The collection begins with an Irish childhood. It is helpful that throughout the collection there are notes providing a commentary on various events or people. Their conversational tone makes them much like the introductions heard in a live reading and serve to bring us closer to subject matter and narrator. This was a world richly peopled with characters who brimmed with life. The poet is skilful at reproducing dialogue and dialect that sounds authentic. These uncles, aunts, cousins take on an almost mythical status. The women are shrewd, the men are giants to a small boy. In Broken Abracadabra, the narrator’s uncle ‘shimmers as he walks’; a granny who is blind is nevertheless able to reach ‘ up and touched my voice’. The landscape of this childhood is slmply idyllic. It is a combination of the actual countryside but also the rich internal landscape of a highly imaginative child who came to literature early and delighted in language. When describing the literal countryside, the poet, who has a knack for very fine imagery, deploys gloriously lyrical language as befits the pastoral scene, so
The trees were beside
madly in love
is used to describe spring; and a lake ‘pulls the sky down/ holds it tightly to itself, so it cannot escape’.
There is also a sense throughout of a childhood so beloved that the adult poet longs to travel back to this time and place. Old photographs become a motif for this longing; they are pored over but as these photos fade with time so does the ability to fully relive the memories. Indeed, time is featured throughout the collection, especially where it opens a yawning gap between the poet and his dead loved ones. We learn from notes that the poet recently reached 60 which seems a seminal moment for him in terms of writing this collection. Here he strives to recapture that glorious period giving it a kind of immortality,
the day a once upon a long long ago
that now lives always a forever.
Such a childhood seems idyllic, with the child protected by a close-knit family, yet towards the end of this section we are given truths that even the happiest of childhoods can be stained with sadness. The first intimations seem to occur in the poems dealing with school days. Here again Dempsey’s gift for authentic dramatization is realised. This is most vividly seen in the poem ‘Make Words Break from me here alone, do you whose startling first line, ‘Grabbed by my curls, my face forced into the toilet bowl’ relives a ‘first year in secondary’ school ritual humiliation. Yet words come to the ‘defenceless nerd’s’ rescue as the spirited boy retaliates by wildly quoting from much loved poets known by heart that not only serve to summon a teacher but are used as weapons: ‘I fling phrase after phrase after them.’ Literature encountered at an early age becomes a lifelong passion. Despite the delights of an eccentric family and rural landscape, the narrator as a child would often long to ‘step into a book’. As this section moves on, harsh reality inevitably breaks through the idyll; the poet is no athlete and is compared negatively with other more able family members; there are beatings at school for perceived misdemeanours. This culminates with the death of the narrator’s sister. These poems evoke not only his own grief but most touchingly that of his father’s. Some of the most poignant verse here deals with the father making it clear to the young boy that despite his grief, his young son is still loved: ‘But you are still my little boy and must be loved!’. As further evidence of this bond the poem Scattered Dreams deals with this tender relationship evoked so touchingly in the lines ‘whenever I fell asleep, my father came and cupped me in his hands’
Throughout the collection, Dempsey makes us see that after the initial acute sense of loss, the death of a loved one continues to reverberate across the years. I don’t think I have encountered poems that so fully and honestly deal with death and its aftermath. It is shown that such early trauma is felt for a lifetime. To reinforce this, Dempsey frequently returns throughout the collection to not necessarily the death itself but the ongoing sense of loss, of a person still missed, as the child grows into an adult. Amongst these are ‘what if’ poems, such as I wish you were old and weathered, that imagine the sister not dead in youth but grown old after a good life. These are not melancholic but honest wishfulness. From the lines in another poem, ‘Death held you young and forever locked in the centre of his ageless eye’, it is inferred that the narrator was very young when the older sister died so the child may well have been spared the nitty gritty of her death, leaving the narrator much like the reader with a sense of a person simply erased by death. As such the sister becomes crystallised at eighteen and the idea of her accompanies the narrator throughout his life.
The section concerning the narrator’s own daughter is strategically placed after these poems concerning his sister’s death. This section is charming. It tenderly portrays the daughter throughout her early years; once again direct speech is effectively used to enliven the scenes. Humour that is present in the first sections is deployed well here to recount anecdotes concerning the little girl whom the narrator clearly cherishes. Thus, we have in Going Potty a prose poem concerning the misuse of an uncle’s cherished hat. Again, these poems are full of life and love. Indeed, the relationship between father and daughter is a pure love affair which given the poet’s experience that to love so utterly is to render oneself vulnerable, is a brave leap of faith. Because coming straight after the sequence on the sister’s death, there is certainly for me a feeling of jeopardy, a sense that history might cruelly repeat itself. Thankfully, though, this is unfounded in the case of the delightful daughter. Ironically the narrator’s life here is one of misdirection, for by the end of the sequence the death of his beloved brother Brian entirely catches both reader and narrator out.
It is here in the poems that deal with adult bereavement that death and mourning is so honestly and effectively realised. This may be because the brother and narrator had developed an adult relationship that meant they could gossip on the phone for 3 hours and enjoy shared jokes and rituals. This then is an adult grief. It deals with the various truths usually unspoken concerning the emotions felt by the one left behind. Last Call evokes this so effectively: ‘ I always felt I failed you by not dying with you.’ This statement will, I am sure, resonate amongst readers as one of the truths of having outlived a loved one. Poems concerning time come into play again especially where ‘time is now divided before and after you’, which evokes the finality of death. The rupture of a relationship is also felt in private rituals such as passing a church in a car where the two brothers used to shout the opening of Finnegan’s Wake; however ,after the funeral the narrator ‘ hasn’t the heart to greet the church with the usual Joycean playfulness’. Dempsey reveals the truth that death is not just the absence of the person but the cruel curtailing of a shared life. Some poems deal with the struggle to come to terms with this absence: ‘I try to get back to you’. There is exquisite and unique use of imagery here. In his desire to reconnect with the lost brother he often smuggles ‘you in a dream across death’s border’. Again, time is the narrator’s enemy, taking him further and further away from the brother until ‘you had become the past tense/ no longer present in your own life’. It is a tribute to Dempsey’s deft touch as a writer that these are never maudlin poems, partly because they are so honest but also because they translate raw emotion into fine imagery.
The end of the collection returns to playful character studies. The final poem Now we is 60! is charmingly humorous. It again suggests that this milestone birthday seems to have been a seminal point for the poet to draw together these memories and crystallise them into poems. This collection is by no means depressing. It is sad, yes, because life is sad in parts, but it is laced with humour: ‘even at 7 found transubstantiation hard to swallow’, and a family with a zest for life:
And now (with a quick wink)
‘Let’s walk home…backwards!
and some very fine imagery indeed ‘the smell of pine kidnapping my memory’,
I throw my voice
out into the dark
like throwing a mad dog
‘Sunlight throws itself at our feet’. It is at times lyrical, at others conversational, as befits the subject. The poems also show a joy in words and the one constant over a lifetime: a love of literature, used now not to show off learning but to enhance meaning and share this joy.
First published in The Lake http://www.thelakepoetry.co.uk/reviews/