Review by PAUL VOGEL, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MILWAUKEE for An Sionnach: A Journal of Literature, Culture, and the Arts (Creighton University Press). Spring 2009.
Tyler Farrell's Tethered to the Earth (Salmon Poetry, 2008) is a collection of carefully crafted but emotionally charged poems recounting an adolescence spent in Northern Wisconsin and later travels to major cities in Europe: Madrid, Dublin, and Paris.
Those places denote a visceral artistic development that Farrell displays in his careful attention to the details of environment and memory, along with a cer tain joie de vivre permeating each poem. That joy seems somewhat abnormal considering the subject matter of the first section, ominously titled, Northern Wisconsin. However, Farrell's account of his childhood home not only captures its beauty, but shows a growing consciousness of his Irish-American ancestry and a poetic vision grounded in that tradition-a vision that comes into its own by the second part of the book. Fairies, nymphs, and enchantment abound! The first poem, On Seeing A Girl Pluck a Four Leaf Clover hints at things to come, "In the acetylene glow / of midday's protuberant eyes, / she christened our small / outside crowd." An appropriate start for a collection of poems that seek to imbue their environments with the aesthetics of ritual (pre-Christian?) as well as the musicality of language in the vein of Yeats, Kavanagh, and Liddy.
Farrell feels a deep connection - or "tethering" - to both the living and the dead as in On Hearing That While Ice Fishing Alone, A Boy Drowned in Long Lake, "When the dead awaken they will / burn blue like the heron. . . ." His naturalistic view of the afterlife impor ts an understanding of ceremony-one derived no doubt from an earlier initiation into Catholic culture. "A burial whispered / beneath this clear, broken stone." The poem asks what role humans play in remembering the dead. Like the "Wild God" of Robinson Jef fers, Farrell believes in the ability of nature to create and even overpower myth. However, he shows a compassion for humanity seldom present in the poetry of Jeffers. This owes to the presence of another Irish-American poet venerated by Farrell-Frank O'Hara. Northern Wisconsin hops over to Madeline Island where stranded horses munch four-leaf clovers and look lonely. With each image more idiosyncratic than the next, Farrell's poems are best read by focusing on the musicality of phrasing rather than understanding each reference.
Farrell's imagery and sense of rhythm suggest a kind of Irish lyricism no matter where he goes. However, the poems that seem furthest from traditional metered verse are the most compelling - "A forest of postcards sent from Spain when laughs / rested in the fade of the dew" from An Auction at Harbor Lights. The listing of details is carefully constructed so that each perception flows naturally and thematically. Other poems use the short en-jambment of William Carlos Williams or, more appropriately, Lorine Neidecker - Northern Wisconsin's own Emily Dickinson and Objectivist. Letter from an Old Tree recalls this influence, "Confess like / clouds and travel / no more above / my tallest arm." The same can be said of The Sun, I Could, "I could well grow / like a statue erected / heavenward, illuminated / all hours."
The next poem switches to another island in another time - Ireland - where cows await transpor tation to the mainland, butchers wring the blood from sheep hearts, not to mention "A goat or two, a basket of fish, a sack / of wool, pigs and chickens, the boats / on the key, a sailor to Dingle Bay." Details are ordered through the gaze of a boy on holiday with his family. Letter from Madeline Island retur ns to this paradise of Bayfield while blending nostalgia with romance. It is this point of maturity where Farrell leaves behind Northern Wisconsin and begins his extensive traveling in Europe like a Forest Praying.
The second section is no doubt the strongest and most distinctive. Certain par ts recall a travelogue while maintaining a highly musical use of language. "Boys and girls in lines for toys and bread. / edges split with light, glass covered / books soiled in Basque smoke, ash forms / red velvet eyes and sirens." Romance and history are the main themes of this section. While the poet is older and recording moments as they happen, his musings carry with them the adolescent enthusiasm seen in the previous section. Conversely, the form becomes more personal and the content less subjective. In Three Women Who Wept Farrell uses relatively straight forward language for heightened effect, "She told me that America was dead. / I told her America was too alive. / She didn't have enough to pay for a beer. / The bartender threw her out. / Streets belonged to her. / The apartment upstairs did not."-A less romantic account of a moder n Ireland full of broken dreams and decay.
Despite the sometimes grim view taken towards life, Farrell does not shy away from spiritual enthusiasm. Criticism of the Church is nothing new to Ireland, but Farrell maintains a respect for its air of mystery and importance while rejecting the concreteness of its outlook. Elegy for Father Louie details his Catholic experience while maintaining a distance from its spiritual demands and criticizing its absolutist stance, "You burned dark in the most sacred of hearts." A clearer understanding of Tyler's faith can be discerned from the next poem, To Frank O' Hara in Heaven, in which the mythical poet becomes a religious icon, "This silent mor ning / statues in my head / of Michaelangelo's David." O'Hara's ghost pops up at the Louvre as well-an appropriate symbol for the rest of Tethered.
An ekphrastic poem on Picasso's Guernica and then it's Into Europe by Rail-First the Daylight Pulled at Length, a tour de force frolic through Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, London, Liverpool, and ending most appropriately in Dublin. Unusual images of travel, "The chill of metal detectors / makes my mouth ache like biting on tinfoil / or wincing in my aunt's upstairs hallway" mix with rapid associations - "The Columbus / statue, a blue black seat, a tram to see Dali / Oh! The plans he made in Figueres." Each scene communicates the movement and energy of urban centers, spiritual union with poets and literature, and a deep appreciation for the redemptive power of art. All shape Farrell's poetic imagination.
For anyone who's read Joyce, Wilde, Liddy, or European travelogues, Tethered to the Earth will inspire as well as entertain. Tyler Far rell is a poet who is deeply in touch with the beauty of city and nature, people and animals, poets and painters, fairies and four leaf clovers. He has taken to heart the message of his literary masters and recorded a kaleidoscopic world of intense emotion and explorative memory.