Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Chopping Wood with T. S. Eliot by John Walsh (2010, Salmon Poetry)

It takes a good bit of nerve to include a reference to T. S. Eliot in the title to a collection of one's poems.  John Walsh in the sixty poems in Chopping Wood with T. S. Eliot has shown himself fully up to the challenge.  In reading these poems I have an advantage that is also kind of disadvantage as it pre-inclines me to certain understandings of these poems.  In the company of Max u and Lisa Frank, I had the pleasure of having dinner at the home of John Walsh.   It is on a ruggedly beautiful coastal setting a few kilometers outside of Galway.   I cannot help but see a number of these sparsely beautiful highly compressed poems as set in the environs of John's property.  In the title poem, I can or rather of necessity do visualize the poet chopping wood on his land to keep his house warm in the Irish nights.  I have previously posted on his excellent set in mostly Ireland collection of short stories, Border Lines, and in so doing I learned he had spent a number of years living and working in Germany. 

 In a way these poems are part of a very Irish tradition.  A young man leaves Ireland seeking adventure and economic gain and to find himself, only to really truly not find himself until he returns home to Ireland. Some of the poems are about his father, you can see the powerful bond but I sense undercurrents of dissonance.   The poems are about this.  They are also about the day to day material and events that make up our lives. There are poems about problems with your broadband service, a perhaps too talkative but I think very right hairdresser who tells him to be sure and keep his current girl friend.  There are poems relating to the political troubles that not to long ago beset Ireland, about bomb threats in the night, children cut in half by a bomb from a drone, and the ease of contract killing.  Some of the most intriguing poems approximate the form of prose.   They are about making a home, about loving a very good woman, about the changes of the season on his property, about the love of Galway bay knowing on nature's whim it can destroy you.   In a way the poems are to me about the fragility of life, about how easy we can hurt those we love, and it is also about not being intimidated by T. S. Eliot.  

In posting on collections of poetry, something  I find difficult to do in a way I am close to happy with, I don't see myself as reviewing them.  (I hate to be called a reviewer.). I just read them, in this case I read the collection four times, and post stuff (this being a literary method I learned from deconstructionists at the Sorbonne) on them.   I am not technically knowledgeable on the mechanics of poetry.  I don't do structural analysis of the poems I read and I think this is not necessary.  I am a reader of poetry, a consumer, I try to absorb what I read, not tear it apart.  

I will talk about a number of the poems to increase my understanding, place them more firmly in my memory, and help interested parties get a feel for the collection.   My bottom line is I highly recommend this collection to all who love poetry.  These are the mature poems of a very wise man.

"Chopping Wood with T. S. Eliot", the title poem is very interesting.  The speaker in the poem, I know John has recited the poems of Eliot at readings in Galway, is outside chopping wood for the house, He cannot help but struggle to find a way to write poetry have read deeply in Eliot.  I love these lines: 
"You can't let guys like him walk all over you.
damn it!  The language is as much my birthright as his."

As I read this just now again I thought what are the post colonial ways we could see this- an Irish poet is intimidated to write in a language imposed on him by the English by an American writer who wished he was English.  This thought of mine might be very off the wall.  

"Del Pinto" is a fascinating clearly deeply felt look at how the poet feels about his father.  It is an amazing and haunting look at the psyche of his father and at his never realized darker side.  Del Pinto was a friend from his father's youth.  The father sometimes spoke of him but the poet never saw him.  These lines tell it all "Maybe he was my father's Kerouac, the alter ego of a man who never touched a drink, who put his wife and family before everything.."  The father always prayed for Del Pinto, a wanderer who drank the high balls his father never did.  This is also a poem for an older man wondering what his life would have been like had he never married, had children.  He does not want that for himself but he is glad for the existence of those who did not so he can at least dream when he feels his chains a bit to grindingly on a bad day.

 "Reality Check", a near prose work, for sure made me think of the setting of the poem..  Tsunami's have been in the news in the last few years.  They seem more a pacific threat than a northern Atlantic, I know our family propery in the northern Philippines is a sitting duck for one so I can relate to the poet's reflections on the deadly devastation an Irish tsunami would have on John's property.  He imagines the few seconds of TV news times that  would be devoted to the event.

"Incriminating Evidence", a work structured as prose is about one of the great topics of poets ever since Plato's Republic made them the legislators and Shelly tried to impose the idea on the Poets of the world. Why does poetry matter to society?  Are poets who claim they are out to change society strutting fools writing only for each other or for their own Lady Gregory.  The opening lines of this poem are steering.  "Poetry doesn't cut it in the streets.  Fear has been injected into the veins of a people who will never read a poem".  Poetry takes in scenes, but "poetry can not think of anything to say".  This is part of the poet's eternal struggle with himself to ask the question why bother?  Maybe the answer is in the asking.  

""One of Us" is a finely observed poem of a childhood memory of Aunt Florie, who had a tongue that "could cut you to pieces".  It is also a wonderful short story expressing the much spoken of emotional reticence of the Irish that is part of the theme of short story writers such as James Joyce and John McGahern.   Florie married an Englishman and became more English sounding than he was.  You need to read this poem yourself but the close is devastatingly powerful. 

The poems in this collection are very much part of a unified whole, the last poem refers back to the first one.  These are real works about a very real person.  The last poem, presented as what most would call prose, sort of ironically sums up the collection.  He begins by talkigabout trees chopping wood and such, then he moves back to his younger days, talks about his relationships, the turmoil in his life, at the close he thinks of small things and he turns back to what it means to him to be a poet.

I greatly enjoyed this collection, I read it every other day for eight days.  I will read it again I know.  I will quote a bit from the web page of Salmon Poetry to give you an additional overview of Chopping Wood With T. S. Eliot.  

About this Book (from publisher's web page)

John Walsh's quizzical observer, in 'pre-Troubles' Derry, backpacking in Bavaria, or coming 'home' to post-Wall Berlin - whether musing on a lake-locked mansion, fulminating at the news' excesses or recalling vanished boyhood heroes - finds much virtue in small things, value in the overlooked, validation in nature's persistence. Engaged, like the Eliot of his title, in salvaging the poetic and the good from society's wastelands, his wry gaze and gentle tone conjure an art, and a world, that are ethically rooted, authentic, and ultimately heartening. 
Anne-Marie Fyfe

John Walsh's work is brave, vibrant and immensely accessible. At its best, the writing achieves a rare transparency. There are powerful poems here where we, seamlessly, get to see the world through his eyes and are greatly enriched by the experience.  
Michael Gorman

Author Biography

John Walsh was born in Derry in 1950. After sixteen years teaching English in Germany, in 1989 he returned to live in Connemara. His first collection Johnny tell Them was published by Guildhall Press (Derry) in October 2006. In 2007 he received a Publication Award from Galway County Council to publish his second collection Love's Enterprise Zone (Doire Press, Connemara). His poems have been published in Ireland, the UK and Austria and he has read and performed his poems at events in Ireland, the UK, Germany and Sweden. He is organizer and MC of the successful performance poetry event North Beach Poetry Nights in the Crane Bar, Galway. He has also been known to show up with his guitar and deliver one or two of his own songs. Chopping Wood with T.S. Eliot is a collection of sixty new poems to celebrate his reaching the mature age of sixty.

I completely endorse this collection and am thankful I had the opportunity to read it.  

Mel u

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