Review: Lost Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains (Salmon, 2014) by Dave Lordan
Reading Dave Lordan’s latest collection of poetry, Lost Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains, I thought at one point of Marco Polo in Calvino’s Invisible Cities, assuring the Khan:
“Yes, the empire is sick, and what is worse, it is trying to become accustomed to its sores. This is the aim of my explorations: examining the traces of happiness still to be glimpsed, I gauge its short supply. If you want to know how much darkness there is around you, you must sharpen your eyes, peering at the faint lights in the distance. ”
The blurb on Lost Tribe makes much of its moments of “love and hope”. “Always that bit of hope we surely crave,” Christy Moore promises us. “The battered, beat up hope of what we might just become,” adds Billy Ramsell. The “anger” of Lordan’s first two collections, we are told, has been “transformed.” But, if anything, what glimmers of hope there are in Lost Tribe serve to gauge the profound darkness of Lordan’s vision. This book is deeply, deeply dark.
Early on, hope is addressed directly. ‘Hope’ personifies her as a half-dead, strung-out, beat-up, coke-raddled, disease-riddled wretch, whom even St Vincent de Paul wouldn’t bed. “Mostly, here in zombied Ireland, I can’t even see ya, yer such a famished fuckin’ wraith, / Ya flicker in an’ out uv the view, accept no particular shape…,” writes Lordan, capturing precisely that feeling that’s been abroad in Ireland these few years – a nation not quite ready to admit despair, but certainly flirting with hopelessness. The poem’s speaker beseeches Hope not to give up just yet: there’s a glimmer. But I’m not sure how much faith we can have in the poem’s speaker. The arc of his speech is that of an abuser, talking Hope down, then screeching at her – “I said GET THE FUCK UP!” – then the guilt-trip, the whine: “I cudden love nothin’ if I cudden love you.” The effect, finally, is of a drunk fighting with a ghost only he can see, and the poem admits as much: “yer only visible when I ain’t right-minded.” What hope is there here, if any?
In the breath-taking ‘My Mother Speaks to Me of Suicide’, Lordan revisits a theme that had seem to hover behind much of his first collection, The Boy in the Ring: the sheer number of young men in Ireland who die by their own hand, a feature of our times that journalists often see fit to describe as an “epidemic”. Lordan conjures a mother cataloguing the various deaths of various young men, “always verging though never quite breaking into a keen”, as though wondering how her son, almost alone among men, has survived:
My mother calls me up again to speak to me of suicide.
Another young man in the west has committed his suicide.
She tells me that I knew him in my teenage years
before I left home instead of killing myself
… I image her framed in a darkness
like background in Dutch Renaissance portraits;
empty, yet dense; boundless, yet claustrophobic.
I see her haloed there by grotesque animations, miniature
pop-up-and-dissolve images of young men committing
their miniature suicides:
A young man hanging himself under a fag-butt moon
in a copse of old oaks in a town-centre park.
A young man hanging himself in his children’s bedroom
so his children will find him that way
when they get home.
A young man OD-ing on his buddy’s full phial of methadone
at Christmas in his mother’s living-room.
The poem, without glorifying suicide – quite the reverse – manages to refuse the implications in the concept of an “epidemic” that these men were unavoidably the innocent victims of some plague sweeping Ireland, dreadful stuff but nobody’s fault, and instead declares the thing unmysterious, “obvious and sure”: young men are going to keep right on killing themselves until life is made worth living.
Another of the book’s most powerful poems, recounting a kind lie told to a little girl about a violent word, becomes a reflection on the meager measure of resistance available to us in late capitalism through language – and, by extension, a reflection on poetry’s own diminished but continuing capacity to resist:
Though we may alter a course now and then in the flood
as now we have altered our language.
Only tinily and privately, I realise; and yet, from here on in,
round the back of Charlesland Superquinn,
CUNT is COUNT invisibly, for both of us.
Lies are the womb and the seed of us.
Their fertility is marvellous.
Here is a glimmer of hope, insisted upon, yes – but also irrevocably overshadowed by that “tinily and privately.” That play of light and shadow, that sense of the limits set on hope, stays with us as we turn to the sequence at the heart of Lost Tribe, perhaps surprisingly – given the political bent of Lordan’s work until now, and of the rest of this volume – a long elegy for an individual. ‘Notes for a Player’ commemorates the death of Lordan’s father-in-law, the actor Denis Boothman. Reflecting on the private and the public and on the fertility of lies through Boothman’s theatrical persona, the sequence enters complicatedly into conversation with a little host of past elegies, certainly among them Yeats’ ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’, Hartnett’s ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ and Muldoon’s ‘Incantata’, all poems in which the dead refuse to mean quite what the living want them to mean. ‘Notes for a Player’ offers, in the shape of the dead man’s adoring granddaughter, the brightest glimmer of hope in Lordan’s book. But, for the reader, that hope is coloured by the knowledge that everything the child has seen in her grandfather has been theater, fertile lies: he has “flared into a magnified, mesmeric presence” only despite the excruciating pain of a “drawn-out death”.
This is Lordan’s most complex work yet, exhilarating and disturbing. From its first sure-of-itself halloo to its last unsettling and ambiguous call-to-arms, Lost Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains is essential reading.
Ailbhe Darcy was born in Dublin in 1981 and brought up there. She currently lives in Germany. She has published her poetry in Ireland, Britain and the US, and selections of her work are included in the Bloodaxe anthologies Identity Parade and Voice Recognition, and in her pamphlet A Fictional Dress (tall-lighthouse, 2009). Imaginary Menagerie (Bloodaxe Books, 2011), her first book-length collection, was shortlisted for Ireland’s dlr Strong Award at Poetry Now / Mountains to the Sea.