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Not the Cartographer of Guilt

Mark Wasserman

Stopgap Grace, by Neil McCarthy, Salmon Poetry, 78 pp, €12.00, ISBN: 978-1912561070

Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of hearing the poet Neil McCarthy read his work aloud, including audiences in the states, the UK, Central Europe and Asia, tends to remember the experience. Equal parts showman and shaman, McCarthy stalks the stage, reciting his work from memory, pouring forth both wit and wonder. One moment he is mocking politically correct restaurants, expecting to hear that “my bacon / had come from a happy pig, one that had had a full life, / was corn fed and had free range, did yoga in the mornings, / played the cello, spoke Latin and / learned to salsa dance while visiting relatives in Cuba”. The next moment he is growing reverential, holding a finger to his lips in order to “silence the misguidance of our Gods”. There is a reason McCarthy was once offered the role of Dylan Thomas in an off-Broadway production.

Listeners may wonder how McCarthy’s work might come across on the page. They needn’t. Stopgap Grace, his exhilarating debut collection, not only captures his voice but deepens it. After a nostalgic opening poem about Ireland, during which he confesses surprise at missing “the sound of church bells, / reminding me of my sudden apostasy”, he is off to parts unknown. Escape is the operative word here, McCarthy’s imagination a “stolen Cadillac”. Perpetually on the move, he seems grateful for the opportunity, wondering “who’d have thought we’d be here; that we’d / have made it from the orchards of Carinthia to a café in Denver, splitting a bagel, watching the / shift in seasons defrock the trees”.

If there is a whiff of Catholicism in these lines, it feels faint. The narrator insists he is “not the cartographer of guilt”. The road is his crucible, a place to “suffer penance through hunger and wait”. His poetry is powered by the sheer delight of travel which, like the act of writing, is guided by curiosity and creativity. Sometimes the two activities converge, as when the narrator recalls how he and his travel companion would “word those streets like a Scrabbleboard, / finding the lexis as we went, sometimes stuttering, / other times free flowing and cavalier”. Road-wearying challenges that would burden other travelers – linguistic isolation, geographical confusion, unfriendly locals, overly friendly locals – only awaken McCarthy’s wiseacre side. After noting that “my accent doesn’t carry well over a milk steamer”, he chuckles as “a customer dressed as a train conductor orders / a tea that nobody’s ever heard of while clutching a / book that nobody’s ever read. I end up with a coffee / I didn’t request and a friend I didn’t necessarily want”.

Like the best travel writing, roads lead not just outward, but inward. In Shanghai, the narrator witnesses “buildings as big as my ambitions”. Vienna reveals that “crows pecking at the soil constitute no jury”. In Regensburg, Germany, he realises he has “for too long been hitchhiking in the opposite direction / to which the world is going”. Precisely what he seeks with his “acquisitive mind” remains unknown, unless it is the “morsel of a god”.

Surprisingly, almost a third of these poems are set in Los Angeles. The city inspires even as it maddens. In “No Access to the Hollywood Sign”, he captures the frustrations of an embattled urbanite who cannot sleep due to the yapping of dogs and cannot park due to the onslaught of tourists, finally taking comfort in the jacaranda trees, which “defy the street cleaners and casually cast / their purple confetti across the sidewalk.” Hollywood hums with the narcissism of fame-famished Angelinos: “Desires crackle like moths to a hot bulb in this café / the scripts abandoned and the headshots growing older by the day. They still dress the part mind you, the waitress in her bowler / hat and black bra visible through her thin white cotton blouse; my neighbor in his striped three-piece suit and pocket watch to boot.”

Cinematic references abound, such as when the narrator regards his traveling companion as “a blonde Holly Golightly / and I was an Irish Rick Blaine. / You poured the petrol and / I lit the match.” Elsewhere, he seems to occupy past and his present at once, as when he watches his younger self stuck doing some dispiriting “hammer and stone” work and bemoans that “this was not a scene scripted by Stephen King nor was it / a movie narrated by Morgan Freeman”. In “This Isn’t Silverlake Anymore”, he envisions himself literally a character in a film noir, shooting out the tires of pursuing police and crossing into Tijuana, where he and his co-desperado “maybe cut and dye each other’s hair / and mull over the maps and the madness of our options”. Later he imagines that “Back in LA, the news headlines would make my colleagues / giddy with perversion. In a smoky room a phone would ring, / the receiver lift and a voice on the other end announce / in excitement: Mac’s made it!”

No matter how far McCarthy ranges, Ireland remains an omnipresent, if ambivalent, phantom. On the one hand, he doesn’t seem to miss “the power cuts / the dark nights / through windows dimly lit by candles as wind / kept the boats tied up and the pockets dry”. On the other hand, he romanticises this “Dear island, dear battered rock,” specifically “West Cork under the fire blanket of a night cloud / where the oaks aligned the lane as still as ninjas and the beech trees / jingled in the breeze like bellydancers darned with tiny symbols.” Mostly Ireland exists as a source of gallows humour. In “Parliament Bridge”, he considers leaping to his death, but frets that he may “end up in a John Spillane song a few / years from now, or a Billy Ramsell poem, / where the hero is not me, but he who hauls / my bloated corpse from the water at Union / Quay.”

The cover of this far-ranging book is apt: a winged silhouette striding purposefully toward the reader. The image epitomises its complicated sensibility, a spirit propelled less by celestial appendages than by his two earthly feet, resting occasionally in a state of stop-gap grace, before grinding ahead toward whatever may be next.

1/11/2018

Mark Wasserman is a writer and university instructor who lives in Los Angeles.

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