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The Sun King


Conor O’Callaghan

Also available as an ebook


Poems in The Sun King, Conor O’Callaghan’s fourth collection, happen in the spaces between parallel realities: virtual and pastoral; North Carolina, Ireland and Manchester’s Chinatown district; loss and desire. His wit and virtuosity match his devotion to ‘the carnal surface’ of things (woodstoves, voicemail codes, sprinklers, money) and of the copious words we have for them.

The book centres on a handful of longer poems: a spell, part memory and part hallucination, in a derelict farmhouse by the Irish Sea; an elegy for the Celtic Tiger’s all-consuming boom; a less than faithful translation of Lorca’s beautiful tale of infidelity, and a magnificent reconfiguring of the server room of an office building as a site of pilgrimage. The collection ends with a series of couplets, ‘The Pearl Works’, an improvisation on Twitter, that achieves an improbable mysticism via a succession of invocations of the sun and the given life’s ‘astronomical fluke’.

The Sun King, Conor O’Callaghan’s first collection in eight years, is an event worth celebrating.

‘Since 1999’s Seatown O’Callaghan’s work has grown increasingly self-reflexive and self-reflective. That tendency continues here. Indeed recent Irish poetry will have seen few collections where so many individual poems are so preoccupied with the methods of their own construction.’ — Billy Ramsell, The Stinging Fly

Sound, rhythm, a soft-top and a disco ball’s bright distortions
The first poem, Lordship, in Conor O’Callaghan’s new collection, The Sun King (Gallery Press, €18.50/ €11.95), begins in a coastal writing retreat, then shifts to a novel that the protagonist is supposedly writing, before segueing into a feverishly imagined depiction of a London affair.

The three intertwined stories might be material enough for a novel, but they are vividly, memorably brought to life in the three pages of Lordship. O’Callaghan’s lines sing, compressing stories into images, so that ordinary details crystallise and are magicked into mysterious flares of significance, as in “the antique Nokia on the butcher’s block in the bathroom”, which “vibrates at all hours like tropical wildlife”.

O’Callaghan likes to zoom in on things as they fall apart or are unexpectedly reintegrated. In one of Lordship‘s interiors “Whitewashed horsehair plaster shed magnolia petals. // Whatever glare each fresh day uploaded / made a disco ball in the double glazing’s exterior smash / and blissed splinters of violet all over the upstairs.”

The poem ends, maybe thinking of the way it has distracted itself with such glittering images, by declaring of its narrative: “This is its safest keeping; nobody’s going to see it.” Such slant, shimmering, sidelong notes are a speciality in The Sun King, O’Callaghan’s best book to date.

O’Callaghan’s writing often seems to mimic that disco ball’s bright distortions, primarily through his distinctive use of sound and rhythm. These poems concentratedly apply assonance and the bang-bang emphasis of spondees and trochees: the striking, slow-mo rhythm of “Whitewashed horsehair plaster” or “blissed splinters of violet”, where “blissed” does its work as a verb but is really, overwhelmingly, there for the chime with “splinters” and the exotic, unwarranted happiness, the bliss, that the poem wants to convey.

Exhilaratingly contemporary in its idioms, The Sun King is also reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s experiments with different metres.

O’Callaghan was, of course, associated with the poetry magazine Metre(and poets associated with the magazine, including the present writer, are namechecked in the book’s acknowledgments). That magazine’s title gave a clue to its interest in experimenting with poetic forms and its iconoclastic attitude to the often loose-limbed poetry of the preceding generation of poets. The Sun King could be seen as the consummation of that impulse in Irish writing, exercising its use of sound and rhythm in striking ways in page after page.

The Sun King also impresses with its unfussy shifts between poems set in Ireland, the US (Philadelphia and North Carolina), England (London, Sheffield, Manchester’s Chinatown) and Italy (Tuscany, Naples). What’s markedly different about O’Callaghan’s use of these places (which reflects Metre‘s determined internationalism) is how they do not lead him into arguments about Ireland’s closeness to Boston and Berlin but are all equally and matter-of-factly at the mercy of his imaginative transformations.

That transformational imagination is clear in the way the poems set out to inhabit a future rather than revise or correct the past.The Sun King accesses particular moments that offer a way out of predicaments. “Mid-March on the daily a.m. drop-off,” begins Swell, recounting not a St Patrick’s Day epiphany but how “a refrigerated dairy produce truck / keeps catching almond and dogwood branches so that blossoms blizzard / the windscreen and moonroof”. But by the end of the poem the “swell” of ordinary life, which threatened to overwhelm the poet, can no longer be avoided. “That truck and blossoms story gets longer, / hokier with each retelling”, but now the poet is “not bothered” and begins to ride its new rhythms: “Our local Y widens its opening hours a smidgen. / The clay courts opposite pock and shuffle. / I learn to swim.”

Swimming pools recur in O’Callaghan’s previous collections, and he returns to the pool a second time in The Sun King, in The End of the Line, a very long-lined sonnet (so long that it is printed sideways). Now the poet’s swimming lesson magnifies into something else:

(where did the balcony go? Where did you? Where has this pool arrived from?)

This black vision aside, O’Callaghan’s book is all about light. The protagonist of the brilliant long poem The Server Room surfaces from a sea of information technology whose institutional language the poem refreshes, while the Celtic Tiger gets an indulgent nod in Tiger Redux, which borrows the (trochaic, again) rhythm of William Blake to remember “fibre optics, soft-top wheels, / tax-incentive movie stills, // Xerox plants like pleasure domes” before waving a fond goodbye to “All that North Atlantic bling’s / rising tide, its waves and boom / charging in an empty room”.

That soft top reappears in Comma, one of the book’s many beautiful, quieter lyrics, which observes a moment’s silence as an “Infinite / blip that / a flyover / sped beneath / scores into / a down- // pour on the / soft-top’s / timpani”.

That kind of sonic image is also the method of The Pearl Works, the diary of a year with which the book ends. In 52 140-character tweets, almost all of which address the sun, O’Callaghan eulogises “the carnal surface” in percussive couplets that will leave any reader open-mouthed, in both senses of the phrase, as they breathlessly run out of full stops: “O slow coach, freeze mode solar yellow yoyo O hand-thrown old gold snow globe / O rose most blown O whole whorled ‘out there’ lodestar de l’aube”.

— John McAuliffe , The Irish Times

‘The Pearl Works’ surely represents O’Callaghan’s finest hour to date. It is, like the collection it closes, a superb achievement, one that echoes with the creaking sound of a bar being raised.

Conor O’Callaghan exhibits an almost Shakespearean tendency to render reality not only by means of literary devices but in terms of those very tropes and conceits. Again and again in this his superbly reflexive fourth collection parts of the world are compared to linguistic concepts, to word-play and language-stuff, to punctuation, metaphor and translation. ‘In Praise of Sprinklers’, for instance, memorably suggests how ‘Spring resembles / a crossword left unfinished on a stoop / while sassafras / gets looked up’, even as ‘Translation’, surely one of the collection’s standout achievements, invites the reader or dedicatee to ‘Imagine you are this poem /moments before it is translated’, to track an irresistible but terrifying reconfiguration into something only half-understood. In ‘Comma’, meanwhile, tenor and vehicle are thrillingly unsettled—does the comma serve as a metaphor for the bulging ‘blip’ of a rain-cloud? Or is it vice-versa, or both or neither?

In The Sun King the putatively real and the purely verbal change places many times, leaving it a book preoccupied—perhaps even obsessed—with how poems get made, with the ‘translation’ or crossing over from the world to the word.

This is powerfully enacted in ‘Wild Strawberries’, an exquisitely summery vignette that luxuriates in both the scent of the titular fruit and in the ‘handful /of neighbourhood girls / hanging in the street’. The poet insists on the extra-verbal nature of these phenomena, on their old-school physical reality, even as we sense them waft their way into his tiny word-engendered universe: ‘I lie to myself. / They’re not metaphors. / They are not metaphors’.

Since 1999’s Seatown O’Callaghan’s work has grown increasingly self-reflexive and self-reflective. That tendency continues here. Indeed recent Irish poetry will have seen few collections where so many individual poems are so preoccupied with the methods of their own construction.‘Swell’ worries blissfully at its own foundational anecdote, while ‘The Pearl Works’ commences with the blueprint for its own assembly. The effect of such reflexivity is like kissing a lover whose tongue perpetually squirms and wriggles, curling and arching in an effort to taste itself. It is an experience far more pleasant than might be supposed.

There is a temptation to locate The Sun King in the line of Wallace Stevens, one exacerbated by how the master is both conjured and parodied in section 17 of the ‘The Pearl Works’: ‘It was February all June. It was raining and it was going to rain. / The blocked bard and sa muse anglaise amused themselves in the Royal Marine’. For O’Callaghan, like Stevens, sets up camp in the foggy borderlands between what might be called interiority and the impregnable real. Yet his collection has its political moments too. ‘Tiger Redux’ reworks William Blake into a witty and spirited elegy for Celtic Tiger Ireland:All that jouissance, that juice.

Post the 80s outpost blues
(signed away and midweek pushed),
all that feeling central, flushed.
All that buzz like year-round Springs.
All that North Atlantic bling’s
rising tide, the waves and boom
charging in another room.

This is more wistfully ambiguous apologia than full-throated celebration. Yet it is in its own way a timely intervention, a corrective to the many Irish scribes who both during and after the Celtic boom resented the wealth, confidence and opportunity it brought to many (but not all) previously wretched strata of their society. Though its trochees, perhaps, overstay their welcome by a stanza or three, ‘Tiger Redux’ earns its place alongside Seatown’s ‘East’ as a signature take-down of Irish cultural assumptions. We live during the presumed apotheosis of the serial, in a time when we’re tiresomely reminded that were Shakespeare and Stevens alive today they’d be writing dialogue for Mad Men or Breaking Bad. It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that O’Callaghan caps his collection with ‘The Pearl Works’, a serial poem that originated on Twitter and one created under several most unusual constraints: a new section would be tweeted for every week of the year, each would use the tweet’s full allotment of 140 characters, each would be a rhyming couplet.

However, stripped of handle and hashtag—as it is here—what’s striking about ‘The Pearl Works’ is less its origins on social media than the serial nature of its publication. Of course the defining nature of such serial work is that earlier sections are in the public domain—often indelibly and unalterably so—before later ones have been completed or even conceived. Its special terror and beauty stems from the improvisation it demands; from the need to balance responding to current stimuli with faithfulness to what has gone before, all the while remaining focused on the work’s projected future direction. This is something O’Callaghan does extraordinarily well. At first glance the sequence seems breezily episodic and journalistic, a series of responses—sometimes quirky, sometimes sad—to weather and travel, to working life and implied family drama. Yet repeated reading unlocks a system of chimes and echoes, a complex network of connections that spans its constituent parts. Loops begun in February find closure in November. Seemingly throwaway entries have their significance amplified by later ones. An image seeming entirely of the moment trigger a memory and sends us flipping pages, searching for its cognate months earlier.

‘The Pearl Works’ surely represents O’Callaghan’s finest hour to date. It is, like the collection it closes, a superb achievement, one that echoes with the creaking sound of a bar being raised.

— Billy Ramsell, The Stinging Fly

Poetry Book Society Recommendation

Year Published: 2013
Details: 72pp
ISBN PBK: 978 1 85235 547 0
ISBN HBK: 978 1 85235 548 7
ISBN ebook: 9781852356200

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