The Rooms is Peter Sirr’s eighth collection. A beautifully orchestrated meditation upon the meaning of the word ‘home’, it weighs in at just over one hundred pages and is thus a substantial addition to his work. By profession, Sirr is a linguist, teacher and translator who, like Joyce, Mahon, Clifton, spent many years abroad. It is not surprising, therefore, that throughout his poetic career he has explored the dichotomy between ‘home’, seen often as a temporary refuge, and ‘exile’, its obverse image: ‘That’s it all / exile and interlude, that the grass / escapes me, the implements hang heavy in my hands // that the roads are narrow but the wind is mine.’ ‘Mapmaker’s Song’, Sirr’s opening poem, is a prologue to what follows. A statement of intent, an ars poetica, it is a bravura performance which invites the reader to follow in its footsteps:
The mapmaker downed his tools.
I’ve caught it: every alley, ever street,
every fanlight and window ledge,
the city fixed and framed.
Sirr’s project here will seem reminiscent of Joyce’s mapping of Dublin or, more recently, Ciaran Carson’s Belfast poems, but in this poem there is also a sense of restlessness, so that the evocation of details seems never quite complete:
Now I want everything else,
I want to be a historian of footsteps,
a cartographer of hemlines and eyelids,
I want to catch what the pavements say
when they sing to each other
in their deep laboratories, plotting
every journey since the place began.
Having established a mood and sketched out his terrain, Sirr explores it in a group of nine individual poems before moving on to ‘The Rooms’, the collection’s eponymous sequence. Among these there is ‘House for Sale’, a fine version of Andre Frénaud’s classic ‘Maison à vendre’ and a poem about Robert Graves on the island of Mallorca. ‘Nando’s Table’ is an attractive celebration of domesticity and friendship: ’and that must have been it, or something like it: / pane, olio, formaggio, sole / Nando’s table washed with October, / all of us sitting there as if for ever.’ ‘Delirium’ is a study in bereavement in which it is the daily routine of chores, ‘a thousand / ancient duties … a thousand fretting tasks’, that helps a widow to survive; while ‘Whalefall’ is a strikingly memorable evocation of mortality in which the carcass of a beached whale becomes a habitable space for the waves of tiny creatures who strip it down and then probe the very marrow of its bones until, like houses of bricks and mortar, this huge bone-house also disappears.
Good as these poems are, it is the collection’s burnished central sequence that impresses most. Divided into three sections with a coda in memory of the Irish poet Dennis O’Driscoll, it consists of thirty-three blank sonnets arranged variously as to their line length and stanzaic form. A remarkably precocious poet, Sirr had three full collections under his belt by the time he reached his thirties. However, from as far back as his 1995 collection, The Ledger of Fruitful Exchange, he has shown a willingness to explore longer, more open-ended structures, that move beyond the limits of the well crafted set piece. In the opening stanzas of the first poem in ‘1 CONTINUAL VISIT’ there is a wonderfully poised and musical evocation of rural isolation and a darkness far removed from the polluting lights of town:
Somehow a wilderness grows. The grasses
are full of small animals, the nights so absolute
you could haul yourself through blackness to the stars
and stream down like a stray god on the meadow.
In the next sonnet the poet imagines an afterlife in which there seems to be an exhilarating trade off between security and freedom:
To be loosed like that, streaming through the black countryside
or stopped somewhere, holed up in a ditch, stretched
on a bale under the whistling galvanize …
and darkness floats your whole life down, the whole span
settles on skin and hair, everything you were
like branches coming together, a forest of small touches.
Sometimes restlessness is balanced against a zenlike calm: ‘Star-gathering, lake-stalking // pilgrim head plugged in to draw the powers / out of what my leisure falls on.’ Trying frequently to capture the ineffable, Sirr convincingly demonstrates that the ‘poetic’ has little to do with straining after effect, but is more a question of well observed images and a music that is grounded in natural speech. This he achieves even at his most literary, as in these lines with their buried quote from Rilke: ‘Who has no house now will hang his hat / on the ramshackle, the provisional, a summer’s // quick labour; will sit for hours inheriting a silence / stitched with warblers and lake tunes.’
In ‘2 HOUSED UNHOUSED’ the poet comes in from the cold to catch up with his lares and penates: ‘small gods have come to rest / in hearth and threshold, tile and countertop, / in doors, in handles smooth from long use.’ Perhaps, too, a hint of irony can be detected in this first sonnet’s conclusion: ‘’Robed with home we go / from room to room moving with grace, / lords of our little universe.’ Elsewhere his lines have an intensity that is reminiscent of Proust:
… dream of the footscraper
outside the door, the march of a hundred shoes
shining with purpose, climbing through floors,
dream of the linen chest, the rims of glasses,
hands in the air, hands within hands, the memories
of bones …
In ‘3 DRIFT’, the sequence’s final section, we sense that there is a fine line between security and entrapment and that existential uncertainty may be the price we have to pay if we are to become ourselves and escape the ghosts of the past: ‘I woke in darkness, someone else’s, / someone’s night into which I’d slipped like a draught / and lay like nothing, unbodied, unselfed.’ Having at this point, like Eliot, brought his ‘exploring’ to a provisional halt, Sirr presents the reader with another group of free- standing poems before moving on, in another long sequence, to explore the life and work of Bertolt Brecht. Opening up new perspectives on what has gone before, the poet gives ample testimony, also, to his polyglot tastes in poetry with a version of Jean Follain’s ‘Hardware Store’ and pieces inspired by Breton and Borges. In ’Habitable Space’ he contemplates the possibility of life in a distant galaxy; while two poems, ‘Harm’, set in contemporary Syria, and ‘Elegy’, set in Sixteenth Century Nuremberg, depict the violence that many lives are a prey too.
Finally, the volume is brought to a close with ‘An Audience with BB’, a twenty four page collage that incorporates versions of Brecht’s own poems and Sirr’s responses to them. It’s a form that Sirr has used elsewhere to present the Roman poet Catullus and the world of medieval Irish poetry. On this occasion, there is clear parallel between Brecht’s aspiration towards peace and security in the ‘dark times’ of his Danish exile and Sirr’s brooding peregrinations. A richly imagined and resonant volume, The Rooms, is Peter Sirr’s best book to date. It can only be hoped that work of such quality will find him the readership he deserves on this side of the water.