New Leaf, by Seán Lysaght, The Gallery Press, 72 pp, €12.95, ISBN: 978-1911338253
Wasp on the Prayer Flag, by Maeve O’Sullivan, Alba Publishing, 60 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-1912773398
Winner of the O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award, author of six full collections, translator of Goethe and biographer of Robert Lloyd Praeger, Seán Lysaght is now one of the most accomplished and established voices of his poetic generation. He belongs to that long line of Limerick cosmopolitans that include Desmond O’Grady of Rome and John Liddy of Madrid. A Limerickman living in Westport, scholar and dedicated teacher at Galway-Mayo IT, he is widely travelled and insatiably curious. His meticulous recording of the natural world, of changing habitat and seasons west of the Shannon, have something of Amhlaoimh Ó Súilleabháin’s precise and learned note-taking quality. In this sense, all of his writings accumulate into a great Cinnlae of the passing years, a chronicle of willow warblers, badgers and otters. But the range and sweep of the work propels us even farther, from Inishmaan to Lough Mask to Tuscany:
Then a buzzard, caught in an updraught,
finding lift in space,
going higher than we thought,
to land, shaggy-baggy on an acacia tree
in an awkward gorge
it would take hours to reach –
that “shaggy-baggy” is the giveaway here, reminding us that we are in the presence of a precise chronicler, for this is exactly how buzzards appear to settle. The wisdom arising from such close observation is found, for example, in his lovely elegy for Jeannie Rogers of St Paul, Minnesota. Here, the epiphany of falling things like snowflakes, or dandelion clocks or motes of dust, is beautifully captured:
like seeds, like spores, mildew, dust,
all the falling things
we swung at to catch and see
whatever we could there
and then release, or feed on them,
and be in turn a falling thing
with seeds, and flakes, and pappus
in all our going to earth.
This is one of the most perfect elegies imaginable, its lilting cadence, superb line-breaks and complete adequacy of length and depth, make it an exemplar-poem, a masterpiece. But it is only one of many in this very tightly constructed collection. Whether it’s an otter moving “like a plane / at the head of a contrail” or the sounds of the golden oriole, “that rich bubble / going higher and subsiding / in the trees”, or a pipit “as high as an oar, a mast, a lighthouse, / still going strong, / through the ledges of his song”, the precision and unity of the poet’s descriptions are magnificent and tight as rivets driven home. This is a writer in command not only of his language but of his materials. His fine music is intensified by this easy mastery of subject matter. Thus, the living object described, whether bird, village or tree, is never quite the one object only but an object that has accretions of other literary biographies and sources. Lysaght’s eye is a well-read eye, the cypresses described here will have tubercular Lawrence beneath them, the birds gone quiet will have Goethe, the line of palms at Saadiyat “casts a thin Beckettian shadow”.
Gulls, swallow, camellias, orchids and hyacinths, all cohere in this fine poetry of a very fine sensibility. In “Anglers and Rhododendrons”, he writes “all we need is one salmon between us / to let bygones be bygones”. This is a loaded statement, bearing the weight of history where both salmon rights and rhododendrons marked the borderline of protected estates and Big Houses – that the same plants overhanging the river and poisoning water might hide the body of a Black and Tan adds to the drama of what had promised to be a mere fishing poem. Ted Hughes, for example, could never have extracted such historic drama from time spent on a river. But Lysaght, the learned Irish poet, knows that a salmon licence is as powerful an image as a harp; and a salmon successfully landed might just allow bygones to be bygones.
In “A Cockle Shell”, dedicated to that wonderful poet Aifric Mac Aodha, he closes this collection with “My finger finds the rim / as hard and fretted as an ending, / to which I dedicate the start / of this unforgiving art.” Poetry is certainly that unforgiving art, revealing over time every aspect of the poet’s character, including his talent and his ability. New Leaf is certainly an achievement, a revealing achievement that should compel us to pay attention to this gifted poet in now full voice among otters and orioles.
Maeve O’Sullivan, a very fine poet, is a different kettle of fish entirely. Wasp on the Prayer Flag is the fifth full Alba collection from this meditative modernist, a supporter of the Venerable Panchen Otrul Rinpoche’s Asral Mongolia, a member of the British Haiku Society and of the Poetry Divas collective. As if that wasn’t enough to ruin the mental formation of a conventional Irish poet, she is also a fearsome exponent of the rare and difficult Japanese poetic form Senryu. Thus, her sensibility is truly modern, demanding in the manner of Brian Coffey or Trevor Joyce, front-loading the rights of form, of breath and cadence, above all other aspects of the art of poetry. She is not a storyteller, the story is in the form and phrasing:
trains lie idle in the sidings –
first autumn storm
my balcony flags
still releasing prayers
So this is poetry not as narrative but as an ekphrastic of life observed. The painting, or the art as we understand it, is in the life and the poems she writes are essences of those moments. Those very concrete white spaces that surround the syllables of each haiku are absolutely essential; they are a signal to the read that what is printed is the essence. The small thing commands attention. Sometimes, O’Sullivan will compress what is already a formal compression, extracting a syllable or two from her own narrative line to create an elided Haiku. This new collection is full of such small things from the precise moment, witty observances such as this –
neck and neck
over the old racecourse
two brent geese.
overwintering on the willows –
The momentary experience is crucial here; it is the only thing. Weather, flora and fauna, seasons, they connect us with the cosmos, as Catherine Phil MacCarthy observed, “and the natural world with the timeless”. Depth of feeling and lightness of touch are the two essential qualities of the Haiku poet, and many of the works here have that sense of sudden illumination or spiritual insight; as well as being “centred” in the presence and awareness of a season. It is now seven years since A Train Hurtles West, O’Sullivan’s book of Haiku and Senryu, was published; and this new collection contains some of her finest new Senryu. The Senryu is radically but also subtly different from the Haiku. The word means “river willow” in Japanese, and just as the willow bends in the winds and changes as the winds change, so the poet in the Senryu can speak of human frailty as well as the frailty of a leaf. Indeed, the Senryu attracts human weakness to itself, and can speak of weakness and satirise human vanity and foolishness in seventeen blatant syllables.
O’Sullivan’s Senryu here are a stunning record of a dark time on earth. Her sequence “A Year and a Day” is a prodigious elegy for Jean, dead in 2017 at the age of sixty-three. It is heartbroken work of immense control and power: really, it is the finest poetry:
the family archive-keeper
now part of it’
a year and a day:
the motet’s final chord
settles like a bedsheet.
In “RIP” she writes:
after three funerals
hoping the tiramisu
lives up to its name
Grief is followed, in further Senryu sequences, by days of teaching and learning, by creative activities, and by wandering. In “Wanderlust” she writes:
on the Gulf of Trieste –
our warm carriage
The book closes, as such a book of this era should, with “Pandemic”, a hugely impressive, minimalist, unsentimental, passionate account of recent years. Here O’Sullivan is at her best, a chronicler against the tradition of storytelling, a modernist stoic fallen into Joycean territories. This last sequence tells us everything about O’Sullivan’s sensibility and her use of that sensibility to make the finest poetry:
my friend tells me more
about his cousin’s passing –
wasp on the prayer flag