Joey Connolly, Long Pass (Carcanet, £9.99).
Joey Connolly’s first book has elegance and charm to spare. But it also has a huge sense of doubt and a willingness to share that doubt with the world. Its epigraph is from John Ashbery’s Three Poems, and includes the statement ‘Better the erratic approach, which wins all or at least loses nothing, than the cautious semi-failure.’ And the book itself is divided into two parts ‘Theories’ and ‘Windmills’. None of which suggests whole of lot of certainty, even if it does suggest some bravado.
The long poem ‘Why’, towards the end of the book, goes into this uncertainty in some detail. This is a poem which shows Connolly’s ability to sustain a particular note while embellishing it with finesse and elegance. Here, Connolly uses an italic x to elide ‘because’, and, following the x there are a range answers to the inevitable ‘why carry on?’; ‘as an excuse to sit, handled by the August sun/ on a fourth-storey Turinese balcony,/ swallowed by the late afternoon heat/ and Peter Sarstedt playing from inside/ moving your toes in a pool of shade cast/ by the laundry drying on the storey above.’ This is not only very fine observation, but in the midst of the observation, the two verbs ‘handled’ and ‘swallowed’ seem both neat and precise. Though what Connolly, a man in his –what, mid-to-late twenties – is doing listening to the late Peter Sarstedt, I can’t comprehend. But Connolly’s magpie imagination is very adept at using that kind of ‘period’ detail, if to subvert it.
A number of the poems here have this recursive, parallel structure. In ‘Poem in which I’, the paralleled, repeated phrase is ‘There but for the…’; in ‘Incapable though the cards are’, the parallel is ‘of – ing’, as in ‘of putting paid’, ‘of enacting’, ‘of unseating’, etc.; in ‘Poem in which if not well’, the parallel is ‘if not X then Y’, as in ‘If not spires then phone masts’, ‘If not paint then the toadskin upholstery’. In other hands, such a device might be a substitute for rhyme, acting as a crutch for the impetus for the poem. But Connolly is an imaginative writer, who weaves the repetitions in the poems into compelling trajectories.
Elsewhere there is a range of equally compelling translations. However, in line with Connolly’s need to subvert, these translations often stop and start, and pull themselves apart in the process of their delivery. ‘Your room at midnight was suddenly’ is a version of a Cavafy poem usually entitled, ‘God abandons Anthony’. Sachperoglou in the OUP translation gives line 4 – 6, of the original as follows, ‘your fate that’s giving in now, your deeds/ that failed, your life’s plans that proved to be/ all illusions, do not needlessly lament.’ In putting the verb at the end of the sentence, Sachperoglou gives syntax of the original, but reduces Cavafy to doggerel. Connolly’s version is an entirely in keeping with the spirit of the original, ‘but now/ is no time to mourn your loss,/ your departing fortune – a life’s work/ spoiling before your eyes, a host of plans/ proving illusory.’ In the second ‘version’ of this poem, the narrator is falling in love/lust with a woman who is ‘explaining in an/ almost unbroken English a poem from the Greek/ of Cavafy: I don’t know it.’ In ‘An Ocean’ there are two ‘versions’ of a fragment by Montale. In fact, there are three parts to the poem, and the third part compares Edwin Morgan’s translation with Jonathan Galassi’s translation.
This post-modernism is worn slightly on Connolly’s sleeve, although he is aware of that; as he remarks ‘the poem/ its egotism of ambition;’ in ‘Average temperature at surface level’. And the second of the Cavafy pair ends as follows, ‘I don’t know what it is which is leaving,/ only the sweet draw of its/ pain as it goes from me.’ So Connolly can be a very personal poet and has technique enough to make the personal poems poignant and beguiling; as in ‘The Big House’ where a flight of ‘unknown birds’ suggest to the poet, ‘a display of emotion I shouldn’t think/ I could put a name to it’s so joyful.’