The title (and first) poem of Dave Lordan’s new collection (his third) opens with a confident assertion of the creative power of the poet’s faith: ‘I believe in them, so they do exist’. That faintly insistent ‘do’ emphasises action, the poet’s power to reshape reality and, more obviously but also more importantly, to reforge constantly the language through which that reality might be expressed. This is a recurrent theme of the collection, from the father-daughter sleight-of-hand of the moving ‘Fertility Poem’ (‘Lies are the womb and seed of us’) to the long sequence ‘Notes for a Player’ (dedicated, like the whole collection, to Denis Boothman, the ‘you’ to whom these poems often speak).
In this poem, the possibility that ‘time was confounded / by telling it slant’ animates the dominant elegiac mood, lending each description now the patina of myth (‘Samhain’s high moon / of the spirits’) and now the mundane soundscape of a Sunday breakfast (‘stirring your cuppa – ceramic ding-ding – / humming along to MacCormack or Callas …’). This counterpointing of the ancient and the everyday orchestrates Lordan’s observations of contemporary Irish politics as fruitfully as his commentaries on himself as product of ‘the animal tribe of my youth’ (‘I dream of Crowds’). Another elegy, ‘Irish History’, dedicated to Paul Muldoon, melds the two into a condensed summary of all the clichés associated with its titular theme – ‘quiet chorusing rosary nuns / and docs that crack jokes’, or ‘your toothless Bogtown wife’.
This theme becomes ‘a shape-shifting billows / of chemical smoke’ that then ‘went missing’, and is later found, extra-nationally but not extra-historically, ‘dying in dark visions and fits / in an abandoned industrial unit / on the outskirts of Manchester’. History’s absconding, its dissolution from ancient mythic grandeur into modern drugs, disease, and disarray, leaves only stereotypes and poetic homilies, a tradition ultimately boiling down, the poem laments, to ‘nothing much’.
Lordan’s poems repeatedly refute this narrative of decline, exposing its ironies and omissions, its failure to account for that which it recounts. It’s to his credit that he repeatedly effects the substantial reconstitution in word-patterns, symbolic lists, and allegorical narratives of this ‘nothing much’, offering in poem after poem a coded testimony to the superficially-disastrous-but-actually-infinitely-wealthy topical (as well as the less contested verbal) inheritance of the contemporary Irish poet. This inheritance is largely mediated through his direct contemporary influences, Muldoon and Heaney, but draws widely on modern and older Irish (and other) poetry. The epigraph to Lost Tribe is taken from Vasari’s life of Piero di Cosimo, and elides a sentence noting Piero’s ‘imitating’ of Leonardo, as well as pulling up short at Vasari’s imputations of Piero’s ‘uncouth ways’, his being perceived by his public as ‘a madman’. If Lordan’s poems are to be read in part as verbal revisions of di Cosimo, he nevertheless refuses identification with the painter. And yet: ‘We need all history’s madmen to encounter / one another in the here and now’, he writes in ‘Christine’, the collection’s appeal to the physicality of human love which is also, this poem argues, a main form of poetic inspiration, the muse’s visitation, the devastating effects of which the poet seeks analogy for in disasters of incarceration ancient and modern.
Thus ‘The whole thing reminds me of Pompeii’, and, in the poem’s closing lines, ‘I received an intimation that you are an orphan / of some previous disaster, Chernobyl maybe, / which means that I, the many, must be your father’. Father-daughter relationships recur through this collection, as do mothers-and-sons (in the powerful lament ‘My Mother Speaks to me of Suicide’), as do the cock-and-bull tropes of transmitted narratives, poetry’s function as recorder and distorter of experience. Genetic lines mutate into genre lines; the creation-allegory of ‘Christine’ leads to the icy apocalypse confidently related in ‘Return of the Earl’: ‘I saw it happening in Bantry’, this poem begins, before looping into Lordan’s favourite mode, the rhetorically emphatic list that generates multiple mini-analogies as it forces home by weight of creative detail its central argument:
All pipes congealed. All signals died. All instruments ceased.
All ways became immediately impassable. No missile could launch,
no drone take off. All orders were suddenly meaningless.
All networks of power dissolved.
The insistence of ‘All’ encircles the repetition of ‘No’, totality and its negation playing out a strange brinkmanship as the poem plots the orchestral grandeur of its ‘Tchaikovskian apocalyspe’. Echoes of Ballard (‘The swimming pool was an eerie opaque cube, a chlorinated rink’) balance Biblical allusions (‘The bins in rows in the square a fleeing tribe turned to salt’), while Yeats by way of Vico (‘Bantry preserved – until the next epochal gyre – Hyberborean Pompeii’ – that ancient Italian eruption again) counters D M Thomas’s White Hotel:
The market house of white. The whitened
millwheel at the library of white. Four Star Hotel White. The white lounge,
the playground white, the trawlers white, the big white house.
But Lordan’s literary vision of apocalypse is, like all true apocalypses, not so much an ending as a celebration of the certainty of continuity. His ‘one man’ sets off into the whitened wilderness of a snowbound Ireland to seek ‘who’s in charge now, what instructions are’.
Lost Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains, exploiting to the full the freedoms of di Cosimo’s ‘changing manner’, constructs a strong sense of affinity, of familial and social bonds stretched, sometimes to breaking point, but ultimately bearing – just- the weights of the histories they both transcend and are burdened by. The final poem, ‘Love Commands the Neighbourhood’, is itself an extended elaboration of Christ’s final commandment (John 13:34) to ‘love one another’.
‘We must love one another or die’, Auden famously wrote, and equally famously later disowned both the line and the poem that contained it as ‘infected with incurable dishonesty’. Lordan (whose name echoes Auden’s) echoes in these impressive poems the instruction but not its disowning:
Love the first rough throat in the morning.
Love the last sad mutt in the night.
Lost Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains will be published in September 2014 by Salmon Poetry (http://www.salmonpoetry.com).
For information on Dave Lordan check out http://davelordanwriter.com