Tuesday 11 September 2012

Jewel - Peadar O'Donoghue.


by Peadar O'Donoghue.

Published by Salmon Press, 2012.


Peadar O'Donoghue's first book of poetry, Jewel, is remarkable for its variety, for its playfulness and for its skillfullness. His poems are angry and compassionate, formal and informal and challenging in the way that the best punk art is challenging. He plays easily with traditional forms using and subverting  them to suit what each particular poem requires and engages with a wide community of poets, musicians and visual artists. 'Jewel' is published in his middle age and there is a sense of his looking back over his earlier life, appreciating it, honouring it, but also preparing himself to move on to a newer phase. The past is a place of innocence, betrayal and loss.  Love skirmishes throughout the book before appearing to settle upon him, and his final poem also points to the presence of hope.  

I will look briefly at three of his poems, not only because they have become favourites of mine, but also because I think they will give a good indication of the breadth of experience and reference in Jewel.


Johannes Greenberg's Nude with Masks (1931)

Even as I waited for the light in her eyes, 
my stare was drawn, weak, to
the bronze of her flesh - 
another mask. 
I had seen her nude before, but never naked,
and as she pulled away,
I took my only chance,
traded truth for lies,
and cloths for heaven.

As the title suggests, the subject of this poem is a painting by Johannes Greenberg, currently on permanent exhibition in the Kumu Museum in Tallinn. It is a stunning painting, in which a female nude holds a mask which reflects the faces of the figures around her, rather than her own image. Peadar includes himself among those viewers or critics, indicted by the painting, who see their own reflections rather than the realities beneath.

The poem pivots around the central line 'I had seen her nude before, but never naked'. The four lines preceding this outline the standard reaction to viewing nudes, where the gaze is directed to the surface skin tone, to colour, and to how the role of the critic blurs with that of voyeur.  The final four lines show the effect which the painting has produced on O'Donoghue. He has 'traded truth for lies', and can now see the woman rather than just the nude. He has, consequentially, gained the potential to become an artist himself, indicated by his reference to Yeats in the final words of the poem,  'cloths for heaven'.  It becomes therefore a poem about the ability of art to transform our vision, to break down cliched interpretations  and to connect with the substance beneath.

It opens up a dialogue with the wider arts world which, as we shall see, is continued throughout many of the poems in Jewel. Reading the poem made me curious to see the painting referred to because while the poem is strong enough to stand on its own, it is interesting to understand the nature of the dialogue between the poet and the artist. In the absence of a copyright free image, this rough black and white sketch begins to illustrate Greenberg's intention.

With Scant Regard for Wordsworth

The ideology of the punk movement revolves around rebellion, anti-authorianism, individualism, and free thought, and punk artists involve themselves in direct action, in protest and sometimes in vandalism. Using these criteria, With Scant Regard for Wordsworth is a punk poem by Peadar O'Donoghue.

With Scant Regard for Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a Cavan camel
that floats on high o'er dung and ghost estate,
when all at once I saw a crowd,
a host, of golden speculators ignoring
beside the lake, a naysayer among trees,
fluttering and pissing in the breeze.

Impoverished as the stars that shine
surviving on Mars Bars and Milky Way,
hands stretched in never-ending line 
along the margin of the dole Q:
ten thousand saw I at a glance,
hanging their heads in deathly trance.

The speculators beside them danced;
threw mocking waves in glee:
a poet could not but be any less use,
in such impotent company:
I gazed - and gazed - but little thought
how us to our knees their wealth had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
in pissed or in petulant mood,
they flash upon that inward eye
which is the bane of solitude;
and then my heart with hatred fills,
for their greed among the daffodils.

The vandalism here involves the appropriation of the Romantic poem and the use of the phrase 'scant regard' in relation to Wordsworth, a phrase subsequently contradicted by O'Donoghue.  The poem opens up a dialogue with Wordsworth and reinterprets his famous poem, making it a perfect catalyst for O'Donoghue's rage against the greed which he sees on his journey through the Irish cultural landscape. As such it is as a complement to the older poet, insisting that we refer back to Wordsworth in order to understand the point which is being made about modern values. Wordsworth's deification of nature has been replaced by our deification of bankers, property developers, and established canons of literature.

As is typical of a punk poem, anti-establishmentarianism drips from each verse, and here culminates in the final lines 'then my heart with hatred fills, for their greed among the daffodils', lines which Sid Vicious or Johnny Rotten might easily have taunted us with. Its target is not Wordsworth, but the so-called 'developers' who ransack the countryside, bequeathing ghost estates, poverty and mass unemployment.

It questions the relevance of poetry in the lines 'a poet could not but be any less use,  in such impotent company' but the punk protest of the entire poem answers this, showing itself to be relevant and a voice for the silent majority, the 'impoverished'.

In With Scant Regard for Wordsworth, O'Donoghue communicates a beautifully controlled rage, which will hook readers with its comic reinterpretation, but which should remain long after the laughter has died.

The final poem which I chose to look briefly at is:

In Flanders Fields by John McCrea with word associated inertia and the certainty of confusion.

Here O'Donoghue shows a highly developed awareness of tradition, while still managing to be true to his rebellious instinct. T S Eliot says that the mature poet steals, while the immature poet borrows. In this poem the poet names, steals and subverts the famous 1919 war poem by Canadian John McCrea; his extensive use of it makes it necessary to quote the original in full.

In Flanders Fields  - John McCrea

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, 
And now we lie,

In Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
 In Flanders fields.

There has been a lot of discussion over the last century about whether this poem is pro or anti war. The pro-war argument needs no clarification while the anti-war argument comes from the rondeau structure and the cyclical nature of the poem. It continues back into itself and so the poem may show the futility of war and how it leads on to more killing, especially when we look at the line  'And now we lie' which may refer either to the resting place of the dead soldiers or to the veracity or wisdom of their call. O'Donoghue subverts the strict fifteen-line structure of the rondeau and creates instead a sonnet sequence, with two broken and a final unbroken sonnet, which explore the loss of innocence.

In Flanders Fields by John McCrea with word Associated Inertia and the Certainty of Confusion.

The loss of control
(poppies grow, do poppies still grow?)
And there was a gene, is there a gene?
twenty-four hours without a drink
would be a personal best -
Georgie Best, I spent a childhood in adoration.
In the aim of the father and the son and the holy spirit,
uisce beatha.

Would water by any other name taste as sweet?
And I supported Northern Ireland
because of him, a prize Plastic Paddy in Noddy Land
odd cod fish without blessed water.
And I wore his cheap plastic football boots,
so I could bleed for him.

In the original poem by McCrea the lives of young men, still living and able to fight, are at stake. Do they listen to the dead who 'lie  in Flanders Fields' or not? In O'Donoghue's poem we get the sense that the life at stake here is his own. His 'personal best', a day of sobriety, reminds him of his childhood hero, Georgie Best, who also had to battle with addiction. In the first fourteen-line section, the volta or turn, comes on the ninth line, signaling a reference to the Petrarchan sonnet form. This reinforces the sense of idealization in the earlier phrase ‘Georgie Best, I spent a childhood in adoration’. And yet the volta itself brings Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, into the mix, foreshadowing tragedy and also that the feelings he has for his idol are changing and become more worldly wise. Not yet worldly enough however to prevent him from wearing ‘cheap plastic football boots, so I could bleed for himand linking Peadar’s experience to the young boys and men who died in Flanders fields.

The second sonnet within Peadar’s complex poem then introduces the first stanza from McCrea, with only the addition of brackets and the words (And then….).  

(And then In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The Larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.)

The Messiah (a lifetime too late),
yards from me walking with Rodney Marsh,
his angel Gabriel,
and I left the van and I ran
while car horns and human glares
blared, I didn't care,
it was after the bomb
and I had lived though
still my ears rang with racist taunts.

The Messiah here 'a lifetime too late' might be a reference to George Best walking with his old drinking buddy Rodney Marsh, and to and the 2008 painting of the footballer as the messiah. The painting sparked a debate about the role of art, one which continues into O'Donoghue's poetry. But it also reminds him of the Northern Irish conflict, with it's supposedly religious aspect and the accompanying IRA bombings in England,  for which the Irish living in England paid the price in terms of social exclusion.

The third section of the poem is where the source of the trauma is revealed. Not just a horrific bombing, but a close up of the reality of violent death, of flesh in the rain.

I ran like I had run from school,
there he was in the flesh and rain,
my childhood unwound in every step,
reality tore at my lungs till within ten feet
this lifetime facade fell like scales
from my eyes.
I looked; and saw; and
turned away.
(To you from failing hands we throw
the torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We all die and this too shall pass
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
will always grow in Flanders fields.)

In the last six lines O'Donoghue quotes extensively, but with important changes, from McCrea's final verse. The imperative to 'Take up our quarrel with the foe' of the original is gone and there is the addition of the phrase 'will always grow' in the final line. McCrea's rondeau is told from the point of view of the dead and in the final section of O'Donoghue's poem we get a sense that there is instead a rebirth. He acknowledges the cyclical process and futility of violence, but is not keen to echo the call for it because he is more fully alive to the reality of destruction, of his own life, and of the lives of those who die. 

This poem, like many in the collection, is complex and insightful. Jewel is a first collection, but feels like the work of a more experienced poet.   O'Donoghue has a lifetime of experience to call upon giving him a wide range of themes, and an ability to play with whatever form each poem needs. His anger is expressed through humour, wordplay and through a well needed punk sensibility and there is the feeling of it also giving way to allow space for a new direction for the poet. 'Dinner with Her Ex' is one of his poems which will make you laugh out loud, and when you have finished laughing should make you question what poetry is, or is meant to do. It reminded me that just when I think I have a definition for art, something comes along to challenge that definition. I cannot say that Jewel is a perfect book, simply because there are poems which I do not understand, and references which I found hard to track down. What I can say is that it contains many stunning poems and that it is a book which makes me excited to see where O'Donoghue is going to go from here. 

Review by Ann Fallon.


  1. Thank you for taking the time and trouble to do this review. It's my first and I'm SO pleased you liked'Jewel' and saw so much in it, particularly in the three poems you chose.The Flanders Fields one was a troublesome poem that took (unusually for me) a lot of re-working and even then (despite being pleased with it) I nearly left it out as I thought people might have difficulty with the references so I'm particularly gratified that you got to grips with it. Thank you!!

  2. Peadar, great to hear from you. The work deserves to be treated seriously. Ann felt that she had only scratched the surface, and could have written a whole lot more. Keep writing and keep in touch.
    Shay (Seamus G.)