Felix Cassiel on
In deciding how best to introduce himself, a poet weighs much, and deliberately: his subject may be general, or specific; his focus may be round, or precise; his diction may charm, and delight the ear, or it may disturb, and prohibit inertia; to the poet, the matter is of primary import, to the reader, it is no less so.
For the reader learns, or thinks he learns, a great deal from a first impression; and, in the conveyance, it is the poet’s prerogative to leave to chance as little as he can. Living within, and outside, these considerations, is a matter of great moment, but one too often neglected; the vivifying factor, too often scorned; that which tends to induce but a yawn among our poets, reproduced sympathetically among their critics: that is, the moral matter.
A poet may, or may not, have a rigorously developed morality, yet whatever morality he has, regardless of his awareness of it, is bound to manifest; as pores emit traces of the previous night’s garlic, one’s moral system, whether confessed or occulted, inherited or fabricated (though that which we fabricate we are more likely to confess), is born out, by craft or the lack of it, in one’s work.
In Clydebuilt, Owen Gallagher tarries not; his confessions come swiftly, and his inheritance, with the hoarse strains of a penitent, is given urgent examination.
The opener, ‘Soot’, is as black as its name suggests. Here we meet the poet’s mother, but we do not get to know her; we see her from behind glass in a darkened room, being made to behave as no human should behave, by a man in a white coat, behaving unhumanly, we assume, by his own free will.
Each time I flick a light switch
I see mother strapped to a chair.
A white-coated man throws a lever.
Her body thrashes like a live cable.
We have our idea of mother, and our idea of torture; and we may question the integrity of a poet who so eagerly wishes to force these two ideas of ours together; nevertheless, for the ugliness, we find ourselves engaged, though it is not, as we first suspect, of a character sensational: before we know what’s what, our sense of injustice springs forth in arms.
I nurse my heart with its image
Of mother framed in the doorway,
Dressed as if in mourning,
Her temples blackened
From repeated shocks.
Switches are flicked, and levers are thrown; the latter diffuses the darkness, the former, in its failure to limit the spread, quickens it. The lever, in the hand of authority, is mightier in the memory of the poet, than the means subject to his own hand; the one carries the weight of science and government, the other but the poverty of a rebel’s dwelling. To the lever the light-switch is bound in servitude.
I nurse my heart for the mother
Who never came back.
She lived in a darkness
No prescription could lift.
I am the soot from her chimney.
The next poem, ‘Fathering Mother’, adds colour to a few of the disconcerting blanks; the poem is intimate, and we rightly hesitate at the threshold.
Her hair was bramble and fiery red, her face
A pool of freckles. She dipped her brush in
And out of what she called ‘the font’,
And sang Lovely Leitrim, a comforter,
Yet we are drawn in, not as voyeurs, nor even as almsgivers (for amid the cold concrete of the tenement, in those pale eyes that hold their tears unblinking, we sense no expectation of charity), but as ghosts, antecedents of the living blood, with no material assistance to offer, but with an unkillable Nous, that guides us to attend where pain threatens to become unbearable.
Once, I found mother on our own stairs,
Tears pumping out of her. My tiny hands gloved hers.
I was her father, her son, her skin, her tears.
Circumstances have arranged themselves infelicitously for our child-poet, and we are unsurprised to find in him a pugilistic streak. Against the miscellaneous opponents, large and small, there is one personage that lurks beyond the ropes; he is a dark, rangy figure, with a crooked mouth, and given to communication by gesture - Plutus, the cowardly and unintelligible god of Riches, he that strips the field and mocks the field-hand, that makes kings of squires and emperors of bankers, yet whom, finding himself in the Fourth Circle, far from his constituency, a heated line from Virgil can send sprawling to the ground.
When the cabinet minister was obliged to dismount
From his bike and charged the policeman
With being a ‘Fucking pleb!’
I thought of mother.
After she stood in the rain to pump the tyres
Of the young Edward Du Cann’s bicycle
She sprinted to open the gates of his estate
Hurdling over puddles on the way.
As his Lordship pedalled past
In his waterproof Mac
She curtsied and wiped the spray
Of muck from her dress and face.
Indeed, the shadow over these works belongs to Plutus; the scenes presented are largely domestic, and recommend themselves nicely to the imagination; the characters are rough, hewn from the living rock; and the cadences are regular, well-constructed, and accommodating; and above all this, another presence hangs: its attributes, being toil, deprivation, and death - both living and actual, line the interior with Plutonic dust.
An old ganger told me later that father could out-dig
Any man and square a hole so plumb
It could be tested with a spirit level.
‘He cemented every gang’, he said,
‘And was always horsin’ about.’
The old fella broke into song:
‘As down the glen came McAlpine’s men
With their shovels slung behind them,
‘‘Twas in the pub they drank their sub
And up in the spike you’ll find them…’
Those who could sing, did,
And those like me who marvelled at their camaraderie,
We’re angered that they were sweated to the bone
And their throats were caked with concrete
By the time they got home.
Yet for the prevalence of the game fighter’s spirit, hostility is little to be found: no slugger is our poet, nor is his guard want to drop. Gallagher is a man who has thought much about language; he knows the rules of his craft, and tempers his ambition where it might easily overwhelm.
The poet asks us to pick sides, and he asks earnestly, yet he does not demand it - he knows our side will be picked, whether it is we who do the picking, or not.
And when she was done, his tie and suit pressed,
Pioneer Pin closing his breast, didn’t she pour
Paraffin over him, set him alight, so no one
Could see what they’d done to her wee boy,
And didn’t she go out into the street, kitchen knife
Under her apron, and take three soldiers with it.
(‘Christmas in Belfast’)
Throughout the book, our fighter-poet strikes an uncommon balance, possessing, on the one hand, the precision and seriousness of the skilled amateur, and, on the other, the casual bonhomie of the ageing journeyman. From the union of the two issues some pleasing satire.
Whitever thi weather, thi three o’ us, kitted out
Like Columbo, pulled oan unlit cigars.
We deserved Emmy awards fur delivering his line:
‘Where did yi git thae shoes?’
Tae security warkers ‘n’ shop-assistants
While we nicked the latest Levis, ‘n’ Byfords.
Oor coats had mair pockets than Fagin’s.
Oor hauns we’re quicker than a shirt-maker’s
In a sweatshop. Windae dressers wondered;
‘Did ah nae dress that mannequin?’
We strutted wi’ Seturday nicht fever oan thi toon
Boardwalks in oor latest collections,
Left thi dance flair huvin swiped bras as souveniers,
Hummin’ Colombo’s signature tune.
While the humour is exhibited in what may be termed the minor poems, nevertheless the impression left is not quick to fade; it is a buoyancy, a bigness of spirit, that we value, and it is valued no more in a poet than it is in a man; and the more fiercely a man feels, the more humour he needs.
One of the more peculiar pieces in the book is ‘Amen’. In terms of locution, it is one of the most successful; Gallagher is not often a voluptuary of words, yet here, as if by confession, he produces images at once sensual and reverent: the voice is restrained, yet the phrases betray a mind stricken with awe, and enlivened by suggestion - in this case, the suggestion of the cosmic unseen.
It was all a mystery, a kneeling place for faith
To light its candle,
Where pledges were made from the kingdom
Of words and neighbours
Would queue on Fridays to confess a well of sin,
Mend their souls,
Stand like a lighthouse in the family again.
But it was the mystery of Latin I thirsted for most,
The tabernacle of language:
Confiteor Deo omnipotente, beato Mariae
Beato Michaeli Archangelo, beato Ioanni Baptistae,
Petro et Paulo, omnibus Sanctis, et vobis…
The rising and falling of its oars,
Where my tongue longed to row,
The learning of it by heart,
A boat pushed out daily
To early and evening mass,
The dark chocolatey flavours
That never melted in the mouth
The ancient recipe that bound me
And that I still recite
To savour the sounds.
In this poem, we are happy to find several of Gallagher’s moral attributes in sober procession, each bearing their own incense: the deep awareness of tradition, the appreciation of heredity, the hunger for understanding, and the service of community. Encompassing these is a large sense of wonder, made possible by the stronghold of humility; and while Plutus and his dogs may have their way outside, the dark currents of his malice can but strike the outer walls, and return, as if rebuked, feebly to their source.
Felix Cassiel © 2021