"You can neither bate them nor join them": a review of Dave Lordan's Medium

Dave Lordan, "one of Ireland's most necessary poets."
Dave Lordan, "one of Ireland's most necessary poets."

At the heart of contemporary Irish poetry, there sits an ancient gramophone-like structure, reserved for the vatic and faithful. Each year, reverential pilgrims make their way to this already rusting, machine-age shrine, hoping to hear the old truths in the approved manner, which they dutifully learn by heart. Life (they hear, and then go on to repeat) is beautiful, like a poem; language, sonorously spoken and elegantly clipped on the page, is the only morality; a suburban stillness, breathily beheld, might yet redeem the world. 


For the best part of two decades, Dave Lordan, by sensibility a Luddite as well as something of a prophet in the style of William Blake or Thomas Spence, has been finding new ways to drown out the gramophone and explode the mythologies it sustains.


Appropriately, his latest poetry collection, Medium, is a powerful reminder of the hellishness of modern Ireland, the comparative complacency of its most usual poetic mode, and (by contrast) the flaming, compassionate anger that makes Lordan’s own work so essential. An exposé of the reality of Church-and-State-led abuse, “Definition of a Runner” is a tower of incandescent rage and grief: 


That more clerics have not been torn to pieces by the

adults of the children 

they abused is, 

for me, the great conundrum of modern Irish history, of 

modern Irish spirituality, of 

modern Irish philosophy, of modern Irish culture and 

identity. Of modern 

Irish poetry. 


In a similar vein, “21 Proverbs” is unlike anything else in Irish poetry now (with the exception, perhaps, of Patrick Chapman’s apocalyptic verse). It stands as a distillation of world-history and hard-edged, poetic wisdom, in an era of consolidated terrors and impending climate catastrophe: 


We blew up the bridge before we came to it.


A grenade went off in our basket of eggs. 


Every cloud has a B52. 


Stand up eight times, fall down nine. 


Half a poisoned loaf is worse than none. 


You can neither bate them nor join them. 


Lordan has had the audacity to see the world as it is, rather than as we would, perhaps, like it to be. His instinct is to demystify the false hopes our culture concocts to ease our anxious minds, and to view life, instead, from the perspective of the damned (among whom, if global warming fulfils its promises, we may accurately rank ourselves). “The darkest hour”, he writes, “is just before the bomb.”


Lordan struts, howling, in places where the studious technicians of Ireland’s poetry corps tend never to tread. His “Body” is



In which I form and am forming, 

In which I am always reforming. 

Pacin the hours away, smoking, 

Scrapin the dates away on the wall. 

Until the next release. The next conditional. 

Sleeping. Recallin a sensual riot. Plottin an 

Upcoming. Weekend livin... 


“Writin for me”, he grins, “is a breach of the skin, / an exit from time, / a break from the madhouse called history.” For all the fury of his work, this is a poet who finds, if not consolation, a freedom and sheerness in the physicality of his own experience, even in the face of extremity. He speaks from the nerves, the belly, the pummelling heart of life. His piece, “Chalk Markings” is a gorgeous, demotic piss-take, mocking a number of literary pieties (concerning form, craft, and poetic desire) with a cackle of self-delight. It reads: 


That feelin after a ride 

when the someone says 

will I put the kettle on?


It’s a haiku   (It’ll do)


I would very much like to see 

accurately translated 

into chalk markings 


& chalked onto the pavement 

outside every abode 

in my local human zoo. 


There’s also a raucous dance to Lordan’s words, drawing a perennial, strange joy from the whirlwind of their own expression. Reading them, and listening to him perform, is never less than exhilarating. 


For fans of Lordan’s work, Medium will represent an expansion and deepening of an already-vital writer’s street-wise, panoramic, accusatory art; for new readers, it will provide a welcome introduction to one of Ireland’s most necessary poets.

Ciarán O'Rourke // October 2021