Noel King, The Stern Wave, (Salmon Poetry, 2013), 77pp, €12.00, ISBN 9781908836335
Reviewed by Phoebe Walker
[Originally published in LP6/7, Jan/Feb 2015]
I was once a student of literature in Belfast, and our tutors made certain we were well drilled in ‘Irish Literature’ – always tiptoeing, of course, around what constituted the stuff. Writing from ‘the island of Ireland’ was a favourite, evasive answer, so we studied Yeats, Maria Edgeworth and Swift alongside the more contemporary bite of Glenn Patterson, Alan Gillis and Ciaran Carson. And Seamus Heaney, of course, plenty of Heaney, who, to me, acutely aware of city and national divisions, as much as an earnest foreigner could be, blurred those invisible, razor sharp borderlines in poetry that I found at once calming and complex. The syllables of Anahorish became a tiny incantation.
I had read little poetry from (the island of) Ireland since leaving it, and picked up Noel King’s second collection with, I suppose, unfair anticipation. King was born and lives in Tralee (a quick glance at his photo declares him no rose, though impressively bearded) in County Kerry, and is a prolific writer and editor – which compounded my disappointment with this collection. To me, too many of the poems here read as though their latent energies have been dampened down, and King’s obvious abilities, when put to the test, fall short. Much of the work here reads blandly, even when the content strives to shock and unsettle.
My main issue with this collection is that the majority of the poems are couched in unexceptional language – not in itself a criticism – and remain, as whole, unexceptional, with no voltas, stylistic conceits or starting originality of thought to make them impressive. In subject, they are almost all bleak, again not a criticism, but that same failure to startle, in any way, risks the whole becoming one stretch of dreary wallpaper.
Several poems end with an ostensibly devastating denouement; so in ‘The Third Attempt’:
[…] she’d pressed
a delicate fork in,
moving the fish-flesh
from the bones
then played a while
with it on the edge
of her plate.
No one noticed
[…] they found
her feet first
in the shed
after the disco.
Elsewhere, “Aunt Jane”, the one-time wearer of a dress, “Grace Kelly like, large pink flowers”, is, “cut down” form “the cross-beam in the turf shed”. A child narrates a poem about being taken for a car ride by his reckless elder brother, ultimately revealing “I sure ain’t gonna tell/ ‘cos I’m the one that’s dead”. I get the intended play of succinct, almost pedestrian phrases against the jolt of the macabre close, but the effect left me nonplussed, rather than moved, the bulk of the poem unstimulating enough to make those final lines feel gratuitous more than anything else. The fact that this effect exists in several poems in the collection also chips away at the impact – encountering this stylistic conceit for the third or fourth time, it’s all too easy to feel irritation with the poet, not for laziness exactly, but for a lack of care in placing the poems in this collection.
King depicts fine, small worlds in this collection – the child narrating his father’s affair, schoolboys shaking a mummified hand in St Michan’s Church in Dublin, an actress smashing a vase in a fit of rage – but what I look for in poems with a domestic scope is for the ordinary to be made, in however small a way, extraordinary. I don’t get that here. To me, so many of these poems remain nothing more than mildly interesting snapshots. The Dublin setting and the childhood perspective that shapes many of them does lend a flavour to the collection, but again, it’s a weak one, and for me, it is nothing new.
People go to poetry for different things; the very reasons for me disliking this collection might draw another to it. This poetry is quiet, and though not unchallenging, doesn’t submit you to a rigorous reading experience – and for some, that will be just what’s wanted. Others, myself among them, however, will close the book dissatisfied, especially when some few poems do hit the mark, small stubbing points in an otherwise frictionless path.