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/
Osada’s presentation of the calendar year through plants and weather is both immediate and also layered in memory and questions: on seeing a fox at mid-day ‘… we all rubbed our eyes at what we’d seen.’ In ‘Last Reunion’ the geese whose annual visit marked the year leave, only to be replaced - ‘… men came with plans:/ Theodolites cast shadows over land.’. The then/now continuum/contrast is a unifying feature — childhood memories confronted by present-day reality. In ‘Shards’ Osada shows us men, working by hand, fitting a plate glass window into a local store, and then the modern version: machines, vacuum suction cups, and glazing that seals life inside city tower blocks. This layering of time works particularly well in ‘Monuments’, - ‘Immortalized in bronze, he’s caught mid-fight,/ rushing to catch the Hull to London train/ as if it were that Saturday in May/ when what he saw and wrote secured his fame.’ No need to name the poet or the writing here; Osada trusts his readers.
This collection answers its own question: ‘How do we keep alive what once we were?’ (from ‘Lost Boy’). Attention to changes and the continuing work of transforming these into words hold everything together.
D A Prince (SOUTH Magazine No 56)
Falla has become part of the islands' distinguished literary community. She writes restrained yet vivid accounts of family life, she creates quirky vignettes of domesticity and she lays out the drama of the German occupation in the 1939-45 War. Falla bears witness, in a number of ways, to the idiosyncrasies and resilience of an island people. The geography and history of Channel Islands are in effect mapped out by the poems which, in their freshness and deep sympathy, conceal their considerable artistry. This is a tremendously good debut collection.
Dr Julian Stannard has a PhD from the University of East Anglia and before coming to the University of Winchester, where he teaches English and Creative Writing, he taught English and American Literature at the University of Genoa.
His work was represented in the Faber Anthology First Pressings (1998) and the Oxford Poets/Carcanet Anthology (2004), and he writes for the Guardian, TLS, PN Review, Poetry London, Poetry Review and Nuova Corrente (Italy). He has read at festivals and literary venues throughout Europe and the United States and he was awarded The Troubadour Prize in 2010.
His work has been nominated for both the Pushcart Prize for Poetry (USA) and a Forward Prize (UK). His film poem 'Sottoripa', in collaboration with Guglielmo Trupia, appears on http://vimeo.com/81617966.
He has published four books on writing and writers and four volumes of poetry. For more about Dr Julian Stannard go to the Winchester University website, here.
The first poem sets the tone of this collection and bears out the dedication of the book to the loving memory of the poet’s parents. His mother speaks directly to the reader here, with her words wrapped in the colloquial language used throughout the book: ‘Ya’d wear the heart out of a stone!’. Early on we are introduced to other family influences on the writer: an aunt and a grandmother. In ‘Talking with Granny’, the stabilising presence of elders in the life of the young is well said: ‘She gave you back / your self / but a much better self / than ever you could be.’ This poem, and many others, shows how the support and love so necessary in the formation of the growing child was readily available to the writer throughout his formative years. Many of the poems are written in a sense of gratitude for this early support.
In a book of so many well-executed poems there are many contenders that one might choose as an outstanding piece, particularly because such care has been taken to present them in such a fashion as to involve the reader in the development of the family, and the writer, through the years and to ensure that each event or emotion does not eclipse other, perhaps less dramatic, moments. And so it is that while a poem on the experience of revisiting the old, and now ruined, house of his Aunt Nelly is a memorable one, and therefore produces a memorable poem (‘Sweetnesse Readie Penn’d’, with its reference to George Herbert), the collection is replete with lighter, equally memorable, pieces. There is great fun in ‘A Thin Slice of Ham in the Hand Is Better Than a Fat Pig in a Dream’ (apart from the title itself!): ‘Never bolt your door / with a boiled carrot!’ / as Uncle would say / with a wink – tongue in cheek. / It didn’t always make sense / as our door was always / open’. Poems like this ensure that the collection never assumes that rather maudlin, treacly tone which is the fate of many works that strive to recreate family history. A piece like ‘In the Mythology of Foxes’ ensures that the earthiness of rural life is always present to pull the collection back on track if there is any danger of its contents heading in that direction. Incidentally, that particular poem with its evocation of the killing of a fox and how it affected the poet (‘the boy / carries her / death cradling it / in his mind / trying to comfort her / with human tears’) is strongly reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s poem, ‘The Early Purges’ where a similar shock of farmyard reality proves a distressing experience for a youngster.
Finally, the very accessibility of Dónall Dempsey’s writing must be mentioned. Not alone are the poems themselves full of a welcome for the reader but the way they are presented is also very reader-friendly (or, as we say these days, ‘user-friendly’). Throughout the book the poet steps back from the poetry to sketch out a little of the history behind the poems. These prose insertions are never turgid or long-winded – they give just enough to add to the understanding and enjoyment of the poems. Perhaps this is a method that other poets might use more often? Especially in these day when so many readers can find poetry an obscure and forbidding medium? Certainly, they would find Donal Dempsey’s collection a welcome change.
Eamonn Lynskey's poetry has been published widely since it first appeared in the 1980s in the Irish Press ‘New Irish Writing’ page edited by David Marcus. Publications in which his work has appeared include Poetry Ireland Review, Cyphers, SHOp, The Stinging Fly, The Stony Thursday Book, Crannog, The Irish Times and Orbis (UK). Eamonn was nominated for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award and was a finalist in the Strokestown International Poetry Competition. He holds an M.Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. He took part in a reading organised in association with the University of London’s Human Rights consortium and the Keats House Poets at the Stanza Festival in St Andrews in Scotland in March 2014.
He has published three collections: 'Dispatches and Recollections' (Lapwing, Belfast) in 1998, 'And Suddenly the Sun Again’ by Seven Towers (Dublin) in 2010 and recently 'It's Time' (Salmon).
His website is at: www.eamonnlynskey.com
Sounds familiar, even commonplace? Forget it. These poems and this collection transcend all expectations of a volumes of sensitive, sly, self-conscious backward looks. Instead this one sparkles with originality, vitality, and the love of life and language.
As Dónall writes in the poem 'Sticking one's Head out of the Universe'
“the words haul it all
from that There to this Here.
. . .
allowing this 60 year old child
to somehow survive
so that he can
all over again
a forever first time.”
It is this freshness in the use of language, form, quotations which makes this collection so fascinating. The past is where all our poems begin but Dónall manages to sculpt chunks of his past into wonderfully exuberant and original creations which dance on his pages.
The list of poem titles is itself fascinating, not a dull one in sight, each promising fresh joy. Examples include:
His Wooden Leg Stares at Me
Walking from the Rising Sun to Kildare
A Thin Slice Of Ham in the Hand is Better Than a Fat Pig in a Dream
Eat Your Alligator, Tilly!
The Tree Walks Home with me
I Wish You were Old and Weathered
Ahh Horatio I Hardly Knew Ya!
In Bed with Emily Dickinson
The range of the author’s reach is impressive. He can describe the mundane in brilliant concrete terms as in the poem Much Ado About Something:
“All is well
in this my make-shift
made from Kellogg’s
See the great cock crow
under the proscenium!
construct the wings.
Rows of nightlights
serve as footlights.'
He can move to the use of surreal language which is convincing in its starkness, as in The Always a Forever:
'The lake pulls the sky down
holds it tightly to itself so
it cannot escape
fish swim from cloud to cloud
the sun a hole burnt
in the sky's blue silk
. . .
time nailed my soul
to this one and only summer
the day a once upon a long long ago
that now lives always a forever.'
The style of the poetry, the frequent use of short lines, generally mimics the way his mind and memory jump back and forth through various episodes in his past and through history and literature. Running Through History (for Grandfather Sheedy), dealing with the Curragh of Kildare where he grew up, illustrates the effectiveness and liveliness of this:
“St. Brigid casts her cloak
it covers the entire plain.
. . .
I recite Tennyson to
startled furze bushes.
‘Furze bushes to the left of me
furze bushes to the right of me...’
into my mind rides
the 17th Irish Lancers
leading the Balaclava Charge'
The collection is divided into six sections and each is introduced by a quote from a famous writer. Section One has ‘O words are poor receipts for what time hath stole away…’ from John Clare’s Remembrances, a fitting motto for the work. This, Dónall Dempsey’s latest collection, dealing as it does with 'what time hath stole away' is much more than a poor receipt; its words constitute a fascinating reimagining of what has been stolen but also of what has been learned, remembered and retrieved.
The collection is peopled with memorable characters, the eponymous Gerry Sweeney’s mammy 'like having a spare mammy'; Uncle Michael, 'He looks like/ he’s a dream/ made of summer'; Uncle Seanie 'feet planted firmly in this field' and the dead sibling who haunts the collection:
“Almost 5,000 acres
could not contain my grief.
The Curragh blazed yellow
The world was as beautiful as
it could ever be.
But not for me.” (ALL THE WAY FROM 1967)
His father is also fondly remembered:
' . . . the ordinary
magic of my father
in his arms
gathering up the littlest
of my scattered dreams
stroking my hair
& tiptoeing backwards
out of the room' (SCATTERED DREAMS)
An unusual aspect of the collection is the inclusion of prose pieces here and there. Some act as notes or glosses to poems but others function more as standalone prose poems or even flash fiction. Some, one imagines, would be perfect as introductions to the poems when read in public. Indeed you can imagine the poems in this collection as great spoken word poems but this is not to take away from their impact on the page.
This is a substantial collection at over 130 pages and promises more joys and flashes of revelation with each reading.
Michael Farry is a poet and historian, a founder member of the Boyne Writers' Group, Trim, N. Ireland and was editor of the group's magazine 'Boyne Berries' from its beginning until summer 2014. He has had poetry published in magazines and anthologies in Ireland and the UK, including Acumen, The Frogmore Papers and Prole; in Regime in Australia; in the Soliloquies Anthology Canada and in the Imagination and Place Anthology, USA. He has won awards in a number of poetry competitions: most recently in 2016 he won first prize in the Robert Monteith Poetry Competition, the WOW Poetry Awards and the Goldsmith Poetry Competition. His first collection, 'Asking for Directions', was published by Doghouse Books, Tralee in May 2012. His website is at http://www.michaelfarry.com/poetry-1.html
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