On the voyage of life, all that finally matters is ‘fellow-ship’

Theo Dorgan’s new poetry collection, Nine Bright Shiners, utilises nautical metaphor to remember nine dead friends and loved-ones, says Thomas McCarthy.

Nine Bright Shiners

Theo Dorgan

Dedalus Press, €12.99

NINE Bright Shiners is a substantial new collection of poems from Theo Dorgan, a personal anthology compared to his spare, tight previous work, Greek.

The ‘nine bright stars’ are remembered heroes, family and friends, all now dead; but all acting as nine radical calls to communal remembrance. Dorgan belongs to a generation of writers — novelist Roddy Doyle and playwright Billy Roche would be his companions — who see the world through unapologetic and unreconstructed Left-wing spectacles.

There is a strong political sense in these poems that the poor shall inherit the Earth and that poets, somehow, will one day own all the means of production. Dorgan’s is a generation of intellectuals radicalised by Herbert Marcuse and Jean Paul Sartre, illuminated by Costa Gavras and bewitched by Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Newer generations of Irish writers, those reared in a private, ironic world (so private that they are outraged by the free gift of a U2 album) could never understand the massive optimism contained within Dorgan’s unbroken sense of community. Such a belief in political community is, in a very real sense, an affront to the modern.

Frankly, my modern dears, Dorgan does not give a damn:

‘I saw his last matches for the Glen, the young bucks already impatient to sweep him to the heavens where blood and raw knuckles, mud and defeat or victory would fade into remembered youth

A child myself, I sensed their insensate cruelty, the watchful precise impatience of the young.’

The poem here is ‘Learning My Father’s Memories’ and the remembrance is of Christy Ring, the greatest hurler of them all, it could be said, who when he rose to catch a sliotar was pushed sky high by several adoring townlands, from Cloyne to Blackpool. It is that sense of community that Dorgan captures to describe and praise life.

He ‘photographs’ each hero in the gap of danger and to track him, or her, all the way to the winning-post. It is a poetry calculated to infuriate sociophobes of every persuasion.

Thus the much-loved Charlie Hennessy is imagined surviving the treachery of the violent ocean with the help of friends; the beautiful artist Deirdre Meaney ascends to a chateau; a public servant whispers in the poet’s ear of the death of Michael Hartnett, and a mysterious sailor accompanies them on a voyage between the Sovereigns and Oysterhaven; all harbours are reached through the chugging diesels and slopping bilge-tanks.

Mysterious strangers attend at ocean voyages and watch the Houses of the Oireachtas at night.

Crisis is shared, and though Lar Cassidy is dead, the light still burns in the Arts Council windows — the last light of public funding is not quite extinguished.

We may yet survive: this is Dorgan’s personal weather, his outlook, his irrepressible poetic optimism, which shines through all crises and hopelessness. Among the persistent medallions of optimism that glitter in poem after poem are cups of tea and cigarettes.

No other Irish poet has made so many references to tea and cigarettes in his work. In ‘Times on the River’, he refers to ‘tea for the helm,’; in ‘Skelligs: Sailing to the Edge’, he settles to ‘unscrew the thermos drink’; in ‘Nine Instances of Grace’ he pours tea in two different sections, while ‘tea leaves swelling in the pot’ feature in ‘Five Haiku for You’ and there is a full pot of tea in ‘The Shelf’, as well as tea made in ‘The Gifted Life’ and ‘Tea, I think, temper the work’ in, again, ‘Nine Instances of Grace,’ where, incidentally, he pours ‘tea into your favourite blue mug.’ Tea is a companion, but also a technical assistant, a kind of spiritual enjambment, working in the same way as the number of apparitions, ghosts, strangers, and refrains, both in Irish and English, with which this work is punctuated. Each of these is a companion in the work, part of that assured community working like a meitheal to help the poet complete his thought or canvass the reader’s attention.

‘I had paused to light up a cigarette’ the poet announces himself in that mysterious early poem ‘The Angel of History.’ Later, he sees Deirdre Meaney ‘draw on a cigarette, taking me in’, while in ‘Gaffer’ he says ‘I sat there smoking.’

The number of references to breath, breathing, air and wind is extraordinary and a medical practitioner reading his book would have a panic attack; and for very good reason, for the book is full of clinical signs. ‘Stopping to catch my breath, I heard a voice’ is the title of his poem after Jean Berger, while in ‘Learning Death’ he writes of ‘that unmistakable catch in the breath’ and in ‘Insomnia’ he says ‘Because I could not catch my breath.’

In ‘The Love Poems of Lena Stakheyeva, part 6,’ he explains that ‘There is a way to walk and breathe’ and in ‘Nine Instances of Grace’ he reassures us of ‘How lucky we’ve been/ to drink the air.’ In ‘Setting Out’ he uses the phrase ‘night is breathing soft and dark’ twice, while in the brilliant poem of domestic love, ‘Watercolour’, he remarks upon that ‘quiet weight/ of breath and gesture.’ In ‘Aftermath’ the protagonist takes ‘a deep, cold breath’ and in ‘Nine Bright Shiners’ the poet describes ‘our breath staggered and wispy in the air’ as well as ‘your first breath drawn in these dark waters.’ There are other instances, but ‘The Look Again’ probably sums up both the description and the implicit alarm: ‘The pressure in my chest now so intense That I am half afraid to breathe’.

Smoking, and the yearning for air, are constant themes, however understated.

Dorgan’s recent past as a sailor could be seen, from the evidence here, in an entirely different light: as an effort to breathe freely. The metaphor is both central and powerful in his work, for, to breathe freely is to be at one with his past, to be united with parents and grandparents.

All of his work has been a great voyage south, to the full health of an encounter with ‘Cape Horn’, where

‘I open my arms/ to this wind from the icebound south.’

This is another exquisite log-book in the long voyage of Dorgan’s nimble ketch of poetry.


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