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In Tune

Gerard Smyth

Donegal Tarantella, by Moya Canon, Carcanet Press, 80 pp, ISBN: 978-1784107871

In one of his essays the New Jersey poet Robert Cording, says that “if the artist fixes his or her attention on something real, what is made will be beautiful” and goes on to state his belief that “ the best art involves such loving attention to what is before us”.

This belief seems to be one shared by Moya Cannon. Loving but also strict attention is the profound first act in the making of her poetry, followed by the expressive act of communication, setting in motion what has come into her gaze.

In her new collection, Cannon proves herself to be the ideal spectator wherever she is – in the landscape, in a museum, a new city, a kitchen or on the threshold of memory.

She exults in her surroundings and what she observes there. She is particularly at home in landscapes still holding traces of time and the ancient past and seems most at ease in the natural world, attuned to it, conscious of its boundaries. She is utterly capable of penetrating into the spirit of whatever outer world she inhabits and moves comfortably between that outer world and back into herself – the inner repository of feeling and insight – in these poems.  Even in a moment of air travel there is no gap in her attention:

Every cloud, even the smallest tuft,
drags its own shadow behind it,
on the skin of a silver-blue sea.

This keen alertness of eye – coupled with her alertness of ear (she declared her trust in sound in an early poem, “Listening Clay”) – has always been at the heart of Cannon’s poetry in its inquiry into “the relentless complexity of being”. This inquiry, or search for meaning, is for example exemplified in ruminative poems such as “Flowers Know Nothing of Our Grief” and “At Three Castles Head We Catch Our Breaths”. But there is always a tactful moderation in her entries into philosophical mode.

Her matter-of-factness can lead to unexpected juxtapositions of thought and connections: in “The Ring-Forts”, in the midst of contemplating the presence of these primal earthworks in our landscapes, she remains conscious of the modern age she is living in – of how our “speeding minds” are full of “codes, contacts and pin numbers”. These poems do not reveal a speeding mind but one that slowly absorbs the vista in front of it or details from what seems like a storehouse of inherited lore, and then works towards the pattern of a poem that is always scrupulous in its design.

The cover of Donegal Tarantella shows a smallish image, a detail from a piece of ceramic artwork that seems to mirror the natural delicacy of Cannon’s lean and precise lyric form. However, behind that delicacy and the elegant fluency of voice there lies the considerable and serious poetic energy that animates her work. She can place the reader directly in the front line of her experiences and do so with an admirable economy that adds to the pleasure of her work. An example is her poem evoking the homely connotations of freshly-baked bread, its imagery depicting how

an aroma will flow
through keyholes,
will slip
over chipped saddle boards,
proclaiming more eloquently
… than a dog panting wagging circles
around a room,
Home, home, home, home!
(Bread)

Music and song has been a constant and enlivening theme of Cannon’s work, the title of an earlier collection being particularly indicative of this: “Carrying the Songs”, and in one of the poems in that book she reminded us that “pain and joy unlock in a voice” (Timbre). But more than that, when music or song, as they so often do, become the subject, the relationship between poet and her material deepens, the content lights up with increased wattage. A number of key poems in this collection relate to the topic, for example, in the title poem

Tunes wash up, ocean-polished pebbles,
in the kitchen of south Donegal –
mazurkas, germans, highland, hornpipes, jigs, reels,
all gone native since they were washed in
by waves of returning emigrants …

Many of the book’s most emotionally engaging poems feature music or songs – “The Boy who Swapped a Bog for a Gramophone”, “Songs Last the Longest …”, “The Records”, and “A Sentimental Education”, a memory poem that makes terrific use of lines from tunes of a bygone era, wonderfully interwoven into the fabric of the poem to give it true lift. Even as she listens to the waters of the Corrib, as it rushes to join the Atlantic, Cannon is conscious of hearing the river’s “very old song”.

She has a gift for the conversational tone, the kind of poem in which we are allowed in on a story, one that often emanates out of family history, local lore or some encounter. She is back in this narrative frame in several outstanding poems of quiet drama, such as “The Countermanding Order, 1916”, which relates her grandfather’s near-involvement in the rebellion (saved by that countermanding order), but with events seen through the eyes of her grandmother. “Neighbour” is another account of a life that might have been consigned to oblivion without the poet’s intervention, this time about a survivor of the First World War trenches who “didn’t say much” about “what he suffered or did, as empires poured / young men’s lives, like grains of sand, into Flanders mud.”

Although, like the late Francis Harvey, Moya Cannon has written well and beautifully about the landscape of her native Donegal, and her allegiance is clear in several poems here, she has not allowed herself to be defined by that territory. She is, too, a poet of transit who presents us with her responses to a range of places and what she has found in them in several poems: St Petersburg where “the palaces of the tsars rise up again” and “Blok’s desk is as neat as a managing director’s” or Coimbra in Portugal, where in the city’s ancient Biblioteca Joanina she is aware of the “small colony of bats” that come out at night to swoop on the bookworms. There are lovely and evocative poems in which memory and imagination work together in recollection of her younger self: “Starry, Starry Night in the National Library” and “Relativity, the Iveagh Gardens, Forty-five Years Later”. The unshowiness of her work, the apparent careful weighing of words, is one of its appealing characteristics: for Cannon this seems not just a question of style but a necessary way in which to be true to her own sense of wonder in the world.

1/10/2019

Gerard Smyth’s tenth collection, The Sundays of Eternity, is forthcoming from Dedalus Press.

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