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Necessary Things

Richard Hayes

Mickey Finn’s Air, by Gerald Dawe, Gallery Press. 48 pp, €10, ISBN: 978 1 85235 607 1

The opening poem in Gerald Dawe’s latest collection, “Déjà vu”, establishes both the territory of Mickey Finn’s Air and its method. The territory is memory; the poem enacts memory in its loose-limbed, tumbling lines, reminisces of a lost friend (“Now, a short life later, at the drop of a hat, / a mere seventy years on, you go and bow out on us”) and of a lost city:

I should say first of all that the Bank of Ireland
on the corner of North Street next to where your pal
Carly’s mother ran the photographic studio
we all went to for annual portraits until that stopped,
in the ’60s, that that wonderful art deco
building, is closed and boarded up, the doors
scrawled over ‑ what would you expect
after all the mayhem?

This is replicated later, to even greater effect, in “Shortcuts”, a delightful poem that recollects Joe Brainard’s I Remember in the accumulation of detail.

Walking home dead late from Melrose Street
                       sometime in the early nineties,
the city fast asleep and the light peeled back
from the sky ice-blue;

looking out the top window in Skegoneill Avenue
          one Sunday, the street lamps shrouded
in mist and the foghorns sounded;
         lying in the bath at the top of the house

as a plane appears in the Velux and makes
         its final descent into Dublin airport;
seeing the ice tundra of Greenland en route
          to Vancouver, hearing the snow thud

outside my window perch in Mill Street,
        Newtown, Mass., snow ploughs flashing lights;
hearing the church bells from Monkstown
         carry on the wind.

The poem’s thirty-one stanzas layer memory on memory so that by the end ‑ where “the cock pheasant astride the dry / stone wall in Corandulla one morning early” is described ‑ it conjures something marvellous.

There are a number of such poems in Mickey Finn’s Air, Dawe’s eighth collection. It is notable how many of the poems in the book concern themselves with landscapes or at least with place ‑ cityscapes, house interiors, suburbs, the world seen from a plane window. “I work at an old complaint,” Dawe writes in the second section of “The Bells of St Nicholas”,

telling myself and friends
that we must listen to what
        is said on the streets
where we once lived—yet,
        like now, when love contracts,
what of the grievances
        that are not named ‑
who looks after them?

The book attempts to “listen to what / is said on the streets/where we once lived” or, more to the point, said by those streets as they exist in memory. These landscapes become a kind of physical embodiment of long-held memories. But memory is not static, and images of thresholds ‑ windows, in particular, I noticed ‑ and of journeys ‑ aeroplane flights, for instance ‑ also appear frequently in the book, suggesting that the landscape of memory is something we cross and re-cross constantly. The book’s title poem ‑ set on a bridge ‑ mentions “little islands you forgot all about”, and “canal- and walkways and ridges / between one thing and another”. We are always, in some ways, “Crossing the Sound”, to quote the title of one of the poems here, between the present and the past.

The poems here are built around the “give and take, touch and go” of our interactions with our pasts ‑ the phrase is from “The Last Summer”, a poem about the history of a library book, Poetry of the Forties, that opens out in a gentle way to consider the lives of the people who borrowed it. There are no pyrotechnics in Mickey Finn’s Air; the poems in the collection go about their business quietly, presenting the reader, it seems, with cases to be considered, never forcing ‑ neither in formal terms nor in argument ‑ the reader towards certain ends. This sometimes appears a weakness, the poems seeming inconclusive, content with detail and reluctant to commit themselves to anything. So “Torc” simply rehearses a visit, “one late smoggy afternoon”, to the National Museum where can be seen, at the heart of the display, “a simple arc of sun, the torc’s beaten gold,  like nothing seen before or since.”

The book as a whole gives an insubstantial impression ‑ twenty poems, forty-eight pages. But the power of the poetry builds and poems like “Shortcuts” and “Another Country” lend substance to the collection. This is a poetry that trusts in the power of images that are always sensitively and carefully drawn: a fox wanders “amidst the highlighted alders / and grasses brightening in the gardens of houses”; “A shadowless swan tracks us / up through the dark heavy/waters”; “stair-rods like twisted joints” in an old woman’s abandoned house; “goaded turtles in a murky pond  dive for cover”. This is in this sense a confident performance ‑ as one expects from the work of a poet with such a body of work behind him. “Such downright self belief, such indifference /t o all but the absolutely necessary thing”, we read in “Thought of a Fox”, phrases that may well sum up the approach taken here. The strategy is also summarised in another fine poem, “Another Country”:

This time, let the storm really break,
rain pelt down and the gutters clear,
so we see, sure enough, the way things are.

That is, the commitment of this fine book is to saying how things are, without intervention, a commitment the book more than makes good on.

1/6/2015

Richard Hayes is head of humanities at Waterford Institute of Technology.

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