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At the heart of Mícheál McCann’s eagerly awaited first collection is ‘Keen for A— ’, a re-imagining of Eileen O’Connell’s heartrending Lament for Art O’Leary. In Devotion the poet transports the original tragedy in time and place. Echoing the 18th-century Irish, it lives now in contemporary Belfast where a young man’s male lover is murdered. The sequence charts from premonition, in filmic scenes, the first encounter, the news, denial, rage (and an oath of vengeance) to the funeral and A—’s family’s chilling silence afterwards. Other poems range from memories of childhood and relationships with parents to the author’s own imaginary child. There is a wry poem on animal homosexuality, others on sea swimming and the satisfactions of a shared meal, while an elegiac poem recreates the final joy of an RUC Constable in a gay bar before he’s shot by a member of the INLA.

For all the solemnity of its subject matter love poems leaven its atmosphere as Mícheál McCann’s debut glows with the sense of someone who knows he has ‘discovered the name of his destination’.

How a rose opens more
and more as it dies, wanting
to share one more thing.
— ‘Song’

Mícheál McCann’s debut collection, Devotion (Gallery Press, €12.95), is a stately book – courtly, even. At its centre is a sequence, Keen for A -, which takes as its basis the 18th-century poem Lament for Art O’Leary to construct an elegy for a dead lover that is at once stiff-backed but also deeply feelingful.

McCann’s language shows a rigorous control here, a somewhat timeless diction adding depth to the bereaved’s lament: “I knew then that I had discovered the name /of my destination, and would follow you there /along puddled roads and grassy paths /into the meadows in the south of the city”. It’s a wonderful act of reckoning up, of coming to terms with grief while exploiting the lyric poem’s potential for time travel, and resurrection, the possibility of blending tenses and summoning the dead allowing for a lurch of the heart and the false hope of return: “you will beat me home,/feet up, sun lightening your eyes.”

There are fine things elsewhere, too, a Bishop-esque study of romantic grooming, in this case a haircut rather than a shampooing, while Bishop is also alluded to directly in another act of historical ventriloquism, a version of a ninth-century Irish poem, Líadan Attests Her Love, in which One Art’s heart-rending imperative is co-opted: “Write it! – He was my heart, a soft wind/through the hedge outside”. “I write the things I am trying to forgive”, McCann notes in Adoration (Rhesus Disease) and the collection as a whole has the authority of sadness, in Larkin’s phrase, but is usefully leavened by a dogged persistence and a somewhat belligerent wit.

It’s also imbued with a thwarted belief in words themselves, as shoddy but irresistible tools: “Were it that they/could save us, and were no momentary crossing to safety”.

— Declan Ryan, The Irish Times

Devotion - Preview

Publication date: 17 May 2024
Details: 92pp
ISBN PBK: 978 1 91133 870 3
ISBN HBK: 978 1 91133 871 0

Cover:‘The Meeting on the Gallery Stairs: A Homage to Burton’ by Sarah Beegan, acrylic and oil on canvas

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