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Dazzled by Words

Jean O’Brien

Chalk Dust, by Noel Monahan, Salmon, 144 pp, €14, ISBN: 978-1912561117

Noel Monahan’s eighth collection of poetry – he also publishes plays and is a retired educator – is aptly named Chalk Dust. Monahan himself could be described as a talking head, as referred to in his opening poem, “Corleck Head”. I mean this in the best sense of the expression, as his poems talk to us about ourselves, our longings, our concerns and our world. 

The final section is a fifty-five-page-long dramatic narrative poem, “Chalk Dust”. Skilfully handled, it sustains itself from its opening lines: “In the beginning was a boy with his father and mother, / Waiting in the great drawing room of Kilnacrott House for / Fr. Anselm the college president to arrive ...”

Memory strikes its own chords, sings its own songs through the long school year, following the calendar, classes, meal times, prayers, parents’ visits and all the ingredients that make up the boarding school year, down to its final poignant last lines:

And we were all missing our mothers and imagined girlfriends.
St Norbert’s College was and is.
It needs no more meaning.
It was a time
                   of many questions
                        and few answers.

Despite the privations (such as only showering every three weeks, and the loneliness of boys missing their mothers and the comforts of home) of a Catholic boarding school run by the Norbertine priests, Monahan seems to have found his love of acting and words there.

we were dazzled by words
            I heard the trees drumming or chanting
or praying out loud …
The wind made water ripples flicker, I rocked with the
rhythm, reeds moved in the breeze …

In the earlier sections of this well-wrought collection there is a “Hymn for the Tuam Babies” and other poems of social concern for the homeless and poor. The many deaths and secret burials in a septic tank was and is a disgraceful and disturbing part of our nation’s history, for which we must all bear some blame.

And the nuns said:
And the priests said:
And the politicians said:
And in truth we all said:
Let this cup pass from me.

And there’s the rub; we must all bear witness and Monahan does not shy away from hard truths, as in his poem “What is 1916?”: “He says it’s a story that gets lost / On the way home from school … And the constant terror: // That some van might drive up the lane.”

Monahan includes a short section of poems in Irish which he also offers in translation. One such tells of the mistrust and nervousness felt by both sides at the border crossing from the Republic of Ireland into the North, and is a timely reminder of how horrible a hard border would be should such a thing arise again under Brexit: “A British foot-soldier with his hand up, / Boot polish on his face, a gun // In his hand, staring in at us.”

The sonnet series named “Stonebreaker” could as well have been titled Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem mean (to the God who gives joy to my youth), which are the last lines of his poem “Altar Boys”. In this run of twenty-five poems and elsewhere in the collection, there is much mention of God and religion ‑ religion not in the pious sense but as something woven through life as part of the community, and religion with its priests and nuns, which once played a very large part of people’s daily lives. This intermingling of the religious with everyday life, and an ease with it, is evident throughout the work; religious markers are mentioned casually punctuating the seasons, with the yellow whin bushes blooming at Easter, and following the rhythms of everyday life, a new cathedral built on the site of the old “We sail on a sea of Sundays … / and the wonder / never leaves us.”

A couple of these poems are also ekphrastic, in that they describe paintings; in one in particular, “Two Women At A Window”, Monahan skilfully and playfully inserts himself as the observer, perhaps being observed by the two women in Bartolome Esteban Murillo’s painting.

Patrick Kavanagh wrote: “Till Homer’s Ghost came whispering  to my mind. / He said: I made the Iliad from such / a local row. Gods make their own importance.” Monahan does just that: in his richly descriptive style he brings the ordinary and quotidian to life, turning them to the light with words and making us see anew. John Montague said of Monahan’s work “The ground that Kavanagh once ploughed is being slowly colonised; people like Noel Monahan are reclaiming the bog.”

1/10/2018

Jean O'Brien is a poet. Her latest collection, her New & Selected Fish on a Bicycle was published by Salmon in 2016 and is currently being reprinted. She was a recipient of the Katherine & Patrick Kavanagh Fellowship 2017/18. 

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