Selected Poems, by John McAuliffe, Gallery Press, €13.90, ISBN: 978-1911338185
Where we live is of course not just the skirting boards and dado rails of our daily round, is more than the hall, stairs and landings of all our years, it is fundamentally about how we live, and if we’re lucky, how we choose to live. And while suburbia, it turns out, is the modern utopia of dis-ease, it is also the place where the majority of us have built lives behind the rising courses of cavity blocks. From various turns in the road, Larkinesque or otherwise, we’ve had several visions of what’s behind the peeling architrave, of what’s beneath the bedding plants. And John McAuliffe’s poetry, as sustained in this Selected Poems, is the measure and beat of a life lived from the town of Listowel to suburban Manchester. A life thrust into a world that intrudes on “of all places” the poet’s domestic life.
McAuliffe’s poems move; at barge-speed, on trains in the rain, as crowds file in, as lilies open, as a red moon tilts upwards and as “night slides in, while dragging its heels past six o’clock”. They move inexorably and move us “gently, up and down, and from side to side”, as Beckett’s Krapp had it, listening back on his earlier self. Poems of moving house, of moving in and moving on, are all carefully curated in this Selected, to the rhythm of early morning traffic from the suburbs out across the city, and in McAuliffe’s case, a bicycle ticking throughout, from his childhood in Listowel, en route to football training, where he sees Charlie Haughey surrounded by a river of tweed, and on to Manchester, as he pedals from his new suburban life across a city that is home to the UK’s largest Libyan population. It’s not such a long way from Listowel to Libya after all.
2002’s Better Life, with poems such as “A Change of Scenery”, “Going Places”, “Missing”, and “Moving In” is, as the title suggests, setting a course for domestic change, of tentatively building a new life. While following a confident line, these poems also manage to pause and acknowledge what is past and passing; every house that has ever been lived in is haunted, as it were. McAuliffe, and the poet of his generation who moved to the UK, displaced – though perhaps not yet in the collective imagination ‑ that generation of the 1940s and 1950s that ghost A Better Life, left behind in a “side plate with green hem and lettering that spells: “The Republican Party ‑ Óglaigh na hÉireann.”
Having sought a better life, we find McAuliffe in 2007’s Next Door, living under the fading patina of suburbia:
Is it this you wanted, the still centre
of the quiet life, its ticking clock,
the white goods’ hum and on / off click,
next door’s pipes and creaking stair?
It could be, let’s face it, anywhere.
But it isn’t anywhere, it is an endless suburb, “stacked and balanced / like washing up”. The utopian no place that is every place, finds McAuliffe lamped after his coursing toward a better life, though the lamp here is that of the hall table, where “things could be worse”. And these poems then, begin to ask not just “is this what you wanted?” but also how much of the property developer’s lie did you buy? That suburban bucolic of housing estate nomenclature promised Bayview Drive, Forest Avenue and Beechpark Close, but instead you find yourself where:
An old Cortina’s come to rest
at the end of the road […]
The bodywork flakes and scabs.
Going nowhere, looking naked, mad.
The dis-ease where you had hoped to take your ease, where the inhabitants pass “dustily numb and dazed”. So where then do you find relief, if relief from this you seek? These poems respond over and again, with no little amount of humour, that it’s the small moments that matter, and it’s in their recall that one finds the better life you’re already moving through:
Not just the lay-by, or the motorway
or its central reservation.
Not just the ring road, or the cul-de-sac
with its pretty forsythia border.
Not just the house, or its extension,
and its hundred windows shining away.
Instead the known world and the unseen,
to which you’ll come back:
that is, the point of departure, the destination,
and all points in between.
A free drift to nowhere in particular.
All that way, and back again.
A darkly optimistic poetry sprung from the potentially dull suburban life, where McAuliffe, in poem after poem, salvages sprays of colour from out of the daily spin. Home, the kitchen, the attic, crib and garden, the bedding and floral borders – there’s life in them all, if you can see it.
2011’s Of all Places,sees McAuliffe casting an eye back to Ireland, a post-Tiger Ireland in “freefall”, where “the wind sails leaves around the house like late notices of the garden’s deterioration”. His version of social crisis throughout this collection is a particularly local, national account of recession, a version that could fail to encompass the global scope of economic and social breakdown beyond this small island’s edges. Although “The Coming Times” hints at the earthly scale of Ireland’s particular, local row, and also of a widening of scope of McAuliffe’s poems and a presaging at the intrusion to come:
the ice cap melts, the deserts spread:
north and south
a dolphin’s found in every port.
This incursion of the catastrophic is brought home in 2015’ s The Way In, which looks back to origins and to family. McAuliffe’s favoured form of transport, the bicycle, so often up till now, used to move the poet on, and move us with him, is here dismantled:
A wheel will go east,
It’s said, a pedal south, the chain west.
One story slopes from another,
brother, sister, mother, father.
Put them together, you’ll get the picture.
And so we find in this Selected Poems a poet confidently charting a life, salvaging meaning and some daily celebration worth observance. A calm, observant certainty, hard-won from the domestic. The almost zen-like calm, however, is more and more disrupted as these collections advance, and as the hyper-technologically advanced and dizzying world disorientates the poet and thus, the poems. Ironically, it’s thanks to the endless marshalling of gadgets we’ve brought home with us, that there’s no longer peace in the home.
And so, 2020’s Kabul Olympics sees a departure from the purely domestic, the eye hauled up from the angle of the washing basket, to a poetry taking its cues from an intruding world, where Manchester’s Libyan population call up the gun-running scandal in Ireland, ambassadorial sleights of hand that are toasted by O’Connell’s dining table, the cold war etc.
These selections, carefully curated, show a poet attuned and in tune to the sound of his own footsteps, the impulse of his own existence, of those close to him in the domestic realm, of the poets and authors he is reading from across the ages, of neighbours ––whether the shopkeeper in Listowel or the neighbour in Manchester, or even, as alluded to earlier, to the ghost who inhabited the space he now finds himself in. It is in many ways a documentary poetry ‑ tellingly McAuliffe has a poem on that great documentary film project that is Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood.
And when our every step, every turn of the wheel, has become overwhelmed by a tsunami of information, of noise, of distraction, the poet must ask, after the fashion of Heaney, how can you enjoy the quiet life, when all around you is in tumult? And we find McAuliffe needing to be selective in where his gaze falls, what line his pen follows. And while noting the coming storm, keeping an eye just a few steps ahead may be the saving grace as poet and reader keep moving onward.
A way of answering
to a day, to years of them, that we step into and speak up for.
Keith Payne is the John Broderick Writer in Residence 2021. Recent collections include The Desert and Second Tongue (from the Galego of Maria do Cebreiro and Yolanda Castaño, Shearsman 2019, 2020). He is co-editor of A Different Eden: Ecopoetry from Ireland and Galicia (Dedalus Press, 2021).