Modern Romanticism

Me, Me and Not Me
, Tony Frisby (94pp, £10, Waterloo Press)
Gangs of Shadow
, Michael O'Neill (87pp, £8.99, Arc)
Dry Stone Work,
Brian Johnstone (103pp, £9.99, Arc)

'Forgive me for I do not know who I am'

Thus Tony Frisby lays down his lyrical mandate as he prepares his poetry to rationalise the 'uninvited occupants of that space I once thought my own' constructing an elaborate underworld populated with spectral doppelgangers, one-eyed bulls, nuns, the fearful MacFirbisig (inspired by Frisby's own ancestral clan) and a flock of crows with which to do so.

Frisby bounds through this philosophical minefield at a speed and grace which is invigorating, the poem is presented as a single long-narrative which intrigued me; though, initially I worried whether the poem would be able to contain the pace that it exhibits in the early pages. Happily, this early scepticism was soon supressed.

With effortless lyrical dialogue, Frisby lends a life to the occupants of his mind that, it seems from his forward, he cannot afford himself and increasingly the poet appears to be trapped in a self-inflicted prison that is reminiscent of other such allegorical narratives as the Divine Comedy
and Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The sections featuring the poet's interactions with his family are captured with an emotional sensitivity and honesty that is bracing. Exchanges with his uncle in particular rear above the narrative and cast a dark shadow over Frisby's search for his 'true' self, but this is tempered by a tender reconstruction of a memory from his childhood. The poet sits 'ears / cocked to the music on Radio ƒireann' beside his mother:

   Once again by the fire, sewing basket
   by your side, last year's jumper
   reduced to memory, balled and ready

   to be fashioned anew. I'm at the kitchen table,
   my penny exercise book open
   and as I chant my nine times table,
   you begin your sinless litany: knit one, purl one,

   slip a stitch, knit one, purl one, slip a stitch.
   Gob-smacked I watch the miracle,
   the past becoming present,
   and my future warmed by the exchange.

Such sustained self-introspection could, in lesser hands, be construed as an act of vanity - and undoubtedly, in some respects the quest for personal understanding is
an act of narcissism - but Frisby treats his subject with such stable poetic exploration that he himself barely features within the narrative. Rather than being the domain of the poet, Me, Me and Not Me constructs living area for the former occupants of his mind; a place for them to understand themselves by the Lacanian standard with which Frisby has judged his self.

A biography in poetry, Me, Me and Not Me
is a fascinating experimentation with the contemporary self, Frisby interrogates his past with an inquisitorial intensity that leads the reader in an affectionate attempt to understand and re-evaluate the place of the solitary poet in the contemporary social age.

Gangs of Shadow and the poems therein represent the work of a poet well-attuned and responsive to the physical and spiritual planes of the contemporary world. O'Neill's third collection brims with the lyrical allure and mysticism of traditional Romantic poetry.

A truly subtle collection, Gangs of Shadow
explores fusions of feeling throughout and champions seemingly Romantic ideals of a world more receptive to nature. Like Frisby's narrative discussion of the philosophies of identity, O'Neill's poetry typically expects something more from his reader, multiple meanings are woven throughout his poems and clever phrasing deconstructs familiar images with memorable flourish.

O'Neill appears to beg that the reader sit up and question their apathy, in poems such as 'The Voyage' and 'The Call' this message is crystallised. Both poems deal with the issue in their own manner; in the first, the speaker relates a recent vacation with simultaneously none and all of the excitement that we have come to expect from social exchanges of the sort. O'Neill, in 'The Voyage', chimes into the social habit of hyperbolic exaggeration, his speaker recites (what we are given to believe) are the most exciting articles of his itinerary and yet fails fill themselves with the same enthusiasm:

   We saw stars
   and waves; we also saw Saharan wastes;
   as, despite traumas and unforeseen disasters,
   we were often bored, just as we are here.

Happily, however, of the many feelings provoked by Gangs of Shadow
, boredom is not one. Armed with a hawk-like eye for symmetry in poetic imagery, O'Neill's poems create pleasant parallels which he uses to his advantage in creating moments of empathy between reader, poet and subject. In 'Scalinta Della Trinita Dei Monti', an elegiac homage to John Keats, O'Neill evokes with a haunting resonance the work of rhythms and metres of traditional Romantic poetry and infuses the poem with delicate references to the former poet and final days overlooking the Piazza di Spagna in Rome:

   Lone, bright, theatrical, a star
   pulsates beyond the domes and a low moon.

Gangs of Shadow
reveals O'Neill to be as alert to light, personal change and physical movement as the heroes of Romanticism which appear to provide much of stimulus.

In Brian Johnstone's Dry Stone Work, in much the same manner as the two collections discussed previously, Johnstone's poems adopt an assured yet playful tone as he explores themes of rural and cultural heritage. The collection opens with an extract from Orhan Pamuk's 2006 acceptance Nobel Prize in Literature in which he states that 'the stones we writers use are words. As we hold them in our hands ... we create new worlds.'

The quote is a fitting epigraph; Johnstone's poems are meticulously crafted, grounded and resonant by their own measure, they approach their respective themes indirectly. Metres and rhythms are used to great effect and will often remind readers of the poetry of Robert Frost; this is best evidenced in the collection's eponymous poem, 'Dry Stone Work' in which the suffers a back injury while building a wall with a partner:

, you said and grabbed the corner
   of the sack.
                         Too late. My tensing back,
   unused like yours to working with its hands,
   went crack, as strain was felt and slack
   was taken up.

Dry Stone Work
is a well-crafted collection in which the poet's language and construction bears an inspiring semblance to his theme and suggests of a veiled world that exists beyond his subject.

    © Phillip Clement 2014