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Cut and Catch

Gerard Smyth

The Last Straw, by Tom French, Gallery Press, 104 pp, €12.50, ISBN: 978-1911337355

In this, his fifth collection, Tom French confirms himself as a celebrant of the local, particularly in Meath, where this Kilkenny-born, Tipperary-reared poet has settled and become a sui generis poet of that county. The local is of course transferable, as some titles of French poems in the past suggest – “A Water Trough in Monaghan”, “A Cauldron in Dunshaughlin”, “A Limousine in Carrigillihy”, “An Airman in Mornington”, “Automatic Telephone Exchange, Templetuohy”, “A Bible in Boyerstown”. But in whatever place he finds himself and wherever he draws from his imagination a poem, he is sure to know “every hump and hollow of it” and everything that he sees, hears or unearths is of consequence.

While he moves much further afield in several of the poems in “The Last Straw”, enlarging his range and what might be called his world view, it is to such localism that he mostly stays true and which is the fruitful source of so much of his work – where else would he find

… a Goth in the time before Goths,
up on her bike from the back end of Clonboo

                               In her house
you knew that pestle and mortar were in daily use,
that a skillet hung on a hook over flame. You felt
that townlands were patches in her parish’s quilt.

The presence of that “skillet hung on a hook” is an example of French’s fondness for imagery that might seem to represent an older Ireland: in another poem he resurrects that lovely old word “gossun” that I recall my grandmother using as an endearment. One of his titles, “Lockspit”, requires a dictionary definition, which he gives as an epigraph. That rescuing of what otherwise might be lost or fade from memory is a task that I suspect French respects and recognises as vital to the craft. So too are the poet’s duties of memorialising and remembrance. In “The Land Commission” he remembers the relocation of Irish speakers from the West to land in Meath as part of the seed-sowing for a new Gaeltacht in that county where in the poem an “old man resigned himself to being buried / among strangers”. 

The recognisable individuality and freshness of perspective that French established in previous books is again enlivened by his deep knowledge – local and universal – that allows him to penetrate his subjects with such sharpness of insight and sureness. 

One senses a poet whose curiosity is at the core of all he writes. He can juxtapose the major and minor details to be found in the particulars of everyday life in the community – to conjure marvellous images, to render what he calls “the stitched and printed pages I have lived”. He is, it seems, always alert, always ready to respond to the immediacy of the moment and to give it the shapes and tones of poetry. In his response there is a matter-of-factness, a possible suggestion of spontaneity, but this can be deceiving because his poetry is always beautifully crafted with skilful control and avoidance of excess. What EB White of The New Yorker once said about his discovery “that writing of the small things of the day” produced the “exquisite thrill of putting my finger on a little capsule of truth” comes to mind reading French.

The new breadth to his work is evident here in poems that draw their imagery from the Great War and sequences in which, as he says himself, he is “hanging around public houses, and failing abysmally to leave behind me the bog I knew”, as well as spending time away from home and his local landscapes in the poems of the seven-section “Costa Blanca”.

While “the sun at midday grows too fierce to bear” in his Mediterranean idyll, he is not oblivious to the intrusion of world events, of knowing that

The water we came so far to swim in
Is filled, just east, with our sisters, brothers,
Dreaming of homes they’ll never see again.

In that foreign setting French seems conscious of a sense of dislocation, but takes comfort in the fact that “”we’ll be home again in our own beds soon”. But home no longer holds the isolation of the past and has become a place where he can hear

From the Refugee Accommodation Centre
sounds of children at play.

Home, however, remains the ground where he is sure-footed and provides the setting for several poems here (and throughout French’s work generally). In “Strand”, the poet is happy to “give my nights listening to the tide / felling the sandcastles of a single day / and observe the same hours as the nesting tern ...” The beautiful poem with which the collection opens, “The Last Light”, an example of French as master of the graceful lyric, is another nod of gratitude and praise in the direction of domesticity.

A poet with an archival mind, he is a harvester of sometimes archaic and forgotten facts and traditions, a hoarder of particulars that have become lost in the noise and rush of the modern age. He knows too that local wisdom can be the best. What catches the attention of his keenly observant eye is often something out of another time and needing to be saved, if only in the memory vault; in his poem about an abandoned print works, “Kells Printing Works, Maudlin Street”, he reminds us that “The world is set to rights again by things continuing / to be where they have always been”. That continuity is vital to a keeper of records, who knows the importance of keeping alive the memory of people and places and what is often hidden in plain sight and might otherwise go unsung. 

He knows too that the act of naming – not only places but people – is the most immediate form of such memorialising. This has been a constant feature of all his collections (“At Gaffney”, “Bridie Hinchey’s”, “Henderson’s Hardware, Donegal Town”).

The bog too, as he admits, is a recurring source of fascination. In “Bank”, a lovely sustained meditation and recollection of the choreography and ritual of bog work, he tells us:

There was a rhythm to the cut and catch.
He cut. You looked. He swung. It flew. You caught.
He cut. You looked. He swung. It flew. You caught –
a form of talk that obviated talk.

This exactitude of recollection is reminiscent of Montague’s “The Water Carrier”. The Tyrone poet declared that he drew “an artesian energy” from his community; much the same can be said about French. 

The lives that inhabit these poems are various – musicians, family members, war dead, a wedding couple, pub customers, footballers. In a previous collection French did the rounds of barber shops, here in a sequence of poems called “After Hours” he follows a trail of hostelries via Kerry, Monaghan, Meath, Westmeath, Galway, Donegal – these are places where “one tap whispers, another agrees”, a customer “dances to a jig on the radio” or “Nobody has anything to say / to anybody else who is there”.

French has much to say but admirably it is often on behalf of others. These are poems without any pretensions, with a sturdiness to the diction and playful inclinations such as in the poem “Angler” in which a road-measuring exercise with a reel of tape is compared to the angler reeling in his catch. He mixes plain statement with imaginative and often startling leaps and U-turns that make the reader sit up.

In one of his poems he declares that “It’ll never happen now, that windfall poem”. This collection is a windfall of poems of the most rewarding kind.

1/4/2018

Gerard Smyth's latest collections of poetry are A Song of Elsewhere (Dedalus ) and The Yellow River, a collaboration with artist Seán McSweeney (Solstice Arts Centre )

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