Thomas McCarthy, Pandemonium (Carcanet, £9.99).
On starting to read and approach this new collection of poems by Thomas McCarthy a comment he made in an interview in Poetry Ireland Review (October, 2008) with Catherine Phil MacCarthy came to mind:
It is ourselves we nurse. In our poetry we find the asylum that heals us. The world is full of bullies. I hate them. I have always hated them. In finding asylum from the bullying of this world, its sickening presumptions in the face of our wanton passivity, we rescue the earth from loneliness. But it is our own earth we rescue.
The bullies McCarthy addresses in this collection are those economic and political ones that were responsible for the Post-2008 Irish economic downturn, irresponsible financial investors, rapacious property developers, bankers that turned a blind eye.
Intent on contravening the loneliness that such entities breed in the world, McCarthy emphatically establishes the importance of the individual voice of the poet as a stronghold resistant to the breakup and breakdown of communities, nature and the environment that corporations and businesses wish to assimilate. In many of these poems there is a forceful sense of the disregard for nature, for his own earth, which is also shared, and therefore ours, for Ireland’s threatened landscapes and for its coastlines. This is the first order of McCarthy’s reflection on pandemonium:
After our years of pandemonium.
Little did they know, in our autonomous
Region all the gold was gorse,
And all investment was storytelling.
The collapse is actually a reason for exultation at the inability of investment to imprint places with an unnatural uniformity and divest Ireland’s land of its uniqueness and variation. By turning to two very traditional, very endemic things in ‘gorse’ and ‘storytelling’ McCarthy demonstrates his poetry and his earth’s resistance and resilience to the villainous and the corrupt. Yet the images also incorporate fallacy, fallacy of projects and developments come to naught.
Also one feels, and perhaps this is only by merit of the collection’s publication date, it is the gross turning face of politics and of culture in reverse, observed recently in many parts of the world, that the poems struggle with and react to. Brexit, Trump, immigration, borders, obviously the political and social consequences specifically within and upon Ireland of these distressing shifts. The land is certainly not settled in a McCarthy poem and won’t be subdued despite the inroads these swaggering things make. None of this is directly referenced – the economic collapse, as evidenced above, certainly is – but despite their lyrical grace, brilliant imagery and phrase-making and indirect address these poems often seethe quietly away.
Other times they simply become lost in themselves and given over to beautiful, discreet description. This may simply be a case of McCarthy’s writing leaning on what John Goodby, quoting Patrick Crotty, describes in his book Irish Poetry Since 1950: From Stillness Into History as: ‘an occasional ‘prettifying aestheticism’. Nevertheless, the poetry’s unique concern with a specific politics, which exists in dialectical interplay with such ‘aestheticism’, means that it cannot be regarded in isolation.’ Sure, the poems in Pandemonium can be pretty, but this is more than style for style’s sake. The use of colour is notable in the poem ‘Going Back’: ‘Your feet sink deeply into the cadmium wash of sand, / Leaving toes splattered with burnt umber, with zinc / White and ivory black of minature pebbles’. This close-up vision or recollection of walking near the sea becomes a wounding experience as the poem turns to acute engagement with both personal and cultural distress: ‘Each blade tempered for its own colour: the colour of sadness, / The colour of history, the colour of departure’.
In ‘Halloween at Macalester College’ a funny, quirky poem that’s just as touched by a disquietude and also deceptively pretty-fying, the speaker starts off dealing with cats and ends up envisioning himself at the titular college in Minnesota:
As I get older in this land of Ireland I’m calling more
Simple creatures home, even if it isn’t a winter’s night,
In a country driven insane by too much rainwater.
I wish I was far away. In Macalester, for example,
Set in its reasonable snow, where ceremony happens
But only as a metaphor, trick-or-treat, or snap-apple.
All the cats of Minnesota file neatly through the door.
What kind of cats does the speaker have in mind here? The feline kind, the cool people kind or perhaps street cats? Maybe this is deliberately drawing a link back to an earlier poem in the collection ‘Vertigo’ which recollects time spent living in Camden and uses some musical subject matter: ‘I am still climbing to the sunlit attic room / Where The Clash are playing. It is ‘Lon- / don Calling’ that I hear on the asbestos stairs.’ Here the speaker seems to have come to a standstill at a point in time when real protest still existed and the moment is held in a golden glare of light as if to accentuate the feeling: ‘Now the heart has gone’.
Most of the time that ‘dialectical interplay’, as Goodby has it, plays out through McCarthy’s confrontational impulse and his eye or ear for loveliness crossing paths in the same poem. Take for instance the generosity of expression found in a poem like ‘Largesse’: ‘I’ve been thinking of my mother’s life, the sheer audacity / Of her kindness’. The poem starts out as a tender portrait of the poet’s mother giving more than she is really able to do to a cast of characters whom she encounters in the vicinity of her ‘Council terrace’. But as the poem begins to wrap up in the seventh stanza it turns and becomes an astringent critique of a country that too easily and too often pays attention to and remembers the wrong people, forsaking goodness; it attacks those people guilty of vanity and egoism:
That bitter, grey, unforgiving Blackwater sky, that bitter
Wind, that wind of snobbery and schadenfreude, that bitter
Chill of the bitter with their double stitches of bitterness,
With their little shit of bitterness, with their shit that fell
Upon the frozen paths where she laid the only warm straw
She owned, the only straw laid beneath the Cappoquin shoeless;
That bitter little winter called life knew nothing of her planitude.
McCarthy prefers to focalize his poems around favourite subjects such as nature, the sea, town life, poets and poetry, space, religion, history. Yet even when orienting poems around these themes the language used to poetically represent them is often driven and coloured by the bad things that go on around them in the human world. ‘The Unexpected’ provides a good example of this with its: ‘lacquerwork left over from a raid / Of winter that scattered so many things’ and ‘that election / Heard in the distance, beyond the fat privet hedge’. What might be a spring-time evocation of gardens, parks, the more agrestal parts of town becomes, through word choices such as ‘raid’ and ‘fat’, inculcated with the noise and malaise of transactions, exchange, contracts and markets. The poem also makes mention of ‘de Chardin’s sudden forms of life’. Presumably this is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin whom McCarthy is cribbing from, that thinker’s belief in Vitalism and his positing of the idea of an Omega Point where everything in the universe is headed towards an ultimate, unavoidable point of divine unification.
At the approximate halfway point of the collection lie six substantial prose poems. They each work around a thematic schema of the sea, coastal erosion, pollution, geology, memory, history and poetry itself. McCarthy’s normal stanzaic poise transfers well across to the longer line and looser structure. The elegance of one of these titled ‘The Sky is Iodine’ is demonstrative of the tone and feel of all six:
breath. The sky is iodine where we lie and, though the wind
can never tell the truth so close to the ocean, the facts of the
day fall on wet sand.
Is McCarthy’s iodine a form of poetic disinfectant or antiseptic to cleanse thoughts and words and a generation that have simply turned bad? Perhaps its job and the natural world’s job are to be antithetical to what McCarthy wittily and depressingly observes in the poem ‘While it Lasted’ as: ‘The ennui at the end of our era. It was bad whilst it lasted.’ There is reparation in nature and the ecosphere. Its destruction can destroy a more pitiable man-made kind.
The idea of consuming nature and the landscape becoming a restorative substance is brought up in the poem ‘Camping Near Dingle’. The poem begins with a depiction of a harbour where the camping must be taking place but ends with an image of the sea being imbibed:
It simply cannot hypothesise
The way a Dutch blue dredger does.
I fry these non-commissioned eggs
On a buckled shovel; I make tea from the sea.
There’s something shocking and very rebellious about the simple act in those final lines of consuming things that haven’t been regulated by bureaucracy and vetted by the state. This wild disengagement from politics and finance and the nanny-state occurs in quite a few of Pandemonium’s poems.
At times the memory of Heaney dwells within the collection. This is linked to the agitating use of nature throughout the collection. It is there at the start in the third poem, an elegy addressed to him entitled ‘The Hope of Finding Something’. Here McCarthy observes: ‘What a fool I am to be going into this new bookshop / Knowing that our poet is dead […] the first words / She spoke to me were his. She didn’t want me to stop / Listening’. The poem is a longing reverie and recounts a youthful love affair with a girl, with poetry (specifically Heaney’s ‘she knew words were about her and not about him, / However much she loved his vowel sounds.’) and with bookshops. It is also an aisling, the female presence in the poem is equated with Ireland, and so as the nascent, on the face of it personal, material unwinds the poem’s impetus becomes increasingly political. This is a typical McCarthy play. Intimate things gradually connect with bigger, worldlier shared things, in this instance language. His lines occasionally rhyme but are mostly unrhymed and reliant on a natural stanzaic flow to produce musicality. The ‘tectonic shift’ of the speaker’s first encounter with Heaney’s ‘bogs and blackberries’ are entwined with the act of going out into nature as radical and dissident.
Heaney’s presence is also there towards the end of the book. The poem ‘Digging in December’ can’t help but stir thoughts of what is arguably Heaney’s most famous poem. It provides a good summation of what the year 2016 felt like for many people:
Fruit trees are lopped sideways in the earth’s inlaid tabletop.
Also, has gone to the dogs. It is a good picture of many parts
Of the year, wretched and overstretched.
A few pages later we have ‘On Reading Heaney’s Oysters’, another poem that precisely assembles itself around memories of the man, this time the chronology shifted to the late 1970s when the poem in question was written and published, ultimately in Field Work (1979). It has an autobiographical tilt as do many other poems in Pandemonium:
when your letter clacked onto the sunlit floor
of John Montague’s house.
Your poem on the floor was a violation
of sorts, an unwelcome welcome reminder
that air is made of salt.
Having said that, McCarthy’s poems are ready and willing to admit that poets possibly know nothing, or very little at all, about the big things going in the world. As it is put in ‘Starlings Over Termini Station’: ‘Starlings like poets have no concept of the wide world, / Not for them what is orchestral or a greater master plan’. The poem is dedicated to Maurice Harmon and these poems that disappear into a kind of Gnostic, literary, private sphere of McCarthy’s imaginative world, like the similar poem ‘Three Books on the Ballyferriter Sand’, which is addressed to John F. Deane, John Goodby and Peter McDonald, urge us to appreciate even more the things that can exist outside the pecuniary landscape: poetry (though perhaps not the publishing world), aesthetic thought, independence of mind, the creative act, things that thrive on and are instigated when deliberately venturing out of this. The bosses are not McCarthy’s boss and so the response to ‘pandemonium’ is to return to that which he is safest with, to the private asylum of art and poetry. As the collection’s opening poem ‘Between Trains’ states: ‘let pandemonium / Cease, let the wild confetti of poets / Be withdrawn from the bitterness of the streets.’ Poetry is too good for this world, but it will continue to be written and can, once the streets are fit for it, provide some kind of answer, or maybe the beauty is that it will provide no answer at all, never has, never will.