Reality Check, by Dennis O’Driscoll, Anvil, 80 pp, £7.95, ISBN: 978-0856464027
Dennis O’Driscoll has given us a lot to read and a lot to think about over the past decade. An extraordinary five books of his poetry have appeared during this period. Quality Time (1997) and Weather Permitting (1999) were followed by Exemplary Damages in 2002 and Foreseeable Futures in 2004, in addition to New and Selected Poems in the same year. All these books have been published by Anvil. While writing poetry prolifically, O’Driscoll has been busy on other fronts as well. Throughout his career he has been a tireless book reviewer and essayist in Ireland, Britain and, more recently, the US. He has written reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, Parnassus, London Magazine, Poetry (Chicago), Southern Review and Harvard Review. These essays and reviews, along with one piece about growing up in Thurles, another about his career in the civil service and an interview, have been gathered into Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams (Gallery Press, 2001), a big book with large sections on Irish, British, American, and European poetry.
Beyond ten years ago, go back another ten. In 1987, when he was editor of Poetry Ireland Review, he began his practice of culling quotations on poets and poetry from his voluminous reading and printing them in his PIR column “Pickings and Choosings”. Many people, when the review came in the post, would turn first to O’Driscoll’s column, which was informative as well as being a lot of fun. A selection of these picking and choosings has gone into the Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations, which came out in 2006. Copper Canyon Press is to bring out an American edition next year. Poetry Quotations is one of the most readable books about the art, craft, business and popular reputation of poetry to come out in many years.
When Nicholas Lezard picked the Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations for his “paperback choice” column in The Guardian, he printed some of his favourite funny bits, and I shall quote a few of them here as his choices are good. For a glorious bit of nonsense San Francisco’s Beat patriarch Laurence Ferlinghetti’s remark, “poetry is a sofa full of blind singers who have put aside their canes”, could hardly be improved upon. High marks for saying what that means. The headline in the Irish Farmers’ Journal announcing Seamus Heaney’s Nobel prize, “Bellaghy Celebrates as Farmer’s Son Wins Top Literary Award”, has by now achieved the legendary status of Yeats’s remark to Bertie Smyllie of the Irish Times when his own Nobel was announced: “How much, Smyllie?” And then there is Stephen Spender’s remark about the notoriously untidy WH Auden: “going into a room of Auden’s was like going into the nest of a very untidy animal”.
But the book is not all for laughs. One value of poetry at a time when we are overwhelmed by group-speech is that in a poem can be heard the voice of the individual. I like the excerpt O’Driscoll chose from David Constantine’s address for his adjudication of the 2006 TS Eliot Prize:
Poetry is against lying, against evasion and shoddiness of speech. Against all the ways of speaking and writing which reduce our humanity, narrow our sympathies, wither our ability to think and feel. Against all the forces of cretinisation. Poetry is an intrinsic fight-back against all that.
One could hardly state the case more succinctly than Jorie Graham did in Newsweek magazine, also quoted in the Bloodaxe book: “For every lie we’re told by advertisers and politicians, we need one poem to balance it.”
The titles of Quality Time, Weather Permitting, Exemplary Damages and Foreseeable Futures, as well as the earlier Hidden Extras, indicate the direction of O’Driscoll’s poetic project. He examines the public use of language carefully, ironically and even affectionately, interrogates it, and uses it as a way both of exploring propositions about society, religion and other issues and of asserting the humanity he as a poet shares with that part of the population that is perhaps less acutely tuned in to what language says about the zeitgeist. O’Driscoll has borrowed freely from the language of the tribe and made this complex borrowing his poetic signature. Because of his frequent use of received rhetoric, his is, at least on the surface, much less personal, less a spiritual autobiography, than other poets’ work. In one of his best-known poems, “Them and You”, from Quality Time, he anatomises the growing social divisions in the new Ireland. The poem uses simple, prose-like language and takes the form of free-verse couplets, one line for “them”, one for “you”. This is how the poem begins:
They wait for the bus.
You spray them with puddles.
They queue for curry and chips.
You phone an order for delivery.
They place themselves under the protection
of the Marian Grotto at the front of their estate.
You put your trust in gilts, managed funds,
income continuation plans.
They look weathered.
You look tanned.
They knock back pints.
You cultivate a taste for vintage wines.
He also turns the sharp eye of satire, not without a note of mischievous humour, on his fellow poets and the sometimes lengthy, off-puttingly complex and self-regarding introductions they give before reading one of their poems to an audience. A faithful attendee on the Dublin poetry-reading scene and student of the poetry subculture for many years, O’Driscoll clearly knows whereof he speaks. It’s tempting to quote the entire prose poem, but here at least is the last paragraph:
OK then, I’ll read this and just two or three further sequences before I finish. By the way, I should perhaps explain that the title is in quotations. It’s something I discovered in a book on early mosaics; I wanted to get across the ideas of diversity and yet unity at the same time, especially with an oriental, as it were, orientation. And I need hardly tell this audience which of my fellow-poets is alluded to in the phrase ‘dainty mountaineer’ in the second section. Anyway, here it is. Oh, I nearly forgot to mention that the repetition of the word ‘nowy’ is deliberate. As I said, it’s quite short. And you have to picture it set out on the page as five sonnet-length trapezoids. Here’s the poem.
In part one of his latest book, Reality Check, O’Driscoll continues to deliver the kinds of poems that readers of his previous collections have come to expect and like. In the second part of the book he sets off in a different direction. The first poem, “Diversions”, offers a microcosm of the O’Driscoll macrocosm. “Lean on the green recycle bin,” the poem begins, “in the yard where roses run amok.” If this were a poem more in the familiar English-language tradition, one would have expected the poet to notice the roses while ignoring the recycling bin. Perhaps the rose would offer the occasion for a poetic epiphany. Here, bin and roses get equal time, since Dennis O’Driscoll is a poet of the world as it is rather than as it might be. From yard and bin the poem proceeds with the following tercet:
Lift your eyes to the sunlit hills; hedge-
perforated fields are first-day issues
tweezered askew in your childhood album.
O’Driscoll typically, and often brilliantly, comes through with a recherché metaphor like this one – a metaphor that surprises us by unexpectedly relating two areas of life. Note the word “perforated”, deliberately chosen from the human rather than the natural world. Forms or chequebooks are perforated; nature has no sense of perforation. Here parcelled fields in the countryside become stamps in a boy’s album – a metaphor that propels us back to childhood and rekindles the satisfaction one might have felt, having gone out and acquired the sought-after stamp issue, then coming home, when one gets out the old album and secures it with boyish relish in its destined spot. “Tweezered askew” deftly supports such a scene, the first word showing precision, the second imprecision.
The way this stanza begins, “Lift your eyes to the sunlit hills”, echoes, at least for me, the first line of Psalm 121, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” How does this fit, you might ask, with the use of distanced rhetoric I have spoken of? To my ear the phrase establishes for the poem a second register, wherein the world as we find it has to share space with the numinousness of the biblical world. Thus the poem levitates slightly and is ushered into a world of vision both deeper and more complex than the world of cliché and frozen metaphor that O’Driscoll so skillfully manipulates.
Strange that “hormone-puffed cattle” should be the agents to lift one’s spirits, and that a stream he glimpses is “only slightly / the worse for farm waste”. Through these maculate vehicles, the poem moves not toward an epiphany, but rather the desire for epiphany:
You ache to touch the hem of its current
as you drive by, reach out like a willow leaf,
contrive a way, in passing, to partake.
Here the desire “to partake” becomes just as natural an instinct as it is for the water-seeking willow tree to drink from a stream. The “hem of its current” echoes again, at least for me, the woman in the Bible who tells Jesus’s disciples that if she could only touch “the hem of his garment” she would be healed. The poem itself may be a nod in the direction of Heaney’s “Postscript”, which formulates fleeting experiences like this: “You are neither here nor there, / A hurry through which known and strange things pass.”
Arrived at by an unexpected, wholly untraditional route, “Diversions” is as much a poem about the mystery of landscape and the spiritual essence of the land as is “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, who asserts: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” In the face of the realisation that “all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; / And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell,” Hopkins is able to say: “And for all this, nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Despite the worst efforts of agribusiness, the aggressive use of chemicals and hormones in the Irish countryside, the stream, with its promise of spiritual refreshment, is “only slightly / the worse for wear”. The approaches O’Driscoll and Hopkins take to poetic language, incidentally, tells a lot about the changes in the art during the past century. Hopkins uses, perhaps overuses, repetition, internal rhyme and pounds out a powerful rhythm with strong monosyllables like “deep down things”. O’Driscoll’s language takes its cadences from prose.
The second poem in this book, “Cassandra”, considers the warnings we constantly hear from scientists and global-warming popularisers like Al Gore: “her prophecies are / a hot topic suddenly / on every chat show.” Rather than sharing his Cassandra’s prophecies of environmental disaster, O’Driscoll focuses on why we cannot summon up the energy to do something about the challenge with which we are faced. The details will strike an uncomfortable note, I suspect, for all readers.
We carry on as bravely as we can
in these uncertain times:
4 x 4s at every door.
Low-fare airlines for cheap access
to nest-egg second houses.
All-year strawberries in supermarkets.
Business as Usual signs
displayed on hoardings everywhere,
with so much construction underway.
“Crowd Scene” is O’Driscoll’s attempt to imagine his way into the mind of what we call a “terrorist”. It begins with this man’s observation of his targeted victims:
Warm weather has brought out a good crowd.
They are everything I could have hoped for:
forming orderly queues, scooping up globes
of ice cream, calmly streaming in and out of shops,
checking purses for what spending power is left.
I applaud the attempt to write this sort of poem. That it is less successful than others in Reality Check has to do with the difficulty people who live the kind of lives we lead, with a certain upbringing and schooling, have in understanding someone who is willing to kill others and perhaps himself for the sake of a cause. I doubt such a person would be capable of the thinking involved in “checking purses for what spending power is left”, nor of the irony of the poem’s last line: “They are having the time of their lives.” Martyrs are not known for their sense of irony. The fault is not the poet’s: those of us with liberal, secular, democratic ideas are, in my view, simply incapable of sympathising with the suicide bomber, just as he is incapable of sympathising with us.
More familiar territory is reached with “Intercession” and “The Call”, two poems about religion. “Intercession” makes a serious philosophical point about an unknowable God whose ways are not only mysterious but inimical to our own, couching it in today’s lingua franca: “God and humankind meet on uncommon ground. / They just don’t speak the same language.” Further in the poem O’Driscoll bends cliché in his characteristic manner – even to the point of overusing the device. Sometimes it runs dangerously close to mannerism: “He casts His pearly gates before a chosen few. / Before the rest, He raises hell.” This vision of God would lead the religious to despair. “He bestows gifts of osteitis, earthquakes, infant deaths. / They shake their fists, proclaim their disbelief.”
“The Call” opens with the same level of language as “Intercession”, using a business metaphor to portray our relation to God but quickly extending that metaphor to speculations about his withdrawal from our world: “When we call on God, we always find him out, / away on business maybe, lost in a world of his own, / performing miracles for distant universes …” To me the poem becomes more involving at the very end, when its vision becomes localised in the Irish scene, acquiring “a local habitation and a name”:
Once, his beatific smile graced all our houses like an ancestral
photograph or the graven image of a charismatic President or King.
Now the blanched patch left in its place must be brushed out,
the wall painted over, a hall mirror found to occupy that space.
These poems about religion, politics, society and the environment may be said to reflect the public face of Dennis O’Driscoll. He has in addition a gift for expressing pleasure, rare enough in any art and found more often in music than in literature. The typical form he finds for such expressions is the list. On my own list of all-time favourite poems is his “England” from Exemplary Damages. You get the impression he knows that island better than most English people do. By attaching an epigraph from Anne Stevenson, herself an American expat, Without nostalgia who could love England?, he gives himself permission to indulge in that most seductive of vices. If there was ever a poem to twist the knickers of Irish Anglophobes, this is the one. O’Driscoll’s “England”, however, is no uncritical paean, but rather a hymn that mixes major and minor keys. It has its “Race riots in Brixton” and its “Miles of clifftop caravans like dumped fridges”. The poem is so rich, it’s hard to know just where to cut a sample from it. But here are a few lines:
It is somewhere at the back of the mind,
like the back of a newsagent’s where plug
tobacco is sold; shining like the polished
skin of a Ribston Pippin or Worcester Pearmain.
It preys on imagination, like pleated ladies
sporting on bowling lawns, like jowelled men
of substance nursing claret in oak-panelled
smoking rooms of jovial private clubs.
There’s nothing new about the device of poetic list-making; it began in the Psalms and with Homer’s list of the Greek ships lined up to sail off to the Trojan War. Whitman too is famous for his catalogues:
Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops, saw the ships at anchor,
The sailors at work in the rigging or out astride the spars,
The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine pennants,
The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in their pilot-houses,
The white wake left by the passage …
At one time I was of the opinion that there was little if any influence on O’Driscoll from Irish poetry: I felt it all came from Eastern Europe, with a bit of American plain-spokenness mixed in. Now I am not so sure. Would he perchance have learned something about list-making from Michael Hartnett, the Irish master of the catalogue?
She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a cardgame where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.
Of influences and influencing there is no end in art. As to poetry, “There is no singing school / But studying monuments of its own magnificence”, as Yeats put it. Poetry is a living, self-regenerating tradition. James Liddy, in the new Stony Thursday Book, makes explicit Hartnett’s own debt to yet another poet:
would put his hands on his lips, “James,
if you tell people I got my lists from Lorca
I’ll kill you.”
In O’Driscoll’s “Bread and Butter” the list has a homely focus, the many different forms of bread, such as
Char-marked nan, flat as blini pancakes, chewy as pizza
base, coriander-enhanced, ghee-brushed, Sri-Lanka-shaped.
Unconsecrated hosts, surplus to the church’s needs, doled out
by the school nun, savoured as a wafery ambrosian appetiser.
It’s fun to see a poet having fun, particularly a serious poet. There is another catalogue poem in Reality Check that ranks right up there with “England”. It’s called “All Over Ireland”, picking up on Joyce’s famous line from “The Dead”, “Snow was general all over Ireland.” It begins: “What’s general all over Ireland is definitely not snow.” I have been using the words “list” and “catalogue” to describe O’Driscoll’s practice in poems like this; but there is also a sense of geographical and social panorama. What Joyce did in miniature in “The Dead” O’Driscoll does in a much more detailed way here. His grasp of lovingly rendered detail makes one’s jaw drop. “The man shouldering a wicker basket of racing pigeons to the station / takes a beating from the rain …” “Rain hammers the builders’ hut as a bricklayer shuffles the deck.” “Rain pesters the baffled Latvian au pair, on the deserted platform, / who fumbles for her contact number. It droppeth on the church hall / that is now a lottery-aided heritage centre for a town down on its luck.” The little details of contemporary Ireland share space with an echo of Portia’s speech from The Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strained. / It droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven.”
Part two of Reality Check is given over to a long poem called “Skywriting”, an extended meditation on light, its different forms, how it changes over the day and night, with sun and shadow, the moon and stars. When this book was launched recently in Dublin I heard “Skywriting” described as “a poem about nothing”, and it’s true that the poem’s length and free form give O’Driscoll the chance to write about anything he chooses to. It is a contemplative poem reminiscent of Robert Lowell’s “Waking Early Sunday Morning” and Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning”. A couplet from Stevens’s poem might have served as an epigraph: “We live in an old chaos of the sun, / Or old dependency of day and night.”
The loose structure of “Skywriting” – “everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’”, to quote Elizabeth Bishop – allows O’Driscoll not to worry too much about organisation and to write some very beautiful lyrical passages about light, like the following:
Unimpeded light—every pore translucent—recalling
an age when the sun looked indulgently on a world
in its prime, a planet slanted in favour of its rays
yet unable to absorb so much illumination at one time.
You have only to be out working in the garden when the sun disappears behind clouds to be reminded that our well-being depends on the sun’s light and warmth to make human life livable, mediated by earth’s atmosphere. It makes sense then for a meditation on light to conclude with a consideration of the two most likely possibilities for the end of human life on this planet. As I read along in the poem, enjoying where the poet’s vagaries took him and me, I gave little thought for how he would end this twenty-five page sequence. Perhaps I was lulled by the comfort of reading something that gave me so much pleasure. So the poem’s apocalyptic climax took me by surprise, and no doubt it was intended to do just that. In some of his finest, most urgent writing, O’Driscoll delivers a powerful vision of the earth as it might be when and if global climate change tilts the planet irreversibly toward the final disaster:
Desiccated, dry-as-dust, powder-puff fields.
Scorched earth. There is change in the air,
some shift in the balance of planetary power:
trees strain at the leash of hurricanes, ground
battles deplete plant and insect stockpiles.
The tide turns in the sea’s favour:
oceans burst their banks, glaciers snap,
icecaps retreat, meltwaters run like pus.
The world is too much in the sun.
This is a passage with strong momentum, and except that the last phrase echoes Hamlet’s reply to his uncle, “Not so my lord, I am too much in the sun”, the poem comes as close as this often ironic poet ever does to declining to distance himself from his subject.
The next section, supposing we manage to avert a catastrophic ending brought about by global climate, raises the spectre of what science tells us will be the inevitable end of our universe:
so many light years for truth to dawn,
so many theories of dark matter,
so many millennia until night falls
on our universe and everything
on earth comes down to nothing –
“Difficult to second-guess what might / happen next, what climate of fear / we have coming to us in the future” is O’Driscoll’s way of qualifying the images he has so indelibly painted. But if one of poetry’s jobs is to imagine the unimaginable, this poem is doing its job. I think the conclusion of “Skywriting” is probably the best work O’Driscoll has done yet. Yet perhaps it is not in his nature to leave us on so grim a note. He reassures us that “over today’s horizon, May / appears in perfect working order”:
Butterflies contrive a soft landing
on extravagant polyanthus.
Grain shoots are gaining ground.
Sprays of rowan disperse scent.
And a still-gentle sun caresses
the brow of the hill: a cow
licking her newborn calf.
If asked to characterise the work of Dennis O’Driscoll, I should think that few readers would use the word “pastoral”. But Reality Check made me aware of how ingrained a sense of landscape and the natural world is to his way of looking at things. I think he would agree with Robert Frost about “the need of being versed in country things”. From “Diversions”, the first poem in this collection, with its strong urge to “partake” of the landscape, to the pastoral vision, to the last section of “Bread and Butter”, with its “Tipperary meadow, cows / flinching from insects, fly-whisk tails / patrolling dung-encrusted hindquarters”, O’Driscoll’s instinctive and surprising grounding in Irish country life is persistent, and a source of balance and sanity.
Richard Tillinghast has recently published his eighth book of poems, The New Life. His third book of essays, Finding Ireland: a Poet’s Explorations of Irish Literature and Culture, will be published later this year by the University of Notre Dame Press in the US.