by Gerard Smyth
from Dublin Review of Books, February 2017
In “Amaranthus”, a poem from an early collection, Thomas McCarthy tells us:
I look out on life, its throwing hand
still raised in anger at our inattention.
Since the publication of The First Convention, almost forty years ago, this clear-eyed observer of the state of the nation, of Dáil politics and the ballot box, has been anything but inattentive. He has of course been much else besides – a love poet of great delicacy, an elegist (this new collection opens with a beautiful remembrance of poet Dennis O’Driscoll), a supreme image-maker in poems that memorialise time and place and loved ones. His temperament has always been a modest one that is testimony to the poet’s own nature, and he possesses the “sharp unerring eye” that, in a tribute written for Maurice Harmon’s eightieth birthday, he identifies as one of the necessary attributes of the poet.
His voice – with its idiosyncratic tone and verbal texture – registered firmly as one of the most distinctive and it is now one of the most authoritative among poets of his generation. The weight of that authority and his mastery of a personal tone are evident in this fine new collection. There is, too, a rare integrity that keeps a balance between the lived life and imagination. McCarthy, the poet and thinker, is a defender of the past against the more crass aspects of modernity.
All that he has gathered into his encyclopaedic intellect goes into the making of his poems. He speaks deeply from a wise understanding of the Ireland he was born into and became alert to as it evolved from de Valera’s country of “long summers / For blackberry picking and churning cream”, as he recalled in “State Funeral” from The First Convention, to a land of “highway builders”, a land where the poet “tried to understand / All the signals we received from Berlin”, but
Little did they know, in our autonomous
Region all the gold was gorse,
And all investment was storytelling.
In Pandemonium, McCarthy returns more deeply to his own storytelling, and with fresh imagination and insight re-enters old and familiar territory and themes – in both the personal and public spheres – but with results that yield a number of exceptional poems. The disciplined focus that has always been evident in his work seems to have become even more intensified, as has the vista that McCarthy surveys – one that shows him “the bitterness of the streets”. In many of these new poems he contends with that bitterness and the circumstances that created it in the Ireland of recent years.
While circumstance has dictated that McCarthy has become an adopted son of Cork, he has maintained an important imaginative foothold in his own Arcadia, the west Waterford of his birth, childhood and formative experiences. Those primary experiences are from a period he constantly revisited to great effect in earlier collections and in a number of these poems does so again – and particularly brilliantly in the triptych “Social Class in West Waterford”, a poem that moves from scene to scene like a movie script and imparts McCarthyesque statements:
Aristocracy in every land is a kind of grand theft …
“Isn’t is most unkind,” Lady Nora commented, “how your
GAA has thrown a smokescreen over everything you yearn
To expose …”
This continuous homecoming to the nurturing parish has been a vital stimulant in McCarthy’s poetry. Key figures familiar from early poems reappear: the poet’s mother and father, the Brigadier and Lady Inez, his wife, Catherine, Molly Keane (or in this instance her cocktail shaker), as well as places that carry significance: Glenshelane Wood and Cappoquin. These cross-references to people and places from past poems sustain something close to a retrospective mood throughout Pandemonium.
In “Largesse”, a beautiful tribute poem destined to become one of his classics, the poet, thinking of “my mother’s life, the sheer audacity of her kindness / of her unbridled largesse”, looks back to recall stark images of a woman who “Gave the skin of her hands to break wet firewood in a hard frost”.
McCarthy’s limpid style of writing has never been better, though here and there he may have gone a little too far in testing the reader with rare words – optiment, vetiver, eigentone. His lyric sensibility has become an instantly recognisable one, as has the wonderfully expressive vernacular – his “wild confetti of poets”, “an opiate languor”, “the red azalea of someone lighting a match” and this description of rain:
An unearthly squall and huge drops
Typing furiously on our canvass.
In the atmospheric “Frantic Venice”, the city is
Resplendent in trade, clothed in a satin seawater;
Perpetually liquid as a merchantman of Murano glass …
Several of these poems travel outside Ireland and the topographies we normally associate with this poet: to Los Angeles, where “Books on low tables speak to you of eternal youth” and “night adjusts its golden coif” (“The Late Hours in LA”); and in “Under A Street Lamp with Zhao Lihong”, he evokes the sensations of an altogether different culture, declaring Shanghai to be “so beautiful it draws tears”.
Conscious of “perpetual change”, McCarthy casts his gaze (that political eye) not so much towards the local constituency that has served as material in the past but here in the direction of the wider dimension of the European stage, where
… in the end we are all Catalan.
This one idea of Europe is dead:
Daniel Cohn-Bendit speaks for himself.
(“Lisbon Treaty Referendum”, 2008)
In the same poem we are given a clue to what might be the unease governing these poems: “An Armada of protocols / Has shed its load off our coast”. In the brilliantly conceived “Bel Canto”, he likens Greece’s “Euro crisis” to operatic melodrama, depicting Christine Lagarde – the International Monetary Fund figurehead – as a woman coming front-stage, “checking her Louis Vuitton buttons” and announcing that “The Irish need to remain in their seats”.
The “pandemonium” of the title recurs in a number of places. The predicament of Ireland (“the land in winter clothes”) and its traumatised citizens in our recent “sickening years” is a dominant presence. His “Jerusalem” is no holy city but a place where
This chapel’s bank account has been frozen, this boy
Beside me has a garment with bitterness for a mother;
And a troubled face of mother-of-pearl. His looks
Are those of a lost shepherd.
When McCarthy tackles the political, as he has been doing since his poetic apprenticeship, it could be in explicit or implicit form, but whichever way, the result always measures up to an authentic viewpoint and intimate knowledge of the political nuances of the small town, the crossroads, the heartland and hinterland – and the national debating chamber.
He is neither sentimental nor naive, but recognises what is ignoble. In his ongoing fascination with Fianna Fáil he has stripped that party of its aura of legacy and power and concentrated on the inner machine – or the inner life – that made it such a phenomenon in the second half of twentieth century Ireland.
Here it appears in poems in which two of the party’s figureheads are placed in the frame. In a deceptively simple short lyric, “Camping Near Dingle”, the poet recognises “Haughey’s timbers of the harbour”. That is fleeting and ghost-like, but far more complex and mordant is a keynote poem in memory of finance minister Brian Lenihan: “Grunewald”. The title (in its recall of the “Grunewald Crucifixion”) is suggestive of the need for a fall guy in the affair between Ireland, its banks and the bureaucrats of Brussels and Berlin. There is something of a poignant note in its evocative reference to
… The pilot boat,
With all its unused life-belts,
Has a black stain on the prow, where you
Were pushed Brian.
The magnetic pull of McCarthy’s opening lines are frequently brilliant – “Nothing holds you back like a song” (“The Hour Extends Itself”); “The late wind again is like a disturbed aunt” (“The Late Wind”); “This train glides in through a cross-hatch of stars” (“At Newcastle Central”).
Pandemonium is a book of shades. In several poems McCarthy invokes the names of departed brother poets: O’Driscoll, Paddy Galvin, Gregory O’Donoghue, and Montague and Heaney, both lovingly recalled and juxtaposed in the imagery of “On Reading Heaney’s Oysters”. In its opening, he says:
Well do I remember that morning
when your letter clacked onto the sunlit floor
of John Montague’s house …
It was not that flowers on the window withered
as John flattened your new poem on the table,
but the redress we felt, that sting of brine.
He salutes living poets too, including John F Deane, whose “lifelong search / For God in books, for Rome in lamplit homes” is noted in “Three Books on the Ballyferriter Sand”. In “Father Prout”, McCarthy reminds us “That each poet has to run his very own marathon”. Long may he continue his own marathon strides and sing “with full heart”.
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About the Author
Gerard Smyth’s new collection of poems set in and about Co Meath, The Yellow River (with artwork by Sean McSweeney), is published by Solstice Arts Centre, Navan. Other collections include A Song of Elsewhere (Dedalus Press).
Dublin Review of Books
Editors: Maurice Earls, Enda O' Doherty