Nine Bright Shiners, by Theo Dorgan, The Dedalus Press, 144 pp, €12.99, ISBN: 978-1906614980
In a letter to the “Notes & Queries” section of The Guardian in 2011 a reader asked if anyone could explain the words of the traditional song “Green Grow the Rushes O!” Theo Dorgan’s latest collection, Nine Bright Shiners, takes its title from the song, and the following stanza is printed as an epigraph to the volume:
I’ll sing you twelve, O!
Green grow the rushes, O!
What are your twelve, O?
Twelve for the twelve Apostles
Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven,
Ten for the ten commandments,
Nine for the nine bright shiners,
Eight for the April Rainers,
Seven for the seven stars in the sky,
Six for the six proud walkers,
Five for the symbols at your door,
Four for the Gospel makers,
Three, three, the rivals,
Two, two, the lily-white boys,
Clothèd all in green O!
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.
In response to the query in The Guardian, one correspondent said that “the nine bright shiners are the eight other planets in the solar system plus the moon”. In Nine Bright Shiners then, Theo Dorgan gathers together poems that seek to go beyond terrestrial experience, but at its heart there is also a desire to write against the feeling of isolation that would leave the self “one and all alone”. Facing up to the deaths of friends and family members while also acknowledging his own mortality, Nine Bright Shiners is finally a collection that sings and celebrates the self in all of its worldly and otherworldy connections.
This sense of connection between the living and the dead is suggested in the sequence of poems which also echoes the book’s title, “Nine for the Nine Bright Shiners”. The nine poems in the sequence have thirteen lines each, suggesting a kind of formal curtailment ‑ each one a line short of a regular sonnet ‑ which in turn reflects the experience of premature death, their central theme. The first poem begins:
A dead boy stands under a falling ball,
gathering the future in its downward rush,
a blank sputnik plunging to earth,
and the wind buffeting his face
is the wind of the world without him,
January wind of the world when he has gone.
There are echoes here of John Berryman’s “The Ball Poem”, in which the American poet explores what he calls “the epistemology of loss” through the image of a young boy losing a ball, but Dorgan’s poem also has a great deal of personal significance. “Nine for the Nine Bright Shiners” reads like an elegy for the dead friends of the poet’s youth, or the loss of one friend in particular, but it problematises the idea of absence in death by presenting the dead as part of our ongoing experience of the living world:
The night rattles my window and he stands on the green
outside, a city he never stood in, the ball still falling,
a winter moon full in the sky …
The “wind from the moon” may “sweep the dead boy away”, as the poet continues, but the physical fact of the poem brings poet and boyhood friend into a kind of spiritual contact that is recorded throughout this whole collection.
Throughout Nine Bright Shiners, in poem after poem, Dorgan acknowledges the ways in which those who have passed away continue to be present in our daily lives, from the friends of his youth to the “great grandmother” who “died on a black ship heading home” remembered in “Walls of Green Water”. In addition to these many personal elegies, however, the book also contains several poems mourning the loss of fellow poets and members of the broader cultural community in Ireland over the last few years, including Dave Caffrey (“Travelling Soul Sutra for Dave Caffrey”), John McGahern (“Wild Orchids, Windflowers”), Lar Cassidy (“A Light Was Burning”), Eugene Lambert (“The Angel of Days to Eugene Lambert”) and Deirdre Meaney (“Going to the Chateau”). These poems are placed in the second section of the book, which bears the title “The Dead Stand All Around Us”, and they form a prelude to a remarkable pair of elegies for Michael Hartnett, “That Look Again” and “Michael, Michael”. In the latter poem, Hartnett becomes one with the “stiff-eyed company of the living still” that includes Aodhaghán Ó Rathaille and Dáibhí Ó Bruadair, seventeenth century poets whose works were given new life in Hartnett’s translations of them. In his elegies for Hartnett and the other artists memorialised in this section of Nine Bright Shiners equally, Dorgan not only celebrates the ways in which these figures continue to stand around us ‑ the poems are also celebrations of their cultural and historical high standing ‑ but acknowledges the ways that they sustain and inspire those of us who are still living. As Dorgan puts it in the refrain of “Michael, Michael”: “A wind out of Munster shook the bridge.” The elemental force of nature that is Michael Hartnett’s poetry continues to shake the bridge that connects the living and the dead, as Dorgan understands it, reminding us of our frailty but also affirming the persistence of the spirit in acts of creativity and love.
While Nine Bright Shiners contains many elegies then, it also contains some of the most moving and beautiful love poems written by any poet writing in English over the last few decades. Interestingly, the first of Dorgan’s poems about Hartnett in this collection, “That Look Again”, is preceded by a poem called “Learning Death”, in which thoughts of mortality are related to an experience of deep intimacy:
The first time I knew myself mortal,
that unmistakable catch in the breath,
we were new to each other still.
I was stroking your face as you sank
towards sleep, and said without meaning to:
call me if you need me over there.
This poem suggests that even in death the people we love do not become strangers to us. Rather, here and throughout Nine Bright Shiners Dorgan celebrates love as a force that transcends death. This is expressed with great candour in the beautiful suite of poems called “House of Echoes” that concludes the collection, in which the poet celebrates what he calls the “gifted life” he shares with his partner, Paula Meehan. These poems, from the haiku “Lá Fhéile Bhríde” to “The Bodhisattvas That We Were Are Still On The Road”, celebrate the couple’s partnership over many years, as artists, friends and lovers. Their candour, however, is driven by an impulse towards an expression of love that is bound up with Dorgan’s commitment to the public place of the lyric voice.
This position is asserted in the very first poem in Nine Bright Shiners, “The Angel of History”, in which Dorgan expresses fear for the future of Ireland at a time of widespread economic and political corruption:
In the colonnade of the National Library a man was standing,
a man neither old nor young, his head bare, half turned towards
the lights in the Parliament house, the high blank windows.
I saw him reach inside his long loose coat, take out a notebook.
I crossed the road, gathering my own long coat around me,
stood in behind him, looked over his shoulder. He paid no heed.
One after another I saw him strike them out from a long list of names:
Senators, Deputies, Ministers. One after another the names
dissolved on the page, a scant dozen remaining. I watched him
ink in a question mark after each of these, neat and precise.
After reading this poem the reader might expect a collection of more probing, explicitly “political” poems, but the “question mark” written after the names of public figures here reminds us that even those who claim to hold positions of power and authority are also mortal: death comes to all.
Against this, and against the many public and private losses Dorgan reflects on in the poems of Nine Bright Shiners, he affirms the saving grace of “human love”. As he puts it in the final stanza of “Family Tree”, in which he celebrates the acts of love for which many great artists suffered in the past, including Federico García Lorca and Nadezhda Mandelstam:
One after another I light my candles to human love,
to all those in the wind, blown through the world like leaves,
to those gone to the bonfires, the furnace of history,
to all those who struggled for bread a moment in this life.
Nine Bright Shiners is a book in which Theo Dorgan celebrates the lives and works of many creative artists: to those already mentioned can be added the names of Jean Berger, Brendan Flynn and John Shinnors. However, it is also a long book of poems ‑ over sixty in five carefully structured sections ‑ in which Dorgan’s own gifts as an artist are celebrated by the Dedalus Press. Moving between the worlds of life and death, public and private experience, the “furnace of history” and the uncertainty of the future, his poems contribute to a broader quest for truth and meaning that is the subject of the book’s final “envoi”, entitled “Cape Horn”:
I want to say, as we crash through broken waters,
I will be gone as these under the keel are gone,
that we ride the wind a moment, a moment only,
but the better truth is this: time is eternal now,
there never was, not ever will be, an end to voyaging.
Philip Coleman is a lecturer in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, where he directs the MPhil in Literatures of the Americas programme. He is the author of John Berryman’s Public Vision: re-locating ‘the scene of disorder’ and he edited Berryman’s Fate: A Centenary Celebration in Verse, both published in 2014. He also co-edited ‘After thirty Falls’: New Essays on John Berryman (2007) and Reading Pearse Hutchinson: from Findrum to Fisterra (2011). His edited collection Critical Insights: David Foster Wallace is published in March 2015 by Salem Press.