Frank Dullaghan's new collection is carefully shaped and structured. It has five named sections, and though there is a lot of thematic crossover between them, each does have a distinct character: "Small Town Brewery Blues" concerns the poet's past in Ireland, "The Children Are Silent" focuses on contemporary politics, with "Aisling" we are in the territory of dream and myth, "Lazarus Leaving" is very conscious of approaching age and death, while the final section, "Beannacht" ("blessing") is focused on family and the personal.
Dullaghan's work background in business and his long-term residence in Dubai are unusual in British poetry and have given him some fascinating subject matter. I've mentioned in previous reviews that he is one of very few poets to have actually written about the financial crash of 2008 and its effect on individuals. Although it isn't a major theme of this collection, its ripples are still felt, especially in the long meditation "Love Poem for Oreo", in which the narrator, his certainties and future plans overset by the crash ("how will I provide now/for our old age?") is temporarily too stalled to move on:
The pastBut he finds that the adaptability of the neighbour's cat he is temporarily minding in what, to both, is an unfamiliar environment helps him to change his perspective:
will not let the future enter.
There is still a wayThe quiet, dry humour with which the poem concludes, when the cat has gone home
of living in the world.
It would never have worked out anyway –is very typical of Dullaghan's writing voice, in which, though the "I" voice is prominent, self-absorption and self-pity are emphatically not. The political poems in the second section are some of his most powerful yet, I think, and the more so for curbing and controlling their feelings. In "Doll" he imagines a child playing in Gaza.
the language barrier, the age difference, religion,
She wraps a bandageWhat he is very good at is making the connections and comparisons between his own life and the lives of people in the wider world (one reason, I think, that he chooses to juxtapose sections I and 2). In the poem "Things I Don't Know" he marries political concern with technical skill in a corona-like form, using the last word of each verse to lead on to the next and, in each, contrasting small inconveniences with matters of life and death:
around the doll's eyes
so it cannot see, covers its ears
to grant it passage to a new world
of silence. Then she pulls of
both of its legs, yanking them
from their plastic sockets, discovering
how cleanly it happens, the lack
I know about boats. But not like that,Again, a lot of the impact of this comes from his ability to retain enough emotional detachment to shape and control his utterance. This is true even in the poems dealing with age and death. Indeed the wry tone often returns, as in "The Voices of the Dead", which begins "I sit with a coffee and my dead brother". This supernatural encounter does not produce any cosmic answers to life, the universe and everything:
not recklessly, not as small heavy bobbings overladen
in the crash of a soul-sick sea,
not that deadly form of travel.
I know about travel – motorways, traffic-jams,
airport security checks. But I know nothing about
the pregnant belly of a truck, nothing
about gasping for delivery, for foreign air.
We expect the dead to be wise but they areIndeed, in "Love Poem for Oreo" the poet reflects that "this is not a time for answers". What you get in this collection, underpinned by considerable technical skill, are questions that need thinking about, juxtapositions that throw new light on each other and, very often, phrases so exact that they linger in the mind – "some moments can last longer than others" ("Remembering Your Green Dress").
only themselves. What did you expect, he says.
You don't think of me that often any more. True.
Life does that. It fills you up with its noise,
leaves little space in your head for the voices of the dead.