REVIEW by Suzannah V EvansNWR Issue r15
Joey Connolly’s first collection Long Pass
published by Carcanet earlier this year, explores the limits and joys of language with exuberance and panache. Many of the poems are strikingly self-aware; others swing between poignancy and irony. The epigraph, from John Ashberry's Three Poems
, is fitting, then. ‘Better the erratic approach, which wins all or at least loses nothing, than the cautious semifailure; better Don Quixote and his windmills than all the Sancho Panzas in the world…..’ In this collection, Connolly is out to win it all, using every startling phrase, description, and image that he can get his pen at.
The poems in Long Pass
are very aware of their status as such. ‘It’s a poem about a father insulating his family home,’ begins ‘The Finest Fire-Proofing We Have’, which is about a father insulating his family home. His hard physical work – ‘With aching thumbs he rocks the tacks / back into their beds’ – is compared to the work that goes into the scaffolding of a poem: ‘as the poem tucks its nouns into their gullies’. The play-off of ‘rocks’, ‘tacks’, ‘and ‘tucks’ is lovely, as is the sense of father and son’s joint labour. The ending is moving:
There’s love in the way the panels are pried up
and replaced. And something else. How the poem’s author, reading
of the Medical Board’s classification of asbestos
in 1925, how she was reminded of that young wife’s arriving home,
and the pride already metastasising inside the husband how
she’d never know how anything behind the boards had changed.
Just as the wife is unaware of the extra work her husband has taken on for the wellbeing of his family, so the poet hides his process with the poem.
The piece that follows on from that one does hint at the stages of doubt and decision behind the making of poetry. Here from ‘The Draft’:
First this: who is speaking? Careful,
the darkness is brimming with something.
With what? The darkness is swarming
with resolution. First this: who is
speaking? Careful, the darkness is swimming
with resolution. Put your hand out.
This reads in some ways like a ‘spot the difference’, as the reader picks up on minute changes of punctuation and wonders about whether the poet or an external voice is speaking. The poem’s polyphony offers a sense of multiple possibilities and plurality: what the poem might have been, what it might become, and what it is. It is also particularly satisfying that the words ‘brimming’ and ‘swarming’ are combined in the later ‘swimming’, suggesting that later drafts always contain the ghosts of those that have come before them.
This interest in change runs through the collection, which centres on the joy (or frustration) of the moment. ‘I write / in the name / of the seconds’, says the speaker in ‘History’, and the poet’s fascination with the ephemeral surfaces time and time again. ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ begins with a journey, noting how ‘From a train, she passes how all things pass, wrapped / in their instants, messy and simple as the as-yet unlooked-at // complication.’ The poems are also ‘wrapped in their instants’, so much so that a poem entitled ‘In the Moment,’ cannot wait to begin: the title’s comma serves to startle and arrest the reader into the present. Other poems, such as ‘Untitled’ show how moments are distinct from other moments, how they can end and become closed-off: ‘And the jaws have / already swung closed over the moment, albeit gappily.’ The ‘albeit gappily’ is indicative of much of the wit and humour in Long Pass
. Perhaps the joy that can be contained in a single moment is most successfully described in ‘The Big House’ (one of my favourite poems here):
Amateur musicians start up unexpectedly so
a kind of music I know nothing about –
baroque or symphonic, or chamber – plays,
in slow notes, flat with the smell of instant coffee,
and dry toast, and unmarked hardback books, across this
hangover of mine
That ‘so’ of the first line tips the reader satisfyingly into the next line, and the poem as a whole is both ‘joyful’ (the word that it ends on) and evocative.
Elsewhere, Connolly can be poignant. ‘A Brief Glosa’, which begins with a section written after Yannis Ritsos, is both moving and sexy in its description of desire for an absent lover. This is offset by flashes of humour: ‘I know that each one of us travels to love alone,’ the speaker notes, ‘but this – this is surely unnecessary.’ The passage describing his lover reading in Greek also contains both lust and, as I see it, laughs:
As in the time you took me back to the place you shared
with your absent fiancé to read me the Greek
of Yannis Ritsos, in Greek, until the sounds
worked by your tongue brought your tongue too much
into focus. Certain lusts can be swallowed, that noble, necessary gulp.
I know. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t help.
The short, sharp bursts of the last line, after the langorous repetitions of the earlier passage, undercut the flaming sexuality of the piece; the half-rhyme of ‘gulp’ and ‘help’ is also particularly rewarding. The poem ends, however, with the simple ‘Let me come with you,’ meaning that the dominant mood is one of yearning, and the poem comes off very successfully. ‘What You’ve Done’ is also a particularly affecting poem, written in elegy, and my very favourite of the collection, although there is not space to explore it here.
Stand-out phrases and words deserve a quick mention. The line ‘like a thinking-man’s seagull’ (from the poem ‘Escape to the Reservoir Café’) stayed in my mind days after reading it, even though I’m not convinced I know what it means. One of Connolly’s versions of a poem by Lorca speaks of ‘an A5 moon’, and the poem ‘Average Temperature at Surface Level’ describes how ‘a painter is at his concentration. / He measures out his attention like a liqueur.’ ‘For the Very Last Time’ includes the phrase ‘colourful percussive language’, and this is what Connolly has when he is at his best: a deft attention to the varying timbres and pitches of language.Long Pass
, for its humour, strange voicings, playfulness, and ability to move the reader, should be celebrated.
Suzannah V Evans
was born in London and studied at the universities of St Andrews and York. She has worked in publishing and recently as a sound technician, translator, and interpreter for StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews. Her poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Eborakon
, The North
, New Welsh Review
, The Scores
, Tears in the Fence
, and RAUM. She currently divides her time between London and Bristol.
previous review: Psalmody
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