Review: “Propelled by a perpetual desire”

Dave Lordan’s Lost Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains. Salmon Poetry, 2014, €12.00.

“There are some of his poems that I would love to sing”, writes Christy Moore in response to Dave Lordan’s most recent collection, Lost Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains (2014). The blurb strikes the right introductory note. Lordan’s third collection takes us, through myth and through music (as his title poem promises), to “summits the rooted cannot even imagine”. These mystical nomad poems are written to be heard, and in them we come to feel that a great personality is speaking.

Lordan is concerned here with urban and rural experience, Ireland's past and present; the book’s epigraph paves the way for this plurality of style and of subject matter: “he would picture to himself battles of horsemen, and the most fantastic cities and widest landscapes that were ever seen” writes Lordan, quoting Vasari on Piero Di Cosimo. “It may be said that he changed his manner almost for every work that he executed”. The poet here is polymorph, doing the tribe in different voices; the collection comprises social satire (‘Work Mate’), pastoral (‘When I was a Monk’), elegy (‘Notes on a Player’) and love poems (‘Christine’, ‘Love Commands the Neighbourhood’) all through which he demonstrates the range and scope of his poetic voice.

The lost tribe of the title are an appropriately inscrutable and motley lot. The book’s frontispiece cloaks them in the conditional, and since “Nothing I know of, apart from these lines, / Speaks of this tribe”, Lordan makes free with the imagination:

They might be waifs that escaped from
The lead mines.

They might be vagrants who dropped
Out of ballads and poems.

They might be rebels
Who outran the redcoats
Until the redcoats dissolved.

The poem sets an important precedent for the collection as a whole, not only through its incantatory attitude – “Strong is my faith. / Strong is my Beat. / Strong is my magic.” – but also in how it pits Irish history against the present. ‘Bees and the Authorities’ follows suit in providing an authoritative Google history of the bee in Ireland. So does ‘Irish History’, as it “zig-zags” out from Finbarr with his pipes to Finbarr “dying in dark visions and fits / in an abandoned industrial unit”. Lordan’s most recent poems are drenched in anachronism and bathos, devices which he uses to shed light on the cultural and social degradation he finds everywhere in evidence. ‘Discover Ireland’ scrutinises the country's sociocultural environs. The poem begins in medias res:

                And sometimes the line is moving so fast
                The head-of-line guy with the electric stunner
                Doesn’t have time
                To stun the cow properly [….]

Man and beast are both laid low in the process so that by the end of the week the second man in line is covered in “Black-and-blue patches, / Reminiscent of cowhide”. For Lordan it is so often the pace of the contemporary that makes it hostile to human life; this kind of system failure is all too common.

The supermarket emerges as an associate, and unusually ubiquitous, motif in these poems. In ‘Fertility Poem’ “the slats around the back of [Charlesland] Superquinn” read “CUNT in dripping lipstick red” and in ‘Love Commands the Neighborhood’ the same supermarket plays host to a slipper-clad cider-scoring woman (it pops up again briefly in ‘My Mother Speaks to Me of Suicide’). As if this weren’t enough commercial detritus, ‘Irish History’ relates how supermarkets are being looted, and the full-volumed radio of ‘Workmates’ sings out offers for “cut-price bananas” and “two-for-one-Rioja”. Lordan’s lost tribe is a hungry one. They have been known, as the title poem tells us, to “paw through the motorway snow / to scavenge the exurban dustbins”, so “strong is [their] want // & wanting”. And they have other unsavory appetites. In ‘Christine’ the poem’s addressee “keeps on breaking into my poems with an emergency broadcast addressed to my cock and balls; excuse me – core organs”. This is ready meal sex, “no need for any kind of courtship”.

 Lordan, in fact, does not sustain a courtship with many of his characters – he “dream[s] of crowds in different guises” (‘I Dream of Crowds’) – and with the exception of the carefully intoned elegy, ‘Notes for a Player’ for Denis Boothman, his work tends to touch only surfaces. This, of course, is part of the loss we feel as we journey through the collection; World is too much with us, and if individuals of the tribe appear as caricatures it is only because getting and spending they lay waste their powers. Yet Lordan preaches tolerance. In a poem such as ‘Love Commands the Neighbourhood’ he spurs us on towards attitudes of community, while his searing cultural critique makes clear just how hard a pill this is to swallow – “Indianinkman who on the night of his break out / smeared dog dirt on his neighbours’ front doors, / hurled a brick through a little girl’s window; him too”.

He also preaches sustainability. “Human kind”, Lordan tells us in ‘Return of the Earl’, is “hard as guilt or history to kill” – they function as a plague on the earth’s surface, exhausting its resources. Human methods of survival, in this imagined post-apocalypse, are violent and indefensible. The parable describes how “One man overcame; / A diving instructor with an oxygen and butane supply [….] He cooked his nearest deep-freeze neighbours first, then his cats, and then his wife”. But there is another (exemplary) figure in the poem, surviving its inhospitable conditions:

   The seal, sucked the flowing tap of air and, propelled by a perpetual desire,
   Struck out across the permafrost to uncover who still moves and talks

   And hunts in County Cork, who’s in charge now, what instructions are.

If love finds a source in Lost Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains it is modeled firstly in the life force of nature.

‘When I was a Monk’ reimagines a time when the speaker lived harmoniously in nature's surrounds: “there were no repeats. I was never bored. Weather / was my living music – unscorable, mercurial, diverse”. If the lost tribe find themselves stifled in their worship of the Brand, this poem proposes a departure from such labels: “Names are a hex on God’ bounty. Extinction begins with a name”. In ‘Lost Poem’ nature again provides a space of retreat from urban experience. “Sit down in my shade” says Nature, “Sit down in my shade, draw / a breath and relax.” Lordan’s line break suggests just one function of the artist: to work creatively with nature, and for the benefit of both, though they continue to be at loggerheads – “Who knows – we may end up / devouring each other. // It happens. However, / I don’t advise it”.

Lost Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains enacts a poetic tug of war between nature and culture, the human and the animal, yet the work of art intervenes as a preserve of peace. In spite of the collection’s fears over commerciality and human appetite, Lordan persists in a belief in poetry as an act of love and transformation.

Strong is my faith.
Strong is my beat.
Strong is my magic.