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The Note for Grief

Liza Costello

The Travels of Sorrow, by Dermot Healy, Gallery Press, 9781852356415  €11.95

In the RTÉ Arts Lives documentary about Dermot Healy, “The Writing in the Sky” (2011), Healy describes a stone wall that he used to build each year on a beach near his home on the Sligo coast, only for it to be subsequently destroyed by the tide. This act, recalled in the title poem of The Travels of Sorrow (“I built up / a wall of stone / against the sea”) could be seen as a physical enactment of much of what his poetry achieves on the page. There is no line, it says, between us and the laws of the natural, physical world in which we live. Or if there is one, it is illusory, futile – a thing we create for ourselves to feel less defenceless in a world where grief and loss are as inevitable as that tide, where ultimately everything and everyone must perish.

The Travels of Sorrow is no exception. Healy’s posthumous final collection, shaped by his editor, Peter Fallon, out of a draft manuscript sent him by Healy and out of poems Healy wrote in the months afterwards, echoes with painful losses. In the title poem, an angry brother throws his household’s china into the sea. “A thousand, thousand / high tides” later, and “with a terrible / sadness, / these broken remains / of an old argument on the alt / are coming in amongst the gravel”. In “Dry Eyes”, a banished cat tears “the sea salt / off the windows / with her claws / to watch us within”; when she dies, she is grieved for in turn by the poet. “Friend” recounts the death of two friends within a short space of time. “Without John / there’s no sense in carrying on”, says one when they find John in bed “dressed as if he were taking a nap”. A month later, “Can we stop for a whiskey on the way?” the other asks the ambulance driver, before he “stood to get up, / then shook and fell to the ground.” At the funerals, the silence is “like a wound / not healed” as “some of the same spades / went into the same earth / and you felt the men were burying / the same man twice.” In “The Mirror”, two babies that were joined at birth cannot stop crying following the operation that separates them, until a mirror is placed beside each of them. But when they are “healed enough” to be put side by side again, “a near smile / of recognition” becomes “the faint smiling face / of loss. … You will be taken from me, / the eyes said”. Like the pipes player in “The Long Stretch”, The Travels of Sorrow “finds the note for grief”.

In doing so, it never seems to wander far from the theme of loss as fate, in a physical world whose rules hold sway. Such loss, these poems seem to say, is an intrinsic aspect of our world, inseparable from its material reality; and so depictions of loss are wound through with depictions of the natural world. There is nothing “pastoral”, in the romanticised sense of the word that is, in this. Nature is never depicted as an idyllic escape from reality, but rather as reality itself. It is the modern world that seems to be the escape. In “The Off-button”, we glimpse “the TV on / in a sudden spot of rain” – its reflection in the window. In “The Wife of the Moon”, “I’ve grown / complacent, hide out by the hearth, / tuck into wine, watch hours of TV” while outside, the moon is “heaving at the door”, “paddling on top of every swell”, “grounding / down the rocks”. Always, the outside world rages on, always astonishing and always changing no matter how much we hide. The poems teem with fresh depictions of it, from wild birds (“the snipe of Finea / whisk the song / out of the feathers / in their tail”) to the sea, to the sky, with its “long acres of cloud / and star nests”. There is a lot of the sky in fact, which is “dark, swirling” in one poem, in another, containing “my mother’s hair / … all the aged” in its moving clouds. The natural world is always moving, in clean images that bring the thing to you, like “the yard skiing with swallows” and the butterfly that “blew by / like a sliver of ash”. It is time passing made visible. In “The Fossils of Coral”, coral stones are “each filled / with a tropical sea / and the scrawl and dint of time”. In “The Sentinel”, “the clout / of cold wind is waiting in the wings”.

In the face of so much inevitable loss, the collection sometimes seems to hum with anger. This is there in the “rage” of Pat Donlon of the title poem, for example – the image of him throwing all the china “onto the rocks / on the beach” – and in the description of the broken delph as “little fractures of despair – / shouting, I’ve had enough! / Take it, take it all!” It is there in “As You Get Older”, where an atheist’s prayer (“I do not believe in anything out there”) comes towards the end of a life, when “you / start / cursing the god that does not exist / and the pen fills with anger”. In “The Wife of the Moon”, the “fierce moon” is “pounding at the foundations”, “searching the dark / for one perfect opening.” And the last stanza of “The Pillow is on Fire” goes:

So remember, leman,
what has to be done – throw your head
into the pillow of tears
to put out
the flames.

But it is not all anger, all raging sorrow. Healy’s poetry has long been admired for its plainness of style and the way in which his poems deal with “everyday” life and, in The Travels of Sorrow the language is always accessible, always bringing the light, familiar ring of “ordinary speech”. There is even humour, if a dark one that is never just humour, in the hallucinatory “The Souls”, for example, where “on the way to a funeral / in Cavan” and to others after, animals and birds die through their encounter with the poet’s car – a crow flying into the windscreen, a rabbit going under the wheel – until he decides: “I’m going to no more / funerals in Cavan. Soon there won’t be a bird / or a badger left alive in the country.” There is tenderness throughout too, from the careful depiction of fireflies and zigzags in “The Tickles of Mating” to the love song that is “October Winds”.

Building that wall on the beach may have been a futile gesture in one sense, but in another it was a deeply creative, positive act, repeated year after year. In the same way, this collection, in its energy, its living images from the natural world, its physicality, the lightness of its language, is full of a kind of celebration. It is an earned celebration because it is not separate from the collection’s meditation on loss as fate, but rather, part of it – the other side of the coin. Sometimes this seeps into the poems as a note of hope. In “In Songs for Digging”, the diggers sing “Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest” as they “curse / the blasted scutch / and dig / into the cursed bind”, a poem that ends with them laying “flag stones / up to the new door”. In “The Night Light”, while recalling an old friend who has died, “the way he smiled, / The ‘I’ that was a word / he never said”, the poet goes outside to check the night light is working: “all was dark / until his voice / suddenly lit up / the yard.” Grief and loss may be inevitable consequences of being alive in the world, but in The Travels of Sorrow, Healy shows that so too are joy and hope. As the end of one of the last poems of the collection goes:

There’s fresh onions
in the earth. The wounds
on the wrist are healing.

1/3/2017

Liza Costello is completing a PhD on the work of Dermot Healy. In 2015, she was joint runner-up in the Patrick Kavanagh award for an unpublished collection of poems.

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