—Two In Brief—
By Peter Riley.
and now they range
by Karl O’Hanlon
Guillemot Press 2016 | 30pp, card-bound. | £8.00
KARL O’HANLON’S HIGHLY-WROUGHT, intensely concentrated poetry continually presents problems of various kinds, which can be solved, or forgiven, or sometimes bypassed, through the reader’s collaboration in the manifestly earnest business of constructing the poem as a progression through its material to an outcome. They are all written from the inside, which means nothing is explained, but the scenes, stories, pictures, places, events, are invariably spoken as something with which reader and poet are already familiar. There is no need to detail them; it is more important to get on with the central business, the meditations, truths, surprises, lessons etc. which only poetry can draw from them, which is to say that the poem to be created has priority over its subject. The truths are poetical truths. This does not usually feel like the aestheticism it probably derives from, if that is understood as a turning aside from experience in favour of endorsed forms of attraction; it is more as if experience is subsumed into and illuminates the craft.
The poems handle miscellaneous material in working this process, most of it Irish: stories, histories, paintings, massacres… which are identified precariously in casually dropped names or oblique and summary indications of event or place. But recognising where attention is being drawn is not the only, nor perhaps the principal, task set before the reader. The mode constantly throws up unforeseeable and possibly inexplicable transitions of sense, within or beyond figuration. These are important definitions of O’Hanlon’s poetical manner and the success of the poems largely relies on them, only occasionally, I think, lapsing into acts of blockage. For all the ranges of his subjects, I couldn’t show his flair better than by one image in the first two lines of the poem “To Hart Crane” —
Those great undersea blisters
house your bones.
I can’t think of anything to connect the word “blisters” to anything else, to Hart Crane or to the sea bed or to any physical process involving bone and salt water, or to anything down there the physical appearance of which might resemble blisters or bear the emotional distaste of the word or stand for a mental or physical condition of any relevance, including the repeated pressure on the skin which causes blisters. If you go on speculating like this you end up being silly: blisters are not nice things to have and throwing yourself into the Gulf of Mexico is also not nice…”blisters” is not a simile or a symbol, and it is not a metaphor and it’s not metonymy. Nor is it surrealism. It is not anything. But it is perfectly right and makes a good strong opening to the poem—this is obvious. How it is right I think it is beyond me to say, except that the ponderous tone of the sentence helps, and if forced one might have recourse to the whole ambience of the word in relation to Hart Crane’s life and death in some more serious and specific way than “not nice”. The rest of the poem goes–
So near Christmas the sea
presents the sun its rearranged
face. Lovers trace scentings
(‘O my pelagic! O errant!’).
Torments of little bells. Where
the protected panther slinks
by Seminole junkyards and casinos
they close their stubborn lashes.
Love’s work is its loss, Orphic
straining into the black lava
of its aftermath.
On the quay,
with a squall cruising the spray
still hours off.
which I leave to show O’Hanlon at his most dense and un-pin-downable as well as a rolling shifting figuration he sometimes gets into, and the movement which many of his poems have towards important realisations drawn from the subject. There are also less opaque poems of various modes, and a particularly fine one on the massacre of the Jews at York. The direction of all the linguistic shifts and halts is clearly towards an objective condition of the poetical text.
There is a permanent withholding of needed notes. You will not get very far without Google, since very few of the subjects are anything like common knowledge. I investigated about 20 problems in this way, mostly single words not in my vocabulary, and scored 15. The first of two quite substantial poems involving 19th Century Belfast, the Batt Family and Purdydown House, which looked daunting, was quite easily contextualised. The second, involving one, or two, persons called Lundy, daunted me completely, nor could I connect the epigraph from Yeats. There is nevertheless a lot of substance in this poem. Both the paintings which are described in poems can be seen on the web, though the second took some finding — a poem called “The Blue Bridge” and mentioning “Breton” which I assumed to concern willow pattern porcelain and André Breton, but was about a commercial poster of Brooklyn Bridge by one Laurie Breton. “Flusker” is a dialect term for “ruffle”. And so on. I was once very influenced by American poets who declared “explanation is demeaning to the author and to the reader”. This cannot of course be right, as it would mean that everybody’s interior life coincided with everybody else’s.
I mention this aspect not to complain harshly — I enjoy chasing words in this way. This intriguing and in several instances inspiring booklet is very handsomely produced by Guillemot Press, with art-work by Kate Walters.
NO ONE WITH a passable knowledge of the south-west coast of Ireland will have any great need of Google to get through Daragh Breen’s book. Otherwise a map would be enough. The poems inhabit that corner of Ireland as their home but find themselves in other places too from time to time, and one of the book’s four sections concerns Ned Kelly, the Nolanesque Australian bushranger, which doesn’t take us very far from the Emerald Isle. You wouldn’t call it “pastoral”; these places haunt the poet, and they haunt him with their pasts, their ghosts telling phantasmal tales of animal and human wrenched apart and brutally forced together, their elemental conflicts, and a whole unremembered and fictitious world constructed out of their silence as it penetrates our present tense. Not folklore or myth or legend: there is no room here for Deirdre of the Sorrows or Fergus mac Róich, neither for Michael Collins nor Eva Gore-Booth nor any of them. I wouldn’t preclude some reverberation from the meaning of mac Róich: “son of the great horse” in view of poem-tales such as “War Horse” on which man and horse are grafted together, nor of legendary hints in similar poems concerning bulls and seals, but I don’t see that it helps very much. Breen’s human-animal conjunction are willed acts; the animals are worn as masks or clothing.
There is an almost constant sense of removal to a primitive or even primeval theatre, with stress on physical cruelty enacted on self or other, but all the weird tales and violent images happen now, through the agency of the single self that imagines them, the poet, who at least once declares the animal-human unity which must under-write these events—
These sunsets let the
beasts that we are know that we are
about to be released from winter’s
labyrinth, and led stamping into the new
I suppose you could call it subjective, a word of uncertain shades of meaning between accusation and pure description. Certainly it is not the hard objectivity by which some poets (such as Karl O’Hanlon) seek to drive the power of self from the poem by ever new twists and faults of language, in search of accuracy. It is a question of what seems (or can be made to seem) as against what actually is. Breen himself says at the end of a preface, that after contemplating the first representations of the rural poor of places like Aran as a form of spectacle, “I began to trace the lineage of my ghosts in the air around me.” Only superficially does this presage a social-historical agenda. The ghosts are not peasant ghosts but animals, witches, river-gods and all sorts of phantasmagoria, and the principal format is the poem as tale, many of them metamorphic, involving humans adopting animal disguises and merging into them. A man passes on to his son the horse’s head he wears as a mask, Ned Kelly’s iron mask is removed after his death and there is nothing behind it. Wolves are particularly important—
it’s hard not to re-imagine
a time when local wolves
were asked to be god-parents,
and a she-wolf
hidden in the hollow
of a dead oak tree,
was given the last rights by a priest,
her pelt half-peeled back
to reveal the aging woman
But there are intermittent pieces quite different in place and story, though sharing the same kind of grim fatalism, such as a straight depiction of a white-tailed eagle that someone has shot, a brutal anecdote from Aberdeen, castrated Alsatians on the Italian opera stage, Harpo Marx on the Dursey Island cable car in the guise of evangelist, and a quite serene timed itinerary of high tide moving southwards down the coast from Achill to Cork harbour. This is when the ghosts arrive, rather like the tides—
This is where the ghosts come ashore,
peeling the noise of gulls from their tired bodies like sleep,
trailing tide-lines of salt
along the winter beaches in their wake.
which I hope suggests that the writing itself, the poetry of it, has more to it than accounts of the book’s themes can indicate. It is quite heavily figural, the wild and incredible happenings connected to the earth by substantiating metaphors, re-imagining them back to the western shore lands. And many times the writing exceeds its allotted task—
And with us come the salmon,
returning to their ancestral spawning pools
with their inherent memories of snow and ice
encamped there like the announcement
of the death of a king.
It is tempting to view Daragh Breen as a kind of Irish super-Ted-Hughes: plenty of the torn flesh and plenty of the darkness, but less, much less, of the interiorisation.
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
Peter Riley’s latest book is Due North (UK/US) (Shearsman, 2015). A collection of his “Poetry Notes’ columns appears in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint.
Ed. Note—This series of reviews, tagged ‘Two in Brief’, comprises a set of double-notices.