book's that's going on the bedside table, not the bookcase. It's not about that Holy Land - though that does come
sideways into the title poem:
has given us Basil, his greyhound pup,
away himself to the Holy Land.
This hopeless hound figures more than once, but first appears in the opening
sequence of poems which draw on childhood memories. These are elegantly and
precisely managed - the random and inconsequential details like a tin of
polish, which may come to mind (in the opening poem) while 'I'm still in my
dressing gown, the Sunday papers spread / on the carpet'. Why do we remember
the details that we do? We're given just enough to sense how small a child's experience and memory of
family life may be.
The holy land here is the family farm, with Martin Riordan - the poet's
father - as its centre of gravity. The book is an act of remembrance, with a
focus on the section 'Idylls', each of which instances a working day on the
land. The first of these begins 'One day...', in a voice that says there's a
good yarn coming. While some of these prose poems may well be built around an
apocryphal tale that's already had many tellings, what makes them so striking
is that they're mainly direct speech. Typically, a few lines at the beginning
give the setting and then we're in there, hearing the conversations of farm workers,
whose names and voices become increasingly familiar. As does the land itself.
The third one opens like this:
'The fish are
all but gone.'
The men had
spent the day under the sun drawing in Hay from the Kiln
Field. In the
cool of evening they led Billy and Jack and Nance, the mare,
down to the
pond. They stood in the mud dousing the horses and each
used to come upstream this far,' my father continued. 'You'd
darting away when bring the cows to water. Now you'd never
further up than the Glens.'
never see a bittern any more,' said Dan-Jo.
'Or see a
newt,' added Moss.
and then we're off into talk about these changes and the men's speculation
about causes. The 'Idylls' are dynamic: they don't propose nostalgia for a
fixed moment in time, as - in a parallel to the book as a whole - memory and
change preoccupy the protagonists. They make frequent references to 'former
times' or to the dead, even 'picturing what it must have been like'. There's
an explicit listing of changes in the second one:
when they were sitting on the headlands in the Small Fields,
discussed the changes they had seen and a debate arose about
greatest change had happened in their lifetime.
Martin Riordan is at the heart of these conversations, wise and always
'That was a
great change,' my father said. 'And you, Alf, what would you
We're already prepared for his role; he was cast as 'Silenus' keeping his
wisdom quiet in the poem which immediately precedes 'Idylls'. He marvels at a
red deer buck, manages a new Government Inspector (as well as a bull), keeps
history alive: (this from 7)
'...an old road
came through the farm and exited via Keegan's Passage
Pound Road...By day and even at night there was a traffic of carts
people...All sorts who might stop at the pump for talk and
The 'Idylls' can be funny too, Martin talking all the while about the stars
when the job in hand is to get the hopeless hound to chase a rabbit caught by
lamplight. At their close, Martin speaks of his favourite place on the land,
'Where the sloe bush straddles the stream.' (He gets drunk, too.)
'Mediums', the poems which follow 'Idylls', are Maurice Riordan's later and
adult memories of his father, from specific moments handling an animal, to
their talk, or to a hilarious romp built up from the many times the older man
might have said 'I didn't get where I am by...' The old man's still speaking
after his death in the short final section 'Understorey', walking the land
with his son and still present in his favourites places and old coat.
The book's not only a tribute to a father, but an absorbing reflection on how
memory sifts, invents itself, shifts, repeats and moves on. It's almost a
relief to find something about it I can say I don't like - 'The January
Birds', its final 'life goes on' villanelle. And the cover, too: Faber's
colour combinations have come up with orange for this one; magenta and
turquoise text. Altogether too much.
The very same
shade of orange is on the back cover and spine of Idris Caffrey's Relatively
Unscathed, here with
pale blue ( a combination that makes the spine hard to read at any distance)
and it sits uneasily with the saturated indigo and lime yellow on the front.
I was interested to have a look at a Cinnamon Press book. It opens and
handles well, but they've still a way to go with the proof-reading: short
poems in particular can be killed by typos, and one of them falls right in
the middle of the first line of the first poem.
While this is a collection of occasional poems, many share the title poem's
theme of time passing:
have come and gone
and now there
is only acceptance -
thankfulness almost that I came
Days end, seasons end, and life itself, even 'The Last Day of Autumn'
the sun drops behind the hill
and the day
retreats into the dark.
The writing can often be too explicit for my taste. Of a yellow balloon
floating in 'Elan Valley' Idris Caffrey writes 'so brief its stay'. That's
enough for me, I take the point and don't need telling 'so brief mine'. I
prefer the poems, such as 'Light Years' in which he leaves the line about his
father 'he spends more time with my sister now' to do its work.