Oxford, OX1 1DP
Tel: 01865 286591
or contact us >
|Conor O'Callaghan's The Sun King reviewed by Maria Johnston|
Here Comes the Sun King!
This review is also available to download in PDF format: Review (68kb)
In 'Required Fields', a poem about, among other things, the impossibility of translating a life, via memory, back to where you thought you had left it, the release of the Beatles' 'Hey Jude' in 1968 (just weeks before the poet himself was born) marks a point in time and life, much as the same band's first LP does in Philip Larkin's 'Annus Mirabilis'; Larkin is one of O'Callaghan's most obvious influences, along with Muldoon who was also, as his musical autobiography 'Sleeve Notes' attests, listening out beyond Ireland's radio frequencies in the 1960s and 1970s in ways that would become formative to his poetics. That Jude was himself, as Beatles-scholar Walter Everett has pointed out, the patron saint of desperate situations seems also relevant here, and the strains of 'Hey Jude' carry us back through O'Callaghan's oeuvre to 2005's Fiction wherein 'the bridge / of "Norwegian Wood" lilted out of key' is one of the 'out-takes' that, Abbey-Road-style, makes up this poem of 'leftovers from a cleaned-up final version'. That 'bridge' is not insignificant, as O'Callaghan has always been a poet of transitions, segues, connections and crossings. Singing slightly 'out of key' is a mark of O'Callaghan's aesthetic also. He is the most sonically alive of poets, alert to how music beats time, transports us, transcends us, carries us to other worlds, as it restores, replays and repeats and is capable of infinite variation. That the cover of the book features a collage by the American mixed-media collage artist Paul Bright chimes with all of this. A self-confessed dumpster-diver for detritus, Bright has declared that now we all 'live in collage world' and the poet shares the collage artist's process of 'working with "the found"'. Fittingly, for a poet who has absorbed the American tradition, O'Callaghan's approach seems to me to remember Elizabeth Bishop's description to Robert Lowell, after reading his Life Studies, of 'the stretch where everything and anything suddenly seemed material for poetry - or not material, seemed to be poetry, and all the past was illuminated in long shafts here and there, like a long-waited-for sunrise.' 'I could use / a sunrise', O'Callaghan admits in 'Nest of Tables'. What Bishop regarded as the 'purpose' of art - 'that rare feeling of control, illumination' - is the spirit that breathes into The Sun King as O'Callaghan beats radiant gold out of the dark shards, the refuse and refusals, of life, and does so across poetic lines that disorient with their strange, shifting, glancing harmonies.
'Once there was a way to get back homeward', a nostalgic McCartney reframes the words of the seventeenth-century dramatist Thomas Dekker in the lullaby that begins the Abbey Road medley's fanfare finish, and O'Callaghan has always written with an acute understanding of how 'home' is always out of bounds; if it exists it is, perhaps, only in the music, in the art, that we are at home in. Much as the word 'console' refuses to console us with a fixed meaning (as the opening line of the collection reminds us), the idea of belonging to one fixed place only must necessarily narrow the breath and breadth of poetry. O'Callaghan refuses to be tied. Indeed, in a piece written in 2004 for Poetry Ireland Review, he recalled asking himself during a despairing moment at a symposium on Patrick Kavanagh early in his career: 'This is Irish Poetry. Do I really hope to belong here?' O'Callaghan's Groucho-Marx-style attitude to the worn-out Irish identity question is most refreshing. In 'Required Fields', as the speaker's lapses of memory prevent him from filling in the 'empty boxes' of an online form and thus retrieving a past that fills boxes in a distant warehouse, the word 'timothy' acts like a motif linking the poem in theme and tone back to Paul Muldoon's 'Third Epistle to Timothy' from Hay (1998), a collection that was similarly preoccupied with upturning the fields of 'home' and with all form of boundary lines including, inevitably, the 'borders' of the North of Ireland. As Michael Allen observed of Muldoon's 'Epistle'; 'the immigrant poet is deferentially claiming his place in the American tradition which grew out of Leaves of Grass'. O'Callaghan is at home in many traditions. Along with Whitman's Leaves of Grass in 'The Sun King', The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Derek Mahon's baedeker for 'The Snow Party', later taken up by Muldoon in Mules), is let fall at a key moment of displacement in 'Mid to Upper Seventies', as the third-person narrator, locating himself in a 'sunroom', 'forty miles or so / south of the Virginia line', realises belatedly of his past self: 'it takes him a really long time, / years in fact, to recover his place.' Like Muldoon, O'Callaghan is a poet of borderline poetic disorder. Indeed, his description of Louis MacNeice as the 'laureate of in-betweenness' serves for him also, having grown up ,as he is given to remark in interview 'half-way between Dublin and Belfast' in the border town of Dundalk during the years of the 'Troubles'. O'Callaghan reminds us of the act of transgression that is bound up in the meaning of the verb 'to translate', as evidenced in the liberties he takes with his captivating, erotically-charged translation of Lorca's 'La Casada Infiel' as 'The Unfaithful Housewife'. Poets have to cross lines, if they are to get anywhere.
The collection opens in 'Lordship', once a small, unremarkable townland near Dundalk, Co. Louth but now, thanks to O'Callaghan's stunningly unique take on it, a virtuosic, promiscuous, fragmentary narrative that plays fast and loose with identifiable place as it prefers to fashion its own x-rated version of what it means 'to come' from there instead (not for nothing was O'Callaghan's previous collection titled Fiction). Readers will find themselves losing their place more than once thanks to its syntactic contortions, and, that the Dundalk Tourist Board (if there is one) won't exactly be putting it on a plaque in the town square is a testament to O'Callaghan's skilful handling as places become spinning plates, the poet 'flying beneath the radar'. Similarly, Googling the title of the endlessly diverting 'Division Street' returns a plethora of possible city locations. Although detective work leads us to Sheffield, we could be anywhere in the world's wide web; we could be in Chicago. The poem becomes its own place. The joy is in the movement, the formal shifts and surprises, the kinky line-kinks, slips, blips and slides:
The grass is dappled by branches
Similarly, mantra-like lines from Derek Mahon's 'Disused Shed in Co. Wexford' and Frost's 'Directive' are rebooted into the 21st century to book-end O'Callaghan's virtual fantasia 'The Server Room' in which the 'sun' of 'Sun King' may now include Sun Microsystems as the poet swims through the digital age, through computer language, series of commands, codes and data, to become 'whole again' in this place of endless refresh-ing and of ecstatic linguistic refreshment. As with that 'disused shed' of old, a server room might now seem like the most unromantic, most unpoetic of sites, yet O'Callaghan casts his unusual cast of mind on it to make it the most interesting place to inhabit; it is, after all, the function of poetry to take us into spaces that we would never think of venturing. 'Expressive power' is a term used in programming language, as in poetry, and O'Callaghan shows how everything can potentially be made into poetic language; one leaves the server room, the poem, at once exhausted and exhilarated by the sheer power of language as a constantly renewing and renewable resource, and of the hydroelectric energy of poetic form itself:
Up here on the lam, the limb of oneself,
Thus, in The Sun King, O'Callaghan's sonnet in freestyle strokes, 'The End of the Line', looks back to Groarke's poem of the same title 'The End of the Line' in Flight (2002) and its questions of travel: 'Home. You've gone as far as you care to go / in that direction. Nothing comes of it'. Theirs has been a decades-long, richly layered poetic-musical exchange across land and sound barriers. It was, after all O'Callaghan as poet that 'stirs / that blackbird/ into song' in Groarke's 'Song' (from Juniper Street, 2006). O'Callaghan and Groarke have long sung in close harmony, singing in call and response across collections as partners in art, as in life, and the fact that they are the parents of now teenage children means that the line between life and art is crossed and recrossed. Thus, his perfectly-paced, revisit poem 'Kingdom Come' remembers the title poem of Groarke's Other People's Houses that was dedicated 'to Conor' and published in tandem with O'Callaghan's Seatown in 1999:
Who'd have thought a year
In 'The Bulk Collection' (which winningly makes the term for a rubbish collection of large waste items sound like an art exhibit) the poet - a star-gazer and reader of the skies after MacNeice, Frost and Stevens - 'looks up' words in dictionaries as one would look up at the night sky's constellations. Thus objects abandoned on the sidewalk become verbal objets d'art:
are like synonyms
The collection climaxes with an extended improvisation, The Pearl Works, which began life on Twitter in 2012 and records a year in the life of the poet in a series of 52 tweet-couplets of 140 characters, one for each week of the year. Taking its title from a disused cutlery factory in Sheffield (but also, this reader assumes with a nod to the BlackBerry Pearl smartphone device), its epigraph from Sylvia Plath's 'Mystic' signals the importance of making and remaking, of continuance, in art as in life, and in moving from past to present, from shadow into light, as many of the collection's leitmotifs (or light motifs) are reprised throughout. Prayerful and playful by turns, it culminates in a mesmeric circling around the letter O into open-ended and open-mouthed wordlessness, wonderment, and oneness:
O closing words, O lovely hopeless song (one more!) invoking love gone south