Sunday, February 18, 2018

The most vicious poem I've ever written...

When I write poetry I try to aim for the 'true and the good' in almost all cases. However, occasionally, one writes something that is perhaps neither of these things, motivated more by anger than anything else. They are your dirty secrets poems and I try not to share them. (TS Eliot had his book of 'dirty' poems that he circulated among friends for many years!).

That said, there is a poem in my second collection about the end of a relationship called 'Old Shoes' which really was very harsh. I had to think about including that piece long and hard before publishing. It is tough but ultimately felt necessary to the book and also true. Sometimes life is like that, I suppose, and we must write in the mode of hurt, resentment and betrayal now and then.

For now, though, here is the harshest poem I think I've ever written - locked away till now in the vaults. It is very short and all the more damning for that. Sometimes that feels good also - if guiltily so. It doesn't need much by way of extra explanation.


Skindeep like your life,
your tattoo-design wedding invite.


As a bonus track, in honour of cracked mirrors, here's another, more recent one:

Mirror Mirror

Mirror mirror on the wall
who's the most deluded on them all?
She who looks upon her face
and sees no fault upon upon her grace,
so certain then of her own command
that everyone else in the world be damned.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Meeting the Poet - memoir

In late 1999 I co-edited (with Theo Dorgan) the anthology Watching the River Flow: A Century in Irish Poetry. In part, we funded the book by making available a limited edition of copies signed by the ten section editors. In January 2000, I was fortunate enough to go to Thomas Kinsella's home in County Wicklow to get him to sign these copies. It is always difficult to say who your favourite poet is, but in my case Kinsella - at his best - always comes top of that list. As you might expect, I decided to detail our encounter though with no sense that this meeting was as special to Kinsella as it was to me. Here is the piece I wrote, a few years after the fact. I'm happy to say that at nearly 90, Tom Kinsella is still going strong and creating wonderful work and is receiving much deserved (extra) attention in recent years.

Meeting the Poet

Love, it is certain, continues till we fail,
Whenever (with your forgiveness) that may be...

                                                                        ‘Phoenix Park’

As we bumped over a pothole the car made a sudden adjustment veering momentarily off the road. I turned away from the window. My girlfriend, Paola, was driving. She licked the paper of a roll-up which she held in her left hand, then glanced at me, a smile flickering across her lips.

“So, what’s he like? This Thomas what’s-his-name?”

I recovered the lighter from the floor and leaned over to light her cigarette. “Very intimidating by all accounts.”

Paola inhaled, held the smoke in her lungs for a moment, then exhaled. “Great. At least he lives somewhere remote.”

We drove deeper into the mountains. Beyond the rain-streaked window, I saw a burnt-out car rusting on the hillside. The sky had grown heavy with rain cloud, the slate bowl of the sky fringed by bronze that was reflected on the surface of the lake down below us in the valley. It seemed like the perfect stage for a Kinsella poem: an ancient landscape with its primal weather; the ochre of the decaying car lying amongst the granite boulders scattered on the mountainside by retreating glaciers.

In the boot of the Daihatsu Charade, bubble-wrapped and boxed, were special editions of a poetry anthology on which I had worked – with Theo Dorgan – as general editor. We had managed to get the signatures of the nine other section editors, but Thomas Kinsella had proved elusive. He had recently returned from a visit to America and was reluctant to travel to Dublin. I volunteered to go to his house in Wicklow to make the task as painless as possible – or, perhaps more truthfully, that I would get to meet him.


The Kinsellas’ house was hidden from the narrow country road by a wall of oak and hazel and pinned in from behind by the steep incline of a large hill, rainwater spilling down its side in white threads that gathered in a stream at its base. As I lifted the dead weight of the box of books from the boot of the car, a woman in her early seventies emerged from the porch with a wry smile. She introduced herself to us as Eleanor. It was a peculiar feeling seeing her standing there in front of the old farmhouse in flesh and blood. She had been frozen in my imagination as the younger woman in the poem ‘Phoenix Park’ who lay “brilliant with illness, behind glass”.

That poem had been written long before, but I had heard she had been ill again for many years. I was surprised by her skittery vitality as she darted to the boot and lifted the smaller, second box. I followed her into the large, open-plan living room and placed the box onto the mahogany table at its centre. She joked that Tom was in his garret and would be down shortly, then whisked Paola away to help her make lunch.

I stood in the room for a time alone in the gloom of rain-light that seeped in from a window, which stretched almost the entire length of the gable. Above me were exposed rafters and the vault of the ceiling. Along the walls bookcases, and a stark ink drawing of a black crow, an illustration by Louis le Brocquy from The Táin. On the opposite wall there was a Navaho wall hanging, its intricate pattern of earthen-coloured lines reminding me, strangely, of a schematic for an electronic circuit board.

As I began to take the books from the boxes a man appeared in the doorway, instantly recognisable from the photograph on the back of the Collected Poems: the thick glasses and grey beard, “the dry, down-turning mouth” on which one could never imagine a smile forming. I was surprised, though, by Kinsella’s physical size as he stood there in a leather waistcoat. The rumours of his decline seemed premature. He held out his hand and simply introduced himself as Tom, then sat down at the table. It appeared he wasn’t a man interested in small talk.

I opened the first book on the title page. He took an elegant silver-nibbed pen from his inside pocket and signed, with total concentration, in a spiky hand. There was an awkward pause before I opened the next one and he signed again. We continued in this ritual for perhaps half an hour, the silence of the room punctured only by the sound of rain tapping on the window and the occasional laughter that echoed down the hallway from the kitchen.

Just as Tom had finished signing the last book, Eleanor craned her head around the doorframe and announced cheerily that lunch was ready. Tom seemed a little surprised that I was being invited to stay. As I gathered up the books and put them back into the box, I was overcome with the need to tell him that it was reading his poem ‘Mirror in February’ in school that really got me interested in poetry. I realised I may not have another chance so I said, “If it hadn’t been for ‘Mirror in February’ I’d probably be doing something different with my life. It’s the poem that made me want to write.”

After the minutes of rain measured silence I thought my confession must have sounded ridiculous, all the practiced eloquence in the car on the way to this encounter falling apart into a blurted platitude. He stood back with what seemed like genuine surprise, and smiled, “Go way. Really. Tell me.” He waited expectant for me to provide a bigger explanation. Despite having read most of his work, I suddenly felt self-conscious and tongue-tied, as though the weight of posterity on me was too great in that room. I could only muster, “It was the first poem I encountered that was written from a world I recognised.”

As we stood there beside the imposing table, he seemed to relax a little, began to discuss the choices certain editors had made. This had been a difficult part of the process of putting the book together. Theo and I had wanted all the editors to meet up but because the logistical difficulties involved, we decided to send lists around to each so there was no overlap in poems, or over-representation of a given poet.

Tom had chosen to make his selection from the 1930s. He spoke about the failure of Irish poets to grasp modernism. Despite his abrasiveness, at times, on the subject, I detected a sense of isolation on his behalf. No Irish poet had embraced elements of the Modernists more than Kinsella and his profile, it seemed to me at least, had suffered as a consequence due to his work's apparent experimentalism and ‘difficulty’. 

He grew silent for a moment, then mentioned how he had grappled with whether to select anything by Brian Coffey. He put it to me bluntly: “Do you think I should’ve included him?”

I hadn’t expected that. Again, I had a chance to say something incisive, make an impression on my poetic mentor. But I’d never read Coffey and knew for some reason that to admit as much would meet with his disappointment, or perhaps even disapproval. I answered with an attempt at authority: “Well, some of his work is quite interesting, but I think your choice of Devlin was better.”

He nodded. I suspected my opinion didn’t matter to him, but it was surprisingly generous gesture to pretend that it did. 

At that moment Eleanor reappeared in the doorway. I was relieved that my knowledge would not be tested any further through more discussion. Tom and I followed her into the kitchen where we found Paola sitting at the pine table with a relaxed smile, and a mug of tea in her hand.


 As we drove home in the darkness, Paola and I were quiet. I thought of the car out there somewhere in the darkness, rusting a little more in the rain, the boulders still fixed where they had come to rest so long ago, infinitesimally more weathered and rounded. In a way, it was an apt image for the encounter with the poet; his solemn work with the hint of something ancient and immoveable; my dislocation in such a landscape; my fumbling in his formidable presence.

            There was the poem I wished I had talked to him about: a poem about Eleanor, sick in a hospital in the Phoenix Park. Over lunch all four of us had talked for several hours about their time in America and, at Tom’s insistence, religion, a topic that seemed to fascinate him. (I was a semi-practicing Buddhist at the time.) Then, sitting around the table by the bright pink Aga stove, Eleanor then told us about an illness which left her in a state of near-paralysis for many years. After a time, she had recovered unexpectedly and completely.

I thought of all Tom’s probings and doubts as we sat there in the bright, airy space drinking tea. I remembered the Navaho rug in the dark living room, its coloured grids and pattern of connections – that phrase in ‘Phoenix Park’ about “the tissue of order”. But the poem was about more than order. It attempts to answer the question: “What was in your thoughts… saying, after a while, / I write you nothing, no love songs, anymore?”

 As we left the Kinsella’s house in the twilight, Eleanor and Tom stood in the bell of porch-light waving us off. Eleanor had told us to call in again if we were in the area. I knew we wouldn’t – or I wouldn’t have the courage.

The lights of Dublin spread out before us as Paola and I descended from the foothills towards the city, the bay a dark entrance scooped out of the grid of streetlights and housing estates. In the boot of the car, two boxes of books signed and ready to be delivered into the world. I had finally met the poet who first gave me the shock of excitement that words on the page can make as they struggle to “elicit order from experience.”  

But it was the question in the poem that drew my attention again. Like the poet and his wife in ‘Phoenix Park’, Paola and I had also made a journey before a departure. As we pulled up outside our flat in Mountpleasant Square, the rain finally eased. Paola opened the hall door for me as I carried the boxes up the narrow staircase, then placed them on the floor beside all the other boxes that were stacked about the room – separately labelled and divided in piles.

Soon, Tom and Eleanor would also pack up their life in Wicklow and leave that primal place to return to their second home in Philadelphia, both now seeming to exist as real people in my memory, but also, somehow, mythic figures frozen in a frieze in the porchlight, 'brilliant behind glass'.

Galway, 2004

Revised February 2018

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

'The Crossing' - new poem

I was asked to contribute a poem to an anthology entitled Noble Dissent (Beautiful Dragons Collaborations, 2017) which challenged the contributors a write a piece about an historical figure who fit the description of the title. Just prior to the request, I had watched Peter Ackroyd's brilliant BBC documentary series on the Romantic Poets and was particularly drawn to Wordsworth's experience of the French Revolution and the crushing sense of disappointment he felt in its aftermath. I can't help but wonder if the resulting piece somewhat strayed from the brief as intended (you can decide for yourself) but it was, nonetheless, a fascinating subject to approach. For those interested in the result, here's the poem: 

The Crossing

The earthquake is not satisfied at once
And in this way I wrought upon myself,
Until I seemed to hear a voice that cried,
"Sleep no more."

                       William Wordsworth, Prelude, Book X 

He arrives by carriage to the port of Calais, dismounts
and gets ready to depart with a ruptured longing.
What was it he was escaping from? – the cost of love
or the cost of terror, Annette somewhere else without him,
their daughter barely supping at her breast, oblivious
to the horror unfolding around her. Why did he flee
both Ideal and family? The question must be asked...
He had come with such great hope, yet found instead
a great despair, the cobbled street he so recently walked
now blood-stained and foul; Robespierre and the myriad
dead, their guilt consigning them to the will of the guillotine…
Such terrible things he has seen as the tricolours flutter
in the bright morning air above the hotel, patisserie and bar:
liberté, egalité, fraternité… but what of love? 
Was he, William, fool to imagine it differently, that such
beauty and nobility of spirit might so swiftly turn to peril,
the things he has witnessed here too much to carry?
Instead he holds two small cases and a ticket to England,
takes a step forward onto the gangway of the ship,
its sails readied and set to deliver him home
to all he has known, awaiting his servile return.
One day, he understands that he must write of this –
to try, at least, explain to Annette and their daughter
how it was he came to fail them.

Noel Duffy

Monday, October 30, 2017

John Milton - Sonnet 23

John Milton wrote this poem to his wife Katherine after her death and after his blindness had deprived him of an image of her face. It's truly quite heartbreaking, especially the last line as he wakes from his dream reverie of her to face again the blackness of his waking sight. No further words can express the sadness of this beyond the poem itself.

Sonnet 23

Methought I saw my late espoused saint
Brought to me, like Alcestis, from the grave,
Whom Jove's great song to her glad husband gave,
Rescu'd from death by force, though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom wash'd from spot of child-bed taint
Purification in the old Law did save,
And such as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind;
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin'd
So clear as in no face with more delight.
But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin'd,
I wak'd, she fled, and day brought back my night.


I was unaware of this poem till I saw/heard it on Amando Iannucci's truly excellent documentary about Milton from 2009. It is often commented that Satan, not God, gets all the best lines in Paradise Lost, but my one quibble with the documentary is at some point the presenter quotes lines from God to (I think) Adam and characterises these as drab and gnomic. I think he missed their significance as they are the most profound and subtle expression of the bestowing of 'free-will' on humanity by the 'deity' found anywhere in English language literature. You can make up your own mind. Here's the documentary.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

There is a light that enters a house... Franz Wright / David Sylvian

It's been a quiet time here at Ampersand, both in terms of my contribution and receiving visitors. I guess it is seasonal and this being summer things are quiet, naturally.

To break my silence, here is a wonderful collaboration. David Sylvian recorded some poems by Franz Wright, the Pulitzer winning American poet, in 2014. Wright was battling cancer at the time and what is most compelling about these poems is how directly Wright deals with his own mortality. Sylvian put these poems to a (continuous) musical setting and the result is a truly beautiful collaboration, released as the album There is a light that enters a house when no other house is in sight.

Franz Wright heard the finished record and, I have it on good authority, felt the project very worthwhile and satisfying. Sadly, he died, after long illness, in May 2015 around the time of the album's release.

Just to say, I don't like to post copyrighted material in full here on my blog. People like Sylvian, and Wright himself, gave us a gift in this piece and in many others. I decided to post it as it has been available on YouTube for some time now, so I can only assume Samadhi Sound don't object to it being so. If they ever do and pull it, that would be completely understandable.

In general, I would say that in contemporary culture the production of art simply isn't valued in monetary terms. Free, or near free, content is the technologist's dream and an artist's worse nightmare. If you enjoy this, please do support the artists involved in buying the recording (or by listening on Spotify) and also by buying the poetry collections that catch your eye. Trust me, this gives writers great encouragement.

Okay, enough of that. For now, here is this beautifully haunting piece. It is perhaps one for the poetry purest but more than worth the journey, though best listened to as late night fair as it runs to just over an hour. Sit back, recline and listen with an open mind. Hope you enjoy it as much as I have!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Four Poems - The Rochford Street Review: Special Irish Issue

I've been steadily working on a new book-length sequence of poems (currently titled Street Light Amber) and am delighted to report that four pieces from this sequence appear in The Rochford Street Review (out of Sydney, Australia) for their special issue on contemporary Irish poetry.

It is an excellent feature and you can full biographical information and poems by a host of Irish poets (the early mid-generation, I would call us) on their website.

You can find my four poems here and an extended biographical note with links to various interviews and reviews etc.

You can also read my introductory remarks, 'A Question at the Shoreline', written for the launch of David Butler's collection, All the Barbaric Glass, which took place at The Irish Writers' Centre, Dublin, at the end of March.

The other poets featured in this issue are: 

Afric McGlinchy
Paul Casey
Robyn Rowland
Adam White
Jessica Traynor
Susan Millar DuMars
David Butler
Doireann Ni Ghriofa
John Murphy
Annemarie Ni Churreain
Lizz Murphy
Breda Wall Ryan
Patrick Deeley
Kimberly Campanello.

You can find the full index and links to their poems here. There is truly excellent work to be found so absolutely worth the time to browse the full contents.

The issue was edited by poet Mark Roberts.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

'How to Kill' by Keith Doughlas

A poem by a poet I've flagged before, Keith Douglas, to mark D-Day (all these years on). Douglas survived the D-Day landing before being killed by a mortar in a field in Normandy three days later. He was 24. 

Here's the poem, read by actor Noel Clarke.