This is John McKeown's first full collection of poetry and
top marks to Waterloo Press for making his work available to a wider
These are poems of innocence and experience, where evocations of childhood
happiness are juxtaposed with the aching longing of adult desires and
We ran rings
around the Sun, barefoot,
til it stood,
enchanted by our energy.
favourite circle of sand dunes, thoughtless,
we forged our
I shudder to
think of Gronant now,
concrete, shopping centre, beach litter-strewn.
never quite set; we never quite went home.
The repetition of 'quite' in the last line adds to the emotional sense of
loss and it's McKeown's successful engagement with strong feeling which
prevents some of these poems from falling into a mannered over-the-top
grouchiness. Nevertheless, the most humorous moment in this collection, at
least for this reader, came from one such episode of bad-tempered
against the light
Hercules in baggy jeans
rods over the water.
understand if I tried.
dalliance with chance,
the thrill of
hooking unseen nature,
but I don't
want to. Though their ease
smell of worms, maggots,
construed as truly philosophical,
I laughed out loud at that one. McKeown has attitude in abundance but he puts
it to good use and the relentless build-up of anger and dissatisfaction with
'the way things are' is either followed by a resounding last line which
brings the whole edifice tumbling down - as in Suburbia - or by a more
considered, lyrical approach, as in Llandudno, where the spirit-of-place
evocation is equally effective and suffused with a more harmonious and
tranquil feeling. I'd say, from the quality of this work, that both kinds of
poem reflect a genuine response to the world and it's McKeown's ability to
register this difference with authentic feeling that makes his poetry, at its
best, so powerful and convincing.
His largely unembroidered style is nevertheless rich with lyrical intensity,
using myth and religious imagery to question current mores. His succinct and
'immediate' descriptions of nature have an archaic directness, mixing a sense
of loss with an unsentimental appreciation of the world.
Careless if I
hear or no
crying they go
down pillars of air
runes of desire.
In 'Cormorant', the comparison between the 'animal world' and what we humans
create through our cultural constructions in a search for meaning is again
highlighted in a manner which would seem to endorse a pantheistic view of
in the waves
This is poetry which has no claim to being 'politically correct' either,
particularly in relation to McKeown's sense of male identity, an
unfashionable topic for sure. Poems such as 'Earthly Treasure' and 'Against
Nature' are both 'mutability poems', each dealing with the subject of
mortality in an unsentimental manner yet rich in feeling and mythic
suggestion. Both also speak of the conflict between men and women in a
fashion which is brave and yet
veers towards the pessimistic. The final poem in the sequence - Wexford Harbour - is among the
strangest pieces here, mixing microcosm and macrocosm and evoking the ghostly
presence of past lives:
but I keep
low, close burning,
of feeling are.
Steve Spence 2010