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Poetry, Exile, Homecoming

Keith Payne

Poems 1980-2015, by Michael O’Loughlin, New Island Books, 200 pp, €14.95, ISBN: 978-1848405431

Michael O’Loughlin’s Poems 1980-2015 opens with a Dedalean dream of exile, of casting off the nets of ‘Finglas / the grey eroding suburb / where you squandered the coin of your youth’ –something many of us have worried over while worrying the poetry line. He continues with what can only be described as a Beckettian aisling, in “Medium”: “lone     oh     lonely,” // “oh     fair     beauty” // “fairvan     van     woman,”, calling to mind from the start the exiled Irish writers that O’Loughlin would soon follow. At twenty-two, just as Stalingrad: The Street Directory was being published, O’Loughlin left Ireland for what would become a twenty-year spell abroad.

Many of these poems are of the everyman in the city variety; poems written from the city’s shades, poems that witness from the dark of a bedsit hallway or the kerb in front your well-lit suburban home in Dublin. They then begin moving east, as hitchhiking into the dark night of the Continent “we followed / a grey rainbow through / faceless green countryside / kicked our heels in parking lots / a sentimental distance/ from the road.” (“The Journey”)

And distance, whether physical or the arguably clear-eyed distance afforded the poet at one remove from himself, is what O’Loughlin is heading for in his journeying, or as the Machado quote included has it “In order to write poetry you must first invent a poet who will write it.”

But the poet, invented or no, is then faced with the challenge of creating a distance in order to see clearly while at the same time maintaining the intensity of what is seen from the air (to stretch the Dedalean metaphor). O’Loughlin’s early sorties into Irish and European history –natural terrain for a journeyman elegist– are often forced, as his ars poetica, the Heaneyesque The Diary of a Silence acknowledges with “Everything living its posthumous existence / Hungering in me for an image / That is not mere archeology / The casual coupling of history and self.” But are such couplings really that casual? Do the clear-eyed poet and History really just fall in together casually, or are they thrown together, the one thrust upon the other? And if it really is casual, and if this be the case, and so “be the verse”, what then does the poet do? Does he write History as it speaks to him, or, as O’Loughlin suggests “shoulder my shadow onto the page / to neither speak nor move / but lie here and not lie,’ (“The Words”).

And so the challenge faced for an elegist aiming heading for the cold distance –for above all, O’Loughlin is a most exquisite elegist, a natural it seems – is to adhere to his elegiac tendencies while at the same time catch himself from “falling through the years” (“Valparaiso”), and being left then with the often impossible task of trying to heft History onto the poem. And far too often, the poem, as most poets know, simply can’t sustain the weight of History and we end up down where “a dog howls / Like a god remembering the world / He meant to create / But couldn’t find the words for.” (“Night in the Suburbs of Dublin”)

So with the words to hand can we do no more than just acknowledge that those same hands are tainted by all that’s gone before while we just sit behind the clear glass and watch? “From the bus I watch the children / Set fire to sheets of paper / And scatter them, screaming, into the wind. / They burn down to nothing, / A black smudge on the concrete.” (“Posthumous”). Can we do no more than simply chronicle, as it were, the death foretold? Or can we somehow draw from what we see, from what is in front of us, something that will speak for the times we’re in? Something that is not mere decoration yet that is true to the poetic urge. O’Loughlin is well aware of the challenge, of the opposing urges to simply witness and yet to also bear witness to what’s got us here; the mess we’re in. And many of the poems within these pages are written from the argument between poet and Historian and it’s in the final poem in the collection where they fall into together:

the antibiotics digging in
         like the Red Army of Stalingrad, to cross the river
         and swarm across the landscape of her brain’
         […]
with   ‘me sitting here,
         trying to sew back on Vincent’s ear.

Mandelstam once asked his wife “Why do you think you ought to be happy?” Many of these poems ask the same question. And it’s with the appearance of the poet’s daughter in poems such as “To a child in the womb”, “Birth Certificate” and “Iceland”, that he finds the answer. That although he “knows it solves nothing / though I know / it salves nothing / you have been born. […] and the diamond ratchet / of your small song / turns the wheel another inch” (“Birth Certificate”). And it’s here, after many years of journeying, of watching “from the cracks” the poet finally discovers: 

No patriot could love his fatherland
       as she loves this playground
       where I hear her shout in a language
       I forget in my dreams.

And here is the true conquest of one impulse over the other, of witnessing and of bearing witness. Here the revelation of O’Loughlin’s best poetic tendencies in the birth of a daughter; in the consummation of past and present. Or even in the appearance of a basset hound who “out of earshot, almost out of sight” on a “crowded pavement” raised his snout and sniffed the air and found the poet.

And so after much wandering there is a sense of homecoming in these poems, but more the poet coming home to himself than any facile notion of nationhood. And it has to be said that the conversation extended throughout these poems; on how to be a poet, on what is a poem, on what can a poem handle –as well as the poems themselves – places O’Loughlin deservedly within the canon of contemporary Irish poetries and O’Loughlin’s Poems 1980-2015 will stand the test of time and perhaps, like the tree, will be “inflamed by autumn”, will “blaze silently / like the flag of the perfect country” (“A Protestant Graveyard in County Monaghan”). There is something happening here, that’s for sure, and O’Loughlin knows what it is.

1/1/2018

Keith Payne was the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary Award winner for 2015/2016. His collection Broken Hill (Lapwing Publications) was published in 2015. It was followed in 2016 by Six Galician Poets (Arc Publications) .

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