Dermot Healy’s fourth collection presents itself as a book-length poem that charts the annual migrations of thousands of barnacle geese between their breeding grounds in Greenland and their winter quarters on an island beside his home. Section titles suggest stations on their route: ‘The Leavings’, ‘The Arrowhead’ and ‘The Wild Goose Chase’. From renewed joy ‘as they come — from gaggle to skein — in beautiful stitches / along a thread’ the book’s formal pattern displays a new skill as it reflects and records ‘the story of two homes’ and the shapes and sounds of their marvellous routines.
But A Fool’s Errand is also a study of fate. Framed by the funerals of friends, the poem yields grave lessons through characteristic epiphanies, scintillating poetry, and the music played by the ‘orchestra of memory’.
They know where they are going. The weather is right. What more could you ask for?
Words on the wing
Dermot Healy’s poetry has an intensity to its sparseness.
In A Fool’s Errand, his first collection since The Reed Bed, Healy’s voice is as concentrated and confident as it was in that 2001 collection. A Fool’s Errand is a series of poems contemplating loss and the passage of time through the migration and return of barnacle geese. While the migratory patterns of geese are a relatively well-worn theme in recent nature writing, Healy finds formal and thematic ways to make the subject his own. Each poem is a sonnet, weighted in the middle with two sections of three lines each, longer than the lines that begin and end the sonnet. The visual effect is to imitate the V of geese in flight. The small and quiet beginnings, then expansion, and then contraction to a conclusion allow Healy a variety of ways in which to think about the noise, behaviour and constancy of the geese as tangentially reflective of human life.
Early poems in the book move between the geese and the death of a musician friend. The enigmatic to and fro of the geese’s yearly patterns make them an “orchestra of memory”, something close to being reassuringly repetitive, as the funeral of the musician comes to a close in a “long silence”. Elsewhere in the book the geese are waited for, their “wild symmetry” in flight is wondered at, and the circularity of their lives hints at consolation. What Healy describes, in the final phrase of A Fool’s Errand, as an “ebbing song” is this book, one that is alive to the sounds and mysteries of natural phenomena. And Healy is wise enough never to think that his metaphors or his poetry can turn the flow of the natural world into anything other than “unsure knowledge”.
— Colin Graham, The Irish Times
Year Published: 2010 (Reprinted 2014)
ISBN PBK: 978 1 85235 499 2
ISBN ebook: 978 1 85235 560 9