A selection of recent reviews of Salmon titles. Click on the book images to find out more about each title.
Forms of Feeling: Poetry in Our Lives. Essays & Interviews
This book is ostensibly an essay collection, but poet and creative writing teacher John Morgan has also filled the pages with poems, biographical information, journal entries, book reviews, interviews, and reading and writing instruction. These various elements within the same volume combine to create an intimate portrait of the poet and his spirituality, teaching methods, family life, writing practice, and interactions with nature and place.
Morgan’s credentials include a BA from Harvard, where he studied with Robert Lowell, an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and several prestigious literary awards and fellowships; however, despite his impressive accomplishments, Morgan frequently reveals his humility, exalting the book’s veracity and the writer’s authority. For instance, in the essay “Why I Am Not a Novelist,” in which he explains his arrival at poetry after two failed attempts to write novels: “You see before you no superhero—just an ordinary, striving, fatherly, husbandly figure, trying somewhat bumblingly to make his way.”
In this expansive portrayal of a poet, his life, and his work, the reader understands that for Morgan, poetry is a way of life. He reveals how writing poetry has helped him emotionally deal with several difficult events, including his wife’s miscarriage. He includes three of the twenty-four sonnets he wrote in response to his son’s sudden, serious, chronic illness to demonstrate the “true sonnet feel of powerful emotions being controlled by form.” He explains his affinity for poetry: “Poems are like messages in bottles hurled into the sea from a cliff and we may never know when one reaches some distant shore and is taken into a reader’s heart.”
Morgan shows a number of his poems in various stages of revision, explaining in detail how and why he made particular changes. He generously shares his philosophy about poetry and includes detailed accounts of his writing process, quoting classic and modern poets as well as his own original work. As a bonus, he suggests several writing exercises.
One of the most instructive essays is a close reading exercise. The essay opens with William Stafford’s poem “Traveling Through the Dark,” which Morgan recommends reading several times before beginning the exercise—a reading guide composed of twelve questions, followed by Morgan’s expansive answers to these questions. These questions encourage the reader to examine word choices, tone, mood, sensory details. I’ve never studied poetry, but I found this exercise helpful to my creative nonfiction writing.
Morgan confesses that during the four years he spent writing his failed novels, he took LSD on two occasions, the second time two weeks after the first. He describes the experiences in explicit, agonizing detail—the terror, hallucinations, physical collapse, and the fear that his mind wouldn’t find its way back. This event becomes a metaphor for the shift in Morgan’s writing focus from novels and fiction to poetry: he converts a short story to a poem, finding his way back, as his mind found its way back from the LSD trip, to the practice of poetry.
Morgan’s letters and journal entries chronicle his journey from his childhood in a Jewish family in New York City to teacher of creative writing graduate students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Much of his writing focuses on his strong sense of place and his relationship with Alaska, demonstrated in the two book reviews—one on a book about the catastrophic Exxon-Valdez oil spill and the other on a collection of Koyukon Indian tales. Morgan ends the book with a passage about the importance of place, “the most profound use of which is as a metaphor for the self in its deepest, meditative self-knowing. All places used in this way are mythological and reach between people, across decades, across continents.”
This unique book appeals to a diverse audience. Writers of all genres will find the book informative and instructive as well as entertaining.
Waiting for Saint Brendan and Other Poems
States of Irish Poetry
New Collected Poems by John Montague (Gallery Press €15 / £20)
Waiting for Saint Brendan and Other Poems by David McLoghlin (Salmon Poetry, €12 / £10)
Though the popular idea of modern Irish poetry may seem to be dominated by Seamus Heaney, other poets who emerged in the 1960s, such as Thomas Kinsella, Derek Mahon, and John Montague, have always been admired too for their very different, but quite distinctive styles.
Montague's collected later poems are now to hand, reminding us in detail of a great talent first admired in the pages of The Irish Times in a fugitive way.
An Ulster man - not for nothing is an earlier collection entitled Poisoned Lands - his meditations on that province’s bloody past, and still troubled present, appeared first in The Rough Field, a title taken from Garvaghy, the rough field in question.
"Like Dolmens round my youth, the old people" that haunting line from one of Montague's early poems still echoes in this volume, when he an older man himself he returns to explore familiar rooms, ancestral homes, native places. The tone is by turns elegiac and fierce.
This is a magisterial volume indeed. It is to be expected that, as with his late friend Robert Graves, Montague's collected poems will go on growing with the winnowed additions of his future work.
John Montague belongs to a generation of Irish writers for whom the cross roads of the world is where the Boul' Mich meets St Germain. But over his life the main focus of Irish life culture has moved from Europe to North America.
The first collection of a young Irish poet exemplifies this. Montague was born in Brooklyn, New York. David McLoghlin has moved there.
In his poems, however, affected by different kinds of poetry, evoked in Whitman and Lorca, the pain of past emotions is consoled and shaped, and made into art.
On the other hand, man of McLoghlin's poems are ecliptic and controlled in a very controlled manner. McLoghlin might learn from Montague to run with a looser rein at times. The incidents of his poems, such as those about abusive relationships, in other hands might be far angrier.
His images draw on the legend of St Brendan, but his glimpse of Judas bound to his mid-ocean rock from the voyage of Brendan, suggests an imagination, which like the navigator, is trying an Atlantic crossing, have travelled into many parts of Europe, but is haunted perhaps by a sense of betraying somewhere else.
Indeed travel and displacement seems to be a dominant theme in this book. For McLoghlin perhaps the south tip of Manhattan carries the same emotional response that the corner of rue Saint Benoit might for Montague. He exhibits a creative tension between cultures which promises still richer poetry in future.
It remains to be seen whether like Brendan, he has found an earthly paradise on the ocean’s far side.
It is always interesting to see poets searching for their themes among the images of scattered lives. Human frailties over the decades break up the movement forward.
Yet in these encounters, these losses, are awakened hopes that give the poetry of both John Montague and David McLoghlin their distinctive thone. Both demonstrate that the various states of Irish poetry, at home or overseas, are flourishing, providing varied riches to explore.
David McLoghlin's new book begins with "how easy it is to lose a place" ("Dun Chaoin"), and the book takes the reader on a search for what is lost, traveling from Madrid's metro to a Belfast train compartment, from Lawrence, Kansas, to the Paradise of Birds. There is a great cohesion to the poems in this collection; their power accrues the deeper into the book a reader goes. Focusing on memory, place, dislocation, and identity, these central concerns shift, revise, and alter just as memories do themselves, where not only the speaker but a whole "country had slipped its moorings/ and was navigating into a different time zone" ("Climbing Mount Eagle"). Searching, the speaker says in the title poem "Waiting for Saint Brendan," "In the playground,/ I was the boy who is not seen:/ silent, as he learns he is without a people." This journey to locate the self in people and a place shifts and narrows near the end of the book as in the poem "Beal Ban: Nocturne," when the speaker says, "I bent to the page, learning to write more than I/ and you entered my poems." There is a settling of the journey here. The speaker seems to have finally located himself, "And I'm here,/ listening to you breathe beside me/ in the night light:/ I'm here, looking at you" ("Beginning of Trust"). In the end, both speaker and reader cover much ground in this fine first collection.
David's poems have such a breadth of material to draw from, one wonders how he ever settles on a poem's locality - but that's part of the point. What we have here is an unsettled poet, a rerouted and repotted writer with all the implied tenacity and adaptability. And, fittingly, the unsettling elements, the hardly-navigable, are his forte. "All I trust is the forward horizon," he tells us, a benediction against the maledictions with which his poems are fraught. But also: "in my country / the male witches rule always / the under-territories of silence." So we take his work as a manual for the voiceless, those snuffed or stunted in childhood, at times rising to invective against the various and inescapable cruelties: children betraying children, predatory authority, ritual as hiding-place. Listen for the pitch of the language, the way he inflects English with its neighbors, or with the awful rigor of a grimoire. The truth emerges "dripping, / armoured, ancient with feelers;" eyes are "the longship, / […] unself-pitying." In a way, these particulars grant location, so that one poem acts as a device to preserve intercourse between two or three luminous nodes in his memory. It's part consolation, part recompense, and it hearkens back to a time before the written word and all its attendant wrongdoing.
Review: Jewel reviewed by Jim Burns for Ambit (210, November 2012)
It's not often that I sit down and read a book of poetry right through without a break and, when I get to the final page, think that I've been listening to a remarkably consistent voice. It happened with Peadar O'Donoghue
, though, where the tone is set by the opening lines of the first poem:
Along Capel Street I stagger into Slattery’s
and stagger out again to be sure I have my wits.
What the hell have they done?
Is anything safe from their blandiose renaissance?
A curse on them whoever they are.
It's all there, the bemused narrator raging against a world that is changing in ways that are not to his liking. And it's a mad world, and not necessarily a nice one, as he tells us in another poem:
Last night I heard the screaming,
I wanted to call the police,
I prayed for change, I prayed for justice,
I prayed for a law to protect the vulnerable,
to insulate the poor. Who will listen?
Who will answer my prayer?
The catalogue style occurs in several poems, and is effective in terms of pushing the lines along and building up the tension. The poet, or at least the persona created by the poems, looks askance at society, noting its falsities, frailties, and cruelties, and spicing his comments with black humor. Wordsworth's 'Daffodils' gets a working over in which there's 'a crowd,/ a host, of golden speculators.' And the bitter 'What is it good for?" asks why we're lured into wars for no good reason:
to give him freedom of speech.
is one of the liveliest and most provocative poetry books I've read for some time.
Review: Merman reviewed by Beth McDonough for DURA: Dundee Review of the Arts (April 2014)
Merman opens with the obliquely powerful titular poem (an Arvon International Poetry Award winner 2010), justifiably described by the Poet Laureate as “wonderful”. Indeed, it is the outstanding poem in this excellent, multi-layered collection – O’Brien’s fourth. The cover representation of her post-Arvon collaboration with visual artist, Ray Murphy, weights that single poem still more. Yet it is the sole poem on that theme. No matter; there is much to be explored and only one other poem stands out strangely from this well-edited collection, and for very different reasons which I will come to it later.
If there is nothing mythological in the wake of “Merman”, there is certainly Catholicism; its take on the underworld receives a witty slap in “Hell Reinstated”, “The Pope he knows he’s got the inside track”, whilst “Keeping Shtum” has a humourous childhood take on remembered Easter rites.
No memories waiting to ambush
and snare her back[…] (“Clear Water”)
That’s not quite true and also taken out of context. O’Brien casts memory very well – “the smell of summer/potted in a jar –” (“Summer Preserved”). Those evocative, visual (if sometimes incomprehensibly punctuated) pieces work: “[…] outside Greengages/ slowly ripen” and sits more easily alongside her lyrical recollections of the natural world in poems like “Rowing” and “Snow Ciphers”, where “Lambs hurtle like tossed snowballs”.
However, when it comes to close family memories O’Brien really excels; from her Grandmother, almost hauntingly to “My Mother Ate Electricity”, which is as remarkable, fine and disturbing as the title suggests. Its sister poem “Euphemisms” paradoxically speaks great truths. Nor does the poet shrink from the graphic nature of her own serious illnesses, and while loss and losing are strong waters, her hand is equally strong at the tiller of hope and happiness – “She is ghosting her way here in flickering lines” (“Attachment”) tells the love story of her daughter’s adoption across continents. Later, in “Clear Water”
How free she is. Does she know
how to grasp it, land it like a salmon
Swim we call to her breathlessly.
If O’Brien works most powerfully with those closest, she also includes a wide array of characters and influences. Anne Frank, William Carlos Williams, Rene Magritte, Adrienne Rich and more feature, and perhaps most surprisingly given that illustrious company, the daft Father Dougal in a salute to his unforgettable and unlearnable lesson (Small Cow, Far Away Cow Perspective).
Wide-ranging indeed. O’Brien can slip into a sestina or a sonnet, turn shape poems, reference the Bible and popular television programmes, yet one poem, on page 19, sticks out like a thorn.There may well be moments in the private study of any contemporary Irish poet when that island’s extraordinarily rich poetic heritage cast as much shadow as light. “Brown trout”, “Lamping”, “Fossil Fuel”, poems of childhood, of Catholic tradition, death, water, foxes, weather, landscape …well, perhaps in the poet’s thoughts anything Irish really. O’Brien does have some reason to fear that someone might have been there already.
Images of drowned faces upturned
like supplicants trapped [..]
However, if any poet feels inclined to indulge in versified shillelagh rattling at major names and at their supposed hinterland, then the poem fashioned for that purpose must be an incredibly fine piece of blackthorn.
She should take heart. As far as I know, Seamus Heaney never wrote of the rising of the Arab Spring in Tunisia (“Nesting Democracies”), and I’m certain he never framed the very true and funny
I’m Irish, we keep our clothes on
most of the time. (“Skinny Dipping”)
And Paul Muldoon possibly never laughed at Father Ted, but then nor did he write the brave “Fragments”.
Jean O’Brien did and she should be proud. Next time, just leave out “Dear Reader Seamus Heaney Doesn’t Own Them”. We know.
Beyond the Sea
There is something mysterious and enigmatic but at the same time mildly addictive about Anne Fitzgerald's writing. Just as when you are reading Joyce, you stumble along saying in your head "I think I know what he's on about", so it is the gist of Fitzgerald's writing that carries you along on the tide.
Beyond the Sea is Anne Fitzgerald's third book of poetry and is published by Salmon Poetry. Living in Dún Laoghaire, the cover of Fitzgerald's collection shows a beautiful painting entitled Dublin Bay with Cloud Sky by George Potter RHA. The book consists of over forty poems and prose pieces which all display a very distinctive style of construction. There is much use of song lines mid sentence that make the reader stop and find the tune in their head as well as the spelling of words to give an accent by the preceding use of the letter 'd', as in "The year d'flying duck flew off the wall of flock,..." in 'Pure Fiction'. Fitzgerald's writing is very firmly placed in its Irish identity and there is also a theme of the characters imbibing various different alcoholic beverages.
The enigmatic style of writing, almost unstructured streams of consciousness, draw the reader in and it is the subconscious that starts to identify recurring themes as the words flow along creating patterns and meaning. There are four prose-style pieces with one in particular, 'Feast of the Assumption',being particularly interesting, with its parallels with the father's pacemaker, his "black box", to the backpacks of the suicide bombers on their way to Heathrow.
There is much to come back to in this collection, to retrace the words and find new understanding and meaning. Likewise, there are other poems that speak straight to you in their clarity; 'Mass Rock at Glenstal' has familiarity in its lines, "this blessed flock wallpaper of ours; where I've traced/ and retraced times spent listening to family histories,/ the Rising, price of the pint and good weather for drying."
Anne Fitzgerald's work is very modern and yet at the same time speaks of Ireland's past, its character and its characters. The experimental nature of her writing is teasing and confusing at the same time and read as a whole, the reader is in turn rewarded by becoming attuned to the voice of Fitzgerald and that voice starts to speak a language that is being shared as you venture forward into the work that is Beyond the Sea