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High Jinks and Down to Earth

Gerard Smyth

Notions, by John Kelly, Dedalus Press, 84 pp, €12.50, ISBN: 978-1910251416

The introductory poem to this collection is titled “The Small Things”, and it is to small things that John Kelly often looks for his poetic materials throughout this impressively accomplished collection: a mountain hike, a weekend away, locking up the house at night, or a memory from boyhood of being “back in Bundoran in my anorak / in the racket flash of the amusement arcade / Just my mother and me …”

He may feel “that jag of terror” when he “can’t remember who sang what”, but several of the poems here are powered by memory; we encounter the particulars of growing up in the North, of his generation’s experiences there during what is euphemistically referred to as the Troubles – “northern streets all set for bombs”, “Brits decked out in nets and twigs” and “some loaded tribal dig from the UDR”. In both “In Lieu” and “Control Zone”, Kelly handles his recollections of the era comfortably, the quirky humour helping to provide the right form for these poems: “I’d walk home through the town / And my bag was rifled through again / in case I carried anything incendiary / bar an inky NME - …”

This collection is flush with acute observation and understanding, as well as sparkling felicities in the imaginative detail and linguistic invention, the language always tightly structured. Resonant points of reference to popular culture crop up elsewhere: from “ black armbands on Top of the Pops” to “ Dad’s Army on the BBC”. In a conversation with the artist Basil Blackshaw, “Soutine comes up / Kristofferson, Cezanne / but mostly horses, badgers, greyhounds …” Imagination and memory combine in a fruitful relationship. The Gaeltacht, in the poem of that title, is not only a place for improving a learner’s Irish but to encounter a fantasy:

there was Nadia Jane Gilgunn,
a wondrous blonde from Iur Cinn Trá
with visible crimson bra straps
and a Lemon Fanta tongue.

The mood in many of these poems is tinged with hints of yearning. He knows how to give us just the right amount of information and when to hold back; also when to adopt the storyteller’s voice, put on the mask: in the cinematic “Katya” he renders a fictional scene that could be out of Le Carre or Len Deighton –

Evenings in Pushkin Square,|
we were well observed and overheard
by that sulky lad who was always there
in a leather coat that shone like coal –

at least until I collared him
up against the hotel door
and wound him up|
with talk of Bony M and Rasputin ...

There are some lovely twists and detours in poems – one that begins by telling us that “Before the Gaelic pitch was a Gaelic pitch / it was a pitch-black hole full of every frog and vole”, suddenly veers off to introduce the reader to the “Hag of night. / Gloom bird to the poet Keats”. He can wander or quickstep from Sandymount Strand to Rue des Halles in “… the first Arrondissement”, from “… the clean, green morgue of the Erne Hospital” to the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow.

In “Haydn’s Skull” (this could almost be a Matthew Sweeney poem ) he lets his whimsical notions run riot with the historical facts around the theft of the composer’s skull, allowing it to find its way to Sunday’s Well, then into the hands of an “antiques dealer from Rathgar” and onto a GAA pitch.

Such imaginative and adventurous leaps are regular occurrences in Kelly’s poems (the free-wheeling “Chairman of the Board of Governors”, his tribute to the singer Paul Brady, packs in a fair amount of history, geography and musical lore along with an eclectic cast of characters). What might seem a playful exercise or display of high jinks in some of Kelly’s poems can be beguiling; the light touch more often than not leads to a down-to-earth realisation:

I took it for that childhood bird,
not so much for what it was
as for the utter nothingness I heard. (“Halloween Owl”)

Or John McGahern’s funeral, which he remembers for “the scrape and thud of Aughawillan clay / that breath I took before I drove away”.

Like Ted Hughes, Kelly is aware of the proximities of the natural world: the pike “ splashing in the shallows – / out if its depth entirely ...”; “The snipe / shoot up and out / from under my boots …”; starlings “hunched in hundreds / on clotheslines, mowers, handlebars …”. His well-known passion for music embraces even the “wintry electronica of birds”.

There are Heaneyesque moments too and they are memorable, as in “10 January 2016”: “There was a man who used to cut the grass. / He used a scythe, the snaking shaft of it, / the sned – just right for swivel and for sweep.”

The spare lyricism of the poems, their coherence and fluency, along with the background hint of yearning, add up to a quietly powerful mix. Notions is a book of many modes and settings – the elegy (“Christmas Day” in memory of Dennis O’Driscoll is one of the book’s finest achievements), the nature poem ( nowhere better than in “Winter’s Blessing”), domestic scenes ( the beautifully compressed “Nocturne”), and particularly tender poems for his children. In the concluding lines of “The Metropolitan Museum of Art” (for Evie at fifteen), the poet recognises the universal truth in any father/child relationship:

I can scribble a map, I can tell you what’s in store.\
But, more and more, my darling girl
I can only lead you to the door.

In “The Gymnast”, a poem to another daughter, he reminds her of the old belief that it’s a sign of luck when a flying swift drops its shit on you. But she “couldn’t be convinced … Not by gravity or wit”. Kelly’s poems are marked by both gravity and wit – as well as by a copious resourcefulness.

1/12/2018

 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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