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Last Waltz, First Waltz

Enda Wyley

 

Monsoon Diaries, by Joseph Woods, Dedalus Press, 96 pp. €12.50, ISBN: 978-1910251355

With its title, Monsoon Diaries, and an arresting cover image of Chin Tsong Palace in Yangon, any reader might be forgiven for presuming that Joseph Woods’s new collection from Dedalus Press is a gathering of poems gleaned from the poet’s travels over the last few years and his time living with his wife and young daughter in both Myanmar and Zimbabwe.

Certainly, the first poem begins this way. In twenty-four lines, divided into seven compact verses, we are immediately presented with the start of Yangon’s relentless monsoon season.

Starts as a single applause
on the zinc roof
rising to the fury of white noise.

Other far-flung and native destinations are also prominent in the book. The South Pacific, China, Chicago, Asia’s Irrawaddy River, Franschloek in South Africa’s Western Cape – and Louth, Westmeath, Kerry – are just some of the places described and mused over in this fourth collection by a poet whose previous collections have also been energised by the adventure of  travel.

However, the strength of Monsoon Diaries lies not just in the physical journeying of the poet, but rather in the heartfelt discoveries Woods makes, his personal narrative unfolding, which imbues this book with an internal power of its own.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things,” the writer Henry Miller once said, and certainly in these new poems by Joseph Woods, there’s an attractive meandering quality to the work. Places both visited and recalled, become backdrops to the poet’s many deep preoccupations – the death of his father, for instance, a childhood remembered, his daughter’s birth.

In “A Week of Sundays”, the poet is “stravaging” the streets of his dying father’s hometown trying to place the old man but, “all I kept meeting was myself / in shop windows.”

“Weekday Stowaway” is so purposefully ordinary in its depiction of an evening spent at home with parents that we feel the poet is safeguarding himself, storing up forever in his memory these everyday details, these quiet intimacies of his parents’ lives together, as a way of preparing for their imminent deaths.

After tea, I washed up to a faint bickering
in the living room, which I now know
as the language of love –

better to be arguing than to be alone,
as the saying goes, a frustration with what’s familiar,
a half-century of watching each other in relays.

There is an overriding loneliness to the many poignant elegies to his mother and father, and the final stages of their lives together. In “For the Birds”, his frail mother, “a bird herself” feeds the birds her weakening husband’s food, the pair of crows in the final verse an ominous metaphor for approaching death. But with the death of parents also comes a yearning for a lost childhood and home. In a Best Western Hotel in Chicago, far from Ireland, the “low-pitched drone of the long-distance freight-train passing” has Woods right back in time, remembering  the “house on the hill above the station” where he was reared. Suddenly loss becomes for him the plaintive cry of a curlew “heading either to / or from the estuary”.

As I journeyed through the four sections of this fine collection, I was reminded of the poet Miroslav Holub: “Poetry is energy, it is an energy-storing and energy-releasing device.” And certainly, though some of the best of the poems are quietly elegiac in tone and content, they are also celebratory of the world the poet moves through and the people who have enriched his life. As such, they are distinctly full of their own compelling energy.

There are many loving, imaginative poems inspired by his young daughter. In “Guest in Reverse”, he awaits her birth while humorously poking fun at his wife, soon to be a first-time mother, with an aside of “I asked no questions.”

Your clothes, though
new, needed to be washed
in advance. I asked no questions,
so babygrows fluttered
on the clothesline and were oddly
decorative in their premature
announcements.

When Woods finds a plastic seat jamming his study door, he imagines the daughter he has not yet seen, sitting “like a pharaoh being washed / in the great dry dock of the bath”. In “Biography”, he walks in the grounds of Carton House, in Co Kildare with his wife, hoping the movement will speed up the birth of their child. Her eventual birth is revealed to have been an “exceptional day, / the dark veil of which was lifting”, with whitethorn unfolding on the side of the tracks as the poet takes the train home from the hospital where, “your narrow eyes / enlivened that dark / and wet morning outside. Mother and daughter ensconsed.” Heartbreaking then, to learn in another poem “With this Waltz” that Woods’s father dies just after the baby’s arrival, having bravely held on for the birth of his granddaughter.

And so in early April she arrived all safe
and perfect and you let go of the reins,
duty done, a last responsibility seen through.

At the wake, his widowed mother’s wishes, “if she could only / take you from the box for one last waltz …” And the final lines with their effecting image of the poet waltzing around a field with his three day old daughter, make this poem one of the most moving in the book.

As a collection, it is not without its literary references. “Something New About the Grey Heron” recalls Dylan Thomas’s “Poem in October” and his “heron-priested shore”, as Woods strikes out for a first walk with his new baby girl in the pram, along by a canal, sighting a heron “hold its soft ground / in the rushes”.

“Circuit” is a self-deprecating and funny comment on poetry readings and the dismal fate of poets. “A Reliquary for Louis MacNeice” describes Woods’s attempt to frame in Yangon a poster of “fifty-five posters of our beloved / and dapper Louis; a poster promoting / his biography”, a precious gift given to him by the deceased poet Dennis O’Driscoll.

“Driving to Delvin”, a poetic road trip of eighty-four couplets, is dedicated to FR Higgins and also to Dardis Clarke, the son of the poet Austin Clarke, and it is in this poem that the core of Monsoon Diaries lies – a car journey which passes by “the luminous greens and browns / of trees in the midlands” but also travels deep into the psyche of the then forty-six-year-old poet, as he honours his childhood, his “mother’s midlands sadness”, a car crash when he was younger, “the car sizzling like / a big steak flung on a pan”, and his good friend Tom surviving the accident only to die later, “a brawl / in Bahrain undid him”. The poem weaves its way through many emotional stories, tapping into the force of life itself and its many random associations, pummelling forward with a passion and heart that is memorable.

The book ends in Ireland, the poet and his wife and daughter stretching out on a granite pier in Leitrim. In the final lines, the poet says: “I ask my daughter/what the sounds are like, / and she replies, / Like the rain in Burma.”

At the end of all of Joseph Woods’s intricate journeying, it seems fitting that this final poem should end in a quiet rural place, in the country of his birth – a poem which poignantly brings this strong collection full circle, the monsoons of Yangon in the book’s first page never completely forgotten.

1/9/2018

Enda Wyley’s fifth collection, Borrowed Space, New and Selected Poems, was published by Dedalus Press in 2014. She is a member of Aosdána.

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