Here we have two collections concerned in very different ways with emigration, that stubbornly and understandably recurring trope in Irish letters. Joseph Horgan was born in Birmingham, of Irish parents, in the 1960s. To a large extent his Slipping Letters Beneath the Sea charts a landscape common to many first collections: nature, childhood, family, the peaks and troughs of the poet’s journey toward poetry. Yet running through it is an economic migrant’s grief, a red-hot stream of anger towards the land his family was forced to abandon but cannot forget.
Alan Jude Moore’s generation, on the other hand, is one that has enjoyed an altogether more positive experience of migration. For them the term ‘Ryanair’ conjures up not teary farewells in Dublin airport, but cheap, boozy weekends in Prague and is shorthand for Irish capitalism at its most dazzlingly expansive and aggressive. Unlike Horgan’s parents Moore voluntarily left behind the land of his birth, spending much of this decade in Moscow, before returning to Ireland in 2006. The atmosphere of the great Russian capital infuses Lost Republics and provides the setting for the majority of its most effective poems.
This superb second collection finds Moore’s distinctive voice, established in 2004’s Black State Cars, resonating with a new clarity and confidence. Influenced by the neo-modernist tendency but not necessarily of it, Moore avoids the languid, lyrical tonalities striven for and sometimes reached by the majority of his contemporaries. Yet his work could by no means be described as prosaic. His is a robust, sinewy music that once adjusted to has a strangely entrancing charm. Take the following extract from ‘Sukharevskaya’:
In the bosom of the Empire, learn to clap your hands
like the beauty queens with sunken chests
from a town outside Chernobyl,
who stare at the moon, waiting to be drawn
like the tides along a pavement.
Many of the most powerful things here are oddly cinematic in nature. ‘Alphaville’ pans from the back rooms of Moscow billiard bars ‘out across the ring road past the metro line’, to Olympic Gardens that are filled with the human and non-human detritus. A similar urban panorama is to be found in ‘National Holiday’, which provides an exhilarating sense of the poet’s disembodied eye sweeping the city, peering into the lives of what seem to be randomly selected Muscovites. The beautiful poem ‘Snow Trucks’ generates a more serene cinematic effect, as it lovingly depicts a cityscape ‘heavy with powder’.
Moore’s Moscow is a city of paradox. It is both a town on the make with what might be described as Nevadan cynicism, and a hidebound technocratic bureaucracy. It is suffused by both the grasping capitalism referenced in ‘Manezh’ with its ‘new Moscow rising’ and the listless Chekhovian decay so movingly detailed in ‘Iodine’. It is a city that sprouts banks and casinos in an orgy of restless development even as its past layers rise up from under the paving stones. Moore portrays it as a place whose eager stride towards a sleek, gleaming future is forever retarded by the burden of the troubled history depicted in ‘The Palace’.
Violence, in fact, is one of the collection’s most prominent leitmotifs. ‘Émigré’, for instance, is an unusually successful meditation on the Middle East, a topic that has wrestled many a well-meaning poem to its doom. Russia’s bloody past haunts poems such as ‘New Soviet Sky’ and the obligatory series on Mandelstam, who perhaps has finally overtaken Celan in the race toward poetic sainthood. The country’s turbulent present is referenced in ‘Main Street Bombs’ and ‘Manezh’. This intense awareness of violence looms over the book’s first half like a tower block, lending it a brooding apocalyptic atmosphere. ‘Zapad’ sums it up with its desire to ‘let all our promises be one last bullet’.
Yet there is also a gentle, more conventionally romantic side to Moore’s writing. This is especially evident in the collection’s second half which leaves behind Moscow for a disorientating jaunt through continental Europe, taking us all the way from Dubrovnik to Dublin. ‘April’ artfully captures a moment of exquisite nostalgia, while ‘Balcony’ and ‘The Student’ possess a haiku-like fragility. In ‘Marriage’ the poet describes how his lover ‘tore promises from my lips / like you were unravelling ribbons’. These tender, dislocated pieces perfectly counterpoint the book’s weight and its darkness. Like much of Lost Republics they are poems that demand to be lived with.
An altogether more damaging sense of dislocation can be found in Jospeh Horgan’s collection. Slipping Letters Beneath the Sea remembers those vast cohorts of Irish men who lived out their lives in Kilburn bedsits, finding consolation perhaps in whiskey and Radio Eireann broadcasts. ‘Like Skin’, the collection’s opening poem, remembers these lost souls who spent their lives ‘Placing bets, buying drinks, staring at the ceiling’.
In poem after poem Horgan depicts the crushing indignities of this emigrant lifestyle: the terse telegrams announcing deaths from over the water, the casual discrimination, the sense, so vividly portrayed in ‘When the Irish went to England to have Children’, of belonging neither in their homeland nor in the land they now reluctantly call home. Another prominent aspect of this emigrant experience is portrayed in ‘Cathedral Light’, which captures perfectly the mingled ‘futility and abandon of afternoon drinking’.
Some of Horgan’s most affecting poems deal with emigrant loneliness, a theme familiar from many an Irish sing-song. Horgan makes several worthwhile contributions to this genre. ‘A Mathematical Love of Distance’ finds the speaker losing himself in ‘imaginary Connemaras on the wall’. ‘Minor Movements in the History of Emigration’ depicts an emigrant haunted by and pining for his native Irish soil:
I leave knowing
that I will only ever be
of this parish.
The sea mocks me,
Childhood voices taunt me.
Most memorable are the poems where Horgan gives rein to his anger at Ireland for failing so much of her population, for forcing them into a brutal but unspectacular form of exile. Poems such as ‘Citizen’ and ‘Coming Back’ are bracing in their bitterness. ‘To Those Who Have Inherited a Country’ provides the emigrants’ perspective on the Celtic Tiger boom, wryly declaring that ‘Ah, if we’d only known / We’d have stayed’. These poems sting like whiskey and imbibing them it is easy to see why Horgan was garlanded with 2004’s Patrick Kavanagh award.
But there is more here than emigration. The wonderful ‘Imperial Road’ and ‘Demesne’ dramatise a city boy’s encounters with nature, as does a well observed sequence on bird-life. The poet’s childhood is vividly conjured in ‘Braves’ and ‘Kitchen Sink’, poems that stress his keen sense of family loyalty and inheritance. The fear and indignity of growing older are tackled in ‘Diving’ and in ‘Job’, a fine piece that might have been even finer with the removal of its last four lines.
On this showing Horgan is a poet whose future progress will surely be of interest and deserves to be monitored closely. However, like many first collections Slipping Letters Beneath the Sea could have benefited from pruning. Losing ten or fifteen of the weaker poems would have considerably sharpened the book’s definition. The pseudo-mediaeval cover image is also poorly chosen, being not in the least reflective of the poet’s up-to-the-minute tone and subject matter. But enough grumbling. Horgan’s poems deserve to find a readership, especially when he’s at his acerbic and bitter best.