Liberty Hall, by Michael O’Loughlin, New Island, 128 pp, €12.95, ISBN: 978-1848407978
A number of times over the past one billion years, the Earth’s surface has ‘wandered’ relative to its rotational axis –before returning to its original position […] True polar wander can be defined as the relative movement between the mantle (and so the surface of the Earth) and the Earth’s spin axis or its rotational axis. Incredibly, researchers believe that over the past one billion years, the Earth’s surface has ‘tipped over’ and then returned to its original location six times along the same axis – this is the process of ‘oscillatory true polar wander’.
Commissariat T, ‘How Earth’s Wandering Poles Return Home’ Physics World, November 12th, 2012. https://physicsworld.com/a/how-earths-wandering-poles-return-home/
Oscillating in its wanderings, Michael O’Loughlin’s latest collection of poems takes us on an odyssey from his homeplace in Dublin with a rat “holed up under Robert Emmet bridge”, across the Liffey to Finglas, overseas to Andorra, Amsterdam, Prague and Paris, where on the rue des Irlandais, he tells his Senegalese taxi driver “I am Irlandais, and this is my street.” Back by recirculation, he returns to Dublin, where we find the poet a lone figure walking his dog late at night, or wandering the supermarket where he “sometimes just walks the aisle / and leaves without buying anything”. Buying nothing, perhaps O’Loughlin has found his way back to the heart of things after all.
It is O’Loughlin’s enactment of liberty by the act of wandering in these poems where he performs his, and our, privilege; the liberty to move and not fear the spotlight as you struggle to free yourself from the razor wire. The liberty to wander and not feel a rifle butt in the face. He reports back on “the waste ground occupied by families / who sat quietly on abandoned sofas / amongst the bushes and rubbish / watching a television / they’d linked to overhead cables.”
Liberty Hall, however, is no travel guide. It finds O’Loughlin circling his own life and that of his family; the cities and countries he has called home; Europe as geographical and political construct and the expression of what a poetry collection can be. And though he tells us he is circling in search of a centre ‑ a notion that must acknowledge the self as centre ‑ he realises there can be no centre of any lasting tenure. What holds it all together is intimacy. His maternal grandmother and Mrs Kearney gabbing in the snug of “Fox’s Bar, Grocery and Undertaker’s” while the poet sits “watching the Blackwater river / spill its salmon / into the Boyne’. And just like the fabled salmon, this book sees O’Loughlin leave and return to his place of origin.
His wandering returns him to Dublin, wheeling through the city on the crossbar of his father’s bike, and on his own bike, feeling the “corporeal archaeology” in the rises and dips beneath him. He maps the intimacy of cities, an intimacy all the more necessary for it being “a curious intimacy” where “we can, but do not speak”. This “we” as much the city dwellers, the suburbanites who lock their car and nod to their neighbour before shutting themselves into their caves, the ghosts of the past, or our newest citizens, the “Brazilians, Moldovans and Poles”, who simply cannot speak our English as well as the buildings and streets themselves.
Similar to Patrick Modiano’s Paris, O’Loughlin’s Dublin is intricately named and mapped: Camden Street, Winetavern Street, Portobello, the Rotunda, Little Jerusalem, The Guinness Brewery. All markers that are just that bit more permanent than the citizens who walk the streets. The only fixity, it seems, is place, hence the fear of placelessness. “Even when we are displaced,” writes Edward Casey, “we continue to count upon ‘some’ reliable place, if not our present precarious perch, then a place-to-come or a place-that-was. While we easily imagine or project an ideal (or merely a better) place-to-be and remember a number of good places we have been, we find that the very idea, even the bare image, of no-place-at-all occasions the deepest anxiety.”
O’Loughlin’s anxiety is to find a centre, something he felt existed beyond Finglas. There is no centre: however, it’s not that “the centre cannot hold”; it’s that there is none that you can point to on a map and inhabit. Throughout his roaming, his freewheeling, O’Loughlin also attempts to locate himself among his reading. As with previous work, a litany of Brecht, Kafka, Vallejo, and Walter Benjamin appear throughout. While Bosch’s Pedlar of 1490, one of the several images used to great effect in the collection, relies on his staff to carry him forward, O’Loughlin relies often too heavily on naming those he has read. If you are going to introduce Walter Benjamin in Part I, then someone is going to have a cross a mountain and die in Part II.
This however is a small grumble in an otherwise engaging and multi-dimensional work. A work that incorporates prose and visual art to great effect as a backdrop to the poet’s rambles that informs and expands the material of the poems. A welcome challenge to the centrality of the poem, only the poem and nothing but the poem. A shift from the periphery where poetry books will more and more take the liberties available to them. O’Loughlin is well able to stand on his own two feet, wandering with a scarf his sister knit him “from our mother’s scraps of wool” and later marvelling with his daughter at “how the heart wrestles a home from the air”.
On the cover two young boys stand on Winetavern Street “admiring model Linda Ward”, our own Lady Liberty or Lady of the Liberties in an image from mid-1960s Dublin; a capital city about to undergo radical change thanks in part of TK Whitaker’s First Programme for Economic Expansion. And so the two boys circle and admire the Irish-American model Linda O’Reilly, née Ward, in perfect poise as mannequin in plush red coat advertising to the boys that you too can have all this ‑ it’s out there in the new suburbs waiting for you.
The grim grey conditions of Winetavern Street and environs were to be a distant memory for city residents soon after that photograph was taken. The great suburban expansions had already begun ‑ Finglas, O’Loughlin’s homeplace, was already on the map and would soon be followed by Tallaght, Clondalkin and Blanchardstown in a distorted version of the English model town, accompanied by a feeding frenzy for county councillors and property developers rabidly cashing in. These great havens of new living promised much in the line of heating, bathrooms, hot and cold water and relief from tenement Dublin. Liberty, some might say. Though as city manager Gerald Sherlock claimed as far back as 1932, “the provision of decent housing for the working classes […] is a measure of social insurance against the consequences of subversive propaganda, and so immediately affects the State”. I am reminded of a recent walk in Tallaght, when, wanting to sit to take in the houses, I realised there was nowhere to sit. There are no seats in the suburbs. These are the suburbs that O’Loughlin came from, left and to which he ostensibly returns in this collection following, as it were, the earth’s wander.
“The whole world is suburb,” he quotes Marina Tsvetaeva in the closing section, where, despite being dormitory towns, or rather because of it, there lies a new centre out on the edge.
Keith Payne is the John Broderick Writer in Residence 2021. Recent collections include Broken Hill (Lapwing 2015), Diary of Crosses Green (from the Galego of Martín Veiga. Francis Boutle 2018), The Desert and Second Tongue (from the Galego of Maria do Cebreiro and Yolanda Castaño, Shearsman 2019, 2020).