After A Few He Breaks Into Song


The Holy Land, Maurice Riordan [55pp, £8.99, Faber]
Relatively Unscathed,
Idris Caffrey [64pp, £7.99, Cinnamon Press]


Here's a book's that's going on the bedside table, not the bookcase. It's not about that Holy Land - though that does come sideways into the title poem:

     Father Burns has given us Basil, his greyhound pup,
     while he's away himself to the Holy Land.

This hopeless hound figures more than once, but first appears in the opening sequence of poems which draw on childhood memories. These are elegantly and precisely managed - the random and inconsequential details like a tin of polish, which may come to mind (in the opening poem) while 'I'm still in my dressing gown, the Sunday papers spread / on the carpet'. Why do we remember the details that we do? We're given just enough to sense how small
a child's experience and memory of family life may be.

The holy land here is the family farm, with Martin Riordan - the poet's father - as its centre of gravity. The book is an act of remembrance, with a focus on the section 'Idylls', each of which instances a working day on the land. The first of these begins 'One day...', in a voice that says there's a good yarn coming. While some of these prose poems may well be built around an apocryphal tale that's already had many tellings, what makes them so striking is that they're mainly direct speech. Typically, a few lines at the beginning give the setting and then we're in there, hearing the conversations of farm workers, whose names and voices become increasingly familiar. As does the land itself. The third one opens like this:

     'The fish are all but gone.'
     The men had spent the day under the sun drawing in Hay from the Kiln
     Field. In the cool of evening they led Billy and Jack and Nance, the mare,
     down to the pond. They stood in the mud dousing the horses and each
     other with the sweet-tin.
     'The trout used to come upstream this far,' my father continued. 'You'd
     spot them darting away when bring the cows to water. Now you'd never
     find one further up than the Glens.'
     'And you never see a bittern any more,' said Dan-Jo.
     'Or see a newt,' added Moss.
     'Hardly ever an otter.'

and then we're off into talk about these changes and the men's speculation about causes. The 'Idylls' are dynamic: they don't propose nostalgia for a fixed moment in time, as - in a parallel to the book as a whole - memory and change preoccupy the protagonists. They make frequent references to 'former times' or to the dead, even 'picturing what it must have been like'. There's an explicit listing of changes in the second one:

     Another day when they were sitting on the headlands in the Small Fields,
     the men discussed the changes they had seen and a debate arose about
     what the greatest change had happened in their lifetime.

Martin Riordan is at the heart of these conversations, wise and always courteous:

     'That was a great change,' my father said. 'And you, Alf, what would you
     say?'

We're already prepared for his role; he was cast as 'Silenus' keeping his wisdom quiet in the poem which immediately precedes 'Idylls'. He marvels at a red deer buck, manages a new Government Inspector (as well as a bull), keeps history alive: (this from 7)

     '...an old road came through the farm and exited via Keegan's Passage
     onto the Pound Road...By day and even at night there was a traffic of carts
     and people...All sorts who might stop at the pump for talk and
     refreshment.'                  

The 'Idylls' can be funny too, Martin talking all the while about the stars when the job in hand is to get the hopeless hound to chase a rabbit caught by lamplight. At their close, Martin speaks of his favourite place on the land, 'Where the sloe bush straddles the stream.' (He gets drunk, too.)

'Mediums', the poems which follow 'Idylls', are Maurice Riordan's later and adult memories of his father, from specific moments handling an animal, to their talk, or to a hilarious romp built up from the many times the older man might have said 'I didn't get where I am by...' The old man's still speaking after his death in the short final section 'Understorey', walking the land with his son and still present in his favourites places and old coat.

The book's not only a tribute to a father, but an absorbing reflection on how memory sifts, invents itself, shifts, repeats and moves on. It's almost a relief to find something about it I can say I don't like - 'The January Birds', its final 'life goes on' villanelle. And the cover, too: Faber's colour combinations have come up with orange for this one; magenta and turquoise text. Altogether too much.


 

The very same shade of orange is on the back cover and spine of Idris Caffrey's Relatively Unscathed, here with pale blue ( a combination that makes the spine hard to read at any distance) and it sits uneasily with the saturated indigo and lime yellow on the front. I was interested to have a look at a Cinnamon Press book. It opens and handles well, but they've still a way to go with the proof-reading: short poems in particular can be killed by typos, and one of them falls right in the middle of the first line of the first poem.

While this is a collection of occasional poems, many share the title poem's theme of time passing:

     The years have come and gone
     and now there is only acceptance -
     a thankfulness almost that I came
     through almost unscathed.

Days end, seasons end, and life itself, even 'The Last Day of Autumn'

     ...doesn't last,
     the sun drops behind the hill
     and the day retreats into the dark.

The writing can often be too explicit for my taste. Of a yellow balloon floating in 'Elan Valley' Idris Caffrey writes 'so brief its stay'. That's enough for me, I take the point and don't need telling 'so brief mine'. I prefer the poems, such as 'Light Years' in which he leaves the line about his father 'he spends more time with my sister now' to do its work.

      © Jane Routh 2007