Conor O’Callaghan, Live Streaming (Loughcrew: The Gallery Press, 2017)
Live Streaming (2017), O’Callaghan’s fifth collection of poems comes off the back of a six-year poetic absence in which he published a novel, Nothing on Earth (2016). Moving away from the self-reflexively metaphorical poems in Fiction (2005) such as ‘Coventry’ and ‘Gloves’, this book is more observational, more detached, sharing a tone of awareness with The Sun King (2013), his previous collection. The poems read as real. They are relatable in their quietude. They feel as if they have aged with their speakers, loss being the smell left after the party has kicked it. Oh yes, these poems have lost a lot, they are guilty poems, and I loved them for it.
The collection begins with ‘Grace’, a hopeful poem that describes the sale of a table: ‘They’re coming to collect/the table I’m writing on.’ The very foundation for the poetry we are reading is removed, pulled from under the speaker, and what is left behind? A journey of a poem, of thinking in action; a series of observations which take the speaker into exile from a safe domestic space: ‘The sun has drifted/slantwise of our building’ and ‘two kitchen porters smoke/in what could be Cantonese’. While this sequence feels a little overlong, it sharpens the point of return and the resulting silence is lovely, ‘I came indoors to find/this notebook open on the floor.’ Upon re-entry the speaker is changed. Grounded. Rooted afresh through the words millimetres from the floor. Articulation of loss compensates for what has been lost. Acceptance opens up as the speaker heads back in alone, and this understanding creates a point of departure for the book as a whole. More of a tone than an image, in the wake of the couple leaving with the table a perfect silence arrives, one grounded in thankfulness, as the innocuous components of a home come to life, and are noticed as if for the first time: ‘Thank you sideboard fetched/halfway across the fens. Thank you captain’s chest, handmade plywood bed…Thanks to all those friends’. Every piece has a story, an origin, and the speaker pauses long enough to remember, and in turn acknowledge, re-experiencing each ‘room in shade/that might yet prove to be/night already happening.’ It’s as if the table has left a footprint into which a lived life pools. And here the poem speaks to modernity, to smart phones, screens and radio adverts, wanting somewhere else, something quieter. Only in absence does the speaker listen properly, tuning in long enough to hear the silence, digest its ‘echoes echoing’, because as Jorie Graham says, listening and hearing are two very different things. The setting for this poem might as well be the mug you haven’t drunk from in a while, or the picture frame up on the mantel you’ve been meaning to dust for weeks. The absence of something as ineffectual as a table prompts a willingness to be aware, to take a second glance and to smell the proverbial roses. Just as any one of us might take for granted those people and things when our lives are busy, nostalgia is sure to come, a stillness is sure to come, and this book dives wholeheartedly (and with shocking authenticity and veracity) into the moment after, be it minutes or years. And what do we find on the other side? A perfect kind of longing.
If ‘Grace’ demonstrates O’Callaghan’s ear for narrative tone, then the following sequence, ‘Trailer Park Etudes’, reveals the technician in him. Giving sound and rhythm the floor, each of the four elemental poems, ‘The Stars, ‘The Rain’, ‘The Wind’ and ‘The Grass’ are constructed in iambic tetrameter: ‘The nights midweek are secrets kept.’ The poems have a (ha ha) metronomic, searching tone synonymous with the book’s longing for what has passed. In ‘The Stars’ we find the speaker climbing ‘up to the topmost field’, before choosing another path, ‘I’ll head below’ but always restless, always searching for a different place to exist. ‘The Rain’ has a cracking first line: ‘You live inside its sound effects’, and runs its course quietly, thoughtfully, ending with another kind of absence, that of anticipation, ‘The rain is near. Like everything,/it’s best those seconds just before…the fly strip flapping through the door.’ This image encapsulates the very smell of a storm, the wind at the edge of a downpour, the world at the window taking its breath. In the final poem ‘The Grass’ O’Callaghan moves away from generality, using a specific memory, ‘One night last June’, to take the sequence beyond searching, beyond somewhere new, back to the old, the real, resolving in the acts of finding and thus being found, ‘the only care we had was grass,/the only stir for miles around…our dying to be rumbled, found.’
Following ‘Trailer Park Etudes’ we have two poems dealing with the death of a father. I won’t call them elegies because they are more than that, but nonetheless they do have elegiac components. For example, ‘Live Streaming’, a tricky (but rewarding!) little poem results in the speaker asking their father to ‘come to life.’ There is a conversational tone to O’Callaghan’s poetic voice which avidly represents the helplessness of loss, as the speaker turns to death for answers, opening up a dialogue with a father’s ghost: ‘to what do/we owe this/most recent//inkling?’ But, as I said earlier, the poem is tricky! It is fraught with paradox. It occupies absence. It renders emptiness a filling quality. In essence, the poem constructs, from ‘An indoors/offshore gust’, ‘air displaced/by a practice//swing in gloaming’ a living breathing ghost, an avatar into which the speaker can reflect, in the hope of reconciling death; ‘I get/now how the still/point comes/to life’. Firstly we have a nowhere kind of gust that is both offshore and indoors, directionless and without origin, while ‘a practise swing in gloaming’ is, again, so far removed from the actual act we are left with just faintest of hints, the whisper of a whisper of a life.
The second ‘elegy’, ‘Two Thousand and Nine’, begins in a similar manner to ‘Grace’, initially floating outside, seemingly more concerned with ‘the extractor vents/of the dim sum buffets’ and the ‘footfalls/of away fans from Bavaria’. And what do we find outside? No sign of lament. No smell of death. Instead the poem enacts continuation, sequencing observations of things simply happening, ‘There’s a mattress…There’s comfort…There’s another person’. The poem is self-aware, never quite comfortable with its own life as an elegy; the pigeonhole, the hall-mark, the confines, the territory maybe (whatever you want to call it). In a step to break from the form O’Callaghan chooses to picture life carrying on, the cogs in motion, ”And the beat goes on, and the beat goes on…” What we see is a mind thinking, noticing, forgetting. But it would be wrong to mistake the poem’s airy tone for a lack of direction. This is O’Callaghan’s method at work. Such a glance outwards is a distraction, a trick a boxer might use, feinting one way, so as to land a right hook flush on the jaw. For then comes a killer line: ‘My son and daughter long to be told the truth.’ This is a guilty book, and such are the frequencies O’Callaghan blinks between, at one second meditative, looking on, the next murderously honest and deadpan, an oscillation which makes the book so exciting to read; you’re never quite sure where you stand. The moment you think a poem’s talking about a father, or a romantic night on a hill, or a glass of water, you get a line (generally contained within a sentence) that drops the lot, opens the poem up to new dangers, reveals more about a past than it should ever have been capable.
There is an impossibility to these poems, a Mahonesque-double-life-lived, if-only, kind of impossibility, and ‘Black Rose’, a tiny poem packed with contradiction demonstrates perfectly the collection’s want for a million worlds at once:
‘Your not being here –
angel in diminutive,
double negative –
would feel not fair.’
(I’m going to annoy everyone and be Molloy for a second, just a second I promise!) So we have an angel who is not present, an angel who is a shadow of an original, who is also a double negative and this angel’s lack of presence ‘would’ (would! You rascal, O’Callaghan!) make the speaker ‘feel not fair’, feel being the key word here. Telling someone you feel something is, through its own utterance, secondary to the feeling itself, while ‘would’ involves the conditional expression of a mood, evoking another layer, and finally said mood, the feeling of ‘not fair’, is a dilution, a transferable mask, a version of an emotion that could just as easily have come from love or hatred; because not fair is absolutely neither here nor there, entirely non-committal. And, of course, the poem is bookended with rhyme, so both timelines, the here and now of the feeling, and the angel’s somewhere universe, are stretched further apart, yet in perfect parallel. The soft r sounds in ‘here’ and ‘fair’ act as a mirror to maintain the poem’s echoing back and forth, each ringing image further and further from the original. Ah, thank God that’s over. O’Callaghan is playing here, tasking us with another impossibility. We are asked to follow the breadcrumbs, find the origin. Even the speaker of ‘Two Thousand and Nine’ acknowledges the impossible relationship between themselves and their origin: ‘My past life was in town and asking for me’. Two lives, two deaths, two lineages, two worlds occurring at once. We may as well head down to the local cricket club and start gathering air displaced by practise swings in gloaming so as to bottle it up, save it for a poem of our own – no a feeling of our own, a feeling to tell someone about, one of double negatives and second glances and not-quite-fairness.
Live Streaming is a deeply moving and rewarding book. One can find layers (if one is willing to dig!), clever line structure and technique, stark images, thoughtful observations. But most of all is the sense of nostalgia, the sense of longing and loss; the comfort in the panic. Too much to say and not enough words.