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The Word as Trampoline

Maeve O’Sullivan

Half-Open Door, by James Finnegan, Eyewear Publishing, 98 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-1912477173

Michael Longley once quipped that if he knew where poems came from, he’d go there. In Half-Open Door, the debut collection from James Finnegan, we can see that the sources of inspiration for his poetry are many and various, running the gamut from the canons of poets and philosophers to travel, the natural world and interpersonal relationships. Finnegan’s work has been widely published in literary journals, and some poems have been shortlisted or commended in key competitions.

This is a handsomely produced book, with an attractive blue-green cover and excellent production values. A total of seventy-six poems are presented on eighty-five pages, with no sections. There is a glowing introduction by Thomas McCarthy in which he hails Finnegan, a Donegal-based Dubliner, as “an important new voice”.

Very little punctuation is used by the poet: though apostrophes are used, there are no commas, full stops or question marks in evidence. Instead, there is an occasional reliance on dashes, and even more on what McCarthy calls Finnegan’s “spacing ‘resting’ technique”, which he uses effectively to generate pauses within lines. Poetry and punctuation can sometimes be uneasy bedfellows, but I think the key point to make is that this style, while it won’t be to everyone’s taste, is consistent throughout the book.

The poet’s love affair with language is evident, and he extols its versatility in his poem “Word”: “a word is not a philosophical cramp / it’s a trampoline / which bounces meaning / it is a coat / that can be turned / inside out.” Indeed there is a strong focus on philosophy, a subject which is clearly dear to Finnegan’s heart. His poems of existential musings which explore questions in a more open and exploratory way, and which present strong imagery, such as “When I’m Gone” or “New Moon”, work better for this reader than the ones which are more expository or reference-laden. The latter can sometimes present barriers to a reader’s enjoyment or understanding. One of my favourite quotes about poetry comes to mind in this regard, from William Carlos Williams: “No ideas but in things.”

Finnegan also airs his ideas and concerns about ecological matters. Similarly, the ones in which the poet’s observant eye zooms in and picks out the details in the natural world and its inhabitants tend to be more effective than those with a “message” which can veer into the polemical. Finnegan writes about birds, dogs, cats, horses, reindeer and even penguins. There is some dark humour in evidence here, as in “I Love the Animals" and in "Elsie”, which describes the decline and demise of his pet cat, with a flight of fancy into role reversal: “I imagine that she brings me to the vet / playing Begley and Cooney in the car // the whiskered vet gives me a sedative / a final goodbye is offered.”

There are a number of elegies in this collection, some of them for people known to the poet and some for historical figures. Most of these are tenderly understated, invoking Hippocrates’ ars longa, vita brevis in their contrast between the ephemeral and the enduring. One such is “Elegy”, dedicated to the poet’s mother-in-law, Helen Reilly, which starts with the poignant lines: “the oak leaves are out ... but you have left / I think of you lying quietly / proud chin ... lilac beads ... in final silence’.  However, others such as "Emma Morano" are a little list-like. I guess the danger in writing elegies to people not known to you personally is that they can be over-loaded with biographical information at the expense of the lyric imperative, and there is also the thorny and topical issue of cultural appropriation.

Although loss and grief are threaded through this book, relationships with the living are also explored, from chance encounters to that which the poet has with his wife, Livinia, to whom the collection is dedicated. There is a striking evocation of the speaker and his partner’s childlessness in the poignant “A Bicycle Made for Two”. The empathy that Finnegan feels for his fellow humans and other beings comes through strongly and is linked to his keen powers of observation: where does compassion start, after all, but in the seeing? It even extends to the elements; including water, wind and snow in “There you can’t Blame the Water”.

Finnegan is open about his poetic influences: his favourite poets include Raymond Carver and Billy Collins and, closer to home, Longley and Heaney. To paraphrase a former tánaiste, I suspect that he is closer to Boston than Berlin in that regard. Several other poets or their work are referenced in poems, including Sassoon, Eliot, Miłosz and Tranströmer, after one of whose poems the collection has been titled.

The collection is book-ended with poems which reference doors and how they can erect or dismantle barriers. In the opening poem, “Others Dance Out”, the speaker refers to himself as the titular half-open door through which “others dance out and in” and in the closing poem, “Room with Four Doors”, the fourth door in question is the one that the speaker and the you of the poem is sharing: “either of us can shut that / any time we choose”.

Some of the poems included in Half-Open Door don’t do justice to the superior work in the collection. I would have preferred to see a more streamlined collection of around sixty poems, but this is perhaps more of a question for the editor/publisher than the poet. Arranging them in sections might perhaps have provided more signposts for the reader. However, there is much to admire and be inspired by in this accomplished body of work, so I am happy to concur with McCarthy’s claim, and look forward to enjoying more of Finnegan’s work in the future.

1/12/2018

Dubliner Maeve O'Sullivan’s poetry and haiku have been widely published, anthologised and translated. She is the author of four collections from Alba Publishing (UK), the latest of which is Elsewhere (2017). Maeve is a founder member of the Hibernian Poetry Workshop, and performs with The Poetry Divas. Twitter: @writefromwithin

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