The Last Peacock, by Gerald Dawe, Gallery Books, 56 pp, €10, ISBN: 978-1911337683
Poet Gerald Dawe has done the art some service, to say the least. His ten collections before the present, The Last Peacock, including a Selected, form a publishing history stretching back four decades. He has held academic positions in Galway, in Dublin and at a number of North American institutions and, Belfast-born and -reared, has managed throughout his writing life to evade contamination with the sectarian and ideological toxins that pervade his native ground. In his person and in his work he constitutes the consummate united Irishman, being equally at home in Galway, Dublin and Belfast.
Dawe has also been a well-regarded anthologist and in 2018 it would surely have been Cambridge University Press’s expectation that his were among the safest of hands to trust with their new Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets. Quite startling then it must have been when he and the book were roundly condemned in the inquisitorial pages of The Irish Times, accused of perpetuating the oppression of Irish women poets by the literary patriarchy. The gist of the case against the Companion and its editor was that it had far too few chapters devoted to female writers (a mere four out of thirty) and that far too few female critics had been commissioned to provide chapters (again four out of thirty). The latter castigation seems perfectly well-founded, given the gender make-up of the average university English department in Ireland, but the former is scarcely apt and seems to stem from a tendency to confound the notion of a literary canon with that of a corpus of literature. While the corpus of Irish literature, specifically Irish poetry, continues to swell as lost manuscripts and printings emerge and new or lost names from the past are added to the roster, the canon must forever be a moveable feast, inevitably governed by the subjective view of a particular speaker or a specific generation. Dawe’s task in compiling the Companion was to document the writers who were considered household names when he was schooled and who had been key influences on his own generation, not to provide an exhaustive gazetteer listing all the poets who ever versified in Ireland. The poets allocated chapters were thus all older than Dawe, with the exception of Nuala Ní Dhomnaill, born like him in 1952.
His Companion introduction makes his parameters plain: “poets now born in the 1980s and ’90s inhabit a very different map to the one this Companion attempts to outline”. That female poets were thin on the ground in the ’60s I can aver as I was there ‑ in the room literally ‑ in 1968 as a schoolboy meekly cowering at the back in my Dandelion Market greatcoat at the groundbreaking Tara Telephone readings in 51 Parnell Square. The only woman I recall reading there was Eavan Boland, among a throng of floppy-haired young men with squiggly beards and pristine donkey-jackets, preciously clutching leatherette zip cases stuffed with beat poems scrawled in biro.
A by-product of the Companion gender imbalance controversy was the Fired! movement, which went into battle for the proper recognition of women poets, living and dead. Such a movement was long overdue but it would arguably have arisen with or without the appearance of the Companion. So I think it’s quite unjust to tar Gerald Dawe with the gender issue: his critical writing has not neglected Ireland’s women writers, or at least those that were better known. If more were not well-known this was not his doing. It is pretty certain, however, that no post-Fired! compiler or anthologist will ever again be so conservative.
What then of The Last Peacock? It’s a slender enough collection of thirty-seven poems, one to a page excepting the folksy “Land of Dreams” dedicated to the late Dermot Healy. In this volume, Dawe has resumed his longtime role as a purveyor of astute observations with unfrilled brevity, capturing the minutiae of a Belfast upbringing and now that of the other locales of his life in fine-lined detail. This compressed aesthetic, applied in The Last Peacock mainly to places and circumstances other than Belfast, is most engaging in instances like “Swimmer” but elsewhere, for example in “Ely”, it carries only the lighter burden of the amusing-enough-but-so-what punchline of an internet meme.
The first part of The Last Peacock stems from a quote from the old rogue Aidan Higgins, describing the dawn in the vicinity of Dún Laoghaire. The poems ‑ the majority of them set in the Borough ‑ are in general small though not at all slight, often as taut and translucent as a good haiku, wielding a mass disproportionate to the fewness of their words as if wrought in some dense metal that should come on the bottom row of poetry’s periodic table. Some on the other hand are more feathery, floating a single simple thought gently on a breeze of short lines, deployed by a photographic eye with exquisite filters at its disposal, as in “Valerian”:
Like clusters of pink fire
sparking out of yard walls
under the oddest of softening brick
The second part of the book has more waltzes than quicksteps and traces a lyrical itinerary from Wexford to the Western seaboard, with excursions to Cambridge and Dublin, recounting moments in various lights, from dawning to darkness, while spilling out a little cornucopia of scents, sights, sounds and snatches of speech, accompanying glimpses of people seen and known, like square Box Brownie prints in an old album.
The personal and the intimate intrude via elegies and dedications ‑ the largest poem in the book is the one in memory of Dermot Healy, which lollygags around Galway the way Healy’s novel characters loaf around Sligo.
The side trips to Cambridge and other places and times in Dawe’s life are luminous with a recollection untainted by regret, the only shadow of regret, the only glint of contemporary anxiety being the account of the refugee phenomenon in “Home Again”. In an uncomfortable age such restraint and such focus on the personal are something for which a reality-besieged reader can sometimes be grateful, so grotesque, disquieting and ugly is the big picture nowadays.
Éamon Mag Uidhir first appeared in print as a poet in 1969. He currently edits the quarterly poetry narrowsheet FLARE and curates the literary event noticeboard The Perp Walk on Facebook, along with its art event companion Art Me.