James Finnegan's first collection of poetry is the work of a mature man with a teaching career behind him. His work has been highly commended by the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry competition, and published in Cyphers and The Irish Times, among others, writes
Born in Dublin, and now living near Letterkenny, where he taught at St Eunan’s College, his biographical note tells us that he holds a doctor of philosophy in living education theory. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds like the ideal qualification for a serious poet.
He is indeed serious, but also has a wonderful sense of humour, simmering away. The work is quiet and thoughtful, relying on close observation of everyday life, its plain language seeking the mystery at the heart of the ordinary, in the way that Louis MacNeice found that ‘World is crazier and more of it than we think,/Incorrigibly plural’.
It is also, as the poet Thomas McCarthy points out in his Foreword, ‘a poetry of reading’, work within which the poet’s intellectual life plays a major part. Raymond Carver, Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Primo Levi, Tomas Tranströmer, Günter Grass and others contribute ideas and attitudes.
Several poems including ‘Trinity’ and ‘Early-Winter Run’ are inspired by Finnegan’s habit of running, a habit so widely shared that running poems are now a common sub-genre. ‘Trinity’ describes a runner’s encounters with three animals.
Animals feature in some of the most memorable poems here, most notably ‘I Love the Animals in Me’. This begins with the frog sitting in his throat, progressing to ‘there’s a complex zebra in me/who gallops far beyond/the idea that things are black and white…’ His cat Elsie appears several times, given her full due as a life force. She has earned a place in the pantheon of cats in Irish poetry alongside Pangur Bán and Yeats’s Minnaloushe.
Some of the most touching poems are about Finnegan’s father, who brought him up ‘with a love of the sea/of spoken Irish and Connemara’, resulting in several interesting sea poems. His father was fostered by a childless uncle and aunt, and grew up beside the sea in Inverin, rather than in Gort. When the child visited the family in Gort, ‘he was teased with gentle cruelty/to make him feel an outsider/How’s the Connemara man?’
An interesting feature is the use of double spacing to create resting spaces within the poems — he and his farther stride to early mass ‘past horses past wires and canvas tents past clotheslines…’ McCarthy’s foreword explains that this is a technique called ‘the open field’ by the Black Mountain Poets.
It is especially effective in ‘Au Revoir Mes Amis’, written in memory of those who died in the terrorist attacks in Paris in November, 2015. Finnegan’s wife, Livinia, is a recurring presence, often addressed with affectionate humour as in ‘Chinese Restaurant’ and ‘Roaming’.
At first I feared that Finnegan’s admiration for Raymond Carver’s minimalist approach to poetry would lead to flat writing, but every poem, however short and apparently simple, redeems itself by revealing its complexity. This is well-grounded, considered work that takes time to reveal its quiet humour, and warm engagement with the world, and richly repays the reader’s attention.