Gene Barry, Unfinished Business, (Doghouse, 2013), 70pp., €12, ISBN 978-0-9572073-7-0; Catherine Ann Cullen, Strange Familiar, (Doghouse, 2013), 70pp., €12, ISBN 978-0-9572073-6-3; Mary O’Gorman, Flames of Light, (Doghouse, 2013), 52pp., €12, ISBN 978-0-9572073-8-7
Reviewed by David Clarke [Originally published in LP1, August 2014]
One of the great advantages of writing reviews is that you discover new poets and even new presses you were not familiar with before. In this case, however, I come very late to the party, as the publisher of these three collections, Doghouse, informs me on its website that the books I am going to discuss here are among its final publications after ten years in business. I say ‘business’, but this Irish press is in fact a not-for-profit enterprise which has managed to put out nearly 50 volumes in that decade. A significant achievement, I would say, by people doing it for the love of the thing, and one that needs special mention before I even begin to consider the work they are bringing to the world.
The look of Doghouse’s books, to judge from these three examples, is very pleasing: Solid-looking but slim volumes that slip easily into a jacket pocket. The three authors in question, Gene Barry, Catherine Ann Cullen and Mary O’Gorman share a number of basic concerns as poets. All are primarily lyric poets of personal experience, whose work has strong autobiographical elements. They have many family poems between them, and colourful fathers, mothers, aunts and grandparents populate all three books. None break startling new territory, either thematically or formally, but these are nevertheless distinct voices.
Gene Barry’s Unfinished Business is the first collection from the founder of the Fermoy International Poetry Festival, who also works as a psychotherapist. Perhaps informed by this professional experience, his collection is particularly marked by a concern with outsiders, those who have undergone traumatic experiences, and those who live under precarious conditions. At his best, he is able to suggest the psychological complexities of a situation in a restrained yet compelling fashion, as for instance in the poem ‘Redundant’, which deals with the consequences of a woman’s mastectomy for her and her partner:
These nights his hand rests
behind him pining for its spooning perch.
She no longer jadedly whispers
nite, love you too,
concentrates on the tears
filling the pillow’s pool,
makes another note to change it
while he’s away at work
where he will cry a half dozen
times in the deaf toilet.
The couple’s inability to communicate, precisely because of their love for each other, is captured in a wonderfully understated way. The woman’s psychological disorientation, produced by this physical change, is also brought home to the reader with great economy:
She is awkwardly lighter there now,
the new weight resting on her shoulders
toppling her into an unfamiliar world.
Where the poems are similarly spare and direct (as, for instance, in ‘Michael’, ‘Mea Maxima Culpa, I Suppose’ or ‘Economic Blues’) Barry is able to bring us closer to damaged lives without voyeurism or easy sentimentality. However, where the poet becomes too allusive and abandons such clarity of expression, some of the poems become perplexing. For instance, despite a number of re-readings and quite a bit of googling, I’m still none the wiser about what the poem ‘Ephemeral Shanks’s Mare’ could be about, and there are moments in otherwise good poems where the language becomes too convoluted and abstract for the reader to engage with. For example, in ‘At the Palace’ the poem asks of its subject:
Were you that bludgeoned child
camouflaged by a deafness
lurking in an adult’s cognizance?
A hug-less daughter listing in
a sea of non-commingled waves,
your family’s fulcrum bent
as his counterfeit title.
Moments such as these feel over-cooked, relying on opaque imagery rather than clear-sighted observation. Nevertheless, these are only minor distractions from the collection’s other strengths.
Mary O’Gorman’s Flames of Light is a second collection and is assured in tone throughout. The poems feel neat and honed, carefully showing moments of connection, memory and loss, while leaving plenty of space for the reader. These are considered and modest poems, in the best sense of the latter term, which are nevertheless unafraid to tackle difficult experiences. We can get a sense of O’Gorman’s pared-down style and its emotional impact from the prayer-like poem ‘On Your Birthday’, which I will quote in full:
On Your Birthday
My oldest friend, send me a sign
that somewhere, somehow, you live on.
Let me see cigarette smoke rise
near your empty patio chair,
your copy of Emma inexplicably fall.
Let me glance in a mirror, see
you fixing that beehive hairdo,
me applying pale lipstick,
both of us innocent of the choices ahead
and the terrible one you would make.
Language of this kind is determinedly un-showy, yet the apparently everyday detail of the remembered friend is thrown into contrast by the final revelation. There is tenderness here, but no melodrama.
O’Gorman also has a good sense of humour, for instance when imagining old age as a clapped-out and rather bothersome stray moggy, clawing to get into the house (‘Tabby’), or sending up unsympathetic shop-girls in stores where they play the music too loud (the Wendy Cope-ish ‘Thwarted by Beyoncé’). The only false note is a short poem about a baby Harold Shipman being taken for his first injection by his mother. The nursery-rhyme tone is well chosen, but the irony which O’Gorman attempts to underline in fact comes dangerously close to being trite. This piece aside, Flames of Light is a humane and accessible collection.
Catherine Ann Cullen’s Strange Familiar is also a second book, and here too we have the sense of a poet well into her stride. While Cullen shares many of O’Gorman’s themes (love, loss, family relationships), Cullen’s work has quite a different feel to it. Whereas O’Gorman goes for formal neatness and concision, Cullen’s work is characterised by a much more loose-limbed approach, riffing on ideas and images. The poems have a free-wheeling feel to them, although the various digressions never feel out of control or gratuitous. For instance, in poems like ‘Something Out of Nothing Soup’, the extended narrative of the youthful impoverishment of the poet and her partner seems to take us a long way from the poem’s starting-point, a telephone call in the present. Nevertheless, Cullen is able to pull off the trick of bringing us back to where we started and letting all of the pieces fall into place at the very last moment. This gives many of the longer poems a pleasing feeling of unpredictability, which nevertheless always resolves itself into coherence in the process of reading. In this respect, ‘Black Stuff’, a meditation on a pint of Guinness, is especially good. The poet imagines herself sat in a bar waiting for the pint to settle, and that waiting time becomes a space in which her thoughts about the drink can evolve:
I like its colour, muddy as the Liffey;
the way its black and beige dust motes
separate, settle into coffee and cream
in the time it takes to tell a story,
catch your breath;
its taste of roast and toast, the first sweet sup,
warm from the tap. You can’t sup beer or lager,
that lightness on your lip
could never be more than a sip.
And porter carries many a conversation still:
No beer is so hotly debated, so coldly assessed.
The perfect temperature’s a keg’s worth of chat,
even the distance to the barrel
is worth mulling over.
This poem is, of course, also about the value of taking time, of looking closely and allowing one’s imagination to work on the observed. In other words, it is a poem which is as much about the poetic act as it is about a pint of Guinness. It is this multi-layered quality which makes Cullen’s work the most satisfying of the three books discussed here. The best of her poems take us beyond their immediate subject and open out in unexpected ways. For instance, ‘Two Slices of Ham’ begins with an anecdote about the poet’s grandmother’s hospitality and generosity, but finally asks interesting questions about the nature of pleasure as something shared and social rather than something selfish. Then, in ‘Herb Garden’, the poet’s frustration over the unruliness of what was supposed to be a ‘grid of beds where monks might meditate’ diverts us gently to a consideration of the value of sensual pleasures in the face of mortality. This ability to transform the essentially domestic, as suggested by the collection’s title, is Cullen’s real strength. Readers will find many rewards in re-reading her work.