Early House, by Justin Quinn, The Gallery Press, 72 pp, €11.95, ISBN 978-1852356385
“The change of Empires is intimately tied / to the hum of words, the soft fricative spray / of spittle in the act of speech,” writes Joseph Brodsky in “Lullaby of Cape Cod” (as translated by Anthony Hecht). For the Irish poet Justin Quinn, these lines belie Brodsky’s own declarations that poetry and politics have nothing in common. The fact of Brodsky’s political trial and exile from the Soviet Union is as breathing-close to his every “rhymed and metred” word as a confidant’s whisper, a kiss. “Brodsky’s greatest legacy,” Quinn tells us in his recent book on Cold War poetry, “was to remind anglophone poets of the force of a public voice that reneges on none of the older resources of the art of poetry.”
At the heart of Quinn’s new poetry collection, Early House, is a longish poem that tests out what Quinn has learnt from Brodsky. “Letter, Including Bears” is, as Quinn describes a typical Brodsky poem to be, a “long, lyric meditation, rhymed and metred, louche in its mode of address, wide-ranging”. It takes on expansive themes through autobiographical details. The poem places its Quinnish speaker at a Czech brewery at the end of a six-hour ramble in the summer of 2014. As the speaker sips beer and writes his letter, he mulls over current events in Ukraine, where Russia has annexed Crimea. As Quinn says of Brodsky’s long poems, much of the imaginative work here is scene-setting. The brewery is in a wrecker’s yard, where old tanks and armoured cars gather rust, throwbacks to the Cold War. Better yet, it features a sinister inflatable bear – an “Eastern Bear” – so that the poem can end with a tipsy Quinn climbing aboard one of the tanks and pointing an aged machine gun at a bobbing, plastic Russia. Uselessly or portentously, we don’t know which. The moment recalls the ludicrous ending of Brodsky’s “Lullaby of Cape Cod”, in which an actual cod turns up at the door, thirsty for whisky. By casting its speaker in a buffoonish light, it enables the poem to lope to a close without a conclusion. “What next?” is the question upon which Quinn’s “Letter” ends.
The concerns of many of Quinn’s poems in Early House are personal: anxiety about one’s children in the “big bad world”, the split identity experienced by an Irish person raising a family abroad, moments of everyday eroticism. But at the book’s heart is this poem’s sense of the individual as “driftwood” in the vast maelstrom of global history. The scene at the end of “Letter, Including Bears” is comical but it is also disturbing, if we read it as an ineffectual political protest in verse. The bear who gazes implacably at the poem’s speaker “with no suggestion / of a smile or of a frown” is any of the vast forces at work in our world, which now follow their own designs unswayed by public opinion, “as money swerves off anytime it pleases”.
Early House is written in full rhyme. It often reflects on its own rhyming. In a poem called “To-Do List” Justin Quinn holds his six-year-old son close and notices the bones, the coursing blood within. “It’s like some awful joke,” he tells us:
I might as well say
a sack of sticks
has taken all my love.
His bones, in time and times,
like mine will fall apart.
OK. First job to do
tomorrow: go through
the ancient rhymes
for words like love and heart.
What’s obvious in these few lines is, first, Quinn’s faith in rhyme as a destination. The poem imagines a store of rhymes available in the English language, to which we can turn at intense moments and amongst which we will find treasure. This idea is conservative in a pure sense: it is because the rhymes are “ancient” that we can trust them. Rhyme imagines that the English language is possessed of a wisdom that is bigger than you or me. As Simon Jarvis puts it in his essay “Why Rhyme Pleases”,
[T]he great rimaria … hold the formula out to us, admit to it as though admitting that thinking is never all our own work or a matter of finding that impossible quiddity, the distinctive personal voice, but that it is, rather, the question how we shall in the right way lose our voices into those of the dead and of the unborn.
Quinn has long tended to be dismissive of the contemporary notion that the poet should seek a “distinctive personal voice”, preferring to pursue strategies that open up the poems to ownership by others, that allow thinking to be a collective enterprise. In his earliest collections he frequently writes in the second person, inviting the reader to temporarily inhabit his point of view. As his career progresses, he turns to rhyme as a means to submit to sociality, to insist that the poem knows more than the poet.
But the second point to be made about these lines of Quinn’s above is that they are self-critical. Wryly, they indicate how the act of turning to “ancient rhymes” draws the father’s attention away from his actual son, from the real love happening now to something generic. This moment of distraction casts the previous stanza in a new, less beautiful light: the “sack of sticks” that “has taken all my love” might not be the boy’s body after all, but the auld word-store of language, busy with bony ascenders and descenders, that shoves in between us and experience. Meanwhile, the poem itself is a kind of (awful?) joke, because the rhymes for “love” and “heart” don’t need finding tomorrow: they are right here in the poem. They are, respectively, “push-and-shove” and “apart”.
Jarvis opens his essay “Why Rhyme Pleases” with the understatement: “It does not please everyone.” Rhyme has been under fire for centuries. It can be criticised for being superficial, tinkly, not worthy of serious attention, even as it is despised for its assumed association with political conservatism. We could surely level these criticisms at Quinn, were we so minded, particularly with regards to the poems that take almost all their quiddity from their rhymes, rhyming “woman” with “lips that I have come in”, or “naked” with “bukkake’d.” But poetry is entitled to be sheer devilment. What’s interesting is that at times in Early House Quinn levels these old criticisms of rhyme at himself, as though experimentally. In “Here Comes the Rain” he imagines the act of sexual love as an “old refrain”, to which couple after couple sways, then turns on himself for his sentimentality:
Sometimes I am that kind of fool
who tacks a moral on,
some piece of trash I learnt at school
or church – the usual con
of consolation or such guff.
Because each year in May
the new young people are in love
that makes it all OK?
At the next turn, the speaker is dismissive:
Whatever. All I have’s an air
that’s got a good refrain
for all I care, for all I care.
Here comes the lovely rain.
Quinn’s “refrain” here has been changed by the lines preceding it, of course, although it is tricky to decide exactly how. Given the speaker’s professed apathy, we can no longer take it as a straightforward description of loveliness, as we might have earlier in the poem. It becomes a joke about automatic poetry, about how we can reprise a sentiment without meaning it. But the unconvincing protestations of the speaker – “Whatever”, “for all I care, for all I care” – also give the poem’s ending a doomy frisson. Some “all” is not made OK, then. What? What is the rain that is always coming when we make love? Time passing, death, the end of (someone’s or everyone’s) world?
Early House is fascinated by the inevitability that rhyme suggests: as one rhyme suggests another rhyme, so we are born, produce other lives, and die. Generation follows generation in a process that has fascinated Quinn since he wrote of the birth of his children in Fuselage:
I love the way our bodies fold around
and into one another, seethe and rend,
then lastly, hurriedly, break out in all joy:
one tiny fleck from off first things, nostalgia
for the love gods have for human form
that generates a further likeness, firm
of limb and mind that wholly takes our love
and lives, before we have to take our leave –
the children echoing down the passages.
It is because rhyme is so absorbed in continuation, in echoing forwards and back, that it offers a fine spot from which to contemplate discontinuity. Early House is powerfully shot through with the anxiety that ordinary continuity is threatened by changes afoot in the wider world, to the global order and to the state of the planet. In “Recession Song” Quinn contemplates the healing powers of a common little herb called sage:
But it will do, good herb,
to salve and curb
a common cold or nerves, and I
these days, with everybody’s eyes on
the grim news banked on the horizon,
like how its leaf spears face the sky.
There’s a touch of concrete poetry in the rhyme here, as the last word “sky” sends us back to contemplate the stark “I” out on the end of its line. It stands proud, spear-like, bravely facing the sky. Perhaps we feel a wave of defiance, of power, of heroism even, identifying ourselves with that “I”. And then, reading down again, we come to the final line a second time. Perhaps we are struck this time by the smallness, the vulnerability of those “leaf spears”, by how little they can do, actually. One more time, “sky” sends us back up to “I”, as rhyme is wont to do. But now: oh. Small, vulnerable, powerless I.
Ailbhe Darcy has a PhD in English from the University of Notre Dame. A collection of her poetry, Imaginary Menagerie, is available from Bloodaxe.