The Last Peacock

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Gerald Dawe

 

 

 

 

 

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The Last Peacock celebrates the lives of family and friends while viewing with a questioning and ironic eye the present-day world of conflict and crisis from his ‘eyrie’ in south County Dublin and from the River Lagan following his return to his native Belfast. In the Dublin Review of Books Richard Hayes acknowledged ‘A poetry that trusts in the power of images’ as history — ‘the near dark’ — erupts in the smallest, out-of-the-way detail to produce a powerful and cohesive collection.

Lucy Collins praised Gerald Dawe’s poetry for ‘the seriousness of its engagement with acts of remembering. The very brevity and precision challenges the ease with which the past can be deployed in the contemporary lyric, suggesting instead the risk-taking — both creatively and emotionally — that such investigations involve.’ (Poetry Ireland Review)

Ironic, colourful, worldly, Dawe’s power as a poet has increased markedly in the last twondecades, so that The Last Peacock is the work of a first-rate Ulster poet still at war with the world and not giving up, but at ease with his art. — Thomas McCarthy, Poetry Ireland Review

Gerald Dawe was born in Belfast in 1952 and educated at the University of Ulster and University College Galway where he taught for many years. In 1988 he moved to Trinity College Dublin where he was Professor and Fellow and director of Trinity Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing until his retirement in 2017. He has also held visiting professorships at Boston College and Villanova University in the United States as well as being Visiting Scholar at the Moore Institute, NUI, Galway and Pembroke College, Cambridge. more…

The Last Peacock, by Gerald Dawe (Loughcrew, Oldcastle, County Meath: The Gallery Press, 2019)

What to make of a diminished thing? Weldon Kees’s Robinson poems, Donald Justice’s “Tremayne” and “Men at Forty,” pages of Philip Larkin, Walt Whitman shamefaced and begging—there is pleasure in the poetry of reduced expectations that maps the doldrums with precision, recounts their passage with the wry shrug of shared experience, commiseration, even affection. Or perhaps not the doldrums in Gerald Dawe’s The Last Peacock, but a littoral zone, the indeterminate boundary where a country shelves off into the sea, an insular culture into a cosmopolitan one, memory into elegy. What is the risk of walking along this eroding strand? That the wind will carry your words away.

Unless you place them properly, squarely, a drystone mason’s craft of exactitude, as in the opening poem, “East Pier”: 

Not a bad day today
by all accounts. Little bits
of mist hang above
our encampments — 

Like the view on a commonplace shoreline drive, much of this might pass without comment, except for the carefully canceled flatness of the first line’s double negatives and the way the speaker deflects judgment to others “by all accounts,” then reduces the romantic tourist standby of mist to shards, just before the encampments are revealed as 

villas wedged into cliff face
the grand terraces
overlooking the bay:
an older order of things. 

Encampments, villas (of the noble sort), grand terraces invoke an older order of wealth-as-power; the same words in their modern Airbnb usage (just google “villas Ireland”) suggest transience, the cliff-hanging of middle-class comfort and pretension and convention. The self-effacing (or is it self-mocking?) demotic tips the scales toward the latter, and yet the half remembrance of lost elevations underscores this complaint about complaints: 

Along with the sprightly
there’s one or two giving out,
on the latest iPhones,
unassuageable complaint. 

The new order is designed in Cupertino and manufactured in China, but the lament of its subjects is an old one: nothing suffices, unless this does: 

I keep to the east pier
under this cold blanket
of sky, patches of mist
like smoke from a fire. 

This is a slow trawl through a short poem, but you wouldn’t want to walk this stretch of pier quickly; there is too much you might trip on (that slightly archaic “sprightly,” say) and too much time involved, centuries of grievance going back from the dominance of the cell phone to the rise of the bourgeoisie to the smoky fires of encampments, each a stage in what never would turn out to be a liberation. 

There are similarly themed, equally deft poems in this collection that have less in mind—“Rock Bottom,” “Neighborhood Watch”—but even at their briefest, Dawe’s sketches provide the clear satisfactions of concision and of a free verse line that is as deliberate in its composition as in its effects. This is the versification of the post–World War II generation, not the exuberant experiments of the early Modernists or the prosy nonchalance of our own time, but a line, carefully balanced between an ear for implicit meter and an eye for natural but emphatic phrasing, that served so well the directness of poets such as Donald Justice and James Wright and Elizabeth Bishop: 

At the Coal Harbour
a handful of trawlers
nudge each other
in the swell,
swooping gulls fall
upon a crab shell
and play. This is it.
This be all. 

And that’s it, “Rock Bottom,” the whole poem, a plain postcard of a landscape except for the care with which the sounds are knit into the details. Two- to three-stress lines predominate, but no two scan alike, and some stretch, some contract. Syllables echo, consonant and vowel, and the full rhymes are so casual and so appropriate to the scene as to seem both accidental and inevitable. Imitation is at work here, not of the susurration of waters, but of the dialectic of nature’s composition as Ralph Waldo Emerson described it in “Each and All”: “Nothing is fair and good alone.” Emerson’s shells and stones gathered from the beach lost their beauty in isolation; in Dawe, bits and pieces of the littoral landscape are granted their significance in the aural interweaving of the poem. 

This is it. This be all” is a gull’s-eye point of view, and even a gull might know better than to mistake a single strand for the whole coastline, even if the local can seem like all there is: 

We live hugger-mugger in a backyard maze
of crazy walls, broken chimney pots and roofs
overrun with scutch grass so I can almost touch
the neighbour’s balcony where stray cats keep watch
from various hideouts, them and me both.
             (“Vigil, Wood Quay, Galway”) 

And yet this isolation is a mirror, and in the mirror there is the poet and his mother’s face, and her grandmother’s, and that grandmother’s memories of how “a cheetah chased her into a tent // in India while her tipsy father / paraded on his dancing horse” and the history of “departure for London, / Toronto, Nottingham” from “the recollected house / that doesn’t exist anymore / and them all seated in their best / in perfect silence they cannot forget” (“Selfies”). From empire to emigration, from a history of dispossessions and lost connections, a testimony of silence that is also a cacophony of what might have been said, if not for what? Propriety or anguish or self-regard? Without such checks, even an insular place fragments into the Babel of sects, Punks and Mods, soldiers of the state and of the Lord, the failed wagers of martyred patriots and the customers of bookies, “and the cry / is of a furious god raised up by / sombre men who band together / at the harmonium into a street choir” (“Sects, 1984”). Silence or fury, this is a grievance-laden, grievous mourning that can hardly be articulated except by extremes. And to look for anything else—grandeur, mission, self-knowledge—in the gone past is only to confront its consequences in what seems a horrifically endless present: 

Sunday School books featured Herod,
the great winding Euphrates,
who begat whom and where it all
would lead to, the coloured maps of places
we were meant to learn by heart,
but nothing about the doomed men
in dungarees kneeling before
their hooded captors who shout and praise
the sickening spill of blood
in desert sand . . .
          (“Tongues of Fire”) 

The age, a poet of Dawe’s age might say, demands an elegy or a plenitude of them, from the long view of history (of the sacking of the chapel in “Ely”: “But where did the sculpted heads / end up—buried within a tunic pocket, / ground to dust in some soggy field / or peering like a holy relic / from a farmhouse mantelpiece?”) to the close-up of an everyman in “Eddie Sleeps” (“Eddie sleeps on his makeshift bed. / There’s been too much G&T after church. / Or is he really dead? / Eddie left the world a Co-op clerk.”) “The whole place has changed,” is Eddie’s lament, confirmed by this volume’s catalog of poems about the passing of friends, and the sorrow is evident even at its most oblique, as in “Returning”: 

When we moved in here first
there was hardly a car
in the street—now look at it. 

Voices from the river rise
and fall exactly where she stepped
into the murky undertow and disappeared. 

Evening light on treetops,
window ledges,
the wintry backyards.

All the various school kids
going home have a new language
buzzing in their heads. 

Each stanza but the second is poised between description and gripe, the matter-of-fact and the tendentious, but the second is given over to a sadness whose precision (“exactly where”) is also mystery, as personal and as unforgettable as the anecdote, in “The Wound,” of the poet’s mother cutting herself on a tin can’s lid as she prepares a salad, “as I, at six or seven, / watch it all being / over and done with / in the blink of an eye.” This is Dawe at his best, fusing plain speech with the endless possibilities of loss, adult irony with the words that might have comforted the child. 

The sparseness of these poems suits their subject, tone, and method so well that it’s almost a surprise to encounter the fullness and playfulness of “Land of Dreams,” another elegy and another landscape, but this one with an exit strategy and crammed like a busy shopping street with characters and voices and the sprightliness of a tourist and academic town at full flight. Although the epigraph from The Odyssey makes it clear that this is “the field of asphodel” inhabited by the souls of the dead, the Galway City the poem evokes is nothing but lively, “Fucking massive,” as one shopkeeper says, and lush with the pleasures of instruments and idiom and argument that make even the chaotic departure “into the speckled night / missing one turn after another” more exuberant, hardly more regretful than slipping out the door and into the car and heading home after a good night, the sea in the distance and “the near-dark that’s about to break.” 

Jordan Smith , New Hibernia Review

Year Published: 2019
Details: 56pp
ISBN PBK: 978 1 91133 767 6
ISBN HBK: 978 1 91133 768 3

Cover: ‘Merz 1003 (Peacock’s Tail)’ (1924) by Kurt Schwitters