So this is what remains to me in the final weeks of 2014: John MacKenna’s pellucid novel “Joseph”, Peter Sirr’s exquisite poetry collection “The Rooms” and Martina Devlin’s intriguing novel “The House Where it Happened”. What strikes me is not so much the similarities between writers – whether we speak of poetry or fiction – but rather the dissimilarities of subject, approach, style and what I loosely call life-attitude.
Most Irish readers at least, picking up JOHN MAC KENNA’S “Joseph”, will make a vague mental segue to Colm Toibín’s “Testament of Mary”, whether or not they’ve read it. I do hope they move beyond that however, because MacKenna’s novel offers an interesting examination of what some might refers to as Men’s Shed Ruminations. From the opening pages, the story of Joseph, with all its Biblical and therefore familiar references, has a comfortable feel to it. He’s a carpenter, good at it too, a genuine craftsman who owns his talent and finds peace and contentment through work. Before that though, there’s his life in his home town, life in college, first love, and then the journey far away, into ‘Egypt’. We discover his other male friends prior to marriage, the ones you can rely on and the ones who let you down. Egypt though, is not the one of two millennia ago. This is a contemporary world in an undefined country. It could be America (or a version of it). Or it could be, at times, the Middle East. This does not really matter. What really matters is that the territory is contested and the society is greedy, suspicious, grasping and divided, prone to mob attacks and equally prone to attacks from a military invader, just as it was in the time of Biblical Joseph.
Joseph and Miriam (his wife) are living in harmony within what seems to be a military dictatorship. It is hard to know who to trust. How exactly Miriam becomes pregnant – and the allusion to the Annunciation that most Catholics know so well – is clearly a tricky matter to handle in contemporary fiction. MacKenna relies on his readers’ credulity at this point, and Miriam’s attempts to tell just what exactly happened when some stranger arrived at her kitchen door depends entirely on our acceptance of the Annunciation story.
What’s particularly contemporary and relevant is the relationship between Joseph and the son to which Miriam gives birth. When he grows up, we observe the young fellow surround himself with friends and supporters attracted by his political and justice-driven charisma. The father-and-son relationship is the axis on which this novel spins. MacKenna handles it beautifully, instead catching the delicacy of the silences, the unpushy waiting which occurs in strong relationships where nobody feels obliged to open their heart and reveal all. In the course of this, the author also nails the intense loneliness that appears to beset the ageing male in some circumstances. The question of a man’s gradual isolation and devaluement within conventional marriage and family settings is beautifully revealed, and without the slightest note of rhetoric.The writing is pellucid and sensitive. If, at times, I found myself puzzled at how Miriam metamorphoses from a sensuous, earthy woman with a sound sense of perspective, into a materialistic, status-seeking and more trivial stereotype, I was mostly won around by the presence of Joseph himself, and the sense of sadness and loss that permeates his days as things fall apart. He loses his son to the world and the world’s cruelty. And on an emotional level, he loses Miriam. Losing both – and in ways we don’t quite anticipate – we are left with an entirely resonant character who is neither saint nor sinner. The novel moves compellingly, and the result is a memorable and vital exploration of a story that is not as old as we think.
PETER SIRR’S eighth collection – “The Rooms” – is an astonishing work which takes the reader deep into the heart of the spaces we have sometimes created for ourselves, whether in our cities, our homes, our rooms, or indeed out in the vast space of the natural world. The book is imbued with an energy and pace, with the flavours and scents of ordinary life, especially in Dublin, but it also offers an undertow that is decidedly European in feeling. This is unusual in Irish poetry today, within any poetic generation, and the writer’s position reflects a certain deliberation, a slowing down in the sense of being patient, a resistance to speed and jerkiness. There is nothing showy about this work. It is certainly not a look-at-me-poetry, and the result of this is a wide-ranging series of meditative poems that are full of desire, both explicit and implicit.The tone is patient throughout, yet sometimes passionate. But it is the constant patient discovery of troves of treasure in the pace of living that announces itself above all. The language is classical, purposeful, designed to be the boat that bears all such feeling we refer to as ‘poetic’. No poeticisms here though. On the contrary, Sirr, in his opening poem “The Mapmaker’s Song”, wants to be ‘a historian of footsteps,/ a cartographer of hemlines and eyelids . . . “. He also wants to “catch what the pavements say/when they sing to each other/in their deep laboratories, …”
Such images stir the imagination, and allow the reader to recognise dichotomies of experience and also of what we perceive visually. When sufficiently aroused, a poetic imagination also needs to be “not much at all, or all there is …”
Swinging between these two poles, Sirr finds himself examining the shifting liminal spaces as much as the shifting actual ones. He is in houses, in rooms, he is in spaces and places as various as the sub-oceanic scene in which a whale carcass sinks to the depths as a ‘windfall’ to all the other sea creatures. Everything changes; everything disappears to nothingness or returns to nothingness – except perhaps the eggs of creatures “riding the currents for the fall/where it all goes on, the endlessly resisting life, the whale pulse”.
The sequence which marks the heart of this collection – “The Rooms” – brings us on an archipelago of journeys, through country dwellings and life in the spaces and interstices of country life. However, this is absolutely not a geographical journey so much as a carrying of the external effects of living, deep into the imagination and transforming these. Sirr the poet imagines himself loosed like the foxes at night, or the dead or the gods, streaming through the black countryside. There is a seeking for wholeness and resolution throughout the work that reflects an attention to that journey which this poet embarked on much further back in his writing. What are our choices, he asks implicitly. Can we go back and forth? What bearing has a good summer on whether we go back and forth? What bearing has time and journey, and all the ways and places through which we daily amuse ourselves?
“House Unhoused”, the second section in this unusual sonnet sequence, attends to the ideal of a domestic dwelling and how all of us, at some time, have imagined it. This opening poem is profoundly affecting, all the more so, ironically, in these days when the phenomenon we call homelessness (as in non-possession of space, of room, of physical objects of desire that are connected to our deepest sense of worth, pleasure and consolation) is suddenly within our awareness. It reminds the reader of dreams and visions, the desire for perfect ownership, shelter too, light drenching the wood and the passage of life and time through place. The perfect house, it is inferred, is never without oil (or wine), and it is inhabited with, and shared by minor gods – just as the Romans had it.
What I most admired about this collection was the manner in which his subjects are explored. The writing is unhurried, perfectly crafted, and reveals the exemplary patience that rests at the heart of the work of a true poet. It is the most remarkable collection I have read this year, and a testimony to Sirr’s giftedness. He may be the leading poet of his generation.
Equally memorable, although in a different way, is MARTINA DEVLIN’S resplendently gothic fiction “The House Where it Happened”. This was probably the most gripping novel I read in the final quarter of the year. In a deftly told tale based on fact, Devlin captures a devastating mixture of superstition plus a genuine haunting, then weaves these elements within the contexts of a puritanical Presbyterian community in Islandmagee during the early 18th century. Ellen, the narrator, is a serving girl at the local Knowehead House (which is really more like a large cottage but nevertheless is the local aristocratic nexus around which most of the events unfold). The family are visited by a young cousin from Armagh, while in the background we know that James Haltridge, master of the house has had a romantic tussle with Ellen, and his wife is prone to caprice and anxiety in the absence of her husband. The historical background to this tale of witchcraft is handled with fictional authority by Devlin, and her use of Ulster-Scots (including a Glossary at the back) is one of the novel’s delights. The evidence of anti-witchcraft solutions in both Scotland and Ireland come as stark revelations that will surprise some readers, numbed as we are by contemporary rationale. The story also reminds us that whenever instability of any kind raises its head, it is women who are suspected of unsettling things. And because of superstition and ignorance, they are punished gruesomely.
This is an intelligent and immensely poised narrative that unearths in fiction the darker aspects of communities that are long gone but whose descendants survive to this day. It entirely holds the attention throughout, and the writing is strikingly honed, perfectly structured and never forsakes its purpose, which is the telling of a stark and riveting story. Gothic and richly textured by Devlin’s exciting imagination, her considerable gift for weaving historical fact into fiction lingers in the mind long after the final pages. As a novelist, she simply sparkles with real imagination.
John MacKenna’s “Joseph” is published by New Island Books; Peter Sirr’s “The Rooms” is published by The Gallery Press; Martina Devlin’s “The House Where it Happened” is published by Ward River Press.