The long goodbye
Bernard O'Donoghue Chatto & Windus, 56pp, £8.99
Bernard O'Donoghue's fourth collection of poetry is peopled largely by the dead: not only the ghosts of the poet's friends and relatives, but also the voices of other writers - most notably Yeats and Joyce - who are emblems of an Ireland that O'Donoghue has left behind, but cannot leave alone.
The marvellous first poem, "The Day I Outlived My Father", sets the tone. The sense of guilt and disloyalty at having survived a loved one, which, even years after the event, is one of grief's oddest signatures, rubs up against the iron realisation of aloneness: "Yet no one sent me flowers, or even/asked me out for a drink. If anything/it makes it worse, your early death, that/having now at last outlived you, I too/have broken ranks . . . "
From that simple beginning the poem opens out in its second half to an understanding of hitherto unsensed possibilities: "So I am in new territory from here on:/must blaze my own trail, read alone/ the hooftracks in the summer-powdered dust/and set a good face to the future:/at liberty at last like mad Arnaut/to cultivate the wind, to hunt the bull/on hare-back, to swim against the tide."
Those seven lines are an object lesson in poetic compression, in the kind of jack-in-the-box surprise that only the most accomplished poet can spring. Arnaut, the 12th-century Provencal troubadour (who is credited, incidentally, with the invention of the sestina) was admired by Dante, translated by Ezra Pound, and finished up, as it were, being ventriloquised by T S Eliot in the denouement of The Waste Land. In Dante's Purgatory, Arnaut is one of the shades the poet encounters in the refining fire, referred to by the Bolognese poet Guido Guinizelli as "il miglior fabbro" (the phrase Eliot used in dedicating his poem to Pound). "I am Arnaut," he tells us, "who weep and sing as I go." So from the ordinariness of "new territory" and "blaze my own trail", the horizon of O'Donoghue's poem expands with extraordinary rapidity. Not only do we hear the echoes of Beckett's swirlingly bleak affirmation at the close of The Unnamable - "You can't go on, I must go on, I'll go on" - but we are plunged into Dante's Purgatory with its exquisite balance of shame and hope, penitence and determination.
One of the things Dante admired about Arnaut was his use of common language for uncommon purposes, and Outliving is a good example. The tone is quietly conversational, guileless; the mode a narrative or short story - or almost, at times, like a shaggy-dog story. Some are unapologetically small poems, but drily funny, such as the one about the Irishman trying to blag his way on to the ferry home for free: "I must get back/for the funeral, sir; my mother's passed away./Sometimes of course she had; more times she hadn't." Others make a play on some small point of difference between England and Ireland that may just have a larger significance. "Wind in the Willows" points out that Kenneth Grahame's archetypally English children's story couldn't have been written "in our neck/of the woods, because - misnamers of everything - /we called them salleys". In "The Salley Gardens" a few pages later, the point is remembered, only this time it is freighted with the ages-long anguish of oppression: "But how could we have sung our songs/with foreign heels upon our hearts . . . ? On the branches of willows, like a jacket/hung by a worker on a hot day,/our harps too hung in sacrifice . . ."
Like much else here, that poem seems to posit a community of grieving, an appreciation of the shared nature of the human imperatives. In "The Company of the Dead" we find a narrator who relishes the departed because "they've no unrealised agendas . . . /They're no trouble round the place." At other times, though, the mood is grimly solitary, comfortless and cruelly honest. At the end of "Celebrities", the contrast between the narrative and lyric voices is intense and brutal, as the narrator meets an old and unloved acquaintance for the last time: "His eyes were full of tears. We were sad/In that sweet air that basks in sunlight./But who among the angelic orders heard us/When we cried? No one. No one listens."
Adam Newey is poetry critic of the NS