Wednesday, October 1, 2008


This review of Macdara Woods, Artichoke Wine (Dedalus Press 2006) first appeared in Harvard Review, Number 32 (2007), pp. 203-06.

“An aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick.” So W. B. Yeats wrote, now famously, in “Sailing to Byzantium,” the opening poem of arguably his most estimable volume, The Tower (1928). Complaining further, in the title poem, of “Decrepit age that has been tied to me / As to a dog’s tail,” Yeats inscribes indelible images of aging that are hardly mitigated by his more muted description of himself, in “Among School Children,” as “A sixty-year-old smiling public man.”

Touchstones of post-midlife self-awareness, Yeats’s poems echo somewhere in the thematic background of Artichoke Wine, the latest volume from Irish poet Macdara Woods. Born in Dublin in 1942, Woods clearly does not enter his seventh decade smiling: “Here in the darkness / biding my time / with memories of sunlight / and artichoke wine,” he locates himself in the book’s proem—auguring the wistful tone which infuses much of what follows. In fact, its title playing on an Irish euphemism for death, the first poem of the volume proper, “West Going West,” revisits the setting of an incident from almost forty years earlier—“more than several lives ago”—to reflect on lost friends, lost opportunities, lost youth. Recalling how the Bank of Ireland in Kilkee, Co. Clare, had “cashed me a cheque for a fiver / drawn on trust / identity being the poem I recited / while word by word they followed the text,” Woods measures his entropic present against that heady time when he and some fellow members of “the strange imperfect Masonry of poets” were “run out of town by the Guards” after “dancing in the sea one winter here.”

Thematically, entropy predominates throughout the book’s first section. Even his sojourns in “sun-baked” Umbria do not invigorate the poet who recounts in “Cigne: At Sixty” how, while listening to a recording of a traditional Irish tune, he reacted to the Italian electric utilities company having “butchered” trees to make way for power lines:

00000And I cried:
00000for all of us over and over I cried
00000in the shadowless sun

00000And I don’t know yet
00000what it meant or not
00000beyond that I found myself crying

00000Alone in the full of the sun at sixty
00000for I suddenly knew
00000there had never been any road else but this

00000To The Haughs of Cromdale
00000in the sun
00000and the battered stumps of trees

The next couple of sections of the book are hardly less grim in their outlook. Written to be performed with music by contemporary Irish composer Benjamin Dwyer, “In the Ranelagh Gardens September 2002” is a series of vignettes focused on various lonely figures in the public park across the street from the poet’s house: a schoolgirl who resembles an old woman, an elderly man described as “a thin dishevelment // With red moustache / red sun-burnt skin / and floating eyes,” three boys who take cruel pleasure in catching a hook in the belly of a fish. Similar, in that it is intended to complement a performance of Bach’s “Six Solo Suites” for cello, “The Cello Suite” is a more fragmentary, more cryptic and at times more private sequence, at times quite literally requiring some assembly on the reader’s part: “I hear + my father’s + voice . . . / again . . . / and + I am / following + that voice + the ghost.”

Following the six-part “Driving to Charleston,” the first of several critiques of the American invasion of Iraq, the mood of Artichoke Wine moderates somewhat as Woods presents a number of engaging lyric poems ranging from the surreal “Cormorants”—“Someone invited them in / and they sat / perched on the backs of chairs”—to the touching “Kavanagh in Umbria” (with its hint of Patrick Kavanagh’s own touching “Memory of My Father”):

00000I have seen him here in November
00000going home through the dark
00000on the tractor
00000a piece of sacking
00000thrown across his shoulders
00000against the winter fog

These are followed by an evocative three-poem sequence, “Travelling From Delphi,” in which the poet appears to have achieved a certain acceptance with regard to issues of fate and mortality: “and being here // Is now—is unrehearsed for now— / is all there is.”

Is Delphi for Woods the equivalent of Yeats’s Byzantium? The next section of Artichoke Wine is a single poem which, seemingly recasting the thirteenth-century mystic and poet Hadewijch in the Irish context of the Dingle Peninsula, appears to endorse the Yeatsian proposition that aging can be defied only if “Soul clap its hands and sing”:

00000South of Gallarus free of guilt
00000Between the mountains and the sea
00000To be there
00000To be there leaping with life
00000To be dancing before the cross like this
00000In the open-air in your pelt

Leaving the matter open-ended (tellingly, like every other poem in the book this one has no end punctuation), Woods leaves the volume open-ended too with the eighth and final section. Titled “Ceangal”—the Irish word for “recapitulation” but also a poetic term dating at least to the seventeenth century which refers to a “summing up” of themes—this multi-part poem revisits earlier thematic territory: “from too much disillusion / my body starts to turn against itself.” But centered around the poet’s visit to Moscow, the poem closes with a moment of equanimity in “the marvelous Square / two thirty in the morning” that perhaps speaks back to the bleak prospect presented in “West Going West.”

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