Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy – Dónall Dempsey
Dempsey and Windle £7.99 (ISBN: 978-1-907435-47-8)
I defy anyone not to be moved to laughter and to tears by these poems that celebrate life, language, love and loss for the memories they bring.
The layout of the book is unusual and intriguing in its Landscape, A5 setting with poems, two to a page in Bold, inter-spersed with comments from the author. It is a pleasing book to hold as well as to read.
There are several themes – friendship, childhood, sorrow and nostalgia, but underpinning all of them is a celebration of imagination and the joy of words. Dónall Dempsey’s poems share lines from childhood hymns and nursery rhymes together with a wealth of magical language from Herbert, Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Dickens, Blake, Eliot and James Joyce. “I just soaked them up,” says Dempsey, “like the process of osmosis and there they stay to this very day.”
The poet’s own use of words is stunning. Potatoes “dance in their jackets”, The Stars Are Lonely, while later “tiny stars/ nail the night to the sky”. The blind Granny “handled each vowel/as if it were precious/held all the consonants/ as if she wouldn’t let them go” Talking with Granny. Poems in this collection delight in onomatopoeia, colloquialisms, dialect – everything to do with “Words words oh sweet words.” (So Priketh Hem Nature In Hir Corages).
There is a great deal of humour throughout as in, for example, Much Ado About Something where the boy makes Shakespearian playhouses from cereal boxes with nightlight candles as footlights. The resulting fire causes him to exit, pursued by “a clip on the ear”.
It is the poems about personal loss that I find most poignant. Beautifully written from different perspectives, the reader is touched by “the crying” that “has never stopped”, the ghosts in How Many Miles that are fetched “each night” by the poet and fed “on my pain/to keep you here again/only to have to/return you/when morning brings a new day”.
This is an outstanding, memorable collection.
Settings are evocative in this collection. Many places are named. Throughout, the backcloth is nature with its flowers, trees, animals and birds – a host of birds. Frequently the atmosphere is both magical and mysterious. Roseland is described as an ‘elemental place’ where ‘the headland fog holds fast’ and ‘Spirits and wraiths are free to roam.’ Together with the author, we feel we have returned ‘Like strangers to an ancient land’. ('Valley of the Kites').
Many beautiful poems in How the Light Gets In’ are written in the best pastoral tradition. Conversely, there is bitterness and grief at what has been lost in the name of technology and attendant materialism. The section called ‘Place’ is introduced by a quotation from Philip Larkin’s 'Going, Going' where everything special in the land may ‘linger’ but will most likely be eradicated by ‘concrete and tyres’. The new world that Patrick Osada is afraid will exist – already exists – is marginal, unwelcoming and toxic.
The final section of the collection is ‘Spiritual’. Poems here are poignant, nostalgic, concerned with mortality and sometimes fear and doubt at the thought of life stopping ‘like turning off a switch’ and there being nothing but oblivion and blackness. ('Birthday').
Overall, however, the poems in this fine collection leave me with a feeling of benediction and beauty ‘found /In birdsong, sun, sweet fragrances.’ (Lilies of the Valley). The first two stanzas of the poem 'Contact' strengthen this impression and suggest again the idea of light found in small things, light getting in through the cracks.
‘Sometimes the meaning comes in code:
Reflections on a pool; flower tints;
Sea, sky or hills as ciphers.
Or information set in tongues:
Bird call; the constant drone of bees;
Whispering grass or cold wind’s song.’
22nd August 2018
This is a book of great clarity. Its poems draw strength from the twin securities of family and place before striking out boldly to engage with themes of death and loss. Dónall Dempsey’s new collection deftly shows readers how: ‘[t]he flag of self unfurls / snaps into the lost moment.’ (‘Walking from the Rising Sun to Kildare Town’). This is especially apparent in poems like ‘Follow the Leader’ where the writer’s daughter prompts this unfurling, teaching him not simply to recognise but: ‘to be / the world that she / can see / (half invention / half discovery) …’ Many of Dempsey’s poems take up this ontological challenge, asking us to consider how our being in the world is shaped by complex interaction with close relatives and friends. In short, Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy celebrates our fundamental interconnectedness, the strength of that human chain outlasting the home place or family tree. ‘Journey of a Smile’ finds just such continuity behind each smile in an old photo album:
It pays no attention
or place or place
lay claim to it.
This perspective ensures that the elegant poems of personal recollection, found throughout the book, work cumulatively to produce a thoroughly inclusive experience for readers.
But above all else, this is a book that revels in the mysterious power of words, in the conviction that: ‘language is lava // the mind is molten / always flowing’ (‘Hithering and Tithering Waters Of..’). And so a pyroclastic flow from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake occasionally disrupts these texts, enriching their poetic soil with a thunderword ending in ‘[…] TOOHOOHOORDENENTHURNUK!’ (‘How Not To Swear When One Is Swearing’). Indeed, thunder itself is an important unifying device in this collection, a marker of self-discovery that is frequently linked to the poet’s acknowledgment of the human. Early in the collection we read:
Oh what a thing it was
I, in due course
was an about-to-be
clumping about the evening
(‘O Words are Poor Receipts for What Time Hath Stole Away’)
Later, the poem ‘In the Mythology of Foxes’ offers the same semantic pairing in counterpointing an uncle’s shooting of a fox: ‘the fearful thunder // of his gun / had ended everything’ with his nephew’s shocked response: ‘trying to comfort her / with his human tears.’ Many of the poems in Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy seek to recover this humanitas at the heart of things. It is present in the frequent intertextual allusions to Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, and Chaucer. In ‘Till Human Voices Wake Us’ even snow takes part in the search:
tears in its eyes
the snow smiles
This is a book of great humanity; in ‘Hithering and Tithering Waters Of..’ the poet reads Joyce to his daughter as a bedtime story. Her response will be shared by many readers of this fine volume:
Beside the tickling waters of.
Beside the chuckling waters of.
Beside the laughing waters of.
She loves the music of it all.
This review first appeared in SOUTH 58 magazine
Gerry Sweeney's Mammy is a study in memory; beautifully and movingly suggests the divides of our life (as the book is in sections) the "then and nows" of our reality. For Donall the death of his brother creates such a high watershed between "then and now". But each reader exploring this pages will discover their 'then and now'. They'll puzzle about what they remember or have been unable to forget.
Remarkably, despite the sadnesses and regrets, the book contains, the way Donall writes his narrative makes the reader want to remember, to cherish distant relations and acquaintances, to offer tribute to them and how those personalities helped shape the reader's own life, members of their close family or far away figures of literature. One of my favourites is "In Bed With Emily Dickinson" - this poem epitomises the boyishness and seriousness which Donall accomplishes in the book: two perspectives which are not often made into bed-fellows.
Paul Abdul Wadud Sutherland
Donall Dempsey’s collection, Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy explores his childhood in Curragh, Ireland, growing up with the love of family and friends and the lessons they have taught him on his journey to becoming a man who can "smile my 60 year old smile/perfected by now." ('NOW WE IS 60!').
Dempsey’s poetry fights to keep the child inside alive and words are his weapon, honed by reading the greats from Chaucer to Emily Dickinson. 'MAKE WORDS BREAK FROM ME HERE ALL ALONE, DO YOU!' recounts how being able to recite Gerald Manley Hopkins' poem 'The Windhover' by heart enables him to crush bullies during his first year in Secondary school.
Many of the poems are preoccupied with what time steals away, but done with energy, charm and insight. Despite facing the tragedy of losing his sister, Dempsey's poems are life-affirming with a unique expression, and are sometimes surreal provoking laughter as well as pathos. His ear is tuned to idiosyncratic expression, which works especially well in poems about his daughter Tilly when she was young. "For my little skeowsha/language is lava" ("HITHERING AND TITHERING WATERS OF..') often giving rise to neologisms such as Thundersday when "The thunder scares her/on Thursday."
Several of the poems have dedications, and people in Dempsey’s life jump off the page, their characters and expressions resurrected. Language is used in a dual strategy of preservation and defence against the toll of time, "allowing this 60 year old child/to somehow survive." (‘STICKING ONE'S HEAD OUT OF THE UNIVERSE’).
Lisa Kelly - Poet, Torriano Host and Magma Chair and Creative Writer Tutor.
There is regret of course but the sonnet makes us see that although not all our passions last, they are at the time authentic and therefore a valuable experience. Several sonnets such as Now and Here, then deal with the mellower emotion found in later life where enjoying a walk and companionable conversation is of as much value as the heady passion of youth.
Some sonnets broaden out to deal with other passions in our lives. In the poet’s view these are just as valid as romantic affairs. So, we have love for children and emotional ties with landscapes. Whilst the poet employs fine imagery throughout she also laces her work with humour which is an excellent way of avoiding sentimentality. In one poem Thinking ahead from my Hospital bed, the narrator fancifully imagines a worst-case scenario and wonders how her possessions will be divvied up amongst her family after her death. The inclusion of a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes, hidden under the bed, suggests a secret passion for such shoes that are kept from her husband. Whilst the sonnet is quirky it does also have a more serious purpose. Family members are given thumb nail sketches that rather dams them as they appear variously avaricious and unreliable. In a similar way the eponymous poem Jam in Aisle 3 deals with a love hate relationship with food shopping that I am sure will resonate with most women. Here a combination of rampant materialism and chaotic parenting show a society losing its way in terms of genuine love. These are in a sense anti sonnets where love and passion are drowned out by the skewed values of modern life. The most arresting of these comes in the poem Keep it in the Family concerning the trend amongst young women to tick box their way through dating, marriage, mother hood at the expense of real passion.
Indeed, some sonnets are not afraid to deal with the darker side of emotion. This is a hinterland between love and hate. Saddleworth, focuses on the mother of a "Moors Murder" victim who never ceases to long for the child, which is the very opposite of the toxic Brady/Hindley relationship. Monday Morning presents a phone call from a young woman during a suicide attempt who has clearly fallen out of love with life itself. The poet then skilfully counterbalances this darker side of the emotional spectrum with a sonnet dealing with an elderly husband tenderly caring for his wife through dementia.
This collection refreshes the sonnet form by broadening its range of emotional engagement. It examines modern life in the prism of the form. Middle aged love is revealed as rich and rewarding. At the same time, it presents anti sonnets that flag up the hollowness of an emotional landscape in a society that races after materialism at the cost of a genuine emotional experience.
© Fiona Sinclair 2017
From the instinctive communicative energy of the passionate child who scribble(s) on each page, to the mature scrutiny of the vernacular through a kaleidoscope (that) will not alter / its ever-changing / view, Strafford's poems offer precise explorations of life in high definition. Ideas and phrases spark surprising – sometimes shocking – relays, probing the spaces around experience, their forms precisely tuned to their restless exploration.
I am, writes Strafford, perpetually waiting for a thought so passionate and alive / it has an architecture of its own. On the evidence of this mercurial collection, she rarely has to wait long. From a toad heard in the darkness, to the click of a high-heeled shoe, to the knees of grown-ups seen from beneath a card table, each image – pulsing with resonance and reflection – is palpably, viscerally alive. This is everyday language in flux, the place where words go / after they are spoken, and Strafford doesn’t let a single one escape.
Leeds Trinity University, 2017
Strafford’s ability with language is impressive. Her training in visual arts informs her lexical choices; she ‘sculpts’ (and re-sculpts) a kiss; her archetypal woman yearns for ‘a thought so passionate and alive/it has an architecture of its own.’ Limbs are ‘pretzled’. Her ‘rules gauging time/inch by inch’ recalls Joni Mitchell’s Come in from the Cold: ‘Back in 1957/we had to dance a foot apart/And they hawk-eyed us from the sidelines/Holding their rulers without a heart.’ Indeed, in a similar way to her near contemporary, she captures certain periods of recent history with a light but firm touch. Strafford has a highly mature sense of how to ‘show’ not ‘tell’ which leaves spaces in her poetry for the reader to reflect and engage. She sees the sensual possibilities in the most mundane of events and objects, and this gives her writing great vigour. So in her work, men may be ‘empty overcoats’, a miscarried child a thread snapped short, and the swirls of wood grain on the gym floor remind her of female anatomy.
In her subject matter, she is fearless and frank, sharing a child’s voyeuristic view of a sometimes disturbing adult world, inviting you to collude with teenage experimentation, and portraying the perennial topics of love and loss with a fresh and quirky slant. Sometimes the world she shares is troubling and poses difficult questions, but she never lapses into cliché or sentimentality; she is witty and irreverent. She writes about her ‘sisters’ Patti McGhee, Dorette and Christina in a confiding but never saccharine way. Her man is ‘Mr Moon’, not some nimby with a sixpack, and he will see off the competition. There is sharp humour; you want to meet the woman who is waiting ‘for Red Riding Hood/to wink at the wolf.’
This is a tender and touching collection of poems. It is at times sad but as a counterbalance there is much humour. Above all these poems are excellently crafted with exquisite use of language. Divided into sections, it broadly deals with the narrator’s childhood in Ireland, the death of a much-loved sister, the love felt for the narrator’s own daughter and the loss in adulthood of his beloved brother. Yet the driving force behind the collection is a zest for life, a passion for language and literature and a genuine interest in people.
The collection begins with an Irish childhood. It is helpful that throughout the collection there are notes providing a commentary on various events or people. Their conversational tone makes them much like the introductions heard in a live reading and serve to bring us closer to subject matter and narrator. This was a world richly peopled with characters who brimmed with life. The poet is skilful at reproducing dialogue and dialect that sounds authentic. These uncles, aunts, cousins take on an almost mythical status. The women are shrewd, the men are giants to a small boy. In Broken Abracadabra, the narrator’s uncle ‘shimmers as he walks’; a granny who is blind is nevertheless able to reach ‘ up and touched my voice’. The landscape of this childhood is slmply idyllic. It is a combination of the actual countryside but also the rich internal landscape of a highly imaginative child who came to literature early and delighted in language. When describing the literal countryside, the poet, who has a knack for very fine imagery, deploys gloriously lyrical language as befits the pastoral scene, so
The trees were beside
madly in love
is used to describe spring; and a lake ‘pulls the sky down/ holds it tightly to itself, so it cannot escape’.
There is also a sense throughout of a childhood so beloved that the adult poet longs to travel back to this time and place. Old photographs become a motif for this longing; they are pored over but as these photos fade with time so does the ability to fully relive the memories. Indeed, time is featured throughout the collection, especially where it opens a yawning gap between the poet and his dead loved ones. We learn from notes that the poet recently reached 60 which seems a seminal moment for him in terms of writing this collection. Here he strives to recapture that glorious period giving it a kind of immortality,
the day a once upon a long long ago
that now lives always a forever.
Such a childhood seems idyllic, with the child protected by a close-knit family, yet towards the end of this section we are given truths that even the happiest of childhoods can be stained with sadness. The first intimations seem to occur in the poems dealing with school days. Here again Dempsey’s gift for authentic dramatization is realised. This is most vividly seen in the poem ‘Make Words Break from me here alone, do you whose startling first line, ‘Grabbed by my curls, my face forced into the toilet bowl’ relives a ‘first year in secondary’ school ritual humiliation. Yet words come to the ‘defenceless nerd’s’ rescue as the spirited boy retaliates by wildly quoting from much loved poets known by heart that not only serve to summon a teacher but are used as weapons: ‘I fling phrase after phrase after them.’ Literature encountered at an early age becomes a lifelong passion. Despite the delights of an eccentric family and rural landscape, the narrator as a child would often long to ‘step into a book’. As this section moves on, harsh reality inevitably breaks through the idyll; the poet is no athlete and is compared negatively with other more able family members; there are beatings at school for perceived misdemeanours. This culminates with the death of the narrator’s sister. These poems evoke not only his own grief but most touchingly that of his father’s. Some of the most poignant verse here deals with the father making it clear to the young boy that despite his grief, his young son is still loved: ‘But you are still my little boy and must be loved!’. As further evidence of this bond the poem Scattered Dreams deals with this tender relationship evoked so touchingly in the lines ‘whenever I fell asleep, my father came and cupped me in his hands’
Throughout the collection, Dempsey makes us see that after the initial acute sense of loss, the death of a loved one continues to reverberate across the years. I don’t think I have encountered poems that so fully and honestly deal with death and its aftermath. It is shown that such early trauma is felt for a lifetime. To reinforce this, Dempsey frequently returns throughout the collection to not necessarily the death itself but the ongoing sense of loss, of a person still missed, as the child grows into an adult. Amongst these are ‘what if’ poems, such as I wish you were old and weathered, that imagine the sister not dead in youth but grown old after a good life. These are not melancholic but honest wishfulness. From the lines in another poem, ‘Death held you young and forever locked in the centre of his ageless eye’, it is inferred that the narrator was very young when the older sister died so the child may well have been spared the nitty gritty of her death, leaving the narrator much like the reader with a sense of a person simply erased by death. As such the sister becomes crystallised at eighteen and the idea of her accompanies the narrator throughout his life.
The section concerning the narrator’s own daughter is strategically placed after these poems concerning his sister’s death. This section is charming. It tenderly portrays the daughter throughout her early years; once again direct speech is effectively used to enliven the scenes. Humour that is present in the first sections is deployed well here to recount anecdotes concerning the little girl whom the narrator clearly cherishes. Thus, we have in Going Potty a prose poem concerning the misuse of an uncle’s cherished hat. Again, these poems are full of life and love. Indeed, the relationship between father and daughter is a pure love affair which given the poet’s experience that to love so utterly is to render oneself vulnerable, is a brave leap of faith. Because coming straight after the sequence on the sister’s death, there is certainly for me a feeling of jeopardy, a sense that history might cruelly repeat itself. Thankfully, though, this is unfounded in the case of the delightful daughter. Ironically the narrator’s life here is one of misdirection, for by the end of the sequence the death of his beloved brother Brian entirely catches both reader and narrator out.
It is here in the poems that deal with adult bereavement that death and mourning is so honestly and effectively realised. This may be because the brother and narrator had developed an adult relationship that meant they could gossip on the phone for 3 hours and enjoy shared jokes and rituals. This then is an adult grief. It deals with the various truths usually unspoken concerning the emotions felt by the one left behind. Last Call evokes this so effectively: ‘ I always felt I failed you by not dying with you.’ This statement will, I am sure, resonate amongst readers as one of the truths of having outlived a loved one. Poems concerning time come into play again especially where ‘time is now divided before and after you’, which evokes the finality of death. The rupture of a relationship is also felt in private rituals such as passing a church in a car where the two brothers used to shout the opening of Finnegan’s Wake; however ,after the funeral the narrator ‘ hasn’t the heart to greet the church with the usual Joycean playfulness’. Dempsey reveals the truth that death is not just the absence of the person but the cruel curtailing of a shared life. Some poems deal with the struggle to come to terms with this absence: ‘I try to get back to you’. There is exquisite and unique use of imagery here. In his desire to reconnect with the lost brother he often smuggles ‘you in a dream across death’s border’. Again, time is the narrator’s enemy, taking him further and further away from the brother until ‘you had become the past tense/ no longer present in your own life’. It is a tribute to Dempsey’s deft touch as a writer that these are never maudlin poems, partly because they are so honest but also because they translate raw emotion into fine imagery.
The end of the collection returns to playful character studies. The final poem Now we is 60! is charmingly humorous. It again suggests that this milestone birthday seems to have been a seminal point for the poet to draw together these memories and crystallise them into poems. This collection is by no means depressing. It is sad, yes, because life is sad in parts, but it is laced with humour: ‘even at 7 found transubstantiation hard to swallow’, and a family with a zest for life:
And now (with a quick wink)
‘Let’s walk home…backwards!
and some very fine imagery indeed ‘the smell of pine kidnapping my memory’,
I throw my voice
out into the dark
like throwing a mad dog
‘Sunlight throws itself at our feet’. It is at times lyrical, at others conversational, as befits the subject. The poems also show a joy in words and the one constant over a lifetime: a love of literature, used now not to show off learning but to enhance meaning and share this joy.
First published in The Lake http://www.thelakepoetry.co.uk/reviews/
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