Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 16 November 2009

The Wrong Miracle


Everything is a miracle. It is a miracle one does not dissolve in one's bath like a lump of sugar – Pablo Picasso

This is book about ordinary things, getting you hair done, having breakfast, going to church and eating gobstoppers. It's about childhood, the strain of being part of a family, the joy of sex, the question of love, the problems surrounding married life and life's little and not-so-little losses. It is about art and music and what was on TV last night. It is about all those daily miracles and disasters that make up an ordinary life.

Sure there's some fancy word play and clever metaphors to be found in this collection but these poems are not puzzles to leave you scratching your heads, these are not things to be solved so much as things to be savoured. By that I mean don't gulp them down. Let them sit on your tongue a while and appreciate the sweets, the sours, the salty and the bitter. Some will leave a bad taste – well, that's life – and others will provoke washes of nostalgia, of childhood mainly for me but other times too.

Selecting poems to go in an anthology is a difficult thing. I would imagine if Liz is anything like me she has a lot of very similar poems in her collection but there's no real sense of having the same old truths hammered into you page after page. Yes, there are a lot of poems about family and many of these touch on religious topics but this was clearly a part of her upbringing (as it was with many of us) and so I felt on familiar ground. Granted I was never a Catholic girl in Ireland (unless in a former life I've no memory of) and yet a poem like this one resonates strongly for me. It begins:

My father's call for spare silver
for the priest's money box
is a Sunday ritual. So too is the rag
my mother uses to polish shoes
that she later positions in front
of the fireplace. My father's hair refuses
to stay up at the sides, it is flattened
in place by a smear of Brylcreem . . .

from 'Sunday with Ritual

brylcreem I don't need to taste this poem. I can smell it. For those who don't know, Brylcreem is a brand name of a men's hair grooming product which probably had its heyday in the seventies (in the UK) with it's advertising slogan: "A little dab of Brylcreem on your hair gives you the Brylcreem bounce". Brylcreem was sold in a tube in the States and tubs in Europe and Canada. I remember those tubs and the feel of the white cream. Very much a part of my childhood. And the same with the routine for polishing shoes. It's not the rags I remember so much as the brushes and the shoehorn which I always regretted forgetting to save when my parents' house was emptied. There were so many mundane moments like that growing up. Who would ever imagine that I would pine after them? At the time this poem evokes a feeling of resentment – all the atheists got to sleep in on Sundays.

So you can see that it was the family poems that managed to reach me whereas others like the first poem in the collection, 'Decorum' (about flamenco) missed the mark completely, but that's only to be expected. I did find it an odd choice for an opening poem mind. Liz may have lived in Gran Canaria for the past fourteen years (they're a group of seven islands and six islets set off the coast of western Africa) where flamenco is apparently a big thing (it's the Spanish connection) but that's one of the few poems with a distinct sense of place, though of course anyone not reading the blurb on the back might assume the poem was set in Spain or perhaps even the Donegal Flamenco Club. The fandango makes a late appearance on page 17: 'Spring the Life Fandango'. To my mind both of these poems felt out of place. There's nothing wrong with them as poems just not here. I would rather have seen a poem about 'Lanigan' Ball' which gets mentioned in passing on the previous page. (My wife, on the other hand, felt that ‘Decorum’ was an excellent choice to set up the collection, but then she has a gypsy soul.)

If we can just consider the title of that last poem for a moment, I don't know about you but it reminds me of the phrase “trip the light fantastic”, an expression which means “to dance nimbly or lightly” according to Wikipedia. Were there not a few other odd expressions like this in the collection I might have dismissed this but I suspect it was deliberate; like any good poet she's making the words work overtime: For example:

...I use my secret voice that I keep for gut
reactions and the garters of the insides...

from 'Finding the Right Silences'

and the music snapping at heart strings, not
enough to fiddle and bow about, only to jig and
reach out about...

from 'Search Me (All Else Failing)'

Land of the Giants Spanish dances well and truly aside the poems are peppered with plenty of other cultural references to make me feel comfortable. I remember watching Land of the Giants on TV in the late sixties and I remember Leo Sayer in the mid-seventies. This was a time when The Magic Roundabout was a gentle stop-motion animation shown across the country at 5.40pm on BBC1 just before the early evening news each day not some appalling animated action movie which Americans will know as Doogal (yes, I know the spelling's wrong).In the late seventies we had Watership Down and that moany N° 1 single by Art Garfunkel'Bright Eyes' – that never seemed to be off the radio.

I felt at home in these poems. They were comfortable and familiar. Then she moves onto the eighties (a reference to the guitarist The Edge and 'Fairytale of New York') and even the present day (The Dark Knight gets a nod). These were touchstones for me. Anyone born after 1980 (which apparently a lot of you were) will miss out a whole (and important) layer of this collection although that's what's Google's for I suppose. I spoke to Liz about this and she feels that you can still get the poems without being necessarily "au fait, so to speak, with the references", and I agree up to a point but the poems are so much richer if you can tap into the associations that come with those references.

So, how do you explain the ordinary? In what terms? In magical terms: loudness becomes a skin that can be shed, a truck can haul away the dawn, a story can be a place of retreat and beauty is something we can soak in. Most of us don't realise how metaphorical our language is, so it's easy to miss on the beauty of these poems because there are so many throw away lines like these and very few punch lines; it's not that kind of poetry.

There are 58 poems in this collection. There is no way I can comment on them all but they can be grouped. This is a Venn diagram collection. There is much overlap: the war poems are never simply about war and the religious poems are not only about religion. These are backdrops just as I imagine Ireland is the backdrop for a great many of these poems but one doesn't feel as if they're all lying in its shadow. As I've already mentioned most of the poems don't have a great sense of place: people have sex the world over, it rains the world over and others go for strolls in graveyards the world over. This is a plus to the collection because ordinary things happen the world over to ordinary people and that's who this book is aimed at, me and you

I don't know what it is but we are always willing to assume that poems are autobiographical and so when I read the start of this poem:

When she died they used soapy steel wool to clean
the black smoke stains beneath the Sacred
Heart picture. A cotton sheet was hung over the TV.

The mother filled the Virgin Mary holy water font
with water from Lourdes. She scolded that they should
have rung the chimney sweep at least a year ago. A red

haired daughter with a black haired mother came to see
the corpse – their hands covered their mouths as they sat
on a very old sofa.

from 'Waking a Grandmother'

I wouldn't have thought twice about the daughter's hair colour if I hadn't read this poem at the start of the collection:

                        I had asked for cappuccino-coloured
hair. I triangulated my choice. Cappuccino morphed
into the afterword – red. So now I am a redhead
by a miscalculation of the otherness of colour.

from 'Woman in a Redhead'

(Clever observations, Jim, but in 'Waking a Grandmother' I am the poet in the bathroom weeping not the red haired daughter! but yes, in 'Woman in a Redhead' it's me! - Liz)

This is where the reader needs to use their own imagination but I imagined this dour little wake with everyone in shades of black bar this one girl with flame-coloured hair sticking out like a sore thumb. But there was another thing about 'Waking a Grandmother' that struck me. For such a personal poem all the characters in it are depersonalised: the mother, a red-haired daughter, the father, the man who had ECT, the poet, the man she really loved. This is a simple thing Liz has done here – I didn't even notice it on the first read – and yet this poem leaps out at you especially since it's surrounded by poems written in the first person. Perhaps there's good reason for this:

                                         The man who had had
electric shock treatment and who once touched the poet's
breasts through a brown school uniform said that when
we die a white light takes the fear away.

Families have histories, skeletons in cupboards, and so many of us live in families we really wish we weren't a part of.

I'm assuming that the poet is the red-haired girl and that she was the twelve-year-old girl in the 'Small Acts', the previous poem, preparing for chapel with her grandmother. My first thought that this was a first communion service but not if she's wearing a 'green crimplene dress' and a 'white polka-dotted cap. 'She's twelve and she's starting to question things: 'I shred bible parts looking for an iota of truth, / the mote in my eye.'

(Liz tells me that was not a communion but rather a "confirmation – where one can forego the bride-look and look like the mother-of-the-bride instead". I think this underlines my point earlier about how we bring ourselves to a poem. I was not brought up as a Roman Catholic and so I only have an academic appreciation of the religion – it doesn't resonate for me in the same way that it will for anyone who has been brought up a Catholic.)

I'm assuming too that Liz is the girl in the next poem gardening with her dad:

                                                My father rises to snip bushes

into circular shapes. He says the moon's orbit round the earth
is not circular. I follow him with a leaf-blower that I cannot

from 'My Father Shows Me How to Sharpen a Bush-Trimmer'

And I'm assuming that this is the girl who has sex in coal shed and believes that '[l]ove exists in the back-boiler room', that she's the girl on 'a city roof top' with a guy with a beard who wants to 'tumble' her:

                                He measures me by finger
lengths. As far as I know I'm fine. Sometimes I

use 'I' like a scalpel. I can't answer
with ordinary answers. I come

completely clothed. He gives solid
gifts. What matters is where my mind places

itself at the point of countdown. We wrap
legs round a whole revolution and push

the war away.

from 'City RoofTop'

I'm assuming that the man is going to war, the same war that appears in half a dozen of the poems and that she is the woman on the end of the phone here:

When I lift the receiver and they tell me the news,
I will think of your face, you lying there, skin
with the sheen of polythene. I imagine the hum
of small talk as neighbours place endless

cups in a stainless steel sink. The silence is dotted
and stares me in the eye. Night is stitched
at the corners. Threadbare light does not stand
a chance.

from 'A Woman with All Her Curtains Drawn'

This is not a novel though. There might be no connections between these poems other than the fact that Liz Gallagher wrote them. But that's the problem with all poetry collections, we try and make sense of all the poems presented as a unified body of work. I assume that is what Liz intends me to do. I don't know. My assumptions may be all wrong.

What I do know is that the first time I read this collection I missed just about everything. This is not a criticism, merely an observation; it says more about me than Liz I fear.

I do have a favourite poem however. The one that stands out for me was this one:

A Poem that Thinks It Has Joined a Circus

A handkerchief is not an emotional holdall.
A cup of tea does not eradicate all-smothering sensations.
A hands-on approach is not the same as a hand-on-a-shoulder
willing chin to life and an upper lip to stiffen.
A forehead resting on fingers does not imply that the grains
of sand in an hourglass have filtered through.
A set of eyes staring into space is not an indictment that the sun
came crashing down in the middle of the night.
A sigh that causes trembling and wobbly knees should be
henceforth and without warning trapped in a bell jar and retrained
to come out tinkling ivories with every gasp.
A poem trying to turn a sad feeling on its head does not constitute
a real poem, it is a cancan poem, dancing on a pinhead
a walking a tightrope with arms pressed tightly by its sides.

Why this one? I like poems that are self-reflective. I like when a poet comments on what she sees poetry to be. Personally I would have made this either the first or more likely the last poem in the collection.

Daz I would love to recommend this collection unreservedly but I can't. There are too many cultural references that non-Brits will struggle with as will younger Brits. I was surprised to find that Sunsilk was still on the go for example but it was the can my mother used that I saw when I read about it in one of her poems; the same goes for 'Daz-blue' and the Colgate 'ring of confidence'. These subtleties will be lost on many but for those who get them then a whole world of images and associations will open up to them.

Many of the poems have very long lines, the majority in fact. Let me just say that they took some getting used to and leave it at that.

This is a book that will grow on you if you give it time. I've been picking it up and putting it down for the past week. I certainly won't be selling my copy on eBay after this, for starters there's hardly a page that doesn't have underlining in five colors and notes in the margins cross-referencing the different poems and that's not counting the three A4 pages of notes I wrote before I even began typing this up most of which I simply don't have room to talk about. These poems made me think and they made me remember. A lot of them made me sad but sad in a good way if that makes any sense to you at all. Liz is a poet – I'm sure she'll know exactly what I mean by that.


gallagher_200 Liz Gallagher was born and brought up in Donegal, Ireland. She has been living in Gran Canary Island for the past 14 years. She has an Education degree where she specialised in Irish language. She also has a Computer Science degree. She is at present doing research into online debating for her PhD. She began writing about 5 years ago and has won a variety of awards in both Ireland and the US: Best New Poet 2007 (Meridian Press, Virginia University) First Prize in The Listowel Writers’ Single Poem Competition 2009 and she was selected by Poetry Ireland for their 2009 Introductions Series in recognition of her status as an emerging poet.

The Wrong Miracle, Liz's first full collection, was published in July 2009 and is available from Salt Publishing. All the royalties are going to Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity.


Kass said...

Are your reviews published somewhere besides your blog? Your care and consideration are so evident in everything you write. I don't mind not knowing the references in Liz's poems that you've cited. 'Daz' is just fun to say....(in America, it was "Brylcreem, a little dab'll do ya." - with a catchy tune).

Liz said...

Hi Jim,

Thanks for the review...enjoyed the inclusion of photos, especially the Brylcreem one..: )
And I agree with Kass, the care and consideration is evident...thanks again for your time and effort.

And Kass, great Brylcreem jingle too! : )

Rachel Fox said...

Some interesting observations. I've been reading this book too.

Elisabeth said...

I'd have no problems with the Catholic allusions in Liz's poetry, given my own upbringing. When I made my confirmation I wore turquoise shoes that stood out in the crowd of girls and boys parading up the aisle.

I love the way you brong this book of poems alive, Jim, and for your introduction to the ordinary and everyday interpersed with the stuff of miracles.

God bless the Irish, and Liz Gallagher for her wonderful poetry.

Jim Murdoch said...

I only publish my reviews in one other place, Kass. Once a month I produce a review for the Canongate website which, a few weeks later, I reprint (and usually expand on) on my own site. And that's it. I'm glad the care I put into them shines through. I do try and do a good job.

Liz, you're very welcome. I hope I did your collection justice.

Thank you, Rachel, I'll be interested to read your take on the book.

And, Elisabeth, yes, I get the whole communion vs confirmation thing a bit mixed up in my head but it's very hard I would imagine to write something that doesn't exclude some part of your potential readership; the world is a big place.

Sheila said...

We had a series of posts over at Plumbline - - awhile ago on the reader's responsibility and this review is a demonstration of what that means. You're obviously the audience poets dream of.

Art Durkee said...

I think a lot of folks have forgotten that a significant thread in the weave of Surrealism has always been magic realism. The magic realism herewithin is the real thing.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for your comment, Mairi. I had actually come across your blog before. I'm not actually sure that I am the kind of audience poets dream of. I find I can't connect with far more poetry than I can. Liz was lucky. It's why you won't find many reviews of poetry books on my site. I find them very hard work even compared to the most involved of novels.

And, Art, I can't say that the term magic realism jumps to my mind when I thing of Liz's poetry. It's been a while since I wrote this review but it seemed more grounded in reality than anything else, poetic metaphors aside. I do accept that we could use the expression, perhaps within parentheses, for a lot of poetry – my own included – where fantastic things happen as a matter of course but as a general rubber stamp, no.

Sheila said...

I sort of linked your review to the comment section of my most recent post on Secret Poems, except that it wouldn't make a proper link, just an address, as I had posted a difficult piece and was worried about the cultural allusions that many people wouldn't get. I added a couple of notes at the bottom of the work and that seemed to suffice. Those readers who commented seemed willing to take some trouble, but it's always a fine line, and a worrisome one. I suppose in the end you have to reconcile yourself to the fact that every poem won't appeal to every person. In fact very few poems will appeal to even one person. They really are hard work.

Liz said...

Hi Elisabeth, thanks for reading and commenting...enjoyed your observations. : )

Mairi, hi again, will check out your link...and yeah, Jim sure does the reading
part with thoroughness and humour too...a good combination. ; )

Hi Art, thanks for stopping by and reading...can connect with surrealism and magic realism...
really pleased you saw those elements in the work...and nice to meet you, virtually-speaking : )

Hi again, Mairi, I enjoyed that post on your Blog and thanks for linking to the review I said on your Blog post, personally, and in general, I think that cultural allusions that the reader isn't familiar with don't necessarily put certain readers off nor put certain connections off limits, I like the freedom that reading between the lines can offer, it is sometimes not good to be too 'in the know' with certain references so that one can make one's own of things...but yes, I can see how a poem being too jam-packed with unfamiliar cultural allusions could make it hard work and be off-putting... thanks again for the conversation on this...and to Jim for hosting this review and initiating this conversation...


tashabud said...

Hello Jim,
This is off-topic. I'm making my Christmas list. I liked Truth About Lies so much, I'd like to own a copy of Stranger Than Fiction. However, Amazon says that it's out of print! Please tell me that there will be more in time for Christmas.


Have a great day.

tashabud said...

I am so sorry for my mistake. I meant to say Living with the Truth, instead of The Truth About Lies.

I'm sleep deprived at the moment, so it must have something to do with it.

Again, I'm sorry.


Jim Murdoch said...

The quickest and cheapest way of ordering Living with the Truth, Tasha, is via the FV Books website. Here's a link. There is also a special offer on where you can get both books. And here's a link to that too. Both books are on but it's an expensive way to go.

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