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DEMANDING VOICES
Paul Donnelly



WITH THE FIRST DREAM OF FIRE THEY HUNT THE COLD
Trevor Joyce
[243pp, £9.95, Shearsman]
IN THE AVIARY OF VOICES
Karin Lessing
[63pp, £6.50,
Shearsman Books, 58 Velwell Road, Exeter, Devon EX4 4LD]

I have to confess I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Trevor Joyce. Now I have a book which calls itself A Body Of Work 1966/2000.  Even though almost half of the book has never appeared in print before it seems I have some catching up to do.

The opening sequence is, in part, familiar. It is a working of the Irish text Buile Suibhne which Joyce calls ‘The Poems of Sweeny, Peregrine’. It takes the form of two sections, a prose narrative and the poems themselves. What is immediately striking is the energy and force of the language, as if to imitate the flight and subsequent wanderings of Sweeny. The poems, especially, have a particular vitality as we are taken along the ‘pathway of this dementia’. Joyce meditates on the suffering and distress and makes clear powerful statements about Sweeny’s condition, and the human condition in general. Sometimes Sweeny’s plight is shown through his desperate cries :

    Christ, king of saints, hear me,
    this is no fate for a monarch.
    What dignity is there in this,
    dodging between tree and tree ?

Elsewhere, his vulnerability, weakness and madness are conveyed as he wanders, reduced in the midst of an overwhelming natural world where he must seek refuge, sifting ‘the debris of the shattered woods’. It is an eloquent and moving sequence.

In other poems he captures stilled moments in the landscape of the city, such as, ‘Gulls on the River Liffey’ but not just as urban observations. These images have a deeper resonance, perhaps like those in haiku. Joyce also delineates some of the darker quarters of the locale in precise terms. His observations of both the natural world and the human inhabitants are sharply focussed and, in the case of the latter, unflinching :

         
    All forms are savaged as they come:
         
          maimed men who limp on club-leg,
         
          garrotted men with meths-blue faces,
         
          women whose secretive survival
         
                    shuns the predatory light,
         
          and all the ashen faces of the dead.     
                            
(Dynamic)

At other times he creates more mysterious tableaux such as  ‘Elegy of the Shut Mirror’ with its haunted images of loss and desolation, where love ‘has atrophied’.

In the section ‘stone floods’ he makes use of a wide variety of sources, from Meng Jiao, 17th century Irish and renga. ‘Chimaera’ features the latter and attempts to fuse the voices of Richard Lovelace and Aloysius Bertrand among others. Voices also come into play in the book’s final section ‘Trem Neul’. This is perhaps his most ambitious piece as he attempts to harness an array of voices in a parallel prose and verse text that is a form of autobiography. Unusually, he has sought to remove all traces of the personal and include instead perspectives and memories of others too numerous to mention, though he does name a few. At around 45 pages it is a powerful set of narratives that demands to be read and re-read.

In fact, I think Joyce’s work, though mostly quite accessible, does make demands on the reader and needs time to fully engage with it. Perhaps in my case, as a newcomer, these demands have been greater but it is worth it and I will be coming back.

If Joyce’s work does seem to repay the amount of time and attention, I don’t feel the same is true of Karin Lessing. Yet I feel I should like this work. It comes with a blessing from the poet, Gustaf Sobin, a writer whose poetry I enjoyed immensely in the 1980s. Eliot Weinberger calls her one of ‘the ones who keep poetry alive’. So why is this not coming alive to me ? I look at a page and see a great deal of space, and I do think some poetry needs that, it gives the language room to make its resonance felt. Look at some of John Riley’s work, for example. But here I don’t feel much sense of resonance, instead the words seem to fall into the spaces. This is poetry that too often I cannot hear. Is that my fault ?

I often tell my students that if a poem does not say something to them it may just be that the poet is not communicating. It’s not your fault, I say. Yet with Lessing’s work I keep feeling it is my fault. Let me give an example :

         
Opening slate, your
         
life

         
branches
         
to choose among

         
An ear for music                  
                  
(The Slate Opening)


O.K. so it is only a section of the poem but it is the opening section. Setting aside whatever ellipsis the poet intends, what am I being presented with here ? Why the upper-case A? What is the syntax trying to achieve ? I really don’t know. And this, I find, is the difficulty. I am often at a loss to find a way in to the poem.

Some other pieces, like this section from ‘Dune Light’, I find less opaque :

         
medusas of sand

         
each word, once
         
murmured,

         
grows a shadow

         
‘as the shadow of a great rock
          in a weary land’

                  
(Isaiah)

         
a hiding place

Perhaps it is because of the arresting opening image, or maybe the embedded quotation, but this seems more concrete and conveys something to me. There are other moments too, sometimes of great delicacy or sharp focus, where I feel I am being spoken to. But overall I don’t think there are enough to make me want to spend time re-reading in the hope that the voice will reach me. Maybe I will feel different another time.

                   © Paul Donnelly 2002