Notable critical reviews on Macdara Woods’ work.

Bernard O’ Donoghue on
The Nightingale Water
by Macdara Woods.
Dedalus. 92pp, £6.95 and
Knowledge in the Blood
New and Selected Poems
by Macdara Woods.
Dedalus. 216pp, £7.95

Macdara Woods has been an absorbing and relatively unplaceable presencein Irish writing since the 1970s, because the internationalising tendency of his poems to push the boundaries of Irish poetry outwards was always balanced by a rooted use of Irish language and tradition.

These two new books offer variations on this balance: Knowledge in the Blood adds nearly 50 pages of new poems to those available to the 1996 Selected, and is accompanied by the powerful new sequence, The Nightingale Water, which centres on the harrowing events surrounding the poet’s mother’s strokes and death.
One of Woods’s most striking capacities has been to write the long poem, a form traditionally thought impossible in the modern age of confessional lyric. Reading these books together now, the most substantial earlier long poems, such as `Above Pesaro, June 1993′, read like an apprenticeship that has reached mastery in The Nightingale Water.

The Irish poets that Woods might invite comparison with are Kennelly and Durcan, both of whom can play tunes of great force and precision on the slack string, as well as gaining highly emotional effects in an apparently artless conversational tone of voice. It is tempting to bring them together as a kind of Dublin country school, since they all return to the countryside of past experience (counties Kerry, Donegal and Meath) for material that puts in relief the metropolitan present of the speaking voice.
The Nightingale Water is arranged as a sequence of exchanges between the poet’s first-person reflections, in a voice familiar from the earlier poetry, and the agitated voice of the dying woman, represented in italics. The title comes from one of her most haunting semi-delirious pleas:

what I would love
is water from the well
what I would love
to have
is some of that
nightingale water

The poem goes on to comment grimly, “I write it down/as writers do”, ending an exchange which has summarised beautifully the dilemma of the writer who publicises painful personal experience. A few pages earlier the poetic voice asked its dying interlocutor, “Will you/embarrass me today?” Since Keats, embarrassment is the risk confessional writers run, for their subjects as well as themselves.

Woods’s poems have always been absorbing in their twists and turns. But this steadily pursued sequence seems much his strongest achievement to date. It builds on the striking shifts in the new poems at the end of Knowledge in the

Sebastian Barry on
by Macdara Woods
Dedalus. ISBN 0 948268 25 5 (paper) £3.60

It is fourteen years since Macdara Woods published a collection of poetry. Such a gap might sometimes mean that a poet has dropped out of sight, reputation has suffered, new readers and indeed writers have come up in that time who have not had much chance of meeting with the work. For a working poet, as Woods is, this can be bizarre, a sort of mechanical cancellation. In Macdara Woods’ case, things have been slightly different. Here and there in the wood he has always had readers, who have you suspect, reread Early Morning Matins over the years, going back to favourite poems, and perhaps wondering why they were being forced to wait so long for more.

Well, the wait is over. Here is the latest news from the strange, urban districts of Macdara Woods, which he inhabits both humbly and tenderly. He owns also a number of metres and forms, possessed lightly, which makes him neither vers-librist not formalist, but the deeper craftsman, poet.

Each of the poems in Stopping the Lights in Ranelagh is a complete ‘area’ in itself, not a compressed epic exactly (‘it takes some time to make an epic/ or to see it for the epic that it is’), but a compressed version of something larger and, you might say, more familiar: the ordinary shortened into magic. The poems are not models though, but things themselves, animals of a certain colour, changeable and playful – the playfulness never separated from the context of a buffeting life:

thing is that we were doing our best
to keep a troubled ship together
on bad sea roads where each port seemed
less likely than another
(from Controlled and Intermittent Falling)
There is movement, the ground pulling, all through the book, the jump and splash of embers that happens in work that is not only the making of excellent verse, but the true rare generation of unfussy lights to steer by. Here, for example, is one of the many possible walks through the twisted iron and surviving pillars of Woods’ imaginary Ranelaghs: from The Drunken Ladies, a tiny scenario of pleasant horror, through The Burning Tree in the Public Gardens

The ambuscade
of Tiger Lil and Tiger Moth, the Great Tall ships,
the cards, the ’planes of the First World War,
are all gone to ground with my Grandfather’s hand
that led me by times up Pembroke Street

(the roots and water of iambs and anapaests), and on into A Sea of Rooves and Leaded Gables

In the night we flecked our eyes with sequins
and watched the yellow drops cascade
of Pernod poured in candlelight
and laughed and made love unafraid.

Something, not unexpected, of a high order, begins to happen around page twenty-two, Macdara Woods delivers new poems, not just for the sake of making a barricade of bicycles and mattresses to save his own skin (a fairly honourable pursuit), but to save, dress and redeem the skim and bone, lock, stock and barrel, of the reader:

No, it does not surprise me that men die
but that they live so long against all odds

. . .

Oh God deny me not the time to learn my own design –
an old man in blue evenings beyond the fear of windows –
who answers clearly through the falsity of lines
that life is, is glorious, and flawed. Not polished;
(from For Jack Walsh, d. London 1973)

Pretty glorious dance-steps there, unflawed, polished, undiminished.
The Wicked Messenger and The Hospital Cafeteria have the colour of laughter, freaked through with the colour of fear, with the latter’s dramatic patter of stray talk:

The liver – he said – Collapse?
What kind of death would that be?
Well – said I – (thinking on my feet) –
What price range did you have in mind?

Poems especially valuable for their resolved humanity, their use as a ‘ballast’ against various tempests, texts and vade-mecums for survival in Dublin and any other haphazard town, are Shades of Ranelagh 1984 (‘As I came in from Drowned Lake Mountain,’ is an essential beginning), the horrifying but adoring Houserules:

… she threw the talking head
in the back of her car with her lecture notes
her handbag fur coat and galley proofs
tricks of trade and mercantile accoutrements
Otrivine stuffed firmly up my nostrils
to stop catarrh and Hacks for my throat

Leaving me headless and in some straits …

Lazarus in Fade Street, Summer 1986 (‘Oh Alice Glenn/ Lady of Astronomical Compassion/ Pray for us now and in Leinster House Amen), and the gentle perfect Stopping the Lights in Ranelagh 1986, the head of the figure of this book, a poem that puts its faith in and takes its strength from a complex and weirdly integral creature, a small believing boy:

We too have come through dangers and we call
to the MC on the console stop the lights
here at the wrong end of the telescope
my one concern is holding down the present
Sunday mornings on the Great South Wall are real
and hand in hand with Niall it is enough
when we are astral travellers and our astral turf
the cut blocks that interlock upon each other
and we are inaccessible and far off dots
on the Half Moon road to the lighthouse
safe from the law alive and well
` in the wind on the Great South Wall

It is hard to know by what subterfuges this collection might find its way into the hands of readers who are not poets or specialists, because, with its generosity and longterm courage, it belongs there, as well as among other writers and the small nucleus of people who take an interest in poetry. The lines between poet and ‘ordinary’ audience are often down, and sometimes it is the poet himself who was the storm that did the damage. More often it is just the poor weather that surrounds most of the books published in any year, a situation amply aided by the rusty and very unreliable machineries that exist to bring a good book to the notice of a readership. Stopping the Lights in Ranelagh will hopefully find new paths, new lines. It is itself new, after all, and newness, or freshness, or exactitude, is always welcomed, eventually.

Sebastian Barry

Cyphers 27 (Summer, 1987)

Philip Casey on
by Macdara Woods.
The Dedalus Press, £5.95 (paper) £8.95 (bound).

Cyphers 40 (Spring, 1995)

Notes from the Countries of Blood-Red Flowers is I think Macdara Woods’ sixth book, and it is divided into six sections, including a sequence in memory of John Jordan. It is linguistically, imagistically and rhythmically rich, as if attempting to calibrate the variegated breadth and roundness rather than an aspect of a given experience, and accumulatively, of the life so far lived. It is a densely written book, and is not a light read, with few short poems as such. Neither is it an easy book to grasp as a whole, and I would have preferred to continue getting lost in passages and their perfect phrasing and distillation than discipline myself to review it objectively.

Like all good work, however, it does reveal its patters and structure on sustained reading. Without wishing and in any case unable to reduce it to a plot or a theme, it is a book about memory, ageing and the search for ‘the country/ where we are not foreign’. This country is of course a peaceful state of mind, and that cannot be reached without a long and arduous journey. In reading the book, I couldn’t help thinking of Cavafy’s The City, and then, finally, in his wonderful long poem Above Pesaro June 1993, of Cavafy’s Ithaca. Woods’ journey to Ithaca has included sojourns in Ireland, the United States, Russia and perhaps most significantly, Italy. Few if any of the memories here are cosy and some are bitter, but they are confronted, interrogated and made part of the whole, the bitterness transmuted into a healthy anger, with certain details surfacing through the book, in some instances almost becoming a refrain. The physical countries themselves, especially Itaaly, inspire descriptions of directness and simplicity, the best of which could describe anywhere:

I came to be acquainted with the wood
crab-apples falling on my roof
small creatures dropping from the oaks

The daily flight-path of the clouds
drifting over from the lake
and all the noise and uproar

Along the forest floor – the slow
smooth rustle of a snake
sliding up against the bank

(Above Pesaro June 1993)
Distances, the first section, begins with the oddly-named Les Côtes du Tennessee,a addressed to his son Niall, the dedicatee and an important presence through the book, and is as memorable as a fine song, with its refrain ‘The world is full of crooks and heroes’ varied in each verse, and with phrases like ‘beware the cargo when your ship comes in’ which stay in the mind. The lines here are perfectly crafted, each one memorable in itself as well as a connection to the next, and the poem announces the tenor of the entire book.

The colours you will walk in little son
these countries that are yours were mine
were magical and strange such contradictions
the space bat angel spread its wings
and came down burning from the sun –
are magical and strange and dangerous
and oh the world is full of crooks and heroes
beware the cargo when your ship comes in
the autumn serpent in the stubble field
those patient spiders in our dusty rooms
have registered and taken note
and hold us in their thousand eyes

A preoccupation with ageing is the driving force of the book, and explicitly surfaces in many of the poems in phrases like ‘In another city nearly fifty’, and ‘At 48 stoop-shouldered come to rest’. This lends their atmosphere a certain gloom, but the sheer music of the lines elevates them, paradoxically, into songs of hope. In ways, the book is a secular long dark night of the soul, a struggle with the demons of boredom, the poet’s art and a need for personal authenticity (see La Befana Bearing Gifts and ‘the emptiness of waiting/ for the fitting words to come’) with the rare escape into wisdom some of us, if we are lucky and we earn it, once in a while achieve:

Then somewhere on the journey
it all comes simpler:
a porcupine feather
two white snail-shells
in my garden
walnuts from the tree
in late October –
and in my pocket
these five acorns
I have carried from Pavlovsk

More especially for mature readers, this is a deeply moving and important book. If you care about distilled experience expressed in memorable music, buy, ponder and savour it.

Sean Walsh on
Artichoke Wine
by Macdara Woods
(Dedalus Press, 2006)

from Rambles.NET 7 October 2006

Ten years after the publication of his New & Selected Poems, Macdara Woods is as prolific as ever. His new collection, Artichoke Wine, is the voice of a seasoned mature poet, comfortable in his skin but still in awe of the world that surrounds him. The collection includes two sequences written for performance with musicians: “In the Ranelagh Gardens” and “The Cello Suites.” The other six parts of the book are given over to observational poems on life in Ireland, Italy, Paris and elsewhere on this planet of life.

“In the Ranelagh Gardens” was originally a performative collaboration with Irish composer Benjamin Dwyer. The composer was at the time looking for a body of poetry to work from (or “against,” as Woods writes in his introduction to the suite). The eponymous park is situated across the road from the poet’s house and became the inspiration for the poems. The completed work was first performed in 2003 and has been repeated a number of times since. Last year, the work was recorded and released on CD. But what of the poems?

Well, as a body of work, they are sublime, perfectly suiting and fitting, and segueing one into another. Like music, really. With titles such as “Voices,” “Fathers,” “Contact” and “Identity,” there is an “everyday” quality about them, life captured in economical verse. The snapshots from the park and the outside street, are vignettes of life, a microcosm of modern living, at once immediately contemporary yet utterly timeless in their ageless themes. The philosophical “Fools” describes: “He wanders daily / in the park- / a thin dishevelment / With red moustache / red sun-burnt skin / and floating eyes / cane in hand / he tries to talk / to all the scattered limbs.” It is this ability of Woods’ to capture a moment and get to the heart of it.

Elsewhere, “The park again on Sunday / afternoon: / father and infant daughter / Beside the pond / in weekend access time / estranged not quite at ease.” A moment loaded with chapters. The use of the adjective “infant” is a telling example of the writers’ power of economy.

Where the “Ranelagh Gardens” pieces are floating lyrical, “The Cello Suites” is an elegant slow waltz. Named after their musical counterparts, the poems in this sequence were inspired by Bach’s “Six Solo Suites,” with which they were performed several times since being premiered in Harrisville, New Hampshire, in December 2003.

Musical and precise, the poems are trawled from memory. Situations from experience presented in perfectly choreographed syntax. “Courante” begins with “I crossed Ireland in the rain / last week of May / to see Anne Donnelly’s paintings.” Compressing expanses of incident into concise arrangements, the narratives are drawn from the poet’s travels.

Amongst the remainder of the collection is the long-poem “Driving to Charleston.” Detailing a journey made in the U.S., the work is full of anecdotal evocations. “Pedro Nazario / aged eighty six / fined for feeding pigeons / in Manhattan / Or the man in the Bronx / who was fined / for sitting on a milk-crate,” “driving the backroads of Appalachia / with Bill Williams / following the Ohio river,” “watching the moon come up / over the Black Shamrock / in Milwaukee,” it is like an “On the Road’ in verse with all the Kerouacian wonder and style. Woods’ eyes hungrily lap in the sights and he transforms them into atmospheric word-pictures.

Artichoke Wine is a strong collection of poems, almost stately. Woods’ cool architecture frames the portrayed experiences culled from the mundane, loaded with the significant. His strengths are clarity, elegance and musicality, his creations often sublime.

Tom Hubbard on
Artichoke Wine
by Macdara Woods
(Dedalus Press, 2006)
€12 / £8.20

(Cyphers 63 (Spring 2007)

The other day, on the train from Dublin to Leixlip, I picked up a discarded copy of The Irish Times and was drawn to a photo of a pleasant, serene square in Monaghan town. The accompanying piece was concerned with desirable properties there, and its writer wittered on about Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘infamous description’ of the county: ‘but Kavanagh was a poet and they do tend to exaggerate (sorry, use poetic licence) don’t they?’ It was clear that for our scribe and his assumed readers, Monaghan was there not to be experienced but consumed. I couldn’t think of preoccupations farther from those of Kavanagh and his descendant-in-art, Macdara Woods.

Like Kavanagh, Macdara Woods has been a physical labourer, a past which doesn’t confer a moral superiority so much as encourage a certain robust scepticism. Woods has written drily of ‘the Celtic Helicopter’ and has expressed his wariness when he was assured that Kavanagh, woolly jumper and all, would be welcomed these days to the Presidential residence at Phoenix Park. One of the most resonant pieces in Artichoke Wine imagines Kavanagh in Umbria, Italy, where Woods spends part of the year; here, the elder poet seems ‘marvellously translated/ but not translated at all/ from where he is’. As the collection’s title suggests, southern Europe is presented as a locus for poetic exploration – not so much, though, as an alternative to the north as represented by Ireland, but for the sake of mutually-enriching perspectives. (There exists, by the way, an aperitif made in Italy from artichokes: I haven’t tried it but I suspect that it must taste pretty bitter.)

The north-south axis of the collection is equally west-east, as when the poet juxtaposes a Yeatsian image of a ‘hollow horseman/ on the road to Sligo’ with the big wheel in Vienna’s Prater park and the roadsign for Budapest (‘The Cello Suites: Bourée), or moves between Rathmines and the Greek islands (‘Travelling from Delphi’). But the poet’s polarities, here and throughout the book, are more than merely/literally geographical, and the most pervasive of these is a dialectic of fragmentation and wholeness. ‘In the Ranelagh Gardens’, a sequence which was written in collaboration with the composer Benjamin Dwyer, opens with an image of Nietzsche’s madness and goes on to feature ‘a half-man in the park’, a father and infant daughter passing their ‘access time/ estranged not quite at ease’, lives broken in spirit and body; we might recall the old people’s ward in the poet’s earlier book-length sequence on the decline of his mother, The Nightingale Water (2000). The same work includes responses to the bombings in Ballymoney and Omagh, of which the counterparts in Artichoke Wine are more recent depredations in Kenya and Iraq. Put aside Yeats’s imperious ‘Things fall apart’: we should think rather of a more humanely ethical tradition from the other island, from Ruskin’s complaint that a machine-age reduces people to ‘segments’ of themselves, to E.M. Forster’s exhortation to ‘Only connect the prose and the passion’.

Indeed ‘connect/ed’ is the verbal key in which the poet composes ‘At Selles-Sur-Cher: August 22nd 2001’ and ‘Courante’. The latter poem is part of a sequence originally accompanying a programme of suites by Bach. The north-south and west-east axes intersect in the Germanic lands, and Artichoke Wine finds its place on the trajectory of Irish-German relations, which have proved variously benign and sinister: think of Wagner’s ‘Celtic’ Tristan and Parsifal, George Moore’s and Joyce’s adaptation of Wagnerian motif-structures to the novel, Yeats’s take on Nietzsche, Joseph Beuys at Newgrange and the Giants’ Causeway. The fragmentation/wholeness dichotomy, too, has its strong Austro-German articulations. ‘Richard Riordan Leaving Glenaulin’ invokes Rilke’s Angel, from the Duino Elegies, ‘who sees no line between the living and the dead’ (who signifies, indeed, the unity of life and death as against Rilke’s earlier images, in his oeuvre, of human fracture). There’s also more than a hint here, in Woods’s motif of Chapelizod/Séipéal Iseult, of that earlier Wagnerian unity of love and death – Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’. ‘How It Is’ ends with a meditation on the last words of Goethe, that supreme seeker after wholeness: Mehr Licht (which, conveniently for Scots like myself, sounds almost the same in our own language: mair licht.) 

‘Kennst du das Land wo die Citronen blühn?’ wrote Goethe, of Italy: artichoke wine, taken in southern sunlight, is a tonic. The healing process, for Woods, involves above all the reclamation of memory, individually and collectively. Take ‘Courante’ again: here is the marvellous tableau of the poet’s Uncle James, an archetypal figure in whom I see Van Gogh’s Le semeur, and ‘the grains he scattered from his finger tips:/ history centered about himself’; here, too, we find an image of ancestry in ‘the native generations buried here/ like horses’ skulls/ beneath the hearth’;  then there is the lecture hall where the poet asks ‘how many hundred students carved their names/ in the grooved wood?’ In The Nightingale Water, with his mother dying, he demands that ‘we must all be/ named/ there must be a record/ that we’ve been here/ that we were’. He is appalled, in coastal South Carolina, that ‘the beautiful black girl’ at the filling station, ‘whose every cell was a hymn to life’ wants to ‘Bomb em all’ in Baghdad; nearby are the old settlements of the Gullah people, descended from West African slaves, and possibly the girl’s own stock. Not that he sees the USA as all Bush-and-gloom, for he can be exhilarated by the Ozarks, ‘the backroads of Appalachia’, and companionable poetry lovers in New Jersey (‘Driving to Charleston’).

The collection’s range of cultural references (explicit or otherwise) is in itself an assertion that the ‘best’ of the past can help us make sense of the present and future – it’s all so much more affirmative than Eliot’s ‘fragments […] shored against my ruin’. Back to Bach, and to the cello, an instrument from which comes aural beauty but which is also a visually appealing object: ‘those curves/ shaped conch and shell’ (‘The Cello Suites: Allemande’). Contemplating dingy interiors in Dublin, London and St Petersburg, the poet redeploys Dostoevsky’s objective-correlatives for the inner world of Crime and Punishment’s protagonist: ‘The ladders and buckets and tins of paint still there/ The murder that hasn’t happened yet/ And the student pausing on the stairs’ (‘Raskolnikov’). Even (especially?) urban ugliness can undergo the transformative power of art. Perhaps we should not over-identify the Ranelagh of the poems with its ‘real-life’ counterpart; Anthony Burgess once suggested that the Lenin addressed in Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘Three Hymns to …’ was not the actual Bolshevik leader but a mythic figure created by MacDiarmid himself. All writers construct their personal universe, and in Artichoke Wine Macdara Woods conducts us through his own ‘forêt de symboles’. This is the least happy-clappy of poets, but the positives are there, if hard-won.
Tom Hubbard