The Swerve

'Returning Geese at Katada', Edo period (1615-1868)
'Returning Geese at Katada', Edo period (1615-1868)

(A review of The Swerve by Peter Sirr, first published by New Hibernia Review)


For much of his career, Peter Sirr has occupied the role of admired outsider in the grand market-place of Irish poetry, perennially leaving the crowd to set off on journeys of his own devising, and returning with treasures and tokens that nobody else would have thought to look for. An original talent, he is cosmopolitan and esoteric, fluently and unapologetically himself: a cross between time-leaping troubadour and indefatigable scrapman, salvaging, for the purpose of lyric repair, life’s innumerable discarded parts. Each new book he writes widens the possibilities and dislodges the boundaries to which Irish poetry traditionally confines itself, and The Swerve, his latest offering, is no exception. We read these poems, and find our lives enriched.


Revisiting a resonant childhood Christmas journey that almost went awry – and in a certain sense, did – the title poem has the haunted clarity of a short story by William Trevor: a beautifully observed rendering of longing through time, delicately controlled in its unfolding, and yet never with a sense of forced emotion or contrivance. As its long-lined tercets multiply, retracing the vivid, shifting map of the past, the impression is of a self slowly, carefully discovering its own mysteries, which remain unresolvable. For all its poise and fluency, the poem feels lived in and necessary, a kind of heart-music at twilight – emerging “like an apparition of the future”, in which cherished memories and unyielding absence can be glimpsed, strangely mingled. This is a recurring atmosphere in Sirr’s work. His poems know, as he puts it in another piece, that there are “some silences / beyond entering”, even as desire itself carries them to the brink, in a glistering rain of hope and yearning. As their titles imply, “Ages” and “Return” move in a similar weather, billowing gently as they “guide you back to where you can / no longer go”.


For Sirr, history is often a form of archaeology in disguise: a layered and tactile uncovering of hitherto buried meanings, vanished experiences. “The tables we shared, the hands that held us / that suffered their own breakages”, he chants, in a haze of remembering punctured by grief: “but nothing held you in the end”. And yet this capacity to coax song from the blank detritus left behind – by people, by civilizations – has an almost Beckettian verve in moments (even if Sirr, ultimately, is more trusting of the world’s warmth, less sceptical of his own nostalgia, than Beckett ever was). The component segments of “Conversational” read like soliloquies from a forgotten radio drama; they are not only verbal shapes on the page, but written voices, murmuring to one another, or alone in the dark: “We barely talked but we’re talking now, / star to star, stone to stone, or I’m adhering to the convention, / yakking for us both.”


Music, too, has a vital presence in Sirr’s work, nudging him into delicious spells of lyric adventure and discovery. In this volume, “No Journey’s End”, inspired by the work of the experimental Irish musician Michael O’Shea, chimes with an earlier piece, “Music for Viols”, each presenting a free-flowing reply (in words, miraculously) to the chthonic experience of feeling “a noise we had always imagined, rippling through us”. In a glorious plot-twist, “At the AI Conference” and “The Robot Diaries” wonder how a computer programme, or an algorithm, might experience and attempt to recreate such epiphanic and visceral sensations: “Zombie poetry bot the language touches my forehead / and yea I am resurrected”. As here, Sirr’s contemporaneity is audacious, and frequently playful. “Welcome to the language”, he smiles in “Arrival”: “chillax, whatevs, simples”.


Sirr has in fact always been concerned – I’m tempted to say, obsessed – with the possibility of a livable language, one that might allow our disappearing days, our drifting selves, “to sing to each other across the darkness”, and this searching trouble at the heart of his verse is key to its vigour and appeal. He is, of course, a prodigious literary translator, akin to the late Pearse Hutchinson in point of linguistic facility; and yet even this comparison, illustrious though it is, seems only partially representative of Sirr’s gifts. His most regular persona is that of a learned rambler in a wide, polyglot republic that spurns all borders and spans through history. He sings – indeed, communes – with Fernando Pessoa and Heinrich Heine, with the Tang poets and Latin love elegists, taking a seat at the raucous banquet-table where they roar and mope together. In point of inventive insight and amicable revision, “The Gleaners Walk Towards Where the Sunlight Is” – a series of “conversations” with the eighteenth-century haibun artist, Buson, at once sprightly and grounded – ranks alongside Anne Carson’s path-breaking engagements with Sappho and Catullus, the latter of whom is also among Sirr’s most fruitful revenants. “Self-pummelled / prince of hurt”, the bright-burning Roman punk-poet says of himself here, in old age: “begging for more, / wearing my heart on my bedsheets, relishing / the treacheries.”


No-one is entirely like Sirr, the poet-translator, in this respect. But if his originality is unquestioned, there is a risk, too, in the kind of literary immersion he pursues: that the poem, for all its lush excitement in smuggling itself across the barriers of time and language, finding itself quirkily mirrored and refracted in a thousand different histories, ultimately marks a retreat, ethically and perceptively, from the present world and its predicaments. Over time, the writer may come to care more about the imagined voices on the page than living people on the street, some of whom (perhaps many) suffer, others of whom merely survive, while the majority remain outcast from the citadel of verse the author has spent years in building. 


It may be worth stating directly, then, that Sirr is not a political poet, or at least not in the way that Adrienne Rich and Bertolt Brecht (whom he has translated) were, or as Michael Hartnett could be on occasion. But because his work is humane, ludic, love-filled, questioning – and not only erudite – its revelations have a redemptive air, and ring true. Instinctively, Sirr makes space in his lyric house for the victims and survivors of the world’s bedlam, and this gesture of acknowledgement deepens and verifies the consolations his poems afford. So in this collection, “Steps” and “Salt”, among others, have the virtue of expressing compassion and sorrow in the face of militarised cruelty – as “Harm” also did, in 2014’s The Rooms – while attaching the poet’s life, whose inner solaces are so achingly registered and explored elsewhere, to an outer reality that would be unimaginable in its injustice, were it not, already, sadly real. Put simply (perhaps too simply), Sirr’s “Lines for my Daughter” and “Daughterisland” seem more lucent and vulnerable, less sentimental, harder won, for his broken, brutal recognition, in another poem, that “always someone is standing beyond consoling, / his butchered children in the rubble and mud.”


What is clear from this collection is that Sirr is a great poet, at the height of his powers; likewise that he belongs to world-literature, and not merely its designated Irish nook. Although intended as a quiet reply to Borges – one of those soft-voiced poems in which the writer-as-reader meets their predecessor, with a whisper of understanding – the meditative, mortal sadness gleaming in the last lines of “A Saxon Primer” calls to mind those toughly tender Americans, Mark Strand and Robert Pinsky. We are not used to thinking of Ireland’s bards in this way, but in Sirr’s case the juxtaposition seems valid: he is a worldly figure, reaching beyond the bounds of the expected and culturally pre-ordained, towards what is essential and vital in his own experience, and ours as well. “A Saxon Primer” could serve as a paradigm for poets everywhere. It finishes:


Beyond all this, the sweated grammar, 

the effort to know one thing after another, 

on the other side of the poem the universe is waiting, 

patient and inexhaustible. Time and again 

the light keeps fading from what we love 

though we turn and turn to it, singing 


to blunt the darkness, to fold the light back in. 

Ciarán O'Rourke (First Published by New Hibernia Review) // January 2024