Frank McGuinness, Professor of Creative Writing in UCD, has just had published by The Gallery Press, a new collection of poetry In a Town of Five Thousand People. With echoes of 'we're not worthy' echoing round my head as I approach the review of such a giant in literature and as his bearded face stares out at me from the back cover, I read of his four other poetry collections, his dozen plays and his twenty adaptations of European classics, with his version of Ibsen's A Doll's House winning a 'Tony' award. But it is we, the public, who are the readers of his work, so taking a breath I dive in.
In four parts, this is a fine collection with many titles being the names of famous actors, literary theorists, place names, cities and Dublin streets. And in truth it's a literary students' dream. With titles such a "Roland Barthes", "Walter Benjamin" and "Jacques Derrida" you don't know whether to run or get out your uni text books again.
Many of the poems are in memory of friends lost, and to a large degree these poems are about looking back - to great artists, designers, authors and actors, looking back on Dublin as he knew it.
From the first poem "How to Build Your Gondola" inspired by Canaletto's rather derelict and dirty view of Venice in his painting 'Rio del Medicanti' he moves into Part One with the poem "The Town Next To Us" which opens powerfully with the statement "Never liked it much-the town next to us."
McGuinness's poem "Francis Bacon" does not disappoint. Gloriously decadent a line from the poem reads, "I see life through the green delicious lens/ of champagne bottles I down with pleasure." and continues on "If I had a sister I'd call her Cassandra./ I'd marry her, were she the marrying kind./ Let her prophesy our incestuous doom!".
Looking back in "The Latin Mass" to the unity in feeling as one with the Latin text, he moves on:
"and the Prods-`our blesse`d enemy-
would come to love the Virgin,
so we'd forgive their trespass.
Likely as moon transplanting sun."
"Durham" begins with a line from the Anglo Saxon poem "Durham"(early 1100s) 'Is theos burch breome geond Breotenrice' , 'This burgh is famous all over Britain', emphasising the importance of the place when this medieval old English poem was written. This is McGuinness's own poem to the city.
"The Abbey Players" is made up of five parts each titled for players who have died in the last 20 years; Marie Kean, actress for 40 years; Donal McCann who died young: Fidelma Cullen, his partner for 20 years who also died young; Joan O'Hara who spent many years in Fair City and Ray McNally. The poem "Ray McNally" has the lines, "There is no secret about great acting,/ no mystery but breath and butterfly-/ it's easier than working down a mine" which perfectly encompasses the no-nonsense attitude of this actor.
"Roland Barthes", for the French literary theorist and semiotician is one that should be read with care, looking for 'signs'. The first two and last two lines are repeated, "The ways of Eros are manifold;/ the whys of Eros are manifold." I can almost hear myself reading it in a ham French accent. This is one of three for the following is "Walter Benjamin", the German Jewish literary critic and the third is "Jacques Derrida" the French Algerian philosopher, the deconstructionist "words are weapons/ of pandemonium" McGuinness states in this poem.
Part Two is titled "The Book of Hours" and is made up of 24 eight line stanzas. A book of hours was an illuminated Christian devotional from the Middle Ages. In this 'book' quite mundane things are considered in each stanza; "Hair", "Lemon's Sweet's", "Stew", "Sisters", all are considered independently. Some of these come together though in the last poem "Water" which opens "The Earth has stopped, and my sister has died."
In Part Three "Rooms in Denmark" is after Hammershoi, the Danish painter of interiors. His work is considered silent and enigmatic and McGuinness draws on this with the lines, "A girl turns her back asking for silence,/ and silence she got to her hearts content,". In "The Old House" McGuinness remembers a house he used to live in.
Part Four has a poem to that event that is still Ireland's pride "Kennedy in Ireland". Opening with "The first man we saw with skin tanned,/ stopping to shake the good nun's hands," and continues on further "We drank him like water in a spring well./ We fetched him his tea in fine bone china."
Coming towards the end, "The Guest House" is soft and gentle, dedicated to Jean, "This is the guest house. The welcome is fierce."
The final poem, for the title of the collection "In a Town of Five Thousand People" is made of three line stanzas, each starting with the "In a Town..." line. Mysterious, repetitive and disturbing, some of it appearing meaningless, it is not a pretty picture. The speaker decides "I'll do a runner and leave well alone."
This is a collection full of literary references and dedication to those gone from McGuinness's life. I'm sure with my couple of readings I have only skirted the surface of my understanding of this collection and look forward to returning and becoming more familiar with the poems that have spoken most to me.