The Water Stealer, Maurice Riordan, Faber and Faber, 2015, 64pp, £9.99

Gangs of Shadow, Michael O’Neill, Arc Publications, 2014, 80pp, £8.99

Maurice Riordan’s The Water Stealer seems to take place halfway between
South London and Lisgoold in County Cork. As the crow (or robin, or lark or
owl, to mention just three of the many birds in this book) flies, this would, in
my estimation, set it in Swansea or environs. Except it can’t be of course, for
Riordan’s territory is virtual, a dream location where past and present, Ireland
and London, youth and age intermingle and exchange positions. It is no surprise
then that so many of the poems evoke what might be called non-spaces,
especially those of travel: train stations, airports, hotel rooms, parking bays.
Nor that the many domestic sites evoked are fragile and dilapidated, in severe
need – like the drifting, acerbic, somewhat louche narrator himself – of some
TLC, or at least some DIY. As one poem puts it, the typical house in this
collection is ‘spacious,/ but with a leaking roof and timber walls so frail/the
rickety bedroom’s on the point of caving in.’

These lines come from ‘The Age of Steam’, a tremendous lyric and a good
example of the elisions between here and there that I have been describing.
It is a poem of four sentences, three of them longish, and all expertly set
off against a line that never quite coincides with the trochaic hexameter at
which it constantly hints. This kind of formal shadowing, which is true of
a lot of the book’s lovely conversational music, adds to the sense of a lost
but somehow still accessible stability. In several poems this lacking yet
present origin is figured in the person of the speaker’s late Mother, ‘who
lives on most nights in my dreams’. Dreams in which the narrator’s house,
though identified as on ‘Surrey Road’, also includes a spectral extension
that seems to have been transported from an Irish farmhouse circa 1960:
It isn’t Surrey Road, and then it is but has
an added room, which somehow all that decade
– the children growing up – I never knew was there,
an old-style parlour with sideboard, knick-knacks,
gramophone, cuckoo-clock, and a Sacred Heart

The introduction of the Sacred Heart, that highly baroque image beloved
of popular Catholicism, forces the poem to up the rhetorical ante, finding
in the fiery heart of Christ another analogue for the combination of presence
and absence that animates the collection. Thus the devotional image
is described as:

offering its coal of glowing flesh, which coils and swells,
yet is solid in the Virgin’s hands, its geometry
elusive, or rather as I wake in the full coherence
of the dream, at the first thought the image slips
beyond perception – as once in Victoria station,
heading for home, for Lisgoold, and about to find
the train to take me there, I stood in bliss under
the departure boards, those mechanical wooden ones,
when with the noise of skittles they flipped to Sanskrit.

The image-chain of Mother/Sacred Heart/Sanskrit in ‘The Age of Steam’ is
typical of the way this wonderful collection of poems effortlessly connects
the intimately personal, the ephemeral and the far-flung to fabulous effect.
Sanskrit is another image of origin of sorts, long thought to have a privileged
relation to the Indo-European tongue of 10,000 years ago.

Michael O’Neill’s Gangs of Shadow shares with The Water Stealer an interest
in evanescent images that tantalize by endlessly withdrawing, though
here there is a more explicit sense of the personal trials such a mode might
be responding to. Several poems in the book meticulously document medical
procedures or refer to injuries or illnesses of various kinds. Others reflect
on the early loss of religious faith or observe – and approve of – the
continued faith of others, while being unable to share it. The fine poem
‘Elsewhere’, for example, while admiring religion’s ‘grail of total strangeness’,
also implicitly reproves such otherworldliness through its own satisfyingly
muscular manipulation of syntax and sound:

I’d welcome such a thing, in fact, no more
Than wintry repetition, even as
I’d hope the sea might never
Lose its air of danger held in check,
Or as I’d pray that some I’ve known
Might never crush the wish that those
They’d love might pass across to heaven
Like beaten ships discovering a shore.

The title of the book comes from an early, unnerving moment when a
speaker sees his own spirit as a shadow absorbed by other shadows pooling
on a stream. Later another poem modulates the title slightly by describing
someone waiting for the ‘gang of selves and non-selves/ I’d call these lines
to walk/across the poems’ stage-set’. The lyric poem’s concern to construct
voices and selves is evoked here in a manner that reminds one of O’Neill’s
day job as an important scholar of Romanticism. Other poems reinforce
the theme. In a collection full of references to Italy, it is no surprise that a
translation from Dante crops up, but O’Neill’s choice of Canto XXI from
Purgatorio is particularly apt. For here the poet Statius – a shade himself –
famously reflects on his own facility for conjuring a convincing presence
from the shadowy, flitting realm of words and images. Gangs of Shadows
seems at once fearful, dismissive and astonished by the shades it manages
to raise, and it is in this range of conflicting emotions that its considerable
merit lies.

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