Thirst

11.50

David Wheatley

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Sleepwalking, a skinned rabbit, litter, a Chinese play, and an Irish alchemist are just some of the subjects of David Wheatley’s first book. Containing poems of childhood, travel, rural and, in particular, urban experience, Thirst submits the familiar and the strange alike to the workings of an enquiring, restless sensibility. A distinctive and formally assured debut, the collection is ultimately unified as its title suggests by a thirst for experience in all its richness and variety.

‘a most impressive first book . . . intelligent, good-humoured and very gifted’
— Ben Sonnenberg, Thumbscrew

‘David Wheatley’s Thirst renders its explorations and discoveries in poems that are as formally accomplished as they are rich in erudition and philosophical insight. Although Mahonesque in its frequent elegising of the flotsam and jetsam, Wheatley’s poetry is charged with an indefatigable curiosity and underlying optimism that suggests that his ‘thirst’ is for the metaphysical rather than the sceptical . . . Whether skimming a stone on Lough Bray or being led along a cliff edge or ‘alchemizing’ in Prague, Wheatley’s poems explore their surfaces and boundaries with remarkable artistry and ingenuity. Thirst is an auspicious début collection that places its author at the head of Ireland’s flotilla of younger poets.’ — Des O’Rawe, The Irish Review

David Wheatley’s Thirst renders its explorations and discoveries in poems that are as formally accomplished as they are rich in erudition and philosophical insight. Although Mahonesque in its frequent elegising of the flotsam and jetsam, Wheatley’s poetry is charged with an indefatigable curiosity and underlying optimism that suggests that his ‘thirst’ is for the metaphysical rather than the sceptical. Like Mahon, Wheatley often finds his aesthetic bearings in the nurturing of a cosmopolitan sensibility While the book takes its epigraph from Beckett, his influence, like that of Baudelaire and Verlaine, Mandelstam and Esenin, is acknowledged with more irony than anxiety. In ‘Seven from Chamfort’, for example, Wheatley translates (à la Beckett) seven maxims that Beckett gleaned from Sebastien Chamfort. ln daring to complete the work of his mentor (Beckett’s translations of eight Chamfort maxims appeared in his Collected Poems: 1930-1978), Wheatley, in effect, transforms this influential homecoming into a leave-taking. Similarly, while one hears Beckettian voices in poems like ‘Bray Head’, ‘Alba’ and Along a Cliff’, their presence is subtle rather than overwhelming. Such forays into translation and inter-textuality are, of course, only one aspect of this collection’s more general preoccupations: in their travels along the borders that divide perception and imagination, the quotidian and the universal, Wheatley’s poems search for a souvenir of fidelity amidst the simulacra and simulations of contemporary culture.

In ‘Sleepwalking’, the collection’s opening poem, the poet recalls the ‘virtual’ experience of that particular state with nostalgia and a longing to be able to re-visit it at will. However, Wheatley is nothing if not conscious of the hazards of existing en abime: ‘this new place I knew / without a word or a struggle, threatening / only that it might become habitable’. In the prose poem, ‘IIuminations, religious and cultural kitsch are transformed (transfigured?) into a more sublime meditation on transience and authenticity, while the sequence of five poems which comprise ‘A Paris Notebook’ succeed in conveying a sense of the poet’s own bewilderment at occasionally glimpsing something essential behind the contingencies of travel, movement and time. Whether skimming a stone on Lough Bray or being led along a cliff edge or ‘alchemizing’ in Prague, Wheatley’s poems explore their surfaces and boundaries with remarkable artistry and ingenuity.Thirst is an auspicious début collection that places its author at the head of Ireland’s flotilla of younger poets.

— Des O’Rawe, The Irish Review

 



. . .
an arresting talent . . . a keen eye for the vividly apposite detail
. . . a wry humour that doesn’t undercut the essential seriousness and real substance of the best of the poems . . . beautifully crafted and humanly engaging poems.

— John Boland, The Irish Times


David Wheatley’s Thirst is equally aware of unusual, generally unnoticed angles and details. Indeed, as the tide might suggest, the thirst here is for, among other things, subjects and perspectives that are out of the ordinary. Consequently, visits to Prague and Paris, as well as first encounters with the works of Degas and Giacometti, spark reflections of newness and difference — but then so does ‘Sleepwalking’. This opening poem establishes both theme and aesthetic: the poet as sleepwalker sees the familiar shapes and shades of the family kitchen as if for the first time, is able to invest them with new meanings, new words.

The poems which follow strive towards that end, some hitting the mark, others falling short. Among the finest is the title poem, a sequence of twenty octets in which the first person narrator takes a Joycean meander through the streets of Prague, allying himself with one Ned Kelley, whom a note tells us was a sixteenth-century alchemist of Irish extraction at the court of Rudolph II. Like Kelley, the speaker is after the philosopher’s stone, a nice if somewhat predictable metaphor for poetic achievement. Although that lofty end proves necessarily elusive, the poet nevertheless finds himself “rich” with the ”fool’s gold” of the ordinary: “moonlight through a whiskey glass”, ”An abandoned Skoda, yellow paint peeling off / Graffiti that looks like unplayable Scrabble draws”, ”the bat’s falsetto, / the snake’s elusive shuffle in the grass.”

Thirst is alive with such various, incisive perceptions, and it is when Wheatley indulges his gift for free association and odd, startling juxtapositions — as he puts it in ‘Autumn, the Nightwalk, the City, the River’, “Direction never mattered on chose streets . . . What mattered was being lost’ — that he is at his best. Wheatley has an instinct for form, which he works to excellent effect in ‘Visiting Hour’, where the blocks of octets and the subtle but regular half-rhymes batten down the speaker’s ragged emotions:

The contours of your supine frame
beneath the sheers alone can came
my fears chat, shock-haired, wild and grim —
a Cheshire cat without the grin  —
your cradled head is all that’s left
of the failing body that I loved
and placed in a stranger’s hands to cure
of sickness at its very core.

If some of the poems are marred by an over-insistence on formal restriction, (‘Bray Head’, ‘A Skimming Stone, Lough Bray’, ‘Landscape with Satellite Dish’) or a drop into cliche (‘Metro’, ‘Lithuania’, ‘Litter’), the majority reveal a concentrated effort to free up and exercise an emergent voice. To that end, translations after Baudelaire (‘Spleen’), Somhairle MacGill-Eain (‘The Heron’), Chamfort (‘Seven from Chamfort’), Mandelstam and Esenin (‘A Russian Notebook’), like those cast in the voices of Verlaine (‘Verlaine Dying’) and Simone Weil (‘Simone Weil in London’), the latter with its indelible first and last lines, “Prefer the absence of God to the presence of anything  /  else . . . I make of my unbelief a kind of prayer”, serve both to broaden and reinforce Wheatley’s developing technical and thematic concerns. Like Fanning’s Verbum et Verbum and Hurson’s Vivarium, Wheatley’s Thirst is a provocative collection, full of engaging and promising poems.

— Kathleen McCracken, Poetry Ireland Review

Year Published: 1997
Details: 80pp
ISBN PBK: 978 1 85235 207 3