The Potter’s Book, by Louis Mulcahy, Doire Press, 80 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-1907682643
Louis Mulcahy is touted at “the godfather of Irish craft”, a master ceramic sculptor and potter. This then, his fourth collection, quite rightly is immersed firmly in this world. Surveying his development as an artist, as well as the intricacies of the practice, Mulcahy balances a childlike fascination with the primal beauty of clay, glaze and fire with an expert familiarity gained throughout the years.
The risk with any collection focusing heavily on one particular theme is in alienating the reader; if you aren’t familiar with the theme in hand, then why should you invest in the writing? The challenge is of course for the language to ascend beyond mere description and terminology, and to draw us in through the personal. This cannot simply be poetry by someone with an intimate knowledge of ceramics; we need to believe that only Mulcahy could have written this, that only he is at the centre of this work, cracking it open like terracotta under thermal expansion, to let us see the inner workings.
Such capability creates a daunting start, with early allusions to the Sung Dynasty and the Japanese Zen master Eisai. However, we are soon in the territory of childhood: china in oriental tea rituals leads to mother’s good china tea set, “the one / brought out for the clergy”. “So Many Years have Passed” cunningly compares the potter’s wheel to bicycle wheels, the suggestion perhaps that the learning method is similar for both: you just have to throw yourself into it.
Slowly then, we enter Mulcahy’s realm, for he begins not as master, but apprentice. “The Doubting Days” starts with an uncomfortable truth: “In my early days / those not born to privilege / did not aspire to art”. A person would have been “judged mad” to “even have the notion”. The ungenerous reader may judge Mulcahy mad indeed when he tells of cycling around East Jutland to seek out workshops, or of leaving behind a career in television to follow his passion. But throughout the entire collection, we see the rewards of that risk: the sheer delight is evident in poems revisiting his past, “partners with the fire”.
Mulcahy is concerned with process and craft as much as the next driven artist, but he wants us to understand the detail behind the obsession as well, and there are hints of regret over what it has cost him. “Elm Disease” starts off charmingly, with a baby in the shade of a tree, cooing along with the pigeons. It takes a sharp turn, telling how the tree was cut down and replaced by a workshop shed, where “her father spent / the first years of her life”. “The Hands” details the physical wearing down of the potter, continuously repeating his craft. Towards the end of the book, three lines shout out above everything else:
The urge to be the best was irresistible
‑ the seventies and eighties barely noticed —
I was lost in trying to be the potter of our time.
The poem continues to lament not being more present in the lives of others, and it’s a fine example of the frank and honest approach brought to the writing. “Wonder of Life” is perhaps the poem that could most easily be by someone unaccustomed to pottery, imagining what life must be like at the wheel. It’s full of the easy pleasure of someone partaking in a pastime they love, and it is within this pleasure that we find affinity with the poet. Such pieces succeed when Mulcahy stretches out his material, giving time and space for insights to be gained. Shorter poems such as “The Thrall of Clay”, “The Fixation” and “Embellishment” are aimless repeats of themes better stated elsewhere.
The poems waiver between two states, those of simple craftsman and of fanatic, and it’s hard not to feel turned off by mentions of crystobalite, extolling Shōji Hamada, or the origins of cinnabar. The further you proceed, the more you admire the passion on display, even if reluctantly. Yet the reader’s appetite for the potter’s world will never match Mulcahy’s. Once you reach the post-9/11 poem “October 2011”, you almost resent the “drifting kiln smoke” and “long boards of hand-thrown bowls”, desperate for a change of record no matter how good the writing. And while Mulcahy does look outside himself briefly to other artists, religious allusions or wildlife, his work is continually weighed down by one very obvious and exhaustive anchor.
Colin Dardis is a poet, editor and arts coordinator. His debut collection, the x of y, was released in 2018 from Eyewear Publishing. He co-runs Poetry NI, a multimedia platform for poets. His work has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA. Follow him on Twitter @purelypoetry