Review: An Unscheduled Life (Agenda Editions, 2012) by Joseph Horgan (with drawings by Brian Whelan)
The theme of Joseph Horgan’s second book of poetry, An Unscheduled Life, is cultural alienation. A blurb on the back cover by Paula Meehan suggests that this arresting collection focuses on “the shifting culture of Ireland today with its massive transformation in population and community,” but in actuality its subject matter is Horgan’s upbringing in an urban England of yesterday, the drunken, distant Irish father, and the emigrant’s perpetual “otherness.” This is succinctly encapsulated in “Growing up irish” [sic]:
Going home on the boat was an aberration.
We were to negotiate a different terrain
and coming back again was worse.
The tinge of dislocating regret
at returning to the city meant
we lost our footing.
In the end Ireland
cut the ground from underneath us.
This sense of never truly being “home” prevents the poem’s speaker (seemingly some version of Horgan himself) from forming a stable identity as either Irish or English, and thus the small ‘i’ in the title must be deliberate — he is “irish.” (Granted, all of his titles utilise lower-case letters, except with proper names, which are capitalised, so why not “Irish” otherwise?)
“Incomplete,” with its description of twenty-something dissolution, maps this dynamic further:
Our parents went home on the boat
while we went to all-nighters and dayers
and smoked and knew someone who could play the banjo
coming off shifts in London and Leeds and Birmingham
thinking the day we drank your bedding grant was the best day ever
to be listening to Shane on the jukebox.
That’s the way the city is. . . .
The poem is accompanied by a Brian Whelan ink drawing of a drunken trad session (presumably in an English pub). The connection with Ireland remains, whether through visits back or in the cultivation of Irish social customs abroad, but it is transmuted. “We live there / in our own way, / after our fashion,” writes Horgan, and that “there” is telling — surely the speaker of the poem grew up “here,” but by Irish standards it is always elsewhere. The lack of stable identity is further summed up in the metaphorical “How irish women survived,” in which the son cannot successfully draw a picture of his mother: “Restless in both places. I believe I know what you look like, I said. But I cannot draw you, if you will not sit still.” (Ironically, Whelan does draw the mother.)
There’s a gruffness to Horgan’s poetry, which suits his gritty material. He sounds, speaking of “listening to Shane on the jukebox,” a bit like the Pogues’ version of “Dirty Old Town.” Horgan’s city is a cold, unsettled place, and we see in “City centre” that this has become internalised: “I have the unofficial city in me and places only known to the city. A life on public transport is nothing to be ashamed of. I have the city in my lungs. . . .” The city is also a place where immigrants are “flotsam and jetsam / washing by, / floating” (“The immigrant’s self-portrait”). There’s a kind of desperation in these poems, people barely hanging on long after “the sideburned days and Sunday afternoon drinking [are] gone” (“When the dancehalls closed”). One of the few moments of joy here is granted to a Muslim immigrant (and really this could be in any Western city, England, Ireland, America) who “dances at the intersection. . . . to music no one else can hear” (“Intersection”). It is unclear why he dances at the intersection, but it appears he may have mental issues, and so it would seem that genuine happiness remains closed off for those who inhabit Horgan’s poems. It is also, perhaps, a sardonic subversion of the Dev-era ideal of “comely maidens dancing at the crossroads” (though, to be accurate, de Valera himself never uttered those words).
Often, Horgan writes in a blunt free verse, but there’s a ballad-like quality to many of his poems too, with certain lines repeating almost like choruses. Another musical analogue that comes to mind is the song “Working Class Hero” by Liverpool-Irishman John Lennon, with its bitter lyrics describing exactly the sort of upbringing that Horgan reflects in An Unscheduled Life. He often matches Lennon’s irony in these angry but satisfying poems. Paired with Whelan’s drawings, which are occasionally reminiscent of Picasso’s, they make for one hell of a little book. When it ends (and it goes quickly, half of its 61 pages being poetry and the other half the artwork) with the tight, compact, alliterative “Last orders,” you just might want to start over from page one.