The Kabul Olympics, by John McAuliffe, Gallery Press, 72 pp, €11.95, ISBN: 978-1911337843
In “The Changing Mountain”, his recent essay on the mutable parameters of elegy (Poetry London Issue 96) Stephen Sexton notes “the imperceptible change a photograph, say, undergoes when someone depicted in it has died; how these images seem, somehow, utterly changed without having changed at all”. The same might be said for poems read during or subsequent to lockdown, given the way in which certain motifs have taken on a new or enhanced significance. John McAuliffe’s richly textured fifth collection from Gallery Press was published on April 2nd, and therefore completed before the pandemic manifested, yet many of the poems contained therein could be interpreted as referencing lockdown. McAuliffe’s work is often associated with domestic spaces, and a cluster of poems in the new collection could certainly be read as lockdown poems in the way that they are focused on gardens and interiors, with a wariness about what is going on elsewhere; a case in point is “Robin”, in which the suddenly sinister bird utters threats through the window while “silent and moving, tussling with something / on the lawn, something small, / for practice.”
A second thread which has particular resonance for a reader whose freedom has been curtailed is that of the intoxicating allure of journeys. Throughout the collection there is a metronomic tilt between stasis and “the idea of speed without purpose, / acceleration as an end in itself” (“A Minute to the Hour”). McAuliffe’s 2013 poem “Going Places” evoked potent childhood memories of “Sitting in the backseats of cars” and in this collection the poet, born and raised in Kerry, demonstrates the country teenager’s sense of the car as a symbol of freedom and escape. The sheer exhilaration of driving at speed runs through The Kabul Olympics, from the opening poem, “Germany”, in which “wheel-spinning through / black German forest, cities / a rumour you will not snatch at, / is to be content for once,” to “The Palm”, when the young poet and his schoolmates “stuck our heads out the windows, flung / ourselves at bends, shouted at commentary / we couldn’t hear, flying, it felt like, parking / as the ref added time for injury.”
The recurrent motif of cars expands its scope in the empathetic “Saloon”, in which the poet’s family car becomes an imaginative conduit to the unlikely hero of the Libyan rebellion, Mahdi Ziu, whose black Kia was used as a suicide vehicle to break into a base protecting pro-Gadhafi forces in 2011.
Explosions proliferate, not only in the context of war and terrorist attacks (the bombing of the Carcanet offices, the deaths of Francis Ledwidge and Mahdi Ziu, the Manchester Arena bombing, the “two tonnes of odourless Semtex” in the Eksund) but also as metaphor, as in the final poem, “Blown Way”, ostensibly about the difficulty of pegging down a tent. The fragment-like love lyric “Molecule” takes a different slant on the incendiary motif, ending with the line “At room temperature the look itself / the idea in a look is phosphor.”
In contrast to the speeding cars and detonations, the slow-mo paralysis of shock is exquisitely conveyed in “City of Trees”, which documents the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena in 2017. CCTV images depict the perpetrator:
walking through the May weeks of the trees’green explosions, the air
thick with willow pollen and honeysuckle,
all invisible in the greyscale’s pixel
rendering of the place, scrambling it
even as crowds gather elsewhere,
in shops and bars and streets, to shoot the breeze,
watch a match on telly, and follow their phones,
as I do, student of uprootings and aftermath,
hemmed in by the information
which descends on us like summer rain.
This is a carefully curated collection, in which the individual poems add up to more than the sum of their parts; for example “Ledwidge in Manchester”, which was shortlisted for the Listowel Writers’ Week Irish Poem of the Year in the 2017 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards, lends itself more readily to interpretation in the context of other poems about death and violent disruption in the city where McAuliffe lives and works.
Throughout is a sense of parallel worlds, the diurnal and its dark shade. Skilful layering is nowhere more evident than in the title poem, an elegy for the novelist Caroline Chisholm. This poem uses tercets to build a composite picture of the dedicatee by conjuring tales within tales within tales, one of which notes that Chisholm’s novel Swimming Pool Hill took its name from a hill where a Russian built a pool, “dreaming up an Olympics in Kabul, / before the rise of the Taliban”. In the context of the turmoil depicted elsewhere, the reference to the war-torn capital of Afghanistan takes on a broader significance. The cover image of the collection is Richard Mosse’s photograph “Foyer at Uday’s Palace”, depicting American soldiers at the home of Saddam Hussein’s son. Mosse has said of his photograph that he found “something sinister and circular about an occupying army lounging around a toppled dictator’s pool, in the area archaeologists call the ‘cradle of civilisation’.” (The Guardian, May 9th, 2012). It is a thought-provoking choice for a collection which honours the small and improbable triumphs of our daily lives against a backdrop of great upheavals.
Amanda Bell is a writer and editor based in Dublin. She has a new poetry collection forthcoming from Doire Press in late 2021 www.learasabellwritingservices.ie