November 2008

Janis Lull


Reality Check by Dennis O'Driscoll

Certain poets -- or certain poems -- seem to know everything. Take Dennis O’Driscoll’s “Cassandra:”

         Though we’d buried
                  our heads for ages
         like spent fuel rods,
                  her prophecies are
         a hot topic suddenly
                  on every chat show.
         There’s not a taxi driver
                  who can’t repeat
         her words like racehorse
                  tips, a dead cert.

Cassandra is steamed up about global warming here, but that’s just one of the many prophecies we’ve all been working hard to ignore. Others remain, “like spent fuel rods,” waiting to surface: bubbles, crashes, wrecks. At the moment, though, most of us are still in denial, along with O’Driscoll’s speaker:

         How late is ‘too late’?
         How up-to-date is she on
         current scientific R & D?

As the diction suggests (“chat show,” “dead cert”), O’Driscoll is not an American. He’s Irish, well-known in that country and throughout the U.K. Reality Check, his first collection put out by a US publisher, should help him find more readers here.

Writing in Slate (2003), Adam Kirsch compared O’Driscoll to Philip Larkin, in part because, like Larkin, he has a day job that isn’t teaching, and he writes poems about it. The back cover of Reality Check describes the poet as a “civil servant for nearly forty years,” and although we don’t know exactly what he does, we know what it feels like, from “Meeting Points”:

         You’re not quite sure you’ve met; yet, some
         pheromone of officialdom in the air
         elicits a half nod from you as you pass:
         your reflex reaction to his comparable suit
         and tie;                             

From these snippets, you can tell O’Driscoll favors internal rhyme, which he often uses to underscore his dry wit. Here’s another example, from “Skywriting,” the long poem in sections that takes up the second half of the book:

         Such an old stalwart, the sun,
         always rising to the occasion,
         never missing a day, raising crops
         of maize to ripeness

O’Driscoll writes about Ireland, letting us know in poems like “Bread and Butter” that he’s old enough to remember the “pre-focaccia, pre-tortilla days,” but also that those days are gone forever:

         Irish taste buds configured in the bread-and-butter
         era, the donkey-cart-to-creamery age that no longer
         dares to speak its shabby name, shamefully hunger
         sometimes for the old values of the ham sandwich

Still, he won’t tolerate sentimentality: not about Ireland, motherhood, aging, or death. In “Fifty O’Clock,” another poem that seems to know it all, he dismisses nostalgia about as well as it can be dismissed:

         That I regret everything goes without saying.
         What I did. What I didn’t.
         The time I bought. The time I sold.
         Not to have waited. Not to have acted.
         To have kept my mouth shut.
         To have opened my big mouth.

Of course. Now that he puts it that way, it’s obvious. I regret everything, too. But having said what goes without saying (don’t we always say it, anyway?), it’s time to move on. O’Driscoll uses a lot of catch phrases, breathing new life into them even as he takes advantage of their aura of plain speaking. The title poem, for instance, opens with chilling simplicity:

         Death does not come cheap
         and is paid for in lumpectomies.
         In bone marrow skimmed from relatives.
         In sterile hardware ransacking soft parts.

The chill comes from the word “skimmed” more than any other, as if donor marrow were collected by boiling bones. Lines such as “Death does not come cheap,” appealingly straightforward, nevertheless carry risk for the poet. They stand ready, in their directness, to humble any fancy metaphors or figures that occur nearby. For the most part, as with “skimmed,” or “ransacking,” O’Driscoll’s choices can stand the scrutiny. (I still have some reservations about the “old elastic-stockinged / aspens with the shakes” in “Skywriting.”)

No, there isn’t much nostalgia in these poems, not nearly as much as in Larkin’s, or, to cite another likely comparison, Seamus Heany’s. And yet, there’s this:

         Not a blot on the sky’s escutcheon.
         Not a cloud on the sea’s horizon.
         Sea and sky are indivisible here,
         invisibly threaded together, blue to blue,
         the seam that separates them
         barely traceable by the eye.
         Then sunset and evening star.
The description is modern and matter-of-fact, loaded, at first, with the old chestnuts that O’Driscoll likes to revive. “Then sunset and evening star.” This is an old chestnut, too, a line from Tennyson. It comes into O’Driscoll’s poem as such echoes come into the mind, from the joining of memory and occasion. The poem is a narrative of the mind; you know because “Then” is not part the original poem. But if you recall that poem, “Crossing the Bar,” and especially if you learned it when you were young, as O’Driscoll undoubtedly did, the echo changes everything:

Sunset and evening star,
  And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
  When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
  Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
  Turns again home.

For the most part, we never think about Tennyson’s soaring, un-ironic eloquence, and we certainly don’t miss it, any more than the Irish miss the donkey cart. But as O’Driscoll reminds us, there was a loveliness in it that has pretty much gone out of our world. (And a long tradition, too. If I told you “such a tide as moving seems asleep” was from Shakespeare, could you be sure it wasn’t?) After the quotation, O’Driscoll’s poem soars a bit, too, with the wonderfully allusive image of the sunset as musical notation, “flecks / of paradisal plumage showing / through the closing bars of sky.” Come to think of it, this plain-speaking poet does a fair amount of soaring, although seldom without at least a hint of irony. Near the end of “Skywriting,” for instance, he writes, as he often does, about painting:

         Seurat’s paint becomes so light
         it evaporates into its own haze,
         atomises, breaks up like an
         out-of-range phone conversation;

This simile couldn’t have occurred to Seurat or Tennyson. It’s almost enough to justify the existence of the mobile phone.

Reality Check by Dennis O'Driscoll
Copper Canyon Press
ISBN: 1556592809
80 Pages