(First published by Writing.ie)
“It is difficult / to get the news from poems”, contended William Carlos Williams, in a wry and often touching meditation on decay and renewal, written in his later life. In recent years, the more I’ve thought about this quietly subversive observation, the more it’s seemed to have an air of challenge to it. After all, why shouldn’t poetry encompass or examine the news and media that so filter our lives? Is there a risk of flattening or narrowing the literary arts, when we insist that they exclude such realities? And where does the difficulty identified by Williams originate, in our culture – how is it sustained?
These questions preoccupied me while I was working on the poems now gathered in my second collection, Phantom Gang, forthcoming from The Irish Pages Press. Partly stimulated by Williams’s proposition, I began to tune in, as I was writing, to the headlines that bombard our screens and senses by the hour, hoping to catch the rhyming notes and repeated rhythms of our collective moment. On any given day, I would sit down and attempt to sift through the noise, picking out and stitching together the strange, sometimes startling occurrences that were coming to light – from developments in the ‘big tech’ sector to climactic phenomena and social justice struggles around the world.
The project evolved instinctively, but also with purpose: to enter the loudness of contemporary history, and then to distil the cacophony down to something legible and clear – the poem itself. Once I’d settled on the approach, I was able to carry it in different directions. So the collection contains tributes to figures such as Martín Chambi (1891-1973) and Gerda Taro (1910-1937), the path-breaking photo-journalist killed by Francoist forces during the Spanish Civil War, as well as poets like Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) and the Palestinian writer Fadwa Tuqan (1917-2003).
Another piece, "The Raid", tries to meet Williams’s challenge head-on, while also test-driving T. S. Eliot’s war-time definition of poetry, in Four Quartets, as a “raid on the inarticulate”. The poem begins with a newspaper profile of a well-known American CEO, before incorporating a parallel report, featured in the same publication on the same date, of an archaeological break-through in Sweden, uncovering evidence of a previously forgotten (and rather disturbing) event from the dark ages in that country. An observational poem, "The Raid" records its findings in a manner analogous to cinematic montage, allowing the hectic imperatives of global finance to co-exist alongside a much slower revelation from a distant place and era.
In this and other pieces, I came to understand poetic expression itself as a complex negotiation with a sometimes troubling stillness, indelible and large. I realised that poems, far from filling a void with their music, frequently do the very opposite, gesturing – with a mixture of frailty and tenacity – to whatever has been rendered irretrievable (by age or circumstance), from privately cherished memories to rubbled cities in the far reaches of our world. As such, my hope is that the self-consciously political forays in the collection retain an emotional continuity with some of the other strands running through the book: with the poems of personal testimony and tribute, for example, dedicated to my late grandparents. Tracked from a particular angle, the collection as a whole may be seen to follow a single trail, stepping from memory into history, and back again, wading the one long river.
By the time I arrived on the final shoreline, a completed manuscript under my arm, I had discovered what Williams and Eliot, for all their differences, both surely knew: that poetry can indeed register the conflicting myths and urgent happenings of the present, but it also serves as a receptacle for haunted time, reminding us at an intimate level of the lives once lived, the gaps and losses that may be acknowledged, with love or compassion, but never restored. That’s how I think of Phantom Gang now: a first salute, a last surrender, held against the silence.