Conor O’Callaghan’s The Sun King reviewed by Maria Johnston
‘A piece of garbage I had around’, John Lennon unceremoniously dubbed his ‘Sun King’, the second song of the ground-breaking medley or ‘song montage’ that closes the Beatles’ final, ‘end of the line’ album Abbey Road (1969). Making innovative use of recording studio technology to orchestrate existing ‘bits of things’ and ‘unfinished songs’ into a sublime, symphonic whole, the medley’s highly crafted ‘operatic structure’ also came to embody an existential ‘holding it together’ (in Paul McCartney’s words) in the face of the fiscal and psychic pressures that would lead to the band’s break-up. Segueing from ‘You Never Give me Your Money’ – McCartney’s spirited and soulful lament of the financial strains that the band were buckling under – the macaronic, maracas-induced ‘Sun King’ opens with a crossfade of tape-looped sound effects of crickets and wind chimes that instantly transports the listener to a dreamlike, beach-haze-suffused other-world through its use of cross-channel, stereo panning, lush, close three-part harmonies, and a shimmering guitar freefall reverb inspired by Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’. Liquid lines of untranslatable but delectable multi-linguistic nonsense (‘Mundo pararazzi mi amore chicka ferdy parasol’) enhance the shifting, kaleidoscopic atmospherics. Pronouncing the Abbey Road medley, ‘possibly the finest achievement in rock music’, Belfast dramatist Stewart Parker observed how it was the complex Lennon-McCartney combination of ‘melody and lyricism…surrealism and satire’ that produced it and the same artistic qualities are on display throughout Conor O’Callaghan’s The Sun King, wherein we get the poet as world- and word-spinning recording artist, as melody- and medley-maker, assembling into mobile forms a fractured life’s broken bits and pieces, ‘dribs and drabs’ (‘January Drought’), fragments, losses and loose ends.
In ‘Required Fields’, a poem about, among other things, the impossibility of translating a life, via memory, back to where you thought you had left it, the release of the Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’ in 1968 (just weeks before the poet himself was born) marks a point in time and life, much as the same band’s first LP does in Philip Larkin’s ‘Annus Mirabilis’; Larkin is one of O’Callaghan’s most obvious influences, along with Muldoon who was also, as his musical autobiography ‘Sleeve Notes’ attests, listening out beyond Ireland’s radio frequencies in the 1960s and 1970s in ways that would become formative to his poetics. That Jude was himself, as Beatles-scholar Walter Everett has pointed out, the patron saint of desperate situations seems also relevant here, and the strains of ‘Hey Jude’ carry us back through O’Callaghan’s oeuvre to 2005’s Fiction wherein ‘the bridge / of “Norwegian Wood” lilted out of key’ is one of the ‘out-takes’ that, Abbey-Road-style, makes up this poem of ‘leftovers from a cleaned-up final version’. That ‘bridge’ is not insignificant, as O’Callaghan has always been a poet of transitions, segues, connections and crossings. Singing slightly ‘out of key’ is a mark of O’Callaghan’s aesthetic also. He is the most sonically alive of poets, alert to how music beats time, transports us, transcends us, carries us to other worlds, as it restores, replays and repeats and is capable of infinite variation. That the cover of the book features a collage by the American mixed-media collage artist Paul Bright chimes with all of this. A self-confessed dumpster-diver for detritus, Bright has declared that now we all ‘live in collage world’ and the poet shares the collage artist’s process of ‘working with “the found”‘. Fittingly, for a poet who has absorbed the American tradition, O’Callaghan’s approach seems to me to remember Elizabeth Bishop’s description to Robert Lowell, after reading his Life Studies, of ‘the stretch where everything and anything suddenly seemed material for poetry – or not material, seemed to be poetry, and all the past was illuminated in long shafts here and there, like a long-waited-for sunrise.’ ‘I could use / a sunrise’, O’Callaghan admits in ‘Nest of Tables’. What Bishop regarded as the ‘purpose’ of art – ‘that rare feeling of control, illumination’ – is the spirit that breathes into The Sun King as O’Callaghan beats radiant gold out of the dark shards, the refuse and refusals, of life, and does so across poetic lines that disorient with their strange, shifting, glancing harmonies.
‘Once there was a way to get back homeward’, a nostalgic McCartney reframes the words of the seventeenth-century dramatist Thomas Dekker in the lullaby that begins the Abbey Roadmedley’s fanfare finish, and O’Callaghan has always written with an acute understanding of how ‘home’ is always out of bounds; if it exists it is, perhaps, only in the music, in the art, that we are at home in. Much as the word ‘console’ refuses to console us with a fixed meaning (as the opening line of the collection reminds us), the idea of belonging to one fixed place only must necessarily narrow the breath and breadth of poetry. O’Callaghan refuses to be tied. Indeed, in a piece written in 2004 for Poetry Ireland Review, he recalled asking himself during a despairing moment at a symposium on Patrick Kavanagh early in his career: ‘This is Irish Poetry. Do I really hope to belong here?’ O’Callaghan’s Groucho-Marx-style attitude to the worn-out Irish identity question is most refreshing. In ‘Required Fields’, as the speaker’s lapses of memory prevent him from filling in the ’empty boxes’ of an online form and thus retrieving a past that fills boxes in a distant warehouse, the word ‘timothy’ acts like a motif linking the poem in theme and tone back to Paul Muldoon’s ‘Third Epistle to Timothy’ from Hay (1998), a collection that was similarly preoccupied with upturning the fields of ‘home’ and with all form of boundary lines including, inevitably, the ‘borders’ of the North of Ireland. As Michael Allen observed of Muldoon’s ‘Epistle’; ‘the immigrant poet is deferentially claiming his place in the American tradition which grew out of Leaves of Grass‘. O’Callaghan is at home in many traditions. Along with Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in ‘The Sun King’, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Derek Mahon’s baedeker for ‘The Snow Party’, later taken up by Muldoon in Mules), is let fall at a key moment of displacement in ‘Mid to Upper Seventies’, as the third-person narrator, locating himself in a ‘sunroom’, ‘forty miles or so / south of the Virginia line’, realises belatedly of his past self: ‘it takes him a really long time, / years in fact, to recover his place.’ Like Muldoon, O’Callaghan is a poet of borderline poetic disorder. Indeed, his description of Louis MacNeice as the ‘laureate of in-betweenness’ serves for him also, having grown up ,as he is given to remark in interview ‘half-way between Dublin and Belfast’ in the border town of Dundalk during the years of the ‘Troubles’. O’Callaghan reminds us of the act of transgression that is bound up in the meaning of the verb ‘to translate’, as evidenced in the liberties he takes with his captivating, erotically-charged translation of Lorca’s ‘La Casada Infiel’ as ‘The Unfaithful Housewife’. Poets have to cross lines, if they are to get anywhere.
The collection opens in ‘Lordship’, once a small, unremarkable townland near Dundalk, Co. Louth but now, thanks to O’Callaghan’s stunningly unique take on it, a virtuosic, promiscuous, fragmentary narrative that plays fast and loose with identifiable place as it prefers to fashion its own x-rated version of what it means ‘to come’ from there instead (not for nothing was O’Callaghan’s previous collection titled Fiction). Readers will find themselves losing their place more than once thanks to its syntactic contortions, and, that the Dundalk Tourist Board (if there is one) won’t exactly be putting it on a plaque in the town square is a testament to O’Callaghan’s skilful handling as places become spinning plates, the poet ‘flying beneath the radar’. Similarly, Googling the title of the endlessly diverting ‘Division Street’ returns a plethora of possible city locations. Although detective work leads us to Sheffield, we could be anywhere in the world’s wide web; we could be in Chicago. The poem becomes its own place. The joy is in the movement, the formal shifts and surprises, the kinky line-kinks, slips, blips and slides:
The grass is dappled by branches
of Starbucks, Boots, the beergarden black.
The evening turns out chrome.
Every line-break or line-turn for O’Callaghan is a turn in the tale, in the tune, and often one finds oneself having to go back to put the sense together. ‘One step forward, two steps back’, as Muldoon summed up Robert Frost’s ‘Directive’ – a key poem in this collection – and O’Callaghan is often, the kind of guide who ‘only has at heart your getting lost’. Extending this imaginative territory even more in The Sun King, O’Callaghan’s ‘required fields’ are not those of Monaghan, Derry or Louth but those fields of the aubade ‘Peace’, their fluid ‘knee-deep gold’ paddled, as the hitch-hiking poet discovers, out of grief, his own new arcadia and is transformed in the process: ‘a little sunstruck, little lost for words’. As the ‘transistor bleats’ and the scene gives way to ‘loose / Cycladic change’, echoes of Mahon and of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies fill the word-voids.
Similarly, mantra-like lines from Derek Mahon’s ‘Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ and Frost’s ‘Directive’ are rebooted into the 21st century to book-end O’Callaghan’s virtual fantasia ‘The Server Room’ in which the ‘sun’ of ‘Sun King’ may now include Sun Microsystems as the poet swims through the digital age, through computer language, series of commands, codes and data, to become ‘whole again’ in this place of endless refresh-ing and of ecstatic linguistic refreshment. As with that ‘disused shed’ of old, a server room might now seem like the most unromantic, most unpoetic of sites, yet O’Callaghan casts his unusual cast of mind on it to make it the most interesting place to inhabit; it is, after all, the function of poetry to take us into spaces that we would never think of venturing. ‘Expressive power’ is a term used in programming language, as in poetry, and O’Callaghan shows how everything can potentially be made into poetic language; one leaves the server room, the poem, at once exhausted and exhilarated by the sheer power of language as a constantly renewing and renewable resource, and of the hydroelectric energy of poetic form itself:
Up here on the lam, the limb of oneself,
form a cup of digits/palms and wait
for data like rain meltwater cold
to pool to brimming point, to cascade down.
Drink. Be whole again beyond communication.
Described by Paul Muldoon as a poem that is ‘mimetic of the sense of crisis inherent in the phrase “one step forward, two steps back”’ as it ‘invites the reader to share in the redemptive and restorative qualities of the mainstream English lyric’, Frost’s ‘Directive’ is in dialogue with a whole range of other poems and texts, and throughout The Sun King it is the creative conversation between O’Callaghan and Irish poet Vona Groarke that is most audible: this is not so much the ‘mainstream’ of English lyric as the uncharted ‘slipstream’ of the contemporary lyric.
Thus, in The Sun King, O’Callaghan’s sonnet in freestyle strokes, ‘The End of the Line’, looks back to Groarke’s poem of the same title ‘The End of the Line’ in Flight (2002) and its questions of travel: ‘Home. You’ve gone as far as you care to go / in that direction. Nothing comes of it’. Theirs has been a decades-long, richly layered poetic-musical exchange across land and sound barriers. It was, after all O’Callaghan as poet that ‘stirs / that blackbird/ into song’ in Groarke’s ‘Song’ (from Juniper Street, 2006). O’Callaghan and Groarke have long sung in close harmony, singing in call and response across collections as partners in art, as in life, and the fact that they are the parents of now teenage children means that the line between life and art is crossed and recrossed. Thus, his perfectly-paced, revisit poem ‘Kingdom Come’ remembers the title poem of Groarke’s Other People’s Houses that was dedicated ‘to Conor’ and published in tandem with O’Callaghan’s Seatown in 1999:
Who’d have thought a year
would find me stalking our old selveswhile neighbours wheel their trash
to the sidewalk for the morning?Mostly I mark papers
by light run off the alternator.Though lately I’ve been praying, lady,
that whatever kingdom come there isis a street we owned a place on
Seated in a car outside, craftily, a shuttered ‘Arts and Crafts house’, the poet pays tribute to Groarke’s distinctive style of house music as he remembers their shared life in one of a line of ephemeral houses. A rupture has occurred, dissonance is sounded everywhere: in the ‘trash’ at the line-end, the ‘chimes of lost wishes’, the chandelier’s ‘dismantling the sun / into bits and bobs of iris’, with surround-sound effects being produced by nothing as obvious as end-rhyme but internal, intimate chiming sounds. Such looping effects create the sense that it is indeed ‘evening over and over again’, as the slant sun never sets. ‘Home’, in art and in life, is in constant change and only the afterlife, the ‘kingdom come’ of poetry may now be the destination: ‘And I, in some shape or form, / am there as well. And you are there’, the poem looks forward to close. The private sayings and closed-up spaces that form human relationships can never be fully understood and part of the live experience of reading the work of both O’Callaghan and Groarke means allowing for the mysteries and half-meanings of love to let be. True to the way we live, to the darknesses and recesses of language itself, much is left in shadow throughoutThe Sun King but the gravity of grief, its weight, is felt as is its temporary release through sustaining bursts of energy. ‘King of sun, pray for me again’, the title poem, a celebration of a misfit ‘odd-job deity’ named Roy, ends with the quasi-religious invocation. O’Callaghan is, like Wallace Stevens, a ‘pundit of the weather’, gauging the pressure of reality as ‘a slow air remastered on the squeezebox’ (‘Kingdom Come’).
In ‘The Bulk Collection’ (which winningly makes the term for a rubbish collection of large waste items sound like an art exhibit) the poet – a star-gazer and reader of the skies after MacNeice, Frost and Stevens – ‘looks up’ words in dictionaries as one would look up at the night sky’s constellations. Thus objects abandoned on the sidewalk become verbal objets d’art:
are like synonyms
for letting go
I look up.I love ‘relinquish’,
Its starry black
Constellations of words are the forms that these poems take, each one singular and organic, and the formal innovation and experiment in this collection is instantly obvious; as with ‘Formal’ in 2005’s Fiction the visual layout of ‘The End of the Line’ causes the reader to have to turn the book around to read it just as the world itself is revolving. Poetry is interactive, exercising and exigent. Elsewhere, and in a very different style, an ‘elegy’ for the Celtic Tiger that commemorates the ‘craic’ before the crisis (titled ‘Tiger Redux’, as it borrows the metre of William Blake’s ‘Tyger’) shows off the poet’s gift for parody and performance, but it goes beyond its occasion to become a mesmeric chant for all ages as the rap-poet flexes his rhyming inventiveness to show that linguistic affluence is the currency of the day and money a kind of poetry: ‘Xerox plants like pleasure domes, / sushi bars, the second homes, / investment apts in Budapest, / light rail lanes, the glitz, the rest.’
The collection climaxes with an extended improvisation, The Pearl Works, which began life on Twitter in 2012 and records a year in the life of the poet in a series of 52 tweet-couplets of 140 characters, one for each week of the year. Taking its title from a disused cutlery factory in Sheffield (but also, this reader assumes with a nod to the BlackBerry Pearl smartphone device), its epigraph from Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mystic’ signals the importance of making and remaking, of continuance, in art as in life, and in moving from past to present, from shadow into light, as many of the collection’s leitmotifs (or light motifs) are reprised throughout. Prayerful and playful by turns, it culminates in a mesmeric circling around the letter O into open-ended and open-mouthed wordlessness, wonderment, and oneness:
O closing words, O lovely hopeless song (one more!) invoking love gone south
O storeroom door that’s on a slope & opens outwards O open mouth
A foray into what has recently been branded ‘Twitter poetry’ or ‘micro-poetry’ seems inevitable for a poet who is always pushing formal boundaries, and here, the extended form of 52, 140-character couplets revitalises poetic form in the face of financial, familial and philosophical crises, of ‘love gone south’, as the compass is always shifting. If this latest Twitter phenomenon puts readers in mind of Geoffrey Hill taking on the text message in his Oxford Professor of Poetry lecture of November 2011 – when, in response to Carol Ann Duffy’s media-courting proposition that poetry ‘is a form of texting’, he asserted that, on the contrary, whereas texting is ‘linear only’, poetry is ‘lines in depth’ – then it is timely indeed. ‘Could it bring poetry back to the forefront of the modern world?’, a typically inane article in the Independent enquired of ‘the rise of Twitter poetry’ recently. As O’Callaghan must know, poetry needs no such intercession on its behalf; as long as there are poets who will set about finding and forging new forms wherever they are, who are devoted to listening out along the lines. The poetic line can more than hold its own in a world that grows ever more complex. For, as Hill went on to profess: ‘True poetry is not a series of texting about the world but an intensely-crafted and parallel world’. Perhaps any real ‘home’ then, to go back to that shifty, virtual concept, can only be truly found in art, in the luminous words and music that we keep returning to and that return us to ourselves as the complex, multiple and mysterious beings in time that we are. The Sun King is one such parallel world to keep returning to.