A Viking king, a sixteenth century accountant, and the Archbishop of Oxmantown collide with an apocryphal evangelist, a Portuguese poet, street-sellers, buskers, auctioneers and lovers in a world at once recognizable and unpredictable.
Peter Sirr’s fifth collection broadens the template of his widely admired The Ledger of Fruitful Exchange. In the urban settings of flatland, burger restaurants, and archaeological excavations, the historical and the contemporary meld as the poems consider the idea, first, of a settlement and, secondly, of a city. The question, ‘Who, ever, is at home in a life?’ is weighed with style and force in the rememberings of this exotic, challenging and rewarding poetry.
Floating down Sheep Street
Detail”, from Peter Sirr’s fifth collection of poetry, is a brief cityscape ending with the “true but useless detail / that you’re not there, you never were”. The absence is a suggestive one, since, for whatever reason, urban landscapes have not proliferated in the poetry of Celtic Tiger Ireland to the same extent as they have in its fiction. Thomas Kinsella keeps steely watch over the capital city in his Peppercanister pamphlets, and, in the North, Ciaran Carson has uniquely made Belfast his own, but among younger Southern poets it is Sirr who stands out for his imaginative commitment to urban life.
His heartland is Dublin city centre and the area around its two cathedrals, Patrick Street and the Liberties, haunt of Zozimus, James Clarence Mangan and Dean Swift. Many of the shadowy figures that stalk these poems are older still.
“After a Day in the History of the City” introduces a Viking invader, Ivar the Boneless, before invoking the spirit of “Samuel / Metropolitan of Oxmantown”.
“Cathedral” is spoken by an apocryphal evangelist who interrupts his church-building to confess that his real desire is “to stand / for once empty handed / by the vanishing spires and the bells”, experiencing the superior permanence of a passing moment’s desire.
Irish street signs are bilingual, often to confusing effect. Sirr’s title “Sraid na gCaorach” translates as “Sheep Street”, but through some slip of the cartographer’s pen the actual street name is Ship Street. When a seagull screeches over nearby Dublin Castle, “Ship Street startled // rubs the wool from its eyes / and casts off”. Another mistaken identity lies behind “The Beautiful Engines”. Sirr works at the Irish Writers’ Centre (IWC) in Dublin, where for a time he found himself in receipt of daily e-mails intended for the Irish Wildbird Conservancy, with tales such as that of “Des and Margaret, flown home from Cyprus / to wagtails on the north slob, / announcing their engagement en route”.
For a writer so concerned with the persistence of historical memory, Sirr’s poems manage to attain an enviable lightness of touch, amounting almost to evanescence at times, as in “Housesitting”, “Drift” and “Legacies”. Part of this lightness is Sirr’s refusal of singularity and delight in multiple locations and identities. As we read in “China”: “we can no more live singly than light can fall on one place only.” Not for nothing is a poem devoted to Alvaro de Campos, one of Fernando Pessoa’s “heteronyms”, while elsewhere Sirr announces “I would like to go to Turkestan because Turkestan is a lovely word”, the choice of destination recalling “Memoirs of a Turkoman Diplomat” by another peripatetic spirit of modern Irish poetry, Denis Devlin. Sirr eschews strict forms, but handles his free verse with enviable skill and variety. His poems are for ever on the move, travelling hither and yon, so it seems a shame that after five collections this fine writer’s reputation his yet to travel as far as some of his older Irish contemporaries. Perhaps a Selected Poems is needed.
— David Wheatley, Times Online
Year Published: 2000
ISBN PBK: 978 1 85235 273 8