The first poem sets the tone of this collection and bears out the dedication of the book to the loving memory of the poet’s parents. His mother speaks directly to the reader here, with her words wrapped in the colloquial language used throughout the book: ‘Ya’d wear the heart out of a stone!’. Early on we are introduced to other family influences on the writer: an aunt and a grandmother. In ‘Talking with Granny’, the stabilising presence of elders in the life of the young is well said: ‘She gave you back / your self / but a much better self / than ever you could be.’ This poem, and many others, shows how the support and love so necessary in the formation of the growing child was readily available to the writer throughout his formative years. Many of the poems are written in a sense of gratitude for this early support.
In a book of so many well-executed poems there are many contenders that one might choose as an outstanding piece, particularly because such care has been taken to present them in such a fashion as to involve the reader in the development of the family, and the writer, through the years and to ensure that each event or emotion does not eclipse other, perhaps less dramatic, moments. And so it is that while a poem on the experience of revisiting the old, and now ruined, house of his Aunt Nelly is a memorable one, and therefore produces a memorable poem (‘Sweetnesse Readie Penn’d’, with its reference to George Herbert), the collection is replete with lighter, equally memorable, pieces. There is great fun in ‘A Thin Slice of Ham in the Hand Is Better Than a Fat Pig in a Dream’ (apart from the title itself!): ‘Never bolt your door / with a boiled carrot!’ / as Uncle would say / with a wink – tongue in cheek. / It didn’t always make sense / as our door was always / open’. Poems like this ensure that the collection never assumes that rather maudlin, treacly tone which is the fate of many works that strive to recreate family history. A piece like ‘In the Mythology of Foxes’ ensures that the earthiness of rural life is always present to pull the collection back on track if there is any danger of its contents heading in that direction. Incidentally, that particular poem with its evocation of the killing of a fox and how it affected the poet (‘the boy / carries her / death cradling it / in his mind / trying to comfort her / with human tears’) is strongly reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s poem, ‘The Early Purges’ where a similar shock of farmyard reality proves a distressing experience for a youngster.
Finally, the very accessibility of Dónall Dempsey’s writing must be mentioned. Not alone are the poems themselves full of a welcome for the reader but the way they are presented is also very reader-friendly (or, as we say these days, ‘user-friendly’). Throughout the book the poet steps back from the poetry to sketch out a little of the history behind the poems. These prose insertions are never turgid or long-winded – they give just enough to add to the understanding and enjoyment of the poems. Perhaps this is a method that other poets might use more often? Especially in these day when so many readers can find poetry an obscure and forbidding medium? Certainly, they would find Donal Dempsey’s collection a welcome change.
Eamonn Lynskey's poetry has been published widely since it first appeared in the 1980s in the Irish Press ‘New Irish Writing’ page edited by David Marcus. Publications in which his work has appeared include Poetry Ireland Review, Cyphers, SHOp, The Stinging Fly, The Stony Thursday Book, Crannog, The Irish Times and Orbis (UK). Eamonn was nominated for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award and was a finalist in the Strokestown International Poetry Competition. He holds an M.Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. He took part in a reading organised in association with the University of London’s Human Rights consortium and the Keats House Poets at the Stanza Festival in St Andrews in Scotland in March 2014.
He has published three collections: 'Dispatches and Recollections' (Lapwing, Belfast) in 1998, 'And Suddenly the Sun Again’ by Seven Towers (Dublin) in 2010 and recently 'It's Time' (Salmon).
His website is at: www.eamonnlynskey.com
Sounds familiar, even commonplace? Forget it. These poems and this collection transcend all expectations of a volumes of sensitive, sly, self-conscious backward looks. Instead this one sparkles with originality, vitality, and the love of life and language.
As Dónall writes in the poem 'Sticking one's Head out of the Universe'
“the words haul it all
from that There to this Here.
. . .
allowing this 60 year old child
to somehow survive
so that he can
all over again
a forever first time.”
It is this freshness in the use of language, form, quotations which makes this collection so fascinating. The past is where all our poems begin but Dónall manages to sculpt chunks of his past into wonderfully exuberant and original creations which dance on his pages.
The list of poem titles is itself fascinating, not a dull one in sight, each promising fresh joy. Examples include:
His Wooden Leg Stares at Me
Walking from the Rising Sun to Kildare
A Thin Slice Of Ham in the Hand is Better Than a Fat Pig in a Dream
Eat Your Alligator, Tilly!
The Tree Walks Home with me
I Wish You were Old and Weathered
Ahh Horatio I Hardly Knew Ya!
In Bed with Emily Dickinson
The range of the author’s reach is impressive. He can describe the mundane in brilliant concrete terms as in the poem Much Ado About Something:
“All is well
in this my make-shift
made from Kellogg’s
See the great cock crow
under the proscenium!
construct the wings.
Rows of nightlights
serve as footlights.'
He can move to the use of surreal language which is convincing in its starkness, as in The Always a Forever:
'The lake pulls the sky down
holds it tightly to itself so
it cannot escape
fish swim from cloud to cloud
the sun a hole burnt
in the sky's blue silk
. . .
time nailed my soul
to this one and only summer
the day a once upon a long long ago
that now lives always a forever.'
The style of the poetry, the frequent use of short lines, generally mimics the way his mind and memory jump back and forth through various episodes in his past and through history and literature. Running Through History (for Grandfather Sheedy), dealing with the Curragh of Kildare where he grew up, illustrates the effectiveness and liveliness of this:
“St. Brigid casts her cloak
it covers the entire plain.
. . .
I recite Tennyson to
startled furze bushes.
‘Furze bushes to the left of me
furze bushes to the right of me...’
into my mind rides
the 17th Irish Lancers
leading the Balaclava Charge'
The collection is divided into six sections and each is introduced by a quote from a famous writer. Section One has ‘O words are poor receipts for what time hath stole away…’ from John Clare’s Remembrances, a fitting motto for the work. This, Dónall Dempsey’s latest collection, dealing as it does with 'what time hath stole away' is much more than a poor receipt; its words constitute a fascinating reimagining of what has been stolen but also of what has been learned, remembered and retrieved.
The collection is peopled with memorable characters, the eponymous Gerry Sweeney’s mammy 'like having a spare mammy'; Uncle Michael, 'He looks like/ he’s a dream/ made of summer'; Uncle Seanie 'feet planted firmly in this field' and the dead sibling who haunts the collection:
“Almost 5,000 acres
could not contain my grief.
The Curragh blazed yellow
The world was as beautiful as
it could ever be.
But not for me.” (ALL THE WAY FROM 1967)
His father is also fondly remembered:
' . . . the ordinary
magic of my father
in his arms
gathering up the littlest
of my scattered dreams
stroking my hair
& tiptoeing backwards
out of the room' (SCATTERED DREAMS)
An unusual aspect of the collection is the inclusion of prose pieces here and there. Some act as notes or glosses to poems but others function more as standalone prose poems or even flash fiction. Some, one imagines, would be perfect as introductions to the poems when read in public. Indeed you can imagine the poems in this collection as great spoken word poems but this is not to take away from their impact on the page.
This is a substantial collection at over 130 pages and promises more joys and flashes of revelation with each reading.
Michael Farry is a poet and historian, a founder member of the Boyne Writers' Group, Trim, N. Ireland and was editor of the group's magazine 'Boyne Berries' from its beginning until summer 2014. He has had poetry published in magazines and anthologies in Ireland and the UK, including Acumen, The Frogmore Papers and Prole; in Regime in Australia; in the Soliloquies Anthology Canada and in the Imagination and Place Anthology, USA. He has won awards in a number of poetry competitions: most recently in 2016 he won first prize in the Robert Monteith Poetry Competition, the WOW Poetry Awards and the Goldsmith Poetry Competition. His first collection, 'Asking for Directions', was published by Doghouse Books, Tralee in May 2012. His website is at http://www.michaelfarry.com/poetry-1.html
Attention to detail and recreation of atmosphere in poems such as ‘The Wood Carver’ allow the reader to share the poet’s experiences. We can see “The metallic green of a Mallard’s head” and smell “the burning wood in the workshop.” There is loss and heartbreak, but love and humanity shine through to create an ultimately uplifting debut from a poet with a compelling lyric voice whose observations are beautiful and powerful.
Poet and Editor (Magma Literary Journal)
Lisa Kelly is on the editorial board of Magma Literary journal. She is currently editing a forthcoming edition devoted to poems about hearing and deafness (Lisa is partially deaf herself) in collaboration with Raymond Antrobus. She is also a frequent host of the poetry events on Sundays at the Torriano Meeting House, Kentish Town, London, and teaches a monthly poetry workshop there.
The self in the outfit creates its own excitement and drama, which is a good way of showing how the outer image of the dress affects the inner emotional state:
‘satisfied, her aunt whisks off to paparazzi loiter in the living room’.
Throughout this collection the body and the image it makes is rarely static. The fact that it moves adds to the believability and the theatrics of its situations:
‘Leant arms sweat slew off table as if tipsy’.
There is hyper-awareness of how the persona’s own presented image contrasts with that of other women:
‘Q-tip thin in linen shifts; they cat walk the city’.
Self-confidence is frequently a precarious business. Clothes are a minefield and often can’t be trusted, for example:
‘folds do not camouflage but balloon me to morbidly obese’.
Clothes are always a matter of judgement:
‘Envy prickles as I dig into my chocolate pudding,’
Their emotional value cuts deep.
The description of clothes is exquisite, as in…
‘Collar secured by midnight velvet tie’.
‘Midnight’ also evokes the romance of night life. We all put on clothes to become someone else:
‘peacock strutting over to buy a girl a drink,
them stroking his cony soft shoulder length hair
as he Jagger charmed them’.
Sometimes the person behind the clothes is elusive:
‘full visor slapped down like a knight into battle,’
and reality changes with the fantasy of each outfit. Life is lived in and out of the dressing-up box.
On rare occasions, though, the free verse line endings aren’t firm enough:
‘We line up before loo mirrors like show girls in’.
The dangling ‘in’ would be better on the next line. Yet other lines and their pacing are tremendous,
‘Irena, a language teacher, pins into place
with a lepidopterist’s care her fine hair, dyed russet,
permed to counterfeit volume’.
Despite the darkness of many of these poems, especially ones about the mother and daughter relationship, Sinclair balances their moods with a real wit:
‘She informs us Cosmetic surgery is cheap at home,
on retirement she intends to return from Prague looking rested’.
Make-up too is an act of creation, pure artifice:
‘Setting to work with brushes, colour, her self-portrait begins’.
Items take on characters of their own, sometimes pleasant, other times dangerous:
‘Pet-able fox pelt; big bad wolf skin’.
Associations are very affecting. Though clothes have a relationship to our fantasy life, these poems don’t shy away from the brutality of the real world and its poverty:
‘as for getting a job, she soon found no employer
could imagine Elizabeth Taylor selling sweaters’.
There is no sentimentality here. Clothes create identity and their herstories are narratives that make sense of it all but clothes are also agents of power:
‘despite wincing at each bread knife slash,
she remained adamant that no other woman would enjoy’ [them].
That fashion dates along with people is sad. There is a constant struggle to re-draw the self:
‘whilst you attempt to align Picasso eyes with liner’.
And objects are also far from passive. Some have a quicksand effect:
‘But in Top Shop a rogue looking glass ambushes you’.
A casual walk through a shop is overtaken by the process of managing disappointments.
The minimising of female expectations is another unhappy note:
‘You’d make an excellent sales girl dear
so Top Shop, Miss Selfridge, Snob…
marking time until marriage’.
The role of daughterhood is not an easy fit,
‘No trace yet of mother’s corrective genes,
but my father in drag’.
Being young is being lost.
There are some rhythms that stumble rather than glide, impairing easy reading,
‘disturbs the once white now ghost grey suit’
In contrast there are some wonderful original lines that are very well worked out,
‘but still a glitter-ball glint in his eye
when hand Freudian-slips dial from radio 4 to 2.’
Joy is another recurring emotion. The style of décor is also for dressing up experiences. Sinclair gets a splendid tone of camp just right, in this line:
‘I scoff the sundae’s whipped cream head; ogle pink-lit Liberace shell-encrusted fountain.’
Even eating needs its stage-set.
There is real subtlety:
‘I have gradually given ground to my weight,’
‘ground’ implying gravity, a profound choice of word. The very sound of it spreads out in the line.
Some lines are psychologically astute:
‘so you witness-protected your identity’
about a gay man’s public image contrasting with the private. The ordinariness of life is to be overcome by the putting on of clothes.
‘A Talent For Hats’ is a treat to read, full of glitz, frankness, fun and tragedy, with characters so well-drawn that you feel you have known them for some time. These are vivid poems with real panache. The use of language and its precision has genuine magic. Few other poets would mix these elements to create such a seamless whole.
Christopher Barnes co-edits the poetry magazine Interpoetry ( http://www.interpoetry.com/ ). Mentored by Andy Croft of the Morning Star's 'Well Versed' feature, he has contributed poetry reviews and performances in a number of gay and lesbian forums, broadcasts and art and photography events, including a film called 'A Blank Screen, 60 seconds, 1 shot' for Queerbeats Festival at The Star & Shadow Cinema, Newcastle, art criticism for Peel and Combustus Magazines and the Creative Engagement In Research Programme Research Constellation exhibitions of writing and photography which showed in London (March 13 2012) and Edinburgh (July 4 2013) see http://www.researchconstellation.co.uk/
Osada’s enthusiasm for nature can run away with him at times, with words like “wonderful” and “lovely” occasionally popping up, overlooked intruders in an otherwise-manicured lawn. ‘A Change in the Weather’ comes with an unexpected twist at the end: “We lie and wait for ragged dawn - / Together, but with separate thoughts / Aware, our love, like summer’s gone.”
The second section, ‘At a Time of Unrest’, is a looser collection of poems that is perhaps bound together by reflections on aspects of modern life. ‘About the House’ notes that the former stately home of Nancy Astor, Cliveden, beside the Thames, now attracts “weekend hordes”, when it previously hosted the likes of those who arrived by helicopter or limo. There is no direct mention of the 60s antics of John Profumo, the Russian naval attache, and Christine Keeler there; only “a shadow on the terrace” and “a sudden gust of wind” to suggest those ghosts. You can book a Profumo Affair Break there now, according to the website. Other poems in this section fondly recall Dansette record players, the darning of clothes to make them last, or are amused by tattoos, and people apparently talking to themselves in the street. Smuggled in among these are the more disturbing ‘Secret’, about a haunted childhood, and ‘Truce’, in which the poet searches “in vain for love’s green shoots”.
The final section ‘Keepsake’ covers familiar ground for those of a certain age; discovering new aspects of a parent’s life when clearing their effects, the changes evident in successive visits to care homes. But these are poems that it is still necessary for those involved to write; and Osada has brought freshness to this well-trodden territory. ‘Private History’ finds “photos we’d not seen … a world and places we’ve not been … a family we’ll not know”. It goes on:
And, from the war, escaping through thick snow.
No pictures mark your trip across the sea
But next, in England, working on a plane.
Lots of your squadron – “fighters for the free” –
There are more of his father’s memories of Poland in ‘Beneath Limes’. Osada also finds himself reflecting on a poignant change of roles in ‘The Reading Test’ when his mother, a former headteacher, is examined by an ex-pupil. ‘Easter Moon’ provides the arresting image of a “moon-breast rising on an x-ray screen / With a shadow – a cloud, like an eclipse.” ‘Visiting’ addresses his mother in her care home: “Teaching was your life and all those children / still come to you for lessons … every one, /in cupboards, behind curtains, they are waiting / for visitors to leave this empty room.”
Another poem, ‘Inheritance’, concludes: “You would know we’d clear your house / And buried secrets we’d dig out.” A sense of discoveries as well as things that still need explaining runs as a hidden theme through this collection. Changes is the title that Patrick Osada has chosen for this book – but for me, an alternative could have been Secrets. It is a book that richly deserves re-reading, much more than a second glance.
Greg Freeman is a writer and poet. whose recent collection, 'Train Spotters' has been published by Indigo Dreams Publishing. This article was first published on the Write Out Loud website, where Greg has worked as an editor for several years. He hosts the Write Out Loud Poetry Open Mic at the New Inn in Send, Woking, on the third Monday of each month.
These themes of female self-doubt and unhappiness continue throughout the collection; she explores hidden levels of being, of subcutaneous fear, double lives and emotional deals, where looks trump everything else, and where the writer will never be beautiful because she doesn’t feel beautiful. In these highly emotional pieces, women both use men for gain and are used by them, negotiating affairs, and receiving gifts for services rendered. This last theme is brutally observed in “Eternity…”
“Now as the tightropes between state pensions,
topaz is still dumped on dressing table,
sapphires still abandoned by wash basins,
but the eternity removed only when she showers,
or when the young man who chucks her heart
to the back of his mind comes over to fuck her.”
And in “How to Live with Mirrors” again, she articulates the price women pay emotionally for aging:
“At 56, you know most middle-aged women now
exchange primping before mirrors for
frowning at bulging bellies….
But once a day you face yourself in a mirror,
selected for its benevolence….
Sometimes the glass is gentle you have strayed into mutton,
But most days not bad for an old bird.”
Here, boldly and poignantly written is the understanding that beneath a woman’s outward appearance and smart excuses, there lurks the fear that she is losing her power to attract, that the beauty of her youth inexorably, inevitably fades, taking her power with it. All of us older women who have experienced these feelings will understand what Sinclair is articulating so well here.
In “Staying Alive”, again, youth is remembered, this time from a male perspective:
“Catching disco fever in his 30’s
dance classes to learn the moves,” moves forward
“Easing into his 60’s in chinos and crew neck,
he takes night classes in local history,
but still a glitter-ball glint in his eye…”
Yes, the body still resonates to what it experienced decades before, and what brought it to life then. Again, all of us who look back on youthful sartorial expression and how this has changed as we grow older will relate to this.
Other pieces, like “Greedy Cow” look at the sadness in a relationship when food replaces sex, the death of love, and the fear of being alone. And in “Clothed in Memories” Sinclair shows her talent for exploring memories in a unique way, using the device of 60’s clothing. It is an economically written piece which has some terrific images:
“….Hendrix Hussar jackets,
Bowie spangled stacks, Jagger velvet flares,
Accessorised by hair so long your grandad
Thought he was a girl from the back…”
But this exploration of female value and status comes to a crashing downward halt in “Certificate of Value”, which succeeded in making me cross (although perhaps that was the point of the piece). She starts,
“For years, ignorant that my marital status
had colleagues gossiping Does she have someone?
Or caused speculation over my sexual oritentation
in the Sixth Form common room…”
which goes on to write about friends pronouncing her ‘very independent’ as she spent weekends alone watching DVD’s and ‘squired by G and T’. And then,
“Suddenly at 55 you pitch up,
a knight in slightly tarnished armour”
which leads to engagement and marriage, and the thought expressed in the final three lines
“The marriage certificate, it seems,
trounces mature student A levels, degrees…
as I finally succeed in becoming a wife.”
While the piece is keenly observed, I find the notion this a woman only achieves value and status once she manages to find/secure a husband regardless of what else she has achieved in her life, a really irritating one. Reading these final lines made me want to scream out loud, although I’m aware that Sinclair was doubtless writing with tongue firmly in her cheek.
While I like the collection overall, and feel Sinclair has excellent observational powers, which totally nail a woman’s fears and insecurities, particularly as she grows older, together with the double standards we are all party to, by the time I reached the end of the collection I felt rather overwhelmed by the relentlessness of her central message. Having said that, “A Talent for Hats” is certainly a collection that has a lot to say and says it very well, and is well worth reading.
Agnes Meadows is a poet, editor and performance poetry host of extensive experience, both in the UK where she currently lives, and internationally. She is the host of the women's writers group LOOSE MUSE. You can read more on her website, here.
Here we publish comments by readers and reviewers about our books, as we receive them. If you want to send us a comment on a particular book, for possible inclusion on this page, please send it to us through our CONTACT page.