Southern comfort

IN the very first poem of his beautiful new book, Theo Dorgan declares his loyalty and his aesthetic impulse:

I turned my back to the north wind,

no interest in Vikings, in death for gold.

The South took all my heart.

There has always been in Dorgan that great warmth of the South, a lyrical singing impulse combined with a philosophising, theorising mental climate. Of all the Southern poets who follow in the Andalusian mode of Patrick Galvin, the Lorca of Margaret Street, Theo Dorgan has been the purest inheritor of the Galvin estate.

It is more than personal warmth easily communicated in verse; it is a generous impulse in the face of new ideas, as well as a genius for friendship.

In Greek we see the poet voyaging homeward to a mythical port, to one of the sun-drenched harbours of the Southern mind. An accomplished sailor on salt water, Dorgan also pilots his pen in this mythical Asia Minor:

Last night I dreamed us back in Kato Zakros,

walking the ruined palace in moonlight,

taxis revving at the last tavern, the waiters

chattering of Dublin to somebody sunburned.

The fish on Shandon glittered over the sunlit ridge.

His work is steeped in the oils of the Mediterranean, but the bread dipped in such oils is still a loaf from Thompson’s Bakery. In Greek he combines a contemporary physicality with the deeper, more aquamarine classicism of his UCC learning:

You may prefer to say, a tourist looked up

At the voice of Zeus, the flash of Herme’s wing –

Here is that still inviolate place

where we choose what we sing.

It is all a matter of confidence, a sureness of touch, a trained ear to recognise the creaking and fluttering of poetry’s craft as it runs purposefully with the tides of inspiration. Theo Dorgan has always had that sureness of the divinely inspired. Few poets have it and its presence causes great resentment in the minds of lesser talents who occupy places of power and arbitrage in the literary world. Dorgan has survived the traffic at the centre of Irish poetry: with the elan of Father Prout and the dazzling intelligence of James Clarence Mangan he speaks for Munster on the slopes of Parnassus. In Greek he speaks as if he’d woken from a long dream voyage. Speaking in “a fluency between registers” as Fiona Sampson wrote, he calls Eurydice down upon us, down to a place where the world might tear the songs from his throat; to a place where we might get love right to please the Maenads: “We pity Orpheus, and our pity is misplaced:/ he should have let her be to unweave her own soul/ and suffered her fated pain.”

There are more than Classical poems here. In what is the most tightly constructed and carefully sequenced collection ever published by Dorgan, we get a terrific sense of the human traffic, the personal homecomings, on the shores of Greece. In poems like “Morning in the Cafeneion,” “Spirits” and “After the Tourists Have Gone Home” we get a sense of the contemporary voyager, the Aegean ordinariness:

Eleni brings coffee and water, our usual.

The tourists float past and around us,

Bright-coloured fish in schools ...

Eleni, what does the island do in winter?

She bursts out laughing. Do? The men go to sea.

It is quiet, you know. Mostly adultery.

As Carol Ann Duffy has written, “Dorgan finds his identity as an Islander, as a lover and as a poet made new again, with increased authority and with a deep understanding of the power and alchemy of myth.” Alchemy is a good word for the processes at work in this supremely attractive book: there is a wizard’s trust in the powers of poetic reflection. As he writes, in his version of Cavafy’s great poem, dedicated to that other Sage, Leonard Cohen:

When you set out from Ithaca again,

you will not need to ask where you are going.

Give every day your full, reflective attention –

the rise and flash of the swell on your beam,

the lift into small harbours....’

Attention from such a deep source, from such a wise poet who has sat by many of the great thrones of Irish poetry over the years, is attention worth recording. With his marvellous sailing book famously praised by Doris Lessing and his superb book-length translations of the Slovenian, Barbara Korun, now widely appreciated for its prescient beauty, Dorgan is in full stride; a poet operating at the height of his powers. While his other collections, especially Rosa Mundi, are still faithfully read and widely appreciated, this flawless book, Greek, will enhance and widen his reputation. In every sense, he has “come to Hania again”.

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