Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

"The Third Miss Keane" by Tom Cleary (HappenStance, 2015)

Poems from "Orbis", "Stinging fly", etc. Typically, each poem is a chain of anecdotal descriptions ended by a paragraph beginning "Years later", "Last time I saw him", "In the winter we lost touch", "now she sits among her flowers", or "When he was last in town". I'm really not sure that the line-breaks help (the stanza breaks are where I'd put paragraph breaks). Each of the following 2 passages is spread over 4 lines, for some reason -

  • "When Lent came, she fasted. Dressed in her finery, she sailed away to confess to the Carmelites in Whitefriars Street. The friars there were her favourite priests. They had such clean linen" (p.14).
  • "I knocked on the heavy back door and hurt my knuckles. No-one came. I banged harder. A maid appeared. She wore a white cap, long skirts and a starched apron that rattled as she moved." (p.16)

Here for comparison is how a piece from "Vine Leaves" (a magazine that specialises in vignettes), Issue 1 begins -

  • "He drove into town in a truck that overheated, because it did not like Kansas gas. On stage he sang, and whittled words, and twisted teeth, and stared with eyes like bayonets. He looked at her, and looked away, and sang more songs, and left".

Some of the pieces span a life. Others, a few moments. Whether tagged as prose or poetry, texts this short are likely to be tidily structured with a conclusion, implicit or otherwise. Here's the per-paragraph breakdown of "Goose" -

  • P1: The narrator and "her" meet - "They all wanted her but she chose me".
  • P2: Her father and her father's mother are described.
  • P3: Her mother, sister and brother are shown.
  • P4: It begins "Here in our house" then "In my room" where "she strokes my hair. I hear the key turn in the lock". So she isn't bringing a boy back to her place for some goosing. Perhaps the final scene is merged in from years later.

In "Full Tilt" -

  • P1: There's a stripped down motorcycle in the yard, and a pig eating scraps. The narrator loved "the calculating steel of his eyes".
  • P2: The bike was Ma's brother's. He'd tried to run their mother over
  • P3: The mother was "tall and alarming, square like a sail, her face a round blank with gaping eyes"

But with "They came for the tiles" the template changes. It begins "We hid behind sofas and wardrobes when they came for the tiles". In paragraph 2 the demolition continues. In paragraph 3 "We withdrew through walls and flitted from architrave to corridor to cupboard, sometimes under floorboards. If nothing was to be left, how could we keep faith? ... why had there been no warning?" Big questions indeed. Maybe the narrators are mice?

"The Wheelbarrow people get a new god" starts strange, normalizes, than ends up being the strangest poem in the pamphlet. "The Wheelbarrow people had a god who lived behind a wall ... He had a son he said, James, who lived in the community. James would soon be required to kill his father". The phrase "lived in the community" makes me think of mental sickness. Perhaps the wall surrounds a hospital. James "used to pick Joe up outside the pub and wheel him home in his barrow". In paragraph 3, one morning James "went behind the wall. He found himself in a wilderness of stunted trees and silent crows ... His identity peeled off". At the end he sends a message off, "translated into the twenty-seven tongues spoken in the wheelbarrow community, the language was scrambled. Bog is tod. El dios pogib. God está muerto".

There's much that's generational (old people observed), with Catholic/protestant observations - the content of William Trevor in the style of Paul Durcan or maybe Matthew Sweeney, though Sweeney's similes for eyes are more striking - e.g. "their eyes as expressive as pandas who have mastered maths". With this style of poetry the less effective poems aren't going to be disasters. They will slide into whimsy or anecdote. "Buttermilk" is anecdote. "Good Fairies", "Matty" and "Lolloping" don't do enough for me. "Distant Peering" was my favourite.

Other reviews

  • Charlotte Gann (Sphinx review)
  • Becky Varley-Winter (Sabotage Reviews) (This collection takes us back to a place that I suspect is long gone, even in Ireland. From the anodyne society we inhabit, it gives us a chance to visit a world rich in character, a landscape that feels at once real and imagined.)
  • Anna-Katharina Caseldine (The Saint) (Unexpected juxtapositions meet as neatly as bread and butter: a violin is set against “piled-up hair alive with bugs”. Cleary is most at home in moments like these. At other times, however, it is easy to feel a little offended, even hurt, by how he approaches major issues with apparent frivolity.)
  • John Foggin (you realise you may have thought you were into a straightforward narrative of rural Ireland and then find yourself morphed into a folk or fairy tale; something odd, sinister.)

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