The Rooms, by Peter Sirr, Gallery Press, 104 pp, €11.95, ISBN: 978-1852356033
For a moment back in the year 2000, when Dublin’s most devoted lyricist published Bring Everything, Peter Sirr seemed thoroughly in step with the times. By then, Sirr’s poetry had matured across four collections, embracing movement and open-endedness and bestowing extravagant attention on the changing surfaces of urban landscapes. It was just the thing for getting the gist of the “Celtic Tiger” years.
In Bring Everything, Dublin is a marketplace where each transaction is “a kind of salvation, pledge / by pledge the city redeeming itself.” We begin to understand how the middle class splurge might have been a stab at a new identity, a new narrative, on behalf of a nation for whom dispossession had been the whole story. One poem, “Habitat”, steers us dreamily into a home decor store marketing mass-produced furniture as a form of self-expression, “as if the store, the stars, our lives / were waiting for us, / the lights still burning, the place still open.” We wander the store “from room to room / in a daze of purchase, amazed by desire.”
Characteristically, in that poem, the poet had seemed to wander into the shop off the street and could wander out again unsullied by desire, as if, for all his intimacy with the city, the forces at work on it had no real power over him. Critics like Aingeal Clare and Maria Johnston have perceptively compared Sirr’s work to that of the flâneur on whom constant new demands are made, and who responds on the hoof. “Gospels”, the sequence at the heart of Bring Everything, moves from a narrow lyric stanza to a dense block of prose and back again, evolving formally in response to what is being evoked. It imagines missionaries to the city, delivering a religious edict to “leave everything” and pursue “true silence”, who find instead that the city converts them to its “dust and bustle”:
Small things, foolish
but the fork in my hand, the glass at my lips
and the water in my mouth
have not learned silence
Their language is everywhere
I walk among stone arguments
dust babble, the hubbub
of skin: my blood
chatters, my bones cry out
my eyes feed
on the noise of trees, my voice is a city
sunk in sand I would
raise it again
Here, as in Sirr’s poetry generally, meaning is not conferred on the objects of the world by an ordering mind, but is a possession of the objects themselves. The poet’s task, in such a world, is as much discovery as invention. One achieves a poem by paying the right kind of attention. This approach is reflected in Sirr’s own description of his writing practice: rather than setting out to write, say, a sonnet sequence, he will let poems find their own forms – he allows a sonnet shape to suggest itself, or begins to notice that several poems are in conversation with one another, so that words that are first written as an act of feeling-forward, of aimless perambulation, turn out to be part of an intricately structured larger sequence. Such a process is almost bound to induce a sense of paranoia about (or we could say faith in) a universe of meaning beyond the self, pressing in from outside.
The title sequence of The Rooms, Sirr’s latest collection, comes together in this way and continues his long-held fascination with architecture. But Sirr has moved past the might-have-been architectural plans of earlier poems like “Unbuilt”, which had seemed to emphasise the arbitrariness of the given city. His attention now is on the houses which outlast their owners, the moments at table which tap into timelessness, and the fantasies of ideal rooms, formed out of cultural notions of home, which we carry from childhood and pass on to our children. The “dream of perfect ownership” remains a dream; but, the sequence muses, if there is a moment of perfect possession, when the self possesses the self, that moment might be death: “Here you are / yourself completely.” “The Rooms” turns this thought over and over, through turnings back and contradictions, contemplating how alien or at home we feel in life, pitting our temporary feelings about ourselves against our glimpses of the eternal.
“The Rooms” pits, too, exhortations to “wrap nothing around you but what you’ll never own” against the attractions of the “prison of stuff”, attractions Sirr had imbued with real depth and spirituality in “Gospels”, rejecting the idea that one must shed the material world to attain some measure of spiritual plenitude. Over and over in the new sequence, the material world is grasped at, only to slip away or dissolve:
If there’s a time when we might sink silently
into the hidden core, when the house
finally finds us out and comes to stay,
it must equally happen that unknown to us
the movers come and a slow
withdrawal enters the furniture …
One poem describes a ghost challenging the poet to relinquish things of the world as finite and useless anyway:
and here you come with the steaming bowl,
the strap climbing back onto your shoulder,
your mouth opening to say, all
this ancient pleasure, what exactly do you want it for?
Even as the ghost speaks, she is slyly undermined by that steam, the intimate precision of that bra strap, all that passing “ancient pleasure” Sirr’s poems hold so dear.
Sirr is in his mid-fifties now, and a father. His new collection evokes at moments the panic and wonder of contemplating a daughter growing, of catching a glimpse of a wife’s first grey hair. In one poem, “news of the future” provokes a “gust of grief” in the listener as he thinks how all the great plans he hears outlined on the radio “won’t sustain me”. Part of what a poet worries about, when a poet worries about the passing of time, is artistic legacy. The Rooms ends with a sequence dedicated to Bertolt Brecht, in which Sirr sometimes speaks to Brecht and sometimes makes Brecht speak. It’s a way of bringing Brecht back from the self-possession of death into the play of time, time being what keeps us plural, part-fictional, changeable, self-contradictory:
do you want from me?
Have you brought me here
to see how the world has changed?
You wrote for us, posterity says,
Why should you complain if we write to you?
The formal playfulness of this sequence is one of the high points of The Rooms, its palpable pleasure in its own workings making it pleasurable for the reader, a means of transcending time for a little while.
If affection for the restlessly changing, temporary world has seemed the surest thing about Sirr’s work, the circular time of eternity more familiar to religious tradition has always been wheeling away in the background. “Edge Songs”, in Nonetheless, the collection following Bring Everything, opens by celebrating the transient, arbitrary and “scribbled”, but it closes in celebration of the seasons and of the enduring power of the number three (which, long before it was symbol of the Trinity, was a storytelling tool for finding order in the universe’s chaos). A poem near the beginning of The Rooms reminds us of what eternity means in biological terms – of the measures nature takes to ensure that every last morsel of the individual is obliterated from this earth –
… a slow devouring, months of it,
the hagfish and rat-tails, crabs and sleeper sharks
picking the carcass clean until the bones collapse
but now the bone-world begins: osedax, the bone-eating worms
with their feathery plumes, blown like bubbles from the last whalefall
lock on and feed, generation after generation…
‑ and of the trouble to which nature goes to conserve life, in the eggs that have “already fled” to begin the cycle again.
In The Rooms, Sirr professes wariness of “consoling fictions”, of too easy moments of spiritual plenitude, which too easily pass from us again. With all its turnings back and revisions – “I put my coat on and take it off again. / I contradict myself,” writes Sirr, or Brecht, at one point – the book does its best not to allow such “consoling fictions”, when they appear, to rest unchallenged. It catalogues passing moments of access to the eternal, but it also stresses our inevitable mortality: “the body falling / unconsoled to where the bones spill.” And yet, at the same time, Sirr’s catalogue of consolations is so finely hewn that the reader can’t help being half-consoled by it. His plain assertions that “the world, unfortunately, is real” are threatened by the gorgeous language in which they come cased. This first dreamlike stanza of a poem about the massacre at Houla, Syria, in 2012, for instance, is so delightful –
Whoever enters kneels to wash
blood from hair and faces, untangle limbs,
then staying in the wreckage, lodged
like a guardian there, lifts the bodies up,
carries them back to the miracle desks
and watches as the eyes forget their shock
and the songs find their way back
‑ that it can’t be undone by the crueller, truer second stanza, whose job is to undo it. Perhaps this problem is part of the collection’s beef: to show how, in life, our knowledge, our experience and our beliefs constantly contradict one another, yet co-exist. How, if “time is what we’re made of”, as the collection puts it, and we are temporary all the way down, we partake in eternity too. Still, sometimes the loveliness of The Rooms leaves me feeling that if it had been crafted with a little less skill, less beauty, I might trust it more.