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Homing Signals

Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado

The Radio, by Leontia Flynn, Jonathan Cape, 80 pp, £10.00, ISBN: 978-1787330085

The speaker of a poem from Leontia Flynn’s 2004 debut collection, These Days, memorably surmises, “the furthest distances I’ve travelled / have been those between people.” Lines of communication are a central preoccupation of Flynn’s oeuvre, which uses poetic lines to probe the spaces between people. Occasionally poetry can bridge these gaps, even if this connection only occurs within the mind of the speaker or reader. As its title indicates, Flynn’s new collection, The Radio (2017), gives primacy to the theme of receptivity. The tripartite volume features the responsive sections “The Child, The Family …”, “… And the Outside World”, and the more abstract final section, “Poems Conceived as Dialogues Between Two Antagonistic Voices”.

The book’s epigraph is taken from Edward Thomas, who declares in 1913, “… there is a music of words which is beyond speech; it is an enduring echo of we know not what in the past and in the abyss”. In the original quote, Thomas continues, “…an echo heard in poetry and the utterance of children”. Flynn takes this concept as a starting point for the first part of her collection, which explores the dialogue between parent and child.

Her sonnet “Yellow Lullaby” is a response to Louis MacNeice’s poem “Autobiography” (1940), an unnerving reflection on the loss of his mother, whose spectre haunts the child speaker’s nightmares. In Flynn’s poem the mother/speaker also haunts the dreaming child, but in the flesh, for she hovers near the nursery door. She portrays a tender exchange between mother and child; yet it is set “in the nursery’s darkness”, an otherworldly space haunted by “the unborn and the dead”. The poem is in dialogue with the uncanny, which includes the ghost of MacNeice, a lyrical forebear. However, Flynn diffuses this tension with characteristic conversational humour:

          Every time my daughter cried, I came
barrelling out like some semi-deranged
          trainee barista: friendly but perplexed,
and in the dark of night, Lo! I was there…

This poem establishes several recurrent motifs which crisscross parts one and two of the collection: namely, the ways in which the speaker navigates poetic discourse, familial relationships and the thin space between the living and the dead. 

In the following piece, an “Alzheimer’s Villanelle”, Flynn mourns the death of her father from “the slow, quick-slow disease”. His brain’s misfiring signals disrupt how electrical charges travel between cells, a course which the speaker compares to that of “a train delayed […] delayed […] delayed / that pulls up without passenger or driver”. At his bedside, she wonders, “Had my father’s ‘soul’ quite fled? / I cannot say for sure.” The speaker attempts to process this attritional loss, but she does not receive any “clear signs” and it is difficult to comprehend.

The first section of the book closes with a ruminative sequence that envisions Flynn’s mother listening to the wireless in their family kitchen. The long eponymous poem is a masterful depiction of motherhood during the Troubles as a perpetually heightened state of vigilance and vulnerability. The quiet “rhythms of a culchie life” on the farm are disturbed suddenly and repeatedly by the jarring words broadcast on the radio, which seems to come alive in the poem’s opening: “The radio hoots and mutters, hoots and mutters / out of the dark, each morning of my childhood.”

Each day, her mother awakens to its distressing reports:

Deadlock […] it mutters, firearms […] Warrenpoint;
Just before two this morning […] talks between […]

And through its aperture, the outside world
comes streaming, like a magic lantern show,
into our bewildered solitude.
Unrest […] it hoots now, both sides […] sources say […]
My mother stands, like a sentinel, by the sink.

As a child, the speaker only hears fragments of newsworthy accounts of the conflict, whose violence is neutralised by her mother’s static interference. Flynn writes: “So daily the radio drops its explosive news / and daily my mother turns to field the blow. / The words fall down, a little neutral now, onto the … kitchen floor.” She describes her mother as “high-pitched and steely – like, in human form, / the RKO transmitter tower.” When the alarming words threaten to penetrate their household, her mother snatches them “out of the air” and conducts them through her own being in order to protect her children from their “wounding” power.

Part two of the volume begins with a magnificent elegy for Seamus Heaney, which takes the day of his death as its title, “August 30th 2013”. Like MacNeice, Heaney is a poetic forefather whose work informs Flynn’s grasp of the self-governing forces that drive verse. In “When I Was Sixteen I Met Seamus Heaney” from These Days, Flynn irreverently recounts their chance meeting and remarks, “but who was Seamus Heaney? / I believe he signed my bus ticket, which I later lost.” This ironic take on Heaney as a figure embodying poetic tradition in her earlier poem now gives way to staggering shock at his passing, which she expresses in a direct address to the late poet: “you, whose voice / made itself heard above your fellow voices / in poetry that leaned in awfully close / to living speech.”

An established poet herself, the mature Flynn recognises him as a literary paragon, whereas she playfully questioned this fact in her first collection. She observes:

perhaps we’re mourning too a passing age
… and the pen, the page,
enshrined in those broadcasts, long-wave, analogue
in which we watch you, awkward and intent,
declaiming poetry about the bog
wild-haired, wide-collared, for the BBC –
those I miss too, or what they represent
watching them now […] a lost Authority?

To prove her point linking Heaney to a bygone era, Flynn notes that she learned of his death via virtual communication. She recalls, “Two texts. I get an email on my phone. / Twitter erupts, it seems, in shards of verse. / Phrases from ‘Postscript’ serve to set the tone / (under 140 characters).” Post-internet, perhaps Heaney is not lost entirely; for his poetry continues to transmit itself in a digital afterlife, providing quotable solace for “our networked culture”.

Flynn’s technically adroit fourth volume of poetry was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize – as was her previous book Profit and Loss (2011). Her latest collection is a triumph of poetic innovation that signals Flynn’s capacity to listen amidst the din of contemporary life and record its low, lyric thrum. In The Radio, she gives shape to the “music of words” that reverberates within our quotidian existence, channelling it internally and then broadcasting it back to the outside world in original and unexpected forms.

01/02/2018

Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is an academic and a dual specialist in Irish and Caribbean Studies. She is co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island Books, 2017). She is author of Decoloniality and Gender in Jamaica Kincaid and Gisèle Pineau: Connective Caribbean Readings (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). She has also published in Irish Studies Review, Breac, The Honest Ulsterman, Callaloo, The Irish Times, and the Sunday Business Post.

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