Last year, as spring turned to summer, Irish poetry belonged to the young and the new. We first met two majestic and elegant poets, Paul Casey and Afric McGlinchey, whose books were as good as anything in years. The young poet Kerri O’Brien wowed audiences with her confidence and poise at Ballymaloe House and at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris. In the old anatomy theatre at UCC, the young doctor-poet, Kathy Darcy, celebrated her new collection. More will be heard from these voices in the future.
But the greying generation, my contemporaries, were waiting for winter. Now that the trees are bare, two towering presences are visible. The first is Greg Delanty, our Atlantic commuter-poet, whose academic home is in snowy Vermont, but who slips in and out of Ireland with the ease of an old Dunlops’ employee cycling back to Mercier Park for his lunch.
Delanty is an extraordinary talent, a great lyricist, winner of both the Allan Dowling Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is that rarest of Munster creatures, a poet with an international following. His mastery is evident in this explosive new book, a crackling roman-a-clef in verse, written by a Munster man masquerading as Gregory of Corkus.
Here, with William Maginn-like blackguarding, are Kinsellas Major, Longlius, and Heanius. The book is a splendid insanity that might have been celebrated by Stanford in his Ireland and the Classical Tradition. It is unoriginal in the best sense, for Delanty has merely recovered the neoclassical in Cork life, an impulse that was lost to history by the hegemony of Repeal and the New Ireland movement after 1848.
In this new, Book XVII, Delanty speaks directly for Maginn and Father Prout. There aren’t ten people alive who will understand what he’s up to: here he is as Montagus —
How lucky they are, how unselfconsciousthese swingers of plants, these exhibitionists.Another tree before the Fall.’
And here, again, as Liamos of the South:
‘Something about the quality of the sea swaying in the bay of Hydracalls to mind the crowd in the Savoy Cinema long ago,swaying in unison as everyone sang along with the organist.’
So, all of the published gods are addressed or impersonated here. Cork and classicism are conflated in a pre- Thomas Davis manner, a fellow poet is captured brilliantly as Deanos the Bearded, and the poet’s brother as Normanios the Physician. None of us is spared. Here are re-imagined worlds: Odysseus dodges the draft and Homer’s myth-making launches a thousand missiles. The language is clear and personal, yet tilted at an angle to the universe, just like Cork life or the view from beneath the surface of water.
This is the most important addition to the Delanty oeuvre. It makes his Collected Poems obsolete. After the heated swimming and thrashing of youth, or what might have been critiqued by flabbergasted readers as another ithyphallic progress, this book is the completion of a long lavation in Hellenic language and mythology. Its creation has been a marathon swim for the poet; a book ten years in the making, and not so much an escape from, as a celebration of, the Seleucid Empire of literary connectedness. You will need to read this book if you still doubt that Munster poetry in English has truly arrived into the front row of the language.
Our second towering presence, Dermot Bolger, has just emerged from the permafrost of grief: a grief that began to elegise itself in an emergency ward:
Amid stretchers and trolleys and policemen guarding drunks, Amid paper cones to vomit into, amid spasms and pleas For some doctor to recognise that her throat was killing her ...’
The living poet tries to save his wife with words:
I need her to wake suddenly and find herself on that train at dawnWhich terminated by accidental miracle at a station in Venice’
But words cannot stem the flow of blood. The poet’s energetic and youthful wife, Bernie, died of an undiagnosed, ruptured aortic aneurysm on a trolley in Dublin’s Mater Hospital. The poems that followed her loss are collected here in an elegant memorial. They are reconstructions of raw emotion, both harrowing and edifying; the poems are perpetually rushing home to meet her. In shock, still, after two years, the poet desperately reimagines her so as to recover some living remnant of the self.
The poet drives through the night, when the void can’t be camouflaged by daytime distractions, picks up a moisturiser jar with her finger-print still preserved upon it, or struggles through Christmas snow in 2010 while carrying a basket of clothes:
I was Nicole Kidman in The Others, too stubborn to realiseThat, six months ago, it was I who had actually died, not you’
That, surely, must have been the darkest hour. In the penultimate ‘Where We Are Now’, a huge moon on its 20-year cycle attends upon their sons and a group of friends, who celebrate the lunar visitor with guitars, mandolin and long-necked foreign beers. This is a moving and wonderful poem of inclusion and remembrance.
Let your ghost come and sit, unobserved, On the wooden steps of this moonlit deck.
The entire collection works as a marvellous elegy.
Grief is called up and colours everything Bolger does with his technical excellence.