Given Light, by Michael Coady, Gallery Press, 96 pp, €12.95, ISBN: 978-1911337300
The title poem of Michael Coady’s latest collection concerns a couple of trees planted in the early years of his marriage. The reader comes on it half-way through Given Light, at a point where the importance of interrelationships of people, families and earth has already emerged clearly. Its conclusion contemplates even larger connections; the poet looking at the moon between the trees is conscious of
… this older self rooted in surprise
here now on moonstruck Earth, breathing my share
of its slim envelope of air while heart
beats out its little time under this light
while others I have known have gone ahead
into a radiance or dark that’s absolute.
That “slim” is almost the only place in the poem where he permits himself a small flourish of language; the plainness of expression throughout has already impressed on us the primacy of meaning and fact. And the pressing subject of loss through the deaths of friends, neighbours and also ancestors has been spelled out. Coady’s style is direct, even sometimes flat; it is not surprising that the book includes a number of prose pieces; and the black-and-white photographs at intervals support the emphasis on literal truths, genealogical detail. Occasional banalities of adjectives, “haunting cadence” for example, seem irrelevant to the insistence on the reality of his subjects.
“On the Eve of a Tree-felling”, placed near the end of the book, returns to one of those trees, which has now grown so large it has to be cut down. While its fate is felt as tragic, the impression made by the poems taken as a whole is quite far from undiluted nature-worship. They are centred on Coady’s home town of Carrick-on-Suir, where the river and the countryside around are as essential to living as the air, but it is the presence of people, alive and dead, their relationships, memories, agreements and disagreements that fills them with life. His exclamation in the title poem, “How perfectly the parts seem to fit // as though designed for this” applies to the total effect. Single poems may appear initially to be just rising to an occasion, or capturing an eccentric connection, but their fitting together is organic.
A poem addressed to the late Dennis O’Driscoll relates the progress of his funeral, a conceit worthy of the younger poet himself, with a dryness of language, and a gravitas not unlike his. Coady’s dismissal of the difficulty of communicating with the dead is characteristic. The people in his poetic mirror of Carrick are half-submerged in their history and that of their families. They are connected with the recorded traumas of war and poverty (as with the story of the poet’s great-grandmother dying in childbirth in the workhouse ward in 1881); they are often commemorated by reference to their funerals, that ultimate validation of Irish lives. An American visitor walks into a pub and calls for “any of the Ryans / buried in Cill an Easpaig” and two women and “an old man holding cards” respond; your identity belongs to the place where you will be buried.
The figures in these poems cohabit in the book as in the town, create a network, pinned sometimes it might seem haphazardly together by musical tastes, cinematic fantasies, wild reputations, or anchored by sharing momentous experiences. Friendship and acquaintance radiate outward from families into localities and histories. In the prose piece “It All Depends”, a Tipperary hurler, who escaped from the shooting on Bloody Sunday in 1920, married a woman who played the church organ for the Latin hymns of Benediction or Quarant’Ore; she lived to be a hundred and is remembered in a conversation with a fourth-generation butcher in his shop. And the historical reach includes the Irish-speaking past: some of the poems gesture to the macaronic tradition with refrains in Irish, and there is an elegant version of Raftery’s “Cill Aodáin”.
Music – church music, country and western, jazz – runs through the book, wells up from its depths and prevents it from replicating the kind of programmed and researched verse-chronicle that haunts the creative-writing schools. The subjects of Coady’s poems are passionately interesting to him, and they sprout and burst out of each other it seems spontaneously. While the verse is often plain, its lively conviction emerges from that directness; if the skill that shapes it is often hidden, it flashes and appears undeniably in such pieces as “Aisling” and “Diana in the Tide”. The two brief concluding lines of “How beautiful the feet”, “the word belovèd / sidelit in stone” might sum up this poet’s observant, profound, suitably eloquent account of life and death. Given Light comes out of a life, and gives due precedence to human life over art, and since this is the life of a poet, his unpretentious skill in handling his themes allows them to grow with their natural momentum and claim their real weight.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is a poet and editor.