Prophesying the Past
Page Count: 72
Publication Date: Monday, May 31, 2010
About this Book
As the title, Prophesying the Past suggests, this collection plays with our sense of space and time moving back and forth across dates; locations; time zones; generations and even across the boundary between life and death. The dead become living presences through objects they once owned as in the opening poem, A Mother's Watch; in a love letter found after a grandfather's passing; or the Grand-Aunts who are taking tea in Heaven while keeping a kindly but judgemental eye on the younger generation back on earth, particularly on one niece who sells her aunts heirlooms on eBay. The living sometimes meet with sudden death: in Holiday by the Sea a grandmother dies on the beach during a holiday, her body unceremoniously brought back to Dublin as ... the sun/ scorched the coffin on the roof rack/ of the family car ... Ironically, this is ... the only sunshine/ the family saw the whole two weeks/. Herein lies the crux of the collection with characters whom though firmly rooted in specific locations and situations convey a sense of being out of place or out of step: a feeling of restlessness or dissatisfaction with lives that are somehow unfulfilled.
In Black and Tan, a young mother in 1920s Ireland is confronted by terror for her safety and that of her infant and ... For sixty-three years she stepped over/the spot on her flagged floor/where the Black and Tan had stood.
The poems in Prophesying the Past are never sentimental or didactic, it is left to the reader to savour the cumulative effect as the poems speak through an urbane voice; rooted in history, both social and political but always contemporary in outlook. The personas in this work give voice to the personal and economic dilemmas of a people, from wartime Ireland through to the post Celtic Tiger era. These are poems to be savoured by the generation who were there and explored by the young to find the foundations upon which they stand today.
Noel King is a writer, actor and musician, native of Tralee, Co. Kerry. His poetry, haiku, short stories, articles and reviews have appeared in publications in over thirty countries, the poetry in journals as diverse as Poetry Ireland Review, The Sunday Tribune, Bongos of the World (Japan), The Dalhousie University Review (Canada), Kotaz (South Africa), Poetry Salzburg Review (Austria) and Quadrant (Australia). Along the way he has been a singer with the famous Bunratty Castle Entertainers and has worked as an arts administrator and poetry editor.
Review: Afric McGlinchey reviews PROPHESYING THE PAST for Southword: New Writing from ireland.
A Kerry-born poet and publisher, Noel King has launched many writers through his Doghouse Press, while his poems have been published in numerous publications in Ireland and abroad. He is also a singer and musician. This collection is a gathering together of the memories, stories and experiences that have shaped him. Often the tone is wry, melancholic, bitter even—but there is a breezy humour that occasionally bursts through. His poems are grounded in activities and people rather than in ideas. There is a fidelity to the portrayal of rural lives, a flow of accumulated subjective moments rather than a chiselled retrospective, in spite of the title.
Throughout this debut collection, there is a strong sense of the past, symbolised frequently by objects: a letter; a bin liner full of a dead mother’s clothing; bequeathed china; a patchwork quilt; shells; a silver trophy; old car parts. James Harpur observes in his essay, ‘What’s in a pair of old boots?’ (Cork Literary Review Vol. Xlll), that the job of a poet, as opposed to that of the painter, is to go beyond the intrinsic essence of the object, creating a symbolism or series of associations and speculations for the reader. Or as Aristotle put it, ‘The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance’, in which case, perhaps these poems can be mined for what they say about our relationship to the past. Through these objects we discover King’s mental landscape – the cultural, historical, social world he has inherited and of which he is a product. It is a familiar one to an older generation, almost slipping into folklore now.
But if it is true, as Mark Rowlands suggests in his memoir The Philosopher and the Wolf, that mental processes emerge from our surroundings as much as from our heads, then it is essential to pay attention to our physical landscape too. However, instead of showing us the landscape by evoking our senses of sight, sound, smell, King focuses for the most part on activities: 'Turf', 'Home-making', 'Planting 1955', 'Hay Fever'. Other poems dwell on the distant shadow of the Second World War: 'N.I. G.I.', 'Air Force Sweethearts' and 'My Grandmother at War, 1944'. More contemporary poems deal with visits to and from sibling emigrants; the end of a relationship; an art class.
Overall, there is the sense of a journey, chronologically and psychically, from his ancestors, his childhood, to here.
In describing certain traditionally masculine rituals such as cutting turf, baling hay, fishing, King is honouring the quiet gift of work, shared or solitary, and of engaging with the natural world. Gender roles are clearly defined. Boys join the men at work in the fields while a girl is "at home with mother making Christmas" (‘On Christmas Morning’).
Catching a fish is romantically imbued with the symbolism of virility. In ‘The Bass Fish’ (which is also appealing for its lighter tone):
I hope for a bass
’cause this evenin’ a woman’s comin’
and I’m cookin’…
I’ll never do what her husband used to,
going to the supermarket to fish…
Towards the end of the collection there is another poem, called ‘Supermarket Fish’, where "her father goes digging for worms". She rescues him from the rain. Later she produces "fish she bought at the supermarket, that he thinks he caught". The fish poems epitomise gradual and growing disillusionment as the fishermen fail to ‘catch’ anything.
It is in the non-verbal world of activity that the personae of these poems find expression: painting beads red to make holly berries for a beloved grandfather who misses them; converting a playhouse into a fuel shed when a son leaves home; dreaming of holding a wrist between thumb and forefinger again to express love; plucking a blade of American grass and crushing it when a daughter announces she’s emigrating; filling a skip with cherished things when a relationship ends; bringing the gift of a mother’s brown bread to a sister living in the States.
In spite of the collection’s intriguing title, time in these poems is usually one-directional. But in one poem, ‘On Christmas Morning’, it is looped into a knot:
My father’s mother will raise the window sash
any moment now and her husband will see again
across a love grown in them.
She will call a greeting, wave
and years away their children will remember
The ‘prophesy’ suggests that this is a repeated act, one fondly anticipated—it’s a moment that reminds me of Eavan Boland’s 'This Moment', although with not quite the same vividness of evocation. The slight awkwardness of the third line undermines the delicacy of the image.
While King shows a fondness for interesting word couplings – ‘raw-hot’, ‘race-work’, ‘blind-eyeing’, ‘tantrum-riddling’, and my favourite: ‘bitter-footed’ – and also for various poem-shapes on the page – his stylistic tendency is more towards realism than aesthetics. But lyrical images do appear, on occasion: she "takes only thoughts from his grass; his sky; his herd" (‘Herself at Fifty’). His grandmother remembers a Black and Tan soldier’s "hard steps crunching through her" as he crossed her threshold (‘Black and Tan’); ‘fingers worked/a fork and trowel, making earth music’ ('Sr Carmella'); "his cap became a kneeler/ when he blew-started the fire" (The Fisherman’s Home’).
Some lines stand out for their perceptiveness: in ‘Herself at Fifty’ the narrator describes how a woman goes for long walks:
before the time comes
to face her front door again.
In ‘Turf’ there is father/son bonding with "man-spits on palms" and the shared activity of repeated rhythmic movement: "bend, gather, rise, throw". The event is vividly recalled: "midges scream into our bodies" and he remembers "having a slash behind last year’s rick". Later he remembers how "my sister dries her hair at the fireplace". Often, the simplicity of an image speaks for itself.
Although sometimes one is left wondering. In a more contemporary poem, ‘The 20B’, a man on a bus holds a Siberian kite in his lap: "all grey and white and dark…", yet when he releases it, the kite is "more vibrant than any bright-coloured kites/ we Irish might have". Perhaps because it is strange and exotic?
While there is a clear sense of belonging to this landscape, there is also the feeling that it is "Peopled with the Disappointed" as Louis MacNeice wryly puts it in The Strings are False. In 'House Sitter', a boy who looks after an elderly couple, working as "front-door opener, kettle putter-onner/ egg-man, milk-cooler keeper" vows to have "a good job when I grow up". Instead he remains, "taking the eggs from the hens … until I too am too old". In 'Matching the Pattern', he is left alone in his family home, "my wallpaper stuck, unadmired".
There is also the predictable undertow of Catholicism. In one poem the narrator climbs the "naked mountain" to an altar built "in the night-time of 1950s Ireland", repeating the tradition he began as a schoolboy: "Rosary beads clasped in home knit mitts". Reading these poems, one is struck by how, in the space of a single generation, religion, which was once embedded deeply in the bog of the Irish psyche, has been so loosely lifted out.
Many of the poems are about love—familial, disappointed, illicit. But the sense is that love is frequently compromised—after a father’s death there is resentment, when pieces of a beloved piano, thought to have been sold, are discovered. The fantasy of a pizza girl merely brings out a crudeness in the narrator, with mention of "shit", "balls", "goolies", "arse", "fart". Perhaps he is laughing at himself, but one can sense a deeper bitterness. In one poignant poem, ‘They Made the Sound of her Man’, a woman keeps under her bed the blood-stained wellingtons of her husband, who was brutally gored by his own bull. In 'Father’s Second Wife', the woman seduces the son, "my father, oblivious,/ out on the terrace, a car rug covering/ the equipment he no longer had". A failed marriage or relationship is the subject of ‘Facing a Skip’ where again, objects take on a symbolic weightiness: "I leave my marks everywhere here, my love".
Prophesying the Past leaves Noel King’s mark as an accessible poet who honours his roots, has a keen empathy for those around him and is unafraid to explore the terrain of loss and disappointment. What summed the collection up for me was the poem 'Face Up', where the growing disenchantment with life culminates in the discovery that between racing to and from work, carving yet another family roast and:
switching from the World Service to Lyric FM and back
You begin to realise that all there is is art.
And that’s something.
©2010 Afric McGlinchey
Afric McGlinchey spent her childhood and early adult years between Ireland and Africa. She returned to Ireland for good in 1999. A freelance journalist, editor and workshop facilitator, Afric’s poetry has appeared in a number of journals in Ireland and abroad, including Southword, Poetry Ireland Review, the SHOp, Revival, Tears in the Fence, Scottish Poetry Review and Acumen. She lives in Kinsale, Co. Cork.