The Eyes of Isaac Newton, by Iggy McGovern, Dedalus Press, 76 pp, €12.50, ISBN: 978-1910251270
News arrived within the month of Richard Murphy’s death in Sri Lanka, and then of Philip Casey’s passing in Dublin. Now, as much as ever, it’s essential that we continue to read each other. Murphy left us, among much else, with In Search of Poetry, a series of diary entries made while constructing the sonnet sequence The Price of Stone. From these entries, it seems that he was in constant search of a kind of certainty: of place, of home, of how to raise a family. He was honest enough with himself, though often too late, to admit these certainties would not bring solace.
Iggy McGovern is also a poet of certainties. The certainty of the slow ticking of a public house clock, “a quarter-hour ahead”, the certainty of scientific exploration, of a life clearly recalled, the certainty of the BBC Home Service and of course, the certainty of ageing: “From broad bean to broadband / From royalty cheque to reality check / From scrapbook to scrapheap.” Or has McGovern has it in “The Bony”, a Russian doll revelation of a poem of father begetting son begetting father from his debut collection “The King of Suburbia”: “behind him / lay his bony father and, behind, / his bony grandfather, his bony great- / grandfather …all that long-lined / boniness, lying in state.” And surely the greatest certainty of all, McGovern’s formal choice throughout his career, the certain step through the sonnet.
And yet there’s danger here too with McGovern scientifically positing the question “Who forced Lucifer / to carry the Big Bang inside / the centre of the Universe / and give the panicked particles / three minutes to get out?” This danger though, – as we’ve far too often come to expect from our poets born north of the border – is not a persistent presence in these poems. Though we find uncertainty in the most unexpected of places, “around the village pump” for one: a trickster play on doubt, or her academic younger sister, deconstruction, where McGovern tears through a tall tale well told at a Northern clip-along pace of a riveting story told two ways! Leaving you not so sure of who’s who or what’s what, but knowing, at least, you’ve been spun a good yarn as he pours water on some of the Northern conundrums: ‘but, here’s a thought to keep them occupied: / between them and The Orange Hall live neighbours / and lifelong friends, but from ‘the other side,’ / So, how does this Greek tragedy unfold? How quickly we shift from the calm ticking clock to where “a careless match, or revenant campaign, / could send the whole place up in smoke again.”
Recently on John Kelly’s Mystery Train –a most welcome return to the airwaves – Marina Carr spoke about our need for tragedy, our need for a “little death”, of witnessing the tragic arc onstage from beginning to end while not having to go “the whole hog” as she put it. Of the experience of tragedy onstage or on the page for that matter as a moment of purification, “a little of us is purified before we go back to all that malarkey”. And so we have the solace of tragedy.
Yet we seemed to have lost or forgotten somewhere along the songlines the etymological branches of the word solace. Not just “comfort in grief, consolation”, but also, from the Old French solaz, “pleasure, entertainment, enjoyment; solace, comfort. […] from sol-a-, suffixed form of root sele- “of good mood; to favour,” source of Old English gesælig “happy;” see silly. (Source: etymonline.com)
So there’s solace in the silly, according to the dictionary. And here, between these two is where McGovern sneaks a peek. With his “trademark ironies”, he manages to draw Shakespeare back to the street, with Macbeth placing an ad in the personal column of the Dunsinane Telegraph, describing himself as someone who “likes to take long walks across the heather, / wittering on about the bloody weather.’ McGovern’s humour works best when dry, or when used to take a wry look at the world of science:
The burner that still bears his name
belies a price too high:
The journey on the road to fame
Cost Bunsen his right eye.
The fly in the cathedral flew
crisscross that mighty room.
Then settled on an empty pew
and softly whispered “Boom”.
In fact, many of the poems dealing with the world of science offer up some of the most arresting openings to a poem I’ve come across in years. “Pupil” for example:
I know the pupil of the eye dilates
according to the loss of ambient glow;
the pupil, properly an empty space,
Now here is a poem ready to take off, to be launched into space, with scientific observation right behind and the suggestion of revelation to come. However, McGovern is too tightly tied into a half-rhyme and corrects the flight with “a framing of the window of the soul”, and so the cliché collapses the great potential of the poem.
Again in “Horse”:
the nictitans, or third eyelid, perforce
a T-shaped piece of hyaline cartilage,
has been the windscreen wiper of the horse
And once more we’re excited for what’s coming down the road, or what we’re cantering towards, but again McGovern has reined himself in to rhyme, and forces himself to stretch to “since many moons before the horseless carriage”.
And this has to be my only quarrel with these poems. What is certain is that at his best, as he’s shown in previous collections The King of Suburbia, Safe House and A Mystic Dream of Four, McGovern’s is a clear line walked confidently through the well-marked trail of his predecessors as he talks us through his childhood, the North and the Dublin of science and unheard chat. But his close adherence to form, the sonnet in particular, as well as to rhyme, mean the poem often doesn’t get a chance to run away with itself, to take flight. And yes, I’m aware of the folly of chiming “what if you did this with your poem…?”, but I for one would be intrigued to see what McGovern would produce from his laboratory if the steps of the experiment weren’t so clearly delimited. Or, in the words of Richard Murphy: “Rhyme and metre must not sound like an imposition … give the poem another day’s drenching in the old brain, where thought and feeling intersect, till the voice of the poem has the pulse of its heart … as with the first pangs of giving birth, you think the poem is about to come, when there is much more labour to be endured.”
It’s as likely though that I too have forgotten the solace in the silly. While reading The Eyes of Isaac Newton, I kept thinking of the Beatles tune A Day in The Life, the “drudge and boredom bit” of the daily grind, suddenly exploded into a dream world by the orchestral glissandos heard from the top of a bus, or in McGovern’s case, on the DART “the 3:10 to Yuma, the 6:12 to Bray”. And surely, if anyone could tell us “how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall”, it is Iggy McGovern who may have first heard the Beatles from his homemade radio set:
The single Bakelite headphone
was smuggled into boarding school
in a dayboy’s lunchbox;
the red-nosed diode was stretched across
its brass terminals, likewise two curls
of electric flex.
If you crouched down in the dormitory
for the radiator’s pipework ‘earth’
while your own body’s saline aerial
completed the simple circuit,
you could catch the plummy voice:
This is the BBC Home Service …
McGovern manages to find solace in this life, in these poems, and that in itself is commendable; particularly in reminiscences of his father. It was noticeable listening to him read during one of the online Attic Sessions the change in his voice as he read “The Male Line”, “a child too keenly drawn / to adult action, always on the search / for something new […] I saved my breath to cool my porridge, and he / just winked to seal our first complicity.”
There is no doubt solace for McGovern in remembrances of things past, of his family, the home place; that place where you might “like to stay forever / or at least till the fighting is over”. It’s no coincidence then that his second collection was titled Safe House. These Eyes of Isaac Newton then, keep us watching for the solace found and shared from the safe house he has playfully penned around us.
Keith Payne was the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary Award winner for 2015/2016. His collection Broken Hill (Lapwing Publications) was published in 2015. It was followed in 2016 by Six Galician Poets (Arc Publications) .