Music from the Big Tent, By Macdara Woods, Dedalus Press, 120 pp, €12.50, ISBN: 978-1910251171
Back in the early 1970s, when the question “Why do you write poems?” was put to him, Macdara Woods replied that “I get restless if I don’t.” There has always been a note of restlessness in the work of this fine poet, a force that has given character to his poetry and has enlivened it.
Between his expansive Collected Poems ( published by Dedalus Press in 2012) and this new volume, Music from the Big Tent, we can now map the “restless” journey Woods has taken, labouring at his art, knowing the moment when it required transformation and transition. What they also demonstrate is the progression towards a lifelong unitary project; poem adds to poem, book to book. Because of that consistency poems from forty years ago still wear well.
Read together, both books amount to ample documentation of Woods’s range and versatility but also of a dogged singlemindedness and adherence to his own distinctive and marked style, his unique sense of how a poem should transmit the poet’s moods. In a preface to his Collected, Woods quoted Thoreau: “The poet is a man who lives at last by watching his moods”, and what else can a poet do but let his or her poems be the mouthpiece for such moods.
I count Woods among the maverick voices in Irish poetry, one who set out to follow a particularly singular furrow, doggedly true to what he hears in the inner ear and what he apprehends through the outward gaze. He has never been concessionary to the dictates of the poetry market place, trends or what might go down well. He might even be considered as among the outsider poets, but that is to his credit and a source of added distinction and authority to his work – I think of WS Graham as a similar example in British poetry, a poet once applauded for his “undeviating and dangerous singlemindedness”.
Of course those inner cadences (and he has always been utterly attentive to the sound patterns of his poetry, as anyone who has heard him read will know ) require the partnership of thoughts and ideas, themes and subjects and of course a mastery of fluent articulation. On that score Woods has never been lacking and never afraid to go where his thoughts lead him. A single Woods poem will weave a seemingly disparate complex of ideas and strange turns and perceptions into a single fabric. His poems sometimes overflow; he scoops in all he can to yield surprising results. What might appear at first as wilful and riddling shifts in some sequences, or individual poems, generally coalesce into the kind of fusion of images that gives his work its cumulative effect.
Everywhere in his poetry we encounter the poet grasping and presenting unlikely and dynamic juxtapositions of idea and image, such as those in the poem describing a master class by the jazz maestro Winton Marsalis:
The familiar unfamiliar bird
That fell dead at our feet
Marsalis staring into
The dark arena your double-jointed
Name like this
Brings back as clear as ice an afternoon
At the Black Sea’s mouth
Up the Bosphorus from Istanbul
Alone and drowsy
I sat down after lunch to wait
For the journey back
In the wrong boat
And almost almost sailed
At random for Odessa
If at times Woods leaves his readers a bit puzzled, he does so memorably and playfully. The remark by Bernard O’Donoghue about the “tendency of his poems to push the boundaries of Irish poetry outwards” is true and has been evidently so from the striking early achievement in books such as Early Morning Matins at the beginning of the 1970s. Like others of his generation – Mahon, Boland, Durcan, Ní Chuilleanáin – he has been a renovating force in the poetry of this island.
Woods looked to Kavanagh as the begetter of “wondrous music”, a compliment once paid to the Monaghan poet by Charles Olsen via Robert Creeley. Dylan Thomas too was an early influence but he found his own means of liberation and release from that spell.
Born in Dublin’s Leeson Street, Woods is a poet very much wedded to place and identifiably so in his Dublin poems, specifically and poetically those located on his home patch in Ranelagh – fertile ground to which he has returned again and again with repeated poetic success. But also, through family connection, he is a poet of the pastures of Meath (that haunting “Distance and Funeral: Meath , December 1991” in his Collected) and, beyond local shores, Woods is a pilgrim poet – or rather one who submits to an exile of the heart in his more global reach: Italy, Russia, the London of the pre-Celtic Tiger generation where the poet “navvied in Hyde Park Lane” (as he tells us in “Raskolnikov”, a poem in the collection Artichoke Wine).
He belongs to the long line of troubadour poets (the Mangan of “The Nameless One”, Kavanagh in his Raglan Road moment, the late Patrick Galvin). In Music from the Big Tent he adopts the ballad-form for several poems, and does so with great vivacity, presenting new lyrics for several old airs and melodies: “The Limerick Rake”, “St James Infirmary”. The title poem of the new book stands out as one ready and waiting for the singing voice of a balladeer.
There is an autobiographical tendency in Woods’s poems that sometimes runs the risk of enclosing the poem – but what has any writer unique to him or herself but the material of their own lives, as well as self-invention. Among the most compelling poems in Music from the Big Tent are those that address the frailties of age, the poet becoming aware that
We last from day to day
Not more than that. That’s it. Enough
He is not the first poet to confront mortality and the age of “old exhaustion” and “empiric helplessness”, but he looks that condition straight in the eye with a kind of stoic defiance and without the melancholy that can sometimes attach to and soften such autumnal poems. On the experience of hospitalisation, recovery and coming through, Woods is life-affirming; nothing downbeat or defeatist here:
And so my friends we make it
Passing and repassing in the corridors:
Did you ride a bike when you were young?
And where was that?
And where were you born?
Be careful now not to hurt yourself
One step at a time
Better out than in
Good leg to heaven
Bad leg to hell
And tellme how the world is
On a scale
Of one to ten.
The hospital setting recurs in several poems but there is also remembrance of things past. A memory is beautifully and wistfully recalled in “Today I joined the company”:
Today I joined the company
The legion of old men
In Henry Street – the side door
On the GPO to Radio Eireann
And the ghosts
Where once I was so young
Child actor with the rep…..
The sequence of poems that comprises “A May-Day Aisling Skazka” is a wonderful example of Woods’s inventiveness, sweeping along with great velocity, a helter-skelter series of riffs, images and rhymes (in deft couplets too) – the poet carried away like one of those flying characters in a Chagall painting, looking down on life, swooping in on different scenes, but also taking time to reflect on how “my life’s trajectory / not good not bad but satisfactory / in reaching now three score and twelve / was time to state my I believe …”
Music from the Big Tent is indeed a book of testaments, the poet acknowledging the moment’s of life’s magnanimities. The revels of his “May-Day” sequence are quickly followed by the more deeply introspective “Sons are Older at the Speed of Light”, a landmark poem in this collection and in his work as a whole. It is a fiercely honest and direct facing up to inevitabilities.
Woods may not be the most overtly political of writers, but when his dander is up he can generate some heat (“When all this is over…” is a powerful indictment, reminiscent of the equally powerful earlier poems, Man on the Doorstep or July Twelfth with its final hopeful note that we may be preserved from “failing life / through weariness”).
After almost fifty years of this poet’s steadfastness and resourcefulness there is no hint of weariness, or of being daunted in the face of the onset of reminders of age. Music from the Big Tent will gild his stature and his protean body of work and first readings suggest it holds some of his finest achievements. Macdara Woods has always been, and remains, a diverse talent.
Gerard Smyth’s eighth collection of poetry, A Song of Elsewhere (Dedalus Press), was published last year. He was co-editor, with Pat Boran, of If Ever You Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song(Dedalus Press), which was Dublin’s One City One Book in 2014.