Me, Me and Not Me,
Tony Frisby (94pp, £10, Waterloo Press)
Gangs of Shadow,
Michael O'Neill (87pp, £8.99, Arc)
Dry Stone Work, Brian
Johnstone (103pp, £9.99, Arc)
for I do not know who I am'
Thus Tony Frisby lays down his lyrical mandate as he prepares his poetry to
rationalise the 'uninvited occupants of that space I once thought my own'
constructing an elaborate underworld populated with spectral doppelgangers,
one-eyed bulls, nuns, the fearful MacFirbisig (inspired by Frisby's own
ancestral clan) and a flock of crows with which to do so.
Frisby bounds through this philosophical minefield at a speed and grace which
is invigorating, the poem is presented as a single long-narrative which
intrigued me; though, initially I worried whether the poem would be able to
contain the pace that it exhibits in the early pages. Happily, this early
scepticism was soon supressed.
With effortless lyrical dialogue, Frisby lends a life to the occupants of his
mind that, it seems from his forward, he cannot afford himself and
increasingly the poet appears to be trapped in a self-inflicted prison that
is reminiscent of other such allegorical narratives as the Divine Comedy and Rime of the
Ancient Mariner. The
sections featuring the poet's interactions with his family are captured with
an emotional sensitivity and honesty that is bracing. Exchanges with his
uncle in particular rear above the narrative and cast a dark shadow over
Frisby's search for his 'true' self, but this is tempered by a tender
reconstruction of a memory from his childhood. The poet sits 'ears / cocked
to the music on Radio ireann' beside his mother:
Once again by the fire,
by your side, last year's
reduced to memory, balled
to be fashioned anew. I'm at the kitchen table,
my penny exercise book
and as I chant my nine
you begin your sinless
litany: knit one, purl one,
slip a stitch, knit one,
purl one, slip a stitch.
Gob-smacked I watch the
the past becoming
and my future warmed by
Such sustained self-introspection could, in lesser hands, be construed as an
act of vanity - and undoubtedly, in some respects the quest for personal
understanding is an act of narcissism - but Frisby treats his subject with
such stable poetic exploration that he himself barely features within the
narrative. Rather than being the domain of the poet, Me, Me and Not Me constructs living area
for the former occupants of his mind; a place for them to understand
themselves by the Lacanian standard with which Frisby has judged his self.
A biography in poetry, Me, Me and Not Me is a fascinating experimentation with
the contemporary self, Frisby interrogates his past with an inquisitorial
intensity that leads the reader in an affectionate attempt to understand and
re-evaluate the place of the solitary poet in the contemporary social age.
and the poems therein represent the work of a poet well-attuned and
responsive to the physical and spiritual planes of the contemporary world.
O'Neill's third collection brims with the lyrical allure and mysticism of
traditional Romantic poetry.
A truly subtle collection, Gangs of Shadow explores fusions of
feeling throughout and champions seemingly Romantic ideals of a world more
receptive to nature. Like Frisby's narrative discussion of the philosophies
of identity, O'Neill's poetry typically expects something more from his
reader, multiple meanings are woven throughout his poems and clever phrasing
deconstructs familiar images with memorable flourish.
O'Neill appears to beg that the reader sit up and question their apathy, in
poems such as 'The Voyage' and 'The Call' this message is crystallised. Both
poems deal with the issue in their own manner; in the first, the speaker
relates a recent vacation with simultaneously none and all of the excitement
that we have come to expect from social exchanges of the sort. O'Neill, in
'The Voyage', chimes into the social habit of hyperbolic exaggeration, his
speaker recites (what we are given to believe) are the most exciting articles
of his itinerary and yet fails fill themselves with the same enthusiasm:
We saw stars
and waves; we also saw
as, despite traumas and
we were often bored, just
as we are here.
Happily, however, of the many feelings provoked by Gangs of Shadow, boredom is not one.
Armed with a hawk-like eye for symmetry in poetic imagery, O'Neill's poems
create pleasant parallels which he uses to his advantage in creating moments
of empathy between reader, poet and subject. In 'Scalinta Della Trinita Dei
Monti', an elegiac homage to John Keats, O'Neill evokes with a haunting
resonance the work of rhythms and metres of traditional Romantic poetry and
infuses the poem with delicate references to the former poet and final days
overlooking the Piazza di Spagna in Rome:
Lone, bright, theatrical,
pulsates beyond the domes
and a low moon.
Gangs of Shadow
reveals O'Neill to be as alert to light, personal change and physical
movement as the heroes of Romanticism which appear to provide much of
Johnstone's Dry Stone Work, in much the same manner as the two
collections discussed previously, Johnstone's poems adopt an assured yet
playful tone as he explores themes of rural and cultural heritage. The
collection opens with an extract from Orhan Pamuk's 2006 acceptance Nobel
Prize in Literature in which he states that 'the stones we writers use are
words. As we hold them in our hands ... we create new worlds.'
The quote is a fitting epigraph; Johnstone's poems are meticulously crafted,
grounded and resonant by their own measure, they approach their respective
themes indirectly. Metres and rhythms are used to great effect and will often
remind readers of the poetry of Robert Frost; this is best evidenced in the
collection's eponymous poem, 'Dry Stone Work' in which the suffers a back
injury while building a wall with a partner:
Teamwork, you said and grabbed
of the sack.
Too late. My tensing back,
unused like yours to
working with its hands,
went crack, as strain was
felt and slack
was taken up.
Dry Stone Work is
a well-crafted collection in which the poet's language and construction bears
an inspiring semblance to his theme and suggests of a veiled world that
exists beyond his subject.
© Phillip Clement