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At the heart of Maurice Riordan’s third collection is a sequence of eighteen dramatic idylls set in rural Cork in the 1950s, in which the subdued microcosm of farm and smallholding – of boundary, townland and parish – is defined through the individual voices of the poet’s father and assorted friends, farmhands and neighbours (Moss, Dan-Jo, Davey Divine, the Bo’son, Uncle Tom the Buck, the Gully). The settings of these loosely contiguous fragments almost casually define a historical community, ranging around farm and fields, through furze and ragwort, headland and plantation, haggard and Bog – tracing the immemorial scenes of traditional farming life: cutting drains, harvesting, fencing, potato planting, beet topping â€” and their close and intimate topography is recalled with a Proustian fidelity to names (the Long Field, the Kiln Field, the Small Fields, the Hill Fields, Higgs’s Field, the Passage, the old Deer Park, the Orchard, the Bottom Glen)
The tentative oral fluidity of these remarkable poems flickers on the borderline of prose, resolving complexities into an impression of timeless pastoral life, at once archaic yet precisely pitched in time. Other poems in The Holy Land proffer alternative forms of capture and recapture, and resemble light-sensitive plates storing and restoring what one poem refers to as ‘the understory’. Thus the stilled life of 1950s rural Ireland is recreated, with echoes of classical models such as Theocritus, or of traditional Irish materials from the Fenian cycle, celebrating ‘the music of what happens’. As Patrick Kavanagh wrote in his poem ‘Epic’: ‘I have lived in important places, times when great events were decided: who owned that half a rood of rock…’
poems of childhood, sharp and poignant with sensory experience and memory ... work on [your] heart, like all good poetry.
Elsewhere, the father is a ghost who foretells the birth of his twin grandchildren and what that will cost the poet; or witnesses the loss of farmland to "landfill, rubble, roundabouts and raw estates".
The book's core, though - and comprising nearly half of its 49 pages of poetry - is a series of 18 Idylls, in which the father to whom it is dedicated is undisputed king. Prose-poems, each records a moment of reflection, amidst work, by "the men": Moss, Bo'sun, Dan-Jo and Davey Divine joining the family men-folk.
These captured "spots of time" resemble Patrick Kavanagh's prose reminiscences of "the constant service of the antique world". The Idylls are lucid, exact, fully-inhabited - and display Riordan's perfect ear. That same ear catches echoes of Muldoon, in "[he begins with a line by Sandy Lyle]" and "[he begins with a line by CJ]"; and generates, in the book's final poem, an elegant ecological villanelle. It also attends to a greater complexity, of both form and tone-world, in the extended lyrics that succeed the Idylls.
Here Understorey - as its title suggests, both the book's key and its foundation - gives us effortless narrative observation ("The rain pauses. We emerge into Higgs's Field. / Two snipe take off, zigzagging towards the Glens") underpinned by a more necessary register - "the child whose mouth shapes and reshapes / its empty scream" - and wider compass: "we belong in an uncountable world". This is a fine and serious book, which deserves a wide, non-specialist audience.
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