Winner of the 2023 Pigott Poetry Prize [in association with Listowel Writers' Week], Company by Tom French (Gallery Press) is 'a powerfully assured and authentic book of poems. The company of the title evokes the powers and pitfalls of friendship and family, and the capacity of historic narratives and works of art to address and contain the reality of individual and collective human experience. It also refers to animals and landscapes, those agents of wordless companionship that appear through the collection like dual guarantees of environmental pressure and imaginative intensity. Company excels and delights with its spirited lyricism and through a brilliant illusion of empathic conversation on the page.' — Judges' citation, Pigott Poetry Prize
Tom French’s seventh collection of poems displays an uncommon range of subject matter — from responses to the work of an American Midwestern primitive painter to a chilling account (in ‘Commission’) of the treatment of young, unmarried mothers in Ireland. Unusually adept at both long and short poems, as well as sequences, the poet is again haunted by the legacy of world wars and the smaller wars in between.
‘To Distance’ is an extended chronicle of the lockdown while the book’s mood is tempered by the absurd comedy of the Ayreshire Cattle Breeders’ annual meeting. In poems marked by rare poise the author ventures into various hostelries, including one where
This threshold holds against the very tide.
Call here a port. Call all outdoors the storm.
Steadily and without fanfare Tom French’s work warms to facing down the predicament of living.
The poems in Tom French’s Company (Gallery, €12.95) while wide-ranging in subject and mood, are drawn together in their common theme of human connection. Company, a sequence of ekphrastic responses to the eponymous American midwestern primitive painter in ‘Emma Schrock (1924-1991), Painter’, shows French at his precise and lyrical best. One can almost smell the paint in a scene reminiscent of William Carlos Williams:
“Those could be two funerals converging.
The yard is tidy. The day’s work is done.
Each of the horses’ faces has been touched
with the tiniest of brushes dipped in white.
Cattle are cooling themselves by the pond.
The scene is greenest where the white house stands.”
French sees “two funerals” in the painting, perhaps a reverberation from the pandemic featured in Distance: “The silence in the air/after the question is posed —/ ‘Can snowploughs/ be adapted to dig mass graves?’ —”. Not only humans are in need of company: ‘An aquarium in Japan wants people/ to FaceTime their eels/ ’so the creatures will/ remember we exist/ and not become a threat’.”
French’s wry narratives find their place in elegant stanzas, echoing like empty rooms in Refreshments, where a man rows across the sound to his local to find it’s at legal capacity:
“so they put him out in the function room
built to accommodate hundreds, alone,
where he drank his drink and took his leave
and rowed home lonelier than he’d been before.”
The sparse Fan acts a terrific coda, French illuminating just how much poetry depends – like Williams’s proverbial red wheelbarrow – on connections:
“On the sealed white
envelope I find
among her things
in the present tense,
for my children
to find — ‘This
is my mother’s hand’ –
where she wrote –
‘Screw for the fan’ –
on the off-chance
— Martina Evans The Irish Times
Kilkenny native Tom French . . . explores and interrogates the various predicaments of life. Short-listed for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award and winner of an O’Shaughnessy and Dermot Healy Award, his is now a fully matured and highly esteemed poetic presence in Ireland. Despite this incremental build-up of honour, he has remained faithful to his Public Service desk in the Local Studies Department of Co. Meath Libraries. But even in this library perch he has been shaken by life’s wilder tragedies. In ‘To Distance’ he, also, writes about our bleak pandemic era, but with a different edge, a different insight:
I do what I have never done —
remove my wedding ring
because it ‘harbours infection,’
and find, printed beneath,
its pale reflection.
Even my very skin is married.
This poem, a lengthy sequence, is placed towards the end of the collection, not clouding the atmosphere nor allowed to determine the book’s tone. French spent part of Covid-time planting ten varieties of trees, including three kinds of birch:
It will be years before they touch;
still, we plant them ten feet apart.
The knowledge that things will come together again is one of the strengths of his sequence. The collection more properly and formally opens with an impressive and sustained meditation on the paintings of Emma Schrock, a painter that he credits his publisher Peter Fallon with introducing into his orbit. It was a fruitful encounter, propelling French into a sinewy, formalist ekphrastic fugue of lyrics based on Schrock’s paintings of Mennonite life. His method here, his easeful formality as a poet, is now an important aspect of his aesthetic signature. His use of quatrain, tercet, couplet, and his choice of form in relation to apt materials, is superb:
The mill is canopied, like an altar on wheels.
They’ll work by moon until the stooks are cleared.
The artist’s hands are yellow. The stubble shows
How rich the harvest was. Her palette glows.
Masterful timing and phrasing are common characteristics of the work as well. In poems as widely different as “Agnes Moran’s, Mornington” and “Communion, Western Front” his formality and skill is as fine as anything by Richard Murphy — the indented lines in the latter poem, for example, are as effective as any mid-century poem in Robert Penn Warren or John Crowe Ransom. Neither is Tom French afraid to work with very large nails and huge bolts of textile, whether in poems like “The Ayrshire Cattle Breeders are Holding a Meeting” or “At the Bishop’s Palace”. He is in complete command of his materials, which is a kind of definition of a master, and this skill and high knowledge of the art of the poem is one of the many reasons why Company is such a solid, enduring achievement. “This patch of grass is the altar in the dews,” he writes in “Still Life, Chancellorsville, 1863” and follows thus: “This is the glory and the gospel loosed.”
— Thomas McCarthy, Dublin Review of Books
Winner of the 2023 Pigott Poetry Prize in association with Listowel Writers’ Week
Company by Tom French (Gallery Press) is ‘a powerfully assured and authentic book of poems. The company of the title evokes the powers and pitfalls of friendship and family, and the capacity of historic narratives and works of art to address and contain the reality of individual and collective human experience. It also refers to animals and landscapes, those agents of wordless companionship that appear through the collection like dual guarantees of environmental pressure and imaginative intensity. Company excels and delights with its spirited lyricism and through a brilliant illusion of empathic conversation on the page.’ — Judges’ citation
Publication Date: 3 October 2022
ISBN PBK: 978 1 91133 831 4
ISBN HBK: 978 1 91133 832 1
Cover: ‘Company’ by Emma Schrock reproduced by kind permission of the artist’s Estate