The Water Stealer : An evocative, affectionate and intelligent body of work

Maurice Riordan
Faber & Faber £12.99 (hardback)

The Faber-published slim volume of poetry continues to carry with it a solemn sense of arrival. Maurice Riordan’s new collection, with its slate-grey cover and clean elegant lettering, more than lives up to the promise of the packaging, consisting as it does of an evocative, affectionate and intelligent body of work.

First let’s light up and inhale with a smile of satisfaction the poem that is Sweet Afton. Smokers from back in the day may remember the yellow and amber colours of the packet which carried the words of Robert Burns: “Flow gently, Sweet Afton, amang thy green braes/ Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise.”

Riordan takes this as his cue and writes in praise of the cigarette which gave life flavour when he was young and put our lives in danger in less obvious ways: “Even as we drove/ There was a risk we took, a second of blind/ Chance at the wheel to catch the light in one move.”

The poem catches the way in which cigarettes punctuated rituals, breaking the ice at funerals and weddings, or even the team in the dressing room at half-time having a drag as they wondered what the second half had in store.

In Postcard from San Benedetto de Tronto, raucous families spill out in search of enough square-footage of hot sand to plant towel and umbrella in a community “where goodness spreads through the contagion of common needs”, be it the sharing of sunscreen or vigilance about thieves: “And here we are ourselves with scarce/ six words between us, taking our bearings from mile on mile of swingball, water pistols, Ray-Bans, hour on hour without a thought to cloud/ the blue, as we negotiate legs and lilos, tiptoe through the simmering oiled pulchritude/ to dip from time to time into the Adriatic,/ swimming far our to prove its cold.”

It is a close-run thing in poems like that whether the elements or the din of the familiar will get you in the end but the path is negotiated calmly by Riordan in a way that oddly manages to be both immersed and detached.

The Cranium is a poem where “the wetware of vessels” is juxtaposed with the delicacy of all the strands of memory and of self contained therein. While such poems have a coolness about them, there are many others by this England-based poet from Lisgoold, Co Cork, where he offers affectionate and moving dedications to fellow Cork poets, living and dead, not least in The Hip-Flask, a lovely tribute to the late Gregory O’Donoghue.

Earlier in the book there is a catching of childhood in freeze-frame, but against the delicacy of the chosen words is a sense that the achievement is not without a blood-letting.

As an artist, the poet also explores the trickery involved in how things are represented, not least in The Cross where he describes in detail the matchstick model of a village contained in the local pub, before he ambles out around the sleepy street or two to become the miniaturist himself, noting the number plate falling off the Merc, the expired tax disc and the nozzle from the lone pump filling the tank. Enjoyable as the collection would be if it only had the miniaturist’s eye, it is elevated by also having the big heart of a lover of life.

* Purchase this book at exa.mn/bookstore

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