Then Again, by Pat Boran, Dedalus Press, 91 pp, €12.50, ISBN: 978-1910251430
The spire in the quagmire,
The dagger in the corpse,
The skewer in the sewer,
The middle finger up.
These lines from “The Spire (10 years on)” begin a catalogue of names Boran uses to describe the great metal spike on O’Connell Street, which he sees as monumentally lacking in humanity. None of the names suggests an inclusive us, the people, the citizens. In closing he calls it ‘The “we” reduced to “I”’. Boran’s project as a poet might be seen as the opposite: to expand the “I” to “we”. The collection ends with “The Beaten Track”, about memory’s attempts to maintain connection with the now far-off:
every now and then you weigh a coin,
trying to conjure the image of a place,
a face, the exotic music of a name,
and find there’s nothing left. Yet here and there,
at angles to the world, the real and dreamt
meet at little corner shops and bars
where the friendly waitress offers a free top-up
while the barman continues to shine the countertop
which starts out vague as any blemished wood
but, before you leave, has come up clear as glass.
The book’s title, Then Again, could be taken literally as referring to cyclical time, as well as to memory: Boran seeks commonalities across time and history. But in “Arena”,
The dozen or so young kids
playing football in the gravel and dust
of the Arènes de Lùtece
frankly couldn’t care less
that gladiators once fought here
History is a long time ago.
Now only the spectators are real;
with each shot at their schoolbag goals,
watch as some 15,000 souls
rise howling to their feet.
Above all, these poems send their filaments out to the contemporary experience of others. One is a couplet entitled “Ha’penny Bridge”:
Collecting coppers on an Irish flag –
a spectre in a Simpsons sleeping bag.
Again, what we choose from history and what it wills to us regardless of our will are both present in the vibrant colours around the poem’s “spectre”.
As famously envisioned by Masaccio, the “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” is reconfigured in terms of the flight of modern-day refugees. In “Gaza, North Dublin”, an image of resting boys is ghosted by recent TV footage of the slaughter of innocents. Other childhood vignettes are more wistful, as in “After the Bonfire”:
it’s them I think of now,
that sister and brother, those lonesome waifs
who could not believe their luck last night
to be there at the centre of it all, and now,
in bright daylight, struggle to rekindle the flame.
That children – like dogs, those other dependents of adults – recur as a trope in Boran’s poetry is indicative of his concern with community and decency, things always understood as existing in spite of so much. Boran’s is almost a protective eye. In the adult world too, the everyman’s value is set off by his vulnerability. “Stalled Train” ends:
small telephone that rings
or shudders now, like doubt,
we commit (if still in whispers)
our hopes and fears,
our last known whereabouts.
Another poem, “Bus Stop”, opens:
The world is full of beautiful places;
this isn’t one of them.
After lamenting “open fields I half-remember / from a morning walk” hereabouts, the poem concludes:
We would be
anywhere some days
but where we are.
And yet last week,
as I sat here on this backside-numbing bench
a man right here beside me took a call.
‘Sheila?’ His voice was quivering.
‘What’s that? You’re in the clear?
Oh Sacred Heart of Christ,’ he said, ‘Thank God!’
And, before I might do anything, he’d reached
across and hugged me, held me, his ageing finger
trembling now like grass, his face against mine
damp – and I can feel it still – as early mist.
The non-place of the bus stop is redeemed by encounter.
Boran’s warmth of vision finds positives, even where others have not. In the remarkable prose poem “Compost”, a regeneration following bereavement comes with a realisation that life and death, like the “I” and the “we” elsewhere, are always interwoven:
The death and the remaking of the world […] The dark ferment and fermentation. The break-up, the breaking down, the shifting round of what this life starts out with and never ceases to renew or reinvent. The seed, the pith, the spore […] the slow-emerging tendrils of new growth, tenuous and strange, up through the rich, thick canvas that is compost for the first time then, and then again, then little by little, day by day by day.