Friday, September 02, 2005
Your Own Seat
Seatown, Conor O’Callaghan’s second collection, is set in his home town of Dundalk, a place seen by many as non-descript, a little run-of-the-mill, with neither the charm of the rural or the “sophistication” and history of Dublin and Belfast. Not that O’Callaghan would have it any other way mind you. Like many other factory towns around the world, the Dundalk of O’Callaghan’s poems seems to be in the Autumn of its years. In some ways, I think he might have called the collection “Seatown – The Removes”, because it seems that the town and its people are seen from various removes. We will return to this point. Perhaps O’Callaghan set off to write the 'tell it as it is' poetry, the poetry of the 'real world', the real suburbs but he is all the time drawn to the artifice of language, its slips and double meanings, the high and low cultural registers. In this he has some of the spirit of Derek Mahon, mediated by the humour and technique of Muldoon.
In this place by the sea there is a history of disembarkment, of stepping off for other lands or off the radar “in search of common ground and teenage prostitutes”. Here is a man telling us 'I know what’s going on out there, and it isn’t romantic'. This is the world of the “mean” quotidian, the reduced ambition, the limited horizon. The town bypassed by a motorway where in a typical piece of O’Callaghan give-and-take there are
three huge silos swamped by the small hours
and the buzz of joyriders quite close on the bypass.
The work he makes the lines do is remarkable. Firstly we have a building “swamped” by the night (the small hours); the small hours intimating those still awake, a phrase often used to convey that you have stayed up drinking and talking into the small (wee) hours; we get the “buzz of joyriders” (aurally and pharmaceutically buzzing); “quite close” could be almost hyphenated because in the quiet of the night the sound of the engines is brought even closer, whilst simultaneously foregrounding the sound of the stillness of night, and of course meaning geographically close. In the end both types of closeness 'aural' and 'geographical' meld in the overall onomatopoeia of the line which retains its conversational tone through its use of everyday colloquial terms, (huge, swamped, buzz, quite close).
O’Callaghan wants to show us the truth of this place left behind, but he cannot seem to help his remarkable turns of phrase. Yet I’m sure that O’Callaghan does not want us to over attend to his wordplay. This is a normal town where he will build his poetic. In the poem “Landscape with Canal” a title that tells us we should expect a little more ‘artistry’ than usual, the stall is set out. Yes, to write about one's home town, one's origin is perhaps not new, and writing in the third party is a distancing device (to some), but I take full responsibility for what I choose to put in, and what I choose to leave out.
So this, the means to an end, is chosen
As the landscape of a private fiction
Where the tracks you make are all-too-well-known.
Through this time, since whatever will happen
Will happen most likely in the open,
You set it in a derelict autumn
Where all its symbolic fruit has fallen.
The action is yours alone to govern.
As long as you make the silence broken
By the presence on the bank of someone
That’s both anticipated and sudden.
As long as you don’t forget to mention
That the voice at once without and your own
Is the one that leaves the rest unspoken
And between that past and town has taken
The long way around a simple question.
We are shown “the long way round a simple question”, that which causes the overall suburban or satellite town existentialism. Not the ennui of celestial apartments but the ennui of the same ole same ole of Sunday afternoon drinking, sleeplessness, Friday's hope and Sunday's failure, the remembrance of those with whom we were involved, whose lives go on none the less. The question might be why the hell am I still here? He finishes one poem with a sly reference to Beckett, where O’Callaghan says “I could go on”. There is something very 'Derek Mahon' in all of this. The poem S"unday Drinking" almost looks like a Mahon poem:
No. Not the epiphanies
Stumbled upon like
Sunlit winter seas.
Not the peninsula
In brightness, nor stepping
Into darkness, nicely.
Nothing falls in place
For swearing “Never again”.
Nothing important changes.
There are several linguistic devices that resemble Mahon as well. “The wall clock/ mislays the last/ bright hour gone back”; “The headache/ of cold rooms bleached/ from habitual black”. Poems such as "In The Neighbourhood" also carry this influence, although in this case, that of Mahon’s recent register jumping.
Doldums of the sea itself flooding fields almost up
To the racecourse one minute and then abstract and removed
The next like the untelevised rounds of the F.A. Cup
I like these lines very much in that although you might know that the FA Cup is occurring, is real, because you are not there in person it occupies the same imaginative space as “the sea withdrawn”, and to boot, from some imaginary race, and imagined and presented in its absence if you read it closely. I suppose if you are going to have a singing master of your soul, you could do a lot worse than Mahon and O’Callaghan has learned much from him.
Another master, this time Muldoon, has perhaps enabled such references as the "Twin Peaks", and (famously) Raymond Chandler’s "Farewell, My Lovely" to make their appearances in this collection. Muldoon used the Chandler reference when he stood fairly and squarely behind the number 8, and O’Callaghan seems to be returning the reference to his former master. In “Green Baize Couplets”, which I am tempted to quote in its entirety, we are treated to a return to the pool ball meme. The poem is downright funny, and highly finished. The strict couplets use the euphemisms of snooker commentary to comment on his efforts to consummate sexually with his opponent. It produces some memorable lines:
A handshake, a lowered light, the chance to clear her table
With what at first glance would appear to be a natural double.
Her colours on their spots, the cue-ball positioned perfectly …
Under normal circumstances, this would be a formality.
Perhaps this poem works so well, because O’Callaghan doesn’t overextend his reach, but keeps one foot on the floor, metaphorically speaking. Indeed one feels that O’Callaghan has been removing elements of Romanticism from his lines. In “East” we hear that he doesn’t want the Romantic Ireland;
But give me a dreary eastern town that isn’t vaguely romantic
Where moon and stars are lost in the lights of the greyhound track
And cheering comes to nothing and a flurry of misplaced bets
Blanketing the stands at dawn is about as spiritual as it gets…
But one line in particular (I believe) shows some roots. In “Pitch and Putt” he ends the poem with the lines “The greenkeeper collecting flags/ and shadows in their wake” reminds me very much of few early Larkin poems where the Yeats influence was still being shaken off. I doubt if this is an accident on O’Callaghan’s part especially as Mahon has so famously said that he couldn’t get Yeats’ tunes out of his head with a the sharp end of a hammer.
In “East” we find that O’Callaghan is also aware of and commenting on the background themes of the collection, the common threads, and gives the counterbalancing argument. In previous poems he has intimated that the murmur from the bypass, the sounds of the sea, the general background sounds of Seatown are like a pulse, a hum that lets him know where he is. It might, mistakenly be construed as some environmental determinism, or (say it!) Romanticism, but in "East" he takes that back again:
If it’s just a question of water and some half-backed notion
That the Irish mind is shaped by the passionate swell of ocean
I align myself to a dribble of a sea that’s unspectacular, or flat
Anything else would be unthinkable. It’s as simple as that.
It would be remiss of me not to comment on another theme in this collection, that of sexual conquest, sexual jealously, but not of sexual guilt. Even in (or traditionally, because of) the very sexually frank nature of the work, the punning and double entendres continues in poems such as "The Oral Tradition", and "Come Again", and to a lesser extent, "Ships". These poems drift in description from casual sex, to comfortable sex, from ships that pass in the night, to a couple whose intimacy seems to have various different approaches, stages, removes. Ireland has a rich tradition in the poem of sexual expression but even in the liberated, post- Catholic Ireland of today there are surprisingly few examples of this making its way into the work. When it does it is in an ironic remove, with a self depreciating gesture or turn. I think the last genuinely erotic poetry I read were “Erotic Haiku” by Gabriel Rosenstock, and they were wonderful indeed.
So, are we completely satisfied with this collection, have we nothing to add by way of constructive criticism? Well if I do have a gripe it might be that O’Callaghan seems grounded, comfortable with his place in the world. He is never knocked sideways by beauty, left speechless by evil, outraged by injustice. He does not seem to throw himself into the work, but plays a tight tune on a polished string, and ends up where he set out to go. In this manner he doesn’t seem to surprise himself or us. But that is just not the nature of the beast. O’Callaghan’s road is known, is rational, the emperor of whipped ice cream in a cold seaside town.
Categories: poetry, ireland, irish, crit, literature