People have been shot for less. But in the darkest hour before dawn, when the mind plays tricks and metaphors jumble, it can be satisfying to take a blunt axe and split all of Irish poetry forcibly in two. Why do so many of my twenty-something peers—who have degrees in French and Philosophy from Dublin 4, who go on J1 to California and Erasmus to Berlin—insist on writing about rural funerals, local rows and bogmen? In my fevered waking dream, I give Heaney a hard stare. As if to say don’t look at me, he jerks a thumb back at Kavanagh and Yeats. They advance menacingly. Luckily, Mahon appears stage left, Beckett and MacNeice dancing on his shoulders, and zaps Seamus, Paddy and Dubya B with his stun-ray eyes. Result: we’re allowed young poets like Paul Perry, not a bogman about them, and I can go back to sleep.
Perry’s is an itinerant poetry, wandering optimistically over the page and around the world. As in Mahon, place in his Orchid Keeper does not root but keeps things moving. Mahon has tended to swap place names around in revisions of his poems, as if Rotterdam really could be anywhere. So many place names figure in Perry’s volume—Berlin, Yucatan, Hatyai, DublinSohoParisTexas Ballinamuck— that they blur into each other and mean nowhere. His is an unapologetic wandering, without even Mahon’s troubled nostalgia. Mahon’s typical location is the seashore, unavoidably recalling Ovid’s exile. He is forever on the edge of somewhere else looking bitterly back. The title of his first collection referred to the arduous mail-boat crossing of the Irish Sea, suggesting to Terence Brown ‘a migratory imagination for which journeys away from and occasionally back to a native place would constitute a defining way of being in the place.’ The imagination of Perry’s Orchid Keeper is equally a migratory one. But in the era of cheap flights, Perry is no exile on a faraway shore. The trope is inverted. He speaks from an Irish beach, looking back at former travels and the incorrigibly plural possibilities of then and now and a year’s time:
…let’s just say I stayed
not here but back where we started our trip
settled down if you like maybe I’d have met
someone lost as you would have it
lost to another life and no longer playing
the game which makes me wonder what
possible lives we could have had… …I’m
not making any plans
I don’t know where I’ll be come twelve months (‘The Surfers of Portstewart’)
He recalls an Akka tribesman displaying his wares and pronouncing each thing beautiful, and everything afterwards is beautiful. Ireland grows exotic: surfers at Portstewart are keepers of some Oriental faith, ‘the magic in my day // with their devotional practice.’ Perry becomes what Mahon celebrated in MacNeice: a tourist in his own country.
A tourist in his own country is still a tourist everywhere else. Parisian flaneurs equipped themselves with tortoises on leads so that they would not be tempted to join in the hustle of real life, forced to walk slowly enough to merely observe. Perry does not shy away from admitting what is problematic in the modern-day flaneur, what is not quite real life about this mode of knowledge. In ‘Sunday in Belize’ he is one of ‘…two impetuous tourists, a ridiculous pair of Pauls, an Englishman and an Irishman, a joke really or something that sounds like one, imperial or colonial, and without a punch-line between us…’ That poem ends with sudden random violence, inexplicable to the foreign Pauls. Another is threatened by the pettiness of travel—’the food, the hotel curfews, the nodding // man with the tin-foiled beer, the blocked / and leaking shower’—and only by the skin of its teeth becomes ‘a journey deserving and hard’ (‘Metro’).
Looser and sparser than Perry’s first volume, The Orchid Keeper is at once bohemian in function and sophisticated in form. It refuses to circumscribe itself with national or any other bounds. Things lope easily on. After the early revelation that ‘a seal’s heart is full of love’ spoken so brilliantly as gospel (‘The Seals at Mill Bay, Rathlin’), I don’t think I was pulled short once or made gasp. I might have liked more meat, more drama. But meat and drama, after all, are not the realm of the flaneur; rather, quiet insistence that—as in the title poem—we be ‘nothing less than amazed’ at the world as it unfolds.