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|Peter McDonald reviews Hawks and Doves by Alan Gillis|
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How often have you been excited by a new poem? Excited enough, that is, to pick up the phone and tell people about what you’ve just discovered? Like me, perhaps, you would answer well, no, not all that often. We all find different poems exciting for different reasons, of course; and the last two poems that had this particular effect on me were in the same book by the same author: in Alan Gillis’s debut collection Somebody, Somewhere (Gallery Press, 2004). On the first page of that book, out of nowhere so to speak, is a poem with the designedly unpromising title of ‘The Ulster Way’, which opens ‘This is not about burns or hedges./ There will be no gorse.’ In context – the context of poetry from Northern Ireland, that is, with all its baggage of themes, achievements, and personality over the last forty years – this struck me as a perfectly-pitched bit of impertinence, which the rest of the poems were actually able to rise to, and carry off faultlessly. (As someone who had himself just published a book called Pastorals, I felt properly chastised by all this too.) Now, there was actually a good deal of gorse in Gillis’s book – which offers its own kind of amusement. But the poem was not a joke, funny though its jokes were, and ended:
I was certainly listening by now. Another poem in that book, ‘Progress’ struck me immediately as one of the very best poems to have come out of (if that’s the phrase) the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a poem adequate to the conditions of peace in more adult, subtle and profound ways than some much-lauded (and much-quoted) material from poets many years Gillis’s senior. The poem still strikes me that way, and is only getting better with time.
Two poems like this are more than can be reasonably asked of any first volume and, if the rest of Somebody, Somewhere was perhaps more in keeping with a debut collection (stylistic and thematic debts too much on display, good writing slipping off the track and turning into the occasional bout of showing off), then it was also fresh, inventive, clever, and alert. Much better, in other words, than a great deal of contemporary poetry that goes its predictable way in Britain, glumly accepting praises and awards as the done deals they usually are.
With his new collection, Hawks and Doves, Gillis has moved up a gear, and produced a very substantial, haunting, and troubling book. Although he now lives and works in Scotland, Gillis has written a volume which puts into poetry a new Belfast – one which is partly ‘the new Belfast’ of contemporary perception – in such a way as to change the literary map. The strong precursor for Gillis is Ciaran Carson (too strong, at times, in his first book), whose poetry gave the city of Belfast an extraordinary (and often menacing) literary life; now, Gillis has moved on decisively, and has become secure in a voice that is all his own. Belfast also, of course, has been moving on in the meantime – into the life of a modern city, with all the good (and the bad) things that life generally entails. In the long poem which ends Hawks and Doves, ‘Laganside’, Gillis provides a wonderful panorama of the commercially regenerating city (regenerating now on the basis of a 27/7 service industry of fast food and drink), and its potentially unregenerate inhabitants:
This may seem a far cry from the lines of workers tramping home from the shipyards, but Gillis’s focus on Belfast is not in any simple way an ironic one. Indeed, this poem includes the armies of cranes that preside over the Belfast skyline, ‘looking towards their unused elders hung/ in sorrow in the dockyards to the east’, adding to this little conceit only ‘whether/ in sympathy or saying up yours, I’m not sure.’
Gillis’s great skill, which in this new book has reached its impressive maturity, lies in the extended sweep of description, and the panorama seems in many ways his natural mode. In this kind of writing, the central problem is how to combine momentum with detail – and there have been many failures over the years. Time and again, Gillis has startling success, as in his poem ‘Driving Home’, where a strong narrative (of striking a dog in the road, then driving on) is carried along with an extraordinary eye (and ear) for particulars, like ‘the sky churning/ buttermilk, lobster, apricot and kale’: the painterly brilliance here simultaneously churns up a kind of subliminal queasiness, entirely in keeping with the distaste in the story being told. All through the book, Gillis gives evidence of his ability to accumulate detail in ways that are telling, rather than random. In this, Gillis is heir to the Louis MacNeice of great urban poems like ‘Birmingham’, and there is much in Hawks and Doves that recalls – and brilliantly revivifies – MacNeice’s earlier manner.
But Gillis’s book is more than a series of accomplished performances; the volume has a coherence and a depth which many older poets would (or should) envy. Those old chestnuts, the public and the private, are put at odds in original ways in Gillis’s poetry; and here it is the completely convincing grasp of the particular, in time and place, which grounds his complex and dark intimations of the world’s troubles, and the self’s helplessness in the face of these. An additional strength is Gillis’s emergence as a poet of personal material, delivered with utter assurance and lack of affectation. Some poems, like the three-part ‘Harvest’, bring together the personal and the public very memorably: in writing about his own parents, and himself as a parent, Gillis can find unforced room for the discordant matter of ‘Trigger-happy tomcats and hornets’ with ‘their motherloads dead set/ on the clay-baked cities of Iraq’. The poem’s conclusion, which thinks about a son’s future, the parents’ past, and a jittery present, is perfectly judged:
Hawks and Doves will be seen, I think, as a decisive volume in the developing story of poetry from Northern Ireland, full of independence, imaginative strength, and a confidence that is fully justified. It is also entertaining, gripping and moving by turns, as Gillis follows a path that is impressively his own.
Alan Gillis, Hawks and Doves, Gallery Press. €11.95. 978-1-852354-17-6
© Peter McDonald, 2007
The views expressed by contributors to the reviews section of Poetry Matters are not those of Tower Poetry, or of Christ Church, Oxford, and are solely those of the reviewers.