Having been hooked into Conor O'Callaghan's poetry collection Fiction, I am now re-reading his previous collection Seatown. I hope to follow and trace some of the themes and styles through this collection, and relate it to his subsequent collection, Fiction. Even at this stage, I can tell that there is lots to ponder here.
Categories: poetry, ireland, irish, crit, literature
Friday, August 19, 2005
Conor O'Callaghan never reaches, to do so would claim too much, to risk being sentimental. He likes to "tell it as it is", like Larkin, to be the less deceived. O'Callaghan is the least likely of Irish poets to let words get away from him, you get the sense that they are there to serve the idea, not to play ring a ring a Rosie with each other. To quote from his poem The Flat Earth
The surface, love, is everything.
It is plenty. The wallpaper ripens,
the horizon plumbs its own depths
and the flat earth warms to us.
In the past, O'Callaghan would not use a poetic device, without giving you the frame of knowingness in which to interpret it. This is usually a straight forward narrative, a convention, or a form, all worked under the tone of a dry wit, or gentle irony. Here in his latest collection "Fiction" I believe we find this facet of his talent exploded out into full view. This is the part that understands the devices of Poetry and uses the devices of Fiction to enable the lancing of the wound. This wound is a man entering a phase of marital problems, where trust is slipping, and your word (in all senses) is being distrusted. I'd like to take a little time and go through one of the poems here to give an example of the framing devices.
In the poem Reception this writerly aspect is given from the very opening lines: "Take this whatever way you will, and you will".The story begins at a poetry reading where he "steps into my name being called", wondering if this event would exist in some time-continuum accessible from the future, tune-inable if you will. This reminds him of a memory of his father tuning in the television aerial, and the kids relaying the word "no" back and forth "like a bucket of water splashed from hand to hand/ to a barn gone up in smoke". Its a lovely image, a good scene. Then, the opening line of the second stanza .... "I tell a lie." It turns out its someone else's story, and he has acquired it as his own from someone else over diner (someone by the way that has "a lisp the size of a pup") and he took it as his own. When he remembers his own "true" past, it (tellingly) begins:
Who am I telling? you suffered it daily
in that hole where we were broke and green as barely.
The heat of Wimbledon a game of join-the-dots.
I'd sit there droning on about the Montreal Olympics,
my pissed father and the mysteries of a picture
that you and you alone could coax around.
The last two lines here have slippage and perhaps this is my own flawed reading. Is it that his father coaxed "the aerial / tuner" or is the picture; is it that only the father could coax the correct picture from the TV; or is it that the entire scene is a "picture that you and you alone (the writer) could coax around", get it moving, bring to meaning. We are not allowed to dig deeper into the if's and when and buts (as they say in Ireland), O'Callaghan shifts gear and in a mock invocation (ghosting Wallace Stephens perhaps?) he pleads "Patron saint of sound and vision interference !/ uncrowned queen of tracking and rabbits ears!/ indulge me while I fill, if just this once,/ the singular cup of corn that sentiment permits me." And now the plea proper...
What I would and wouldn't have to have you with me
here and now, though closer to what we were,
beside ourselves (no less) with loves indifference,
that you might clarify how this finds me, nicely,
waiting in a tree-star lobby on my lonesome
(so help me) to saunter any moment out to the cab
the Japanese brunette on the desk has called me
and the even greater unknown (for heaven's sake)
of tonight's canopy of satellites and nip in he air
a dope such as I can only hope to welcome.
So the author needs the other person there to help "adjust" the picture, to clarify the meaning of this scene. In the word Reception, we have the reception of the Poet stepping up to the audience, the idea of a reception where the audience stands around and talks to the poet after the reading, we have the reception area of hotel, the receptionist herself, etc. etc. Yet the point here is that there is a particular someone absent and therefore we cannot trust any interpretation of the scene, for it might all be (after all) someone else's memory.
In this "great abeyance" between man and woman, husband and wife, there are different silences, different absences. One of these is the absence where a telephone line is there allowing for the possibility of communication, yet neither seems able to get through. From Time Zones
Standing here, banging quarters into white space,
feeling like the next turn up on stage,
leaving message after disconsolate message,
sick of the sound of my own voice.
And there are the more tender moments in this sequence:
Moslty, when sleep is beneath me,
I fall all over again for your absence,
the memory of your sap like absinthe's
aftertaste, your scent this near to me.
I think that the interesting things in this collection might be happening in that space between the person, the writer/author, and the persona. As he says in one of the poems, he likes writing in the third person, and in the poem "The Present Writer" he ends it by saying he is happiest "inhabiting the third person, as if talking across himself/ or forever clapping his own exits from the wings". In The Narrator, where the relationship between these roles is captured in a bare "Where was I?".
In terms of "frames" O'Callaghan takes a number of strategies. Within the overall frame of the standard narrative structure, there are loose references to other works. Take 'The Burbs', where we find some university professors reflecting on the banality of the life about them, (the Karate masters second cousin has had been beheaded in cyberspace) and trying to slip the American accents they have acquired over their visit, presumably when a very real Englishman is about to be beheaded in Iraq, his desperate pleas shown more or less live on TV. The author is about to correct some term papers on Joyce's The Dead, where the tale of comfortable, staid middle class, in a timebefore major revolution is about to get its cumuppance, is reflected in modern suburbanites, where...
"(We) live in central air and shades,
skittish with heat, the release of feeling neither here nor there
between several raisons d'etre and the breezy self each impersonates,
blasting "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" to smother
another gospel a capella "Star-Spangled Banner' climaxing on the PA
and blurting all of the avove over takeout salad at Mort and Barb's.
Different frames stripped to their bare outline, are used in other poems. From lists of Poems that didn't quite make the collection, poems about outakes at recording sessions, the friend whose job it was to censor the nipples in films due for Television broadcast, to the poem about the lack of a "central song" in his personal relationship with his Wife, O'Callaghan looks like being more and more interested in the marginalia, and the center that cannot hold. The centrepiece "Hello" looks that the different contexts in which the word Hello can be received, waited for, looked at historically, but in my opinion always with a view that every word, even the innocent Hello, is open to interpretation.
O'Callaghan might be playing with words here, and at times you feel that the structures and some of the themes show a little bit more of the influence of Paul Muldoon than is needed, such as in Loose Change, and Crush. But this is a quibble. In Fiction, O'Callaghan has produced one of the finest collections of the year. I feel it is something of a breakthrough and look forward to seeing where he takes himself from here.