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The Launching Party: Thomas McCarthy on three new poetry collections

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Launching Party, Saturday October 8 Dromineer Literary Festival

Thomas McCarthy's comments on new poetry collections by: Catherine Ann Cullen (The Other Now, Dedalus Press), Mark Fiddes (The Rainbow Factory, Templar Poetry) and Eleanor Hooker (A Tug of Blue, Dedalus Press)

Reproduced here by kind permission of Thomas McCarthy

"A great Festival, the atmosphere at the Yacht Club was magical as ever.

Just to reiterate what I said yesterday about the three books:

Catherine Ann Cullen's THE OTHER NOW is an important assembly of the best powers revealed in her work over many years; I mean her intellectual strength combined with a crucial understanding of poetic form -- and the possibilities of form. Her particular robust gift is most apparent in her critical decision to use the form of the 'poetry sequence,' a form much used in the mid-Century, but abandoned in the last two decades as poets lost confidence in a contemplative audience. Her 'Seven Works of Mercy is a masterpiece in this genre; taking its source materials from Caravaggio and Naples, but gaining its strength from perceptive and challenging observations, as in -- 'I am breastfeeding my father through the bars' or 'I dip my bone in blood, paint only slaughter' or 'I am the memory of that raised sword/ so, in a stab of contrition,/ I wield my painted knife/ to cut cloth rather than flesh...'  Such fiercesomely achieved statements are the inner dynamo of her poems; and these philosophical observations on life, death, humanity, are also in 'The Children of Lir Quintet' as well. Another side to her, another kind of theme or trope, is in the marvelously clever love poem for Harry 'Meeting at The Chester Beatty,' and the technical shrewdness in the technical repetition of, for example 'yet-met, horns-unicorns, contract-contact and, most tellingly of all, met-yet ('We have not touched each other yet' -- brilliant that). Such meditated and cleverly formed statements are there in 'Sunlight was the enemy of my maternal grandmother' (Grandmother Daedalus) and in the simply divine 'Stripping' with its 'I am stripping the paint from the door where my heart has grown....' Anyway, just to reiterate, this is a poet to cherish and praise.

Mark Fiddes' THE RAINBOW FACTORY is a wonder too, a real work of art, from a poet who seems incapable of writing a bad poem. His sharpness, both linguistic and intellectual, his technical reticence combined with a kind of hooded, fugitive verbal pugilism, makes his work unique, I think, and uniquely satisfying. His prize-winning 'Ex.' and 'The Lost Gardens of West Norwood' are a joy to read, both for the thought within and the technical competence, more than competence, panache, I would say, yes, technical panache. I am certain that 'Ex.' will become one of those poems that are continuously anthologised, rather like Benjamin's Slough poem! Just as love fades in the former, it coheres wonderfully in the latter 'while on we roll to London Bridge,/ their kiss blooming deep within us.' Fabulous stuff, but there are others: the combination of thought and structure in 'Preserves' or the fatal narrative of 'Freewill' ('She's the one with a head for heights./ For him, it's the perfect altitude/ for another assisted crash landing'). Fiddes' playfulness and wicked good humour is all over the Celebrities section of the collection, the most notable blackguarding being in 'Elvis Everywhere' or 'King of Krill' or 'The Rhyme of the Morris Traveller' with its 'but not every colour is knowable.' That gift of combining the absurd with the serious, the fatal with the futile' is best seen in 'The Ladybird Book of Cancer' and 'On the Naming of Tumours.' I'd have a hard time trying to choose between 'Ex.' and the latter poem with its great high fatal humour, rather like Beckett's 'Happy Days.' or 'Krapp's Last Tape.' Here, the world itself, human consciousness, is removed somewhere for 'further investigation.' This is all work in poetry of the highest calibre, and written in a voice that is rarely seen in poetry, the urbane humorist who sustains serious thought.

[on Eleanor Hooker’s collection A Tug of Blue]
Your own book is a beauty, Eleanor, seventy pages of sagacity and lakeside humanism or unitarianism. As I said in my talk, 'The wind is inconsolable' through all your poems. You have an instinct for storms, waves, blowing wind, in poem after poem 'Storm Song,' 'To Touch the Sky,' 'The Shout' but many other poems as well. In 'Found Poem' you reveal or at least suggest ancestral origins for these matters of the sea and safe passage. In your poetry I think you are attempting to 'name the mountain' as a form of sign-posting through art. In very many ways while two roads may diverge in poetry of others, two tides converge in your work, the tides of voyaging and the tide of family: 'and at the same time an indescribable feeling/ of the greatness of the Creator in the works of his hand......' You are so aware of near immortal forces at work in water and wind, it makes your work immensely powerful morally as well as aesthetically. You are ever making your way, radioing ahead 'centre your rudder' to those who come to your lyrics; you will always be highly prized in any room of Rankings. A TUG OF BLUE is an even more rudder-centred collection, focused, cohering around navigation and rescue, around family and daemons; poetry for you, like the lake, is a tug of blue. It is clean, clear water, it is also a hand-made artisan autumn tray of gifts to the constant reader of poetry. A voyage well taken and a safe landing well achieved, of this I'm certain.

But, again, just a reminder of the achievement of these beautiful books.