returning in new clothes.” ‘Trimester’ is a rigorous time bomb of a poem which makes the reader face some of the most difficult questions going. An embryo speaks from the womb: “All I know is darkness,/Starved of any sight/ take the blood of another”. Conway’s un-sentimentality makes this not-yet-born being sound almost like a vampire. But the rougher questions emerge later in the poem: “I could lead a country,/Or save a stranger’s life./I could be your lover./I could even rape your wife.” Some poets are content to feed the chattering classes nice sounding morsels, the intellectual equivalent of comfort food; in contrast Conway is a big poet. Long may he continue to quietly disturb the peace.

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