Where Deeps of Feeling are

Sea of Leaves, John McKeown (9.00, Waterloo Press)

This is John McKeown's first full collection of poetry and top marks to Waterloo Press for making his work available to a wider audience.
These are poems of innocence and experience, where evocations of childhood happiness are juxtaposed with the aching longing of adult desires and disappointments.

     We ran rings around the Sun, barefoot,
     til it stood, enchanted by our energy.
     In our favourite circle of sand dunes, thoughtless,
     we forged our childhood paradise.

     I shudder to think of Gronant now,
     tacky concrete, shopping centre, beach litter-strewn.

     Those suns never quite set; we never quite went home.
          (from 'Gronant')

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 intolerance:

     They stand against the light
     pillocks of Hercules in baggy jeans
     plying their rods over the water.

     I could understand if I tried.
     The stoic dalliance with chance,
     the thrill of hooking unseen nature,

     but I don't want to. Though their ease
     among the smell of worms, maggots,
     might be construed as truly philosophical,

     fuck them.
         ('The Fishermen')

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
     wheeling crying they go
     scrawling down pillars of air

     aural old runes of desire.
         (from 'Gulled')

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 things:

     The cormorant does
     what Jesus did
     without the publicity.

     It stands securely
     in the waves
     on an invisible rock.

     Not even remotely
     proffering the keys
     to any kingdom.
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:

     Life stops passing by
     but I keep moving.
     Though stars are buoys
     marking no constellations,
     but drift low, close burning,
     spilling votive fire
     where deeps of feeling are.

Powerful stuff.

       Steve Spence 2010