The Gravity Wave, by Peter Sirr, Gallery Press, 96 pp, £11.95, ISBN: 978-1911337652
Peter Sirr is a Gallery poet, with eleven collections, including Marginal Zones (1984) (winner of the Patrick Kavanagh award), Selected Poems 1982-2004 (2004), which was also published by Wake Forest University (2005), and The Thing Is (2009), which won the Michael Hartnett award. He has been described as “one of the brightest stars of the generation of Irish poets born in the 1960s”. His latest publication, The Gravity Wave, is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.
If I had to select one word to define Sirr’s preoccupation in this collection, it would be “connection” – particularly with the indefinable. As Nietzsche once put it: “the invisible threads are the strongest ties.”
The title evokes several possible interpretations and he extrapolates these, suggesting, among other things, both a momentum (wave) and a restoring force (gravity). “The gravity wave” connects all life, past, present and future. In terms of the universal, our existence may be of negligible consequence, and transient, but our songs and stories, energy, our very particles, are all part of the continuum.
It is a common poetic device to use myth as a vehicle to convey themes, and here Sirr alludes to Ulysses, Neptune, Eurydice, among many other cultural, social and artistic references. What distinguishes The Gravity Wave from the usual themes of nostalgia, consciousness of time passing and the associated sense of invisibility ageing brings, is a kind of psychic connection with both the observed and the unseen worlds, a conflation of past and present, where “history claws the mud and curses in your ear …” and “centuries hang like apples on the trees” (“Walking Home”).
The opening sonnet takes elements from a domestic breakfast scene and whirls them synchronously with others across eras and space: “Ulysses struggles from a speaker, nearly dead … I lift my cup and a star / explodes, a meteor crashes into the moon.” (“The Now Slice”). A similar effect is achieved in “The Comeback”: “you swim / through a crowd / and the building / collapses”. The latter poem shifts from concrete evidence of a city being rebuilt (jackhammers, cranes, yellow hats, high-viz vests), to an earlier city from “the tangle of centuries”, these convergences blurring reality:
Can I really own
these eyes darting
from building to building
face to face,
as a street in spate
a bridge raised to let
alien futures through?
For the reader, what remains elusive is the relationship between the narrator and “you”, whose “accent” he has in his mouth. “Did that work?” he asks. Yes, that worked, if only because the reader is compelled to read these poems over and over, each time arriving at a fresh revelation.
In “Signals”, he uses formal, Latinate words such as “despatch”, “legates”, “heralds”, “countersign” and “decode” to connote forms of communication; words that crop up elsewhere too. And the “signals” wait for us to exchange messages:
us, let us in, send
something we might imagine
but won’t decode
While often mysterious, the poems radiate with clarity and unaffectedness and Sirr’s preference for brief lines, couplets and tercets oxygenates the lyrics with white space. There is an uncluttered, yet clear and sophisticated musical intent in the accretion of echoed images and allusions, allowing for sonic and semantic patterns. Not only conscious of these himself, he draws our attention to them. In “Winterreise” (which flows, like a stream of consciousness, to the music of Schubert and Müller), “how these / images persist / incessantly repeat / so I must move like a ghost / from one to the other / and back.” If at times the motifs veer towards excess, it is perhaps with the intention of focusing the reader’s attention on subtle, layered perceptions.
There’s also the odd loveliness of the strange: “where the puffins hold up time / and the dolphins repeatedly / flare in the room.” (“Where Are You Going?”)
Assonance, rhyme, puns and mantra-like repetitions add a musicality that warrant the poems being recited aloud. In “Home”, “the sun still shines, the oxen low / and the winedark sea is still as dark as wine.” Music is a key theme, another form of connection. Though they are not mentioned, the Sirens are an unseen presence, with song frequently presented as an inspiration and source of passion: “The chorus is on fire, is fire”. In a poem where “We sit in the dark, oceans between us”, the narrator experiences a longing: “If only we were there, beyond the lutes and the cellos, / singing our way home.” (“Operatic’).
Frequently, this transposition occurs, a shifting of perspective, so that the point of view is reversed. There is a feeling that it’s not only connection but immersion that he is seeking: “Possession” begins with: “Ten thousand steps, the city at my feet / the city in my feet”. This echoes a similar sentiment in another poem: “I don’t want to count deer, I want / to count in deer” (“Deer, Phoenix Park”). I am reminded of Denise Riley’s poem “Listening for Lost People”: “to / converse with shades, yourself become a shadow.”
A key motif is the street, and a particularly poignant poem is “Naming the Street” (for Freya), where the personified street shifts its attention from the speaker to his daughter: “it’s hers now, her step we wait for, her eyes / the houses move towards.” The person addressed has become obsolescent. In another poem, with a more playful tone, it’s the street which has disappeared: “The street sign is there, but where’s the street?” (“The Street”)
The impact of stasis on the ageing body is highlighted with a deliberately repeated gesture: “hunched over the desk” (“Eurydice Awake”); “hunched and edgy” (“Ode”); “hunched over a canso / in the aparthotel” (“The Comeback”). But he counteracts this by heading outside, climbing hills, walking streets, exploring parks, considering tactile pleasures: “Your hands combing the grasses” (“Some say …”); “feasting through the grasses” (“We move lightly …”); “The centuries, as always, / swirl through the grasses.” (“The Comeback”). There is an underlying sense of gratitude and appreciation and, possibly, resistance to the idea of mortality (Dylan Thomas’s “rage, rage against the dying of the light” comes to mind):
drive me out, vigilant dogs
don’t let me rest
when it’s time for bed
Dubliners will recognise Phoenix Park, Werburgh Street, The Clarence, The Lord Edward, Conways, Baggot Street Bridge and Pembroke Street. But despite the speaker’s personal location generally being his home city, his mind also flies him to other places. There are references to Staigue Fort, Northumbria, Rome, Al-Andalus – the medieval Muslim territory of Spain – and places in India: Shahad, Rawan and Maram, as well as the Syrian neighbourhoods of al-Kalleseh, al-Firdous, as-Salheen.
While he casts an eye over the violence and destabilisation of war, it is the shared humanity of people, what they hold on to, that he focuses on:
you possibly can but come back
to this, Abu Omar in his shattered room
listening to the last music in the world
on his wind-up record player.
Subsequently, that first instruction is reversed:
nothing, let the pages
spread their maps
till every bone is pinned,
every lost breath uttered.
We are invited to consider alternative choices of perspective elsewhere too: “everywhere difficulty …/ Surely nothing can be difficult now” (“Eurydice Awake”); “The windows are closed, / the windows are open. (“Blue Octavo: Images from Kafka”); “trees open and close, the great wept willow / collapses and rises” (“Renewing the Contract”).
With a grace and tonal quality reminiscent both of Derek Mahon’s meditations and Vona Groarke’s lyrics, Sirr continues to be open to the world, like the dog who is following his nose; doing, as Denis O’Driscoll would declare, “whatever it takes to make it last”.
Afric McGlinchey’s most recent publication is Invisible Insane, a surrealist chapbook, published by SurVision in 2019.