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Consoling Songs

Richard Hayes

Strong, My Love, by Peter Fallon, Gallery Press 96 pp, €11.95, ISBN: 978-1852355937

Strong, My Love – by my count, Peter Fallon’s sixth full collection ‑ is an utterly convincing performance, by which I mean formally accomplished, thematically compelling, challenging and delightful in equal measure. While mostly made up of original, personal lyrics of considerable quality, it is grounded in translations from the Roman poet Tibullus: the second section of the book is made up entirely of two translations of ninety and seventy-six lines respectively, and there are several shorter excerpts from the elegies of Tibullus throughout. But this is not a stuffy book, nor does it display that fragility that one sometimes sees in works of translation, to do with a too heavy leaning on the “source”: this is entirely Fallon’s book, the translations note-perfect and beautifully complementing the other work.

Fallon favours a delicate, unobtrusive but robust form for many of the lyrics ‑ the stanza is constructed around two end rhymes that do not draw attention to themselves but nonetheless anchor the verse. For example:

While the women waited
counting the minutes,
hours and days,
and wondering if
they were widows yet
(and imagining the ways

they were, if they were),
their spouses waited
slowly too, like fish at low ebb
caught in a net, as they dashed
to escape, snagged on fence wire,
butterflies in a spider’s web.

These lines are from the fourth section of “Thorn Wire”, a superb 230-line poem in seven sections. The first section describes an encounter with the “coiled cobra” that is “the devil’s rope”, barbed wire, and how it ripped through the speaker’s hand: “I saw blood flow but had no feeling. / In the teeth of rain my crumpled palm / brimmed like stigmata. I saw bone,/ an etch on it.” From here the poem meditates on the wire that is

A thorn in the side ‑
to keep in
and keep out‑
of the two sides in the range wars‑
a rout

for the tribes
that wandered
open spaces
with their lances
and skewed horses,
and for the other race’s

herders and free-rangers.
All returned to me
that deer ground to a stand-
still, the insult
branded in its eyes
as the single strand

of rust
applied
its hurt and harm.

In Buchenwald, we are told in the fourth section, prisoners were tortured in a barbed-wire enclosure called “the rose garden”. The shrike ‑ the “butcher bird” who impales his prey on thorns ‑ appears also in the poem and then, in the final section, it ranges over “the wire century”, to the “Strand over strand” of wire “folded back one over / other, an aisle / or interval, / a stopgap in / No Man’s Land”. This century ‑ “a blasted wick through / time’s taper” ‑ the speaker knows “by story and by memory, / by a scar’s / small track / on the knuckle side / of my hand’s / back.” It’s a bleak poem, concluding with the image of the wire as “a crown of thorns / around the temple / of the world.”

One might be tempted to say that Fallon takes his cue from Orpheus ‑ he offers an excellent version of the Orpheus and Eurydice story in “The Two in It” ‑ and that “he shaped consoling songs / out of the shards/ of his own sorrow”, but not all of this book is in the minor key. Against the darkness there is hope and love: Strong, My Love, as the double-meaning in the book’s name suggests, is not a despairing book but one of will (“Be strong, my love”) and of resilience (“My love is strong”).

There is something romantic about Fallon’s work—it is no surprise that he draws on Thoreau’s Walden in one of the poems (“Fish in the Sky”), and he regrets that the generation following will have to make a life for themselves “in distant cities’ quiet desolation” (“First Born”), perhaps a nod to Wordsworth. The natural world is at the heart of the collection and appears as a solace and a source of strength, a refuge (“Again, I went out / to the new wood / because, at times as these, / it is a true good / to be alone / among the trees” ‑ “A Summer Flood”) and a means to orient oneself in life (“I etched the map / of my life in the fields / that prop that peak”—“The Fields of Meath”). “A Summer Flood” is a beautifully constructed prayer for a teenage child growing up that finds in nature the perfect simile:

May she pause (I make my prayer),

like salmon in the estuary‑
our daughter ‑
acclimatizing ‑
to fresh water

en route
towards a stay in gravelly mud
and waiting for
a summer flood

to tide them
over.

“The Night Itself” is a brilliant meditation on ageing, concluding – tellingly ‑ not with despair but with the realisation that “This season is a skeleton / to which Spring will cling. The threads / of dark adopt new twists and turns / until the night itself is spun.”

Woven through the collection, and working as a capstone to it, are Fallon’s fabulous translations of Tibullus. He has, of course, previously translated Virgil’s Georgics and approaches Tibullus assuredly, with confidence. “Asper eram et bene discidium me ferre loquebar, / At mihi nunc longe gloria fortis abest. / Namque agor ut per plana citus sola verbere turben, / Quem celer adsueta versat ab arte puer”, the beginning of Book 1, Elegy 5, Fallon translates as:

It’s true, I’ve raved and ranted
and boasted in a strop
that I’d be fine without you.
First less,
now there’s little of that bluff façade
for I’ve become a spinning top
lashed on level ground by a boy
with that skill only boys possess.

For contrast, Scottish poet George Sutherland Fraser’s translation is more literal and economical, but the lesser for it:

How well I’d bear the break, my anger spoke it:
Nothing more distant than defiance now!
Now, with a quick and clever boy to whip me,
I’m whirling like a top across the flags!

Fallon makes Tibullus his own—Elegy 1.5 uses the un-Roman word cailleach for instance!; and the form present in the original poems is evident here ‑ and therefore renews the Roman poet: he is translated, as in, carried over from one language and culture into ours, and made new in the process. But, as George Steiner has suggested, the purpose of translation is also to “carry back”, and Fallon succeeds here also: one is immediately compelled to seek out more of Tibullus, and this reader was left wishing for more Fallon translations—perhaps his next project.

Strong, My Love is a fine book, deeply satisfying, and further evidence of Peter Fallon’s stature in contemporary letters as not just, through Gallery Press, the most important publisher of poetry but as a poet of real standing and significance.

Richard Hayes is head of humanities at Waterford Institute of Technology.

1/2/2015

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