Once upon a time, the medium of pop music was the 45 rpm single. Then, with the Beatles, albums became more than just a couple of hit singles wrapped up in a bunch of throwaway tracks. In 1967, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band saw, for the first time, the album as a unified whole.
Before that, bands had released collections of unrelated, randomly sequenced songs, just as poets once published collections of unconnected lyrics and titled them Poems. Today it’s hard to imagine that an album, or a collection of poetry, might not be a unified entity, a thing in and of itself.
Katrina Vandenberg has written about putting together a collection of poems in terms of making a mixtape, or compilation tape, for a friend or crush—a familiar act for anyone teenaged before the MP3 player blew the album apart. She writes: ‘We value the book of poetry, in part, because it is as thoughtfully constructed as a Japanese bento box… Its whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a poem made from all of your poems.’
Lorna Shaughnessy’s collection Torching the Brown River is exquisitely constructed, as if with the mixtape or bento box in mind. Poems riff off each other; motifs return like drumbeats. Shaughnessy follows Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin in her concern with the charm, the fairytale, the supernatural. There is a touch of magic realism to her world.
Myth, almost inevitably, is one of the returning beats. King Solomon’s lover, Orpheus, Achilles, Antigone, all make an appearance. Mind you, this is something I could say of just about any contemporary Irish collection I pick up. There are questions to ask around this proliferation of myth in poetry. Is it merely a kind of intellectual freemasonry, as David Floyd has argued? A way of showing off the poet’s erudition?
Barthes said that myth ‘has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal.’ Myth says: This is how things have always been. And therefore: This is how things should always be.
Perhaps one thing poetry does, then, is question this justification, this apparent permanence. Many poets have explored versions of the mythical character of Penelope, for example—problematic because she is the archetypal stay-at-home wife. The last words of Dorothy Parker’s ‘Penelope’ are quietly vicious: ‘I shall sit at home, and rock; / Rise, to heed a neighbor’s knock; / Brew my tea, and snip my thread; / Bleach the linen for my bed. / They will call him brave.’
Eurydice is another feminine archetype who gets a raw deal. Reading John Wakeman’s A Sea Family, I skipped a breath at the disclosure that Orpheus’ downfall was Eurydice’s doing all along: ‘how her soft feet faltered, / Her soft hands shut his singing mouth / and turned him to her in the growing light.’ Now Shaughnessy lets Eurydice respond to this accusation:
What was it you doubted, Orpheus,
as you emerged towards the light?
… Oh poet of great power and little faith
who charmed the creatures with your song
and still could not believe the given thing.
The story becomes one of ongoing blame by man of woman:
Easier to blame my constant and unfaltering feet,
turn loss to contempt
and scorn my Thracian sisters.
—‘Eurydice to Orpheus’
This rereading of myth, then, remains an important task of both poetry and feminism.
On the other hand, among the best of O’Shaughnessy’s poems—immediately following ‘Eurydice to Orpheus’—is one that might be a riposte to Penelope’s ‘bittertalk’. ‘Unsung’ is a song of ‘[m]en who left to find something better, / found it, then found they had to leave again…’ These are the men who left their families behind as a way of supporting their families, who were ‘[r]obbed of their children’s childhood…’ These versions of Odysseus really were both tragic and brave.
The success of O’Shaughnessy’s treatment of fatherhood in ‘Unsung’ begs another interesting question: Does the poet’s gender matter? If we agree that the father-son relationship gets less attention in contemporary poetry than the mother-daughter one, and the male identity less than the female one, does it require male poets to redress the balance?
Pete Mullineaux’s collection, A Father’s Day, is billed as an exploration of ‘fathers and fatherhood in particular, as well as male identity in general.’ In her discussion of structuring a volume of poetry, Vandenberg warns against the collection that is too much about its title: ‘We’ve all seen books so focused on a theme that their individual poems are as bloodless and forgettable as the songs on an Emerson, Lake & Palmer album.’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is wonderful because there is so much diversity within its unity. Mullineaux flirts with the risk that his poems are too much about what they seem to be about, leaving less for the reader to puzzle over and play with.
I settle for a Valentine instead—
‘I love you Dad!’
There, it’s said.
His is a particularly contemporary version of male identity: we are treated to a ‘Group Hug at the Men’s Weekend’; the tribulations of a house husband; a Neil Young concert and a male nude as seen through the lens of modern art.
Time to go, one or two linger, unsure—
I’m offered a parting squeeze on the forearm,
around the muscle; light enough to do no harm,
set off no more alarm.
—‘Group Hug at the Men’s Weekend’
Yet for a woman who often wonders what it must be like to be male today, the recent shock of Dave Lordan’s The Boy in the Ring offered what felt like a more revelationary glimpse into the experience. Mullineaux’s men tend to behave as we women expect them to in our less sympathetic moments; they tend towards the stereotype.
But then Mullineaux’s ‘Men Knitting’ conjures up a magic realism every bit as gorgeous and resonant as the charms and fairytales colonised by Ireland’s wimmin poets. His ‘Father’s Day Reprise’ is a delightful exercise in absurdity with a stunning final blow. I only wish he had done more in this vein, eschewing the glib, wry observations he tends towards sometimes and instead meeting the strange head-on, giving us more of the beautiful surprise. Sometimes this collection is too much pop, not enough bento box.