Ghostlight: New & Selected Poems, by Mark Granier, Salmon Poetry, 134 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-1910669914
A Selected Poems is a strange kind of creature, a recognised step on the shaky ladder of the poetry “career”, a sort of pause half-way up, or three-quarters of the way up the slope where the poet stops, anxiously maybe, turns around and asks himself or herself, actually, what have I done? What have I made? Is any of it any good? Maybe it’s time to sort out the wheat from the chaff, the keepers from the losers, the tried and maybe succeeded from the tried and wretchedly failed. Some people say a poet only really writes a single book, every collection, selection, collected, new selected, new collected just another packing of the one body of work as it issues and develops, circles and returns.
Mark Granier’s first collection, Airborne, was published in 2001 and was followed by The Sky Road (2007), Fade Street (2011), Haunt (2015). As these titles suggest, the poems are in fact full of skies and hauntings, the missing, the dead, time’s erasures, “the slow shift of light”, the closely observing eye lighting on the city and where the city meets light and water and sky; he’s an eternal “cloud watcher, seawatcher”, as one poem has it, watching, as in “Ancient view of Amsterdam”, “a skyline accumulate from scratch” or, as in “Before and After”, “watching sea and sky / darken and simplify”. The fascination with the sea comes in for a bit of gentle mockery in one of “Three Postcards from Mr Zed”, a poem overlooked – maybe a little unjustly – for the careful selection here:
The best thing about the sea is that
basically it’s flat
there is no land.
He doesn’t always take Kenneth Koch’s advice not to end a poem with history or the sea, and finds himself often in Blackrock, Seapoint or Sandycove “to write or just sit, long enough to take home / equilibrium, one little bucket of history // slopping gently on whatever scales / register these things.”
The attraction of these places isn’t just the sea but the sense of their being liminal spaces, where city meets water, where boundaries are elided, where one kind of possibility meets another, or one kind of clarity meets another. It’s what he calls in “Evening Sun, Bullock Harbour” “this slight but definite / unstillness” which he could watch for hours, “a dressing and undressing of light”. The attraction to the liminal is also seen in the way he’s drawn to elegy in fine poems about his mother, and the often intriguing evocations of the absent father, less real than imagined or conjured. Ghostlight is an apt title for a selection which is full of hauntings – there’s a poem in The Sky Road, called “From Blackrock” which nicely sums up the hauntedness of this poet’s imagination, a tentative toast to a lost or unknown father combining with the evocation of the darkening Dublin Bay:
Here’s to you, ghost father, alive or dead,
your surname’s reserved seat,
your vast library of the unsaid ….
Granier’s is also a very concrete imagination, one that delights in the seemingly tiny moment or perception. It’s hard to think, for instance, of someone else who could write a poem called “7Up, Torremolinos” and get from the “icy fizz” on his tongue to “The universe is utterly / beyond me, but close. Close.”
That up-closeness intersects with a deep interest in the visual. Granier is an accomplished photographer drawn to urban scenes, often to the overlooked or underappreciated – overhead wires, bus shelters, the aftermath of a parade, people in all their astonishing variety. The same quality of attention filters through to the poetry.
Sometimes an actual photograph is the prompt. We see this especially in a poem like “A Photograph of Fade Street, Dublin, 1878” with its striking image of the photographer as “time’s pupil” trying to capture the mobile complexity of a moment. The people he concentrates on may or may not make the journey towards us, the “Three girls perched on a kerb will be restless smears”, “two boys / sitting on a doorstep may take / if they keep staring”, a “pair of women who stand talking with a third … / sway themselves into ghosts with a pale-faced lad flickering from a doorway” – again it’s a characteristic grainy Granier moment, the tension between ghostly invisibility and the press of reality nicely held and judged.
There’s also plenty of humour and satire, I should say, as in these lines on the houses that James Joyce lived in
James Joyce ivy
on James Joyce plaque,
James Joyce pebbles
on James Joyce dash,
James Joyce knocker
on James Joyce door,
James Joyce dust
on James Joyce floor,
James Joyce windows
with James Joyce glass
waiting for James Joyce
clouds to pass.
The new poems continue the preoccupation with the city, disappearing phone boxes or the plaque on O’Connell Bridge commemorating a priest who never existed, or what Granier calls “the metaphysics of streetlights coming on / gradually …”
The last poem of the collection, “How To Ask For A House in Poetry”, is a pretty exact description of the poet’s own hopes and virtues as a poet, “a house that keeps / its distance though not too far / to shout goodnight at a neighbour’ or “keen-eyed as a lookout”, “at home with itself” yet “as wakeful/as the cat that also sleeps tight”, and, most tellingly of all, “as ready as any house can be for catastrophe or delight”.