O’Callaghan’s poetry is marvellously his own.
— Stephen Knight, Times Literary Supplement
Conor O’Callaghan’s third collection navigates a channel between half-truth and deception. Narratives, at once private and impersonal, happen against the backdrops of desire and love’s complexities. Fiction, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, is a collection of broad formal and thematic range. A pair of gloves becomes an erotic keepsake. An Irish family survives the morbid paranoia of contemporary wartime America. The meaning of ‘hello’ mutates through its relationship to the telephone. The creatures of ‘Free State’ coinage vanish from legal tender, and a young woman encounters her first poem in print.
If Fiction is often bleak — its version unreliable, its vision unforgiving — it is as often witty and tender and deceptively rhapsodic. It expands the achievement of one of Ireland’s most original and engaging poets.
A heritage in excellent heart
In 1993 Adam Thorpe saluted Conor O’Callaghan’s The History of Rain, his first book of poems, published when he was 25, as displaying ‘an extraordinarily mature and exact voice which promises really great things’. Seatown, with its mythopoeic inventiveness, confirmed this judgment, and now Fiction enhances O’Callaghan’s reputation and is further proof of his versatile virtuosity. The concerns of the earlier books were very evident: they took a balanced central place between past and future, watching history being made, in the Mahon-like ‘The Gate Lodge’ for example. There was more traditional Irish myth-making in ‘Johnny’ and ‘The Good Room’. And most eye-catching was the caustic, raunchy wit of a poem like ‘The Oral Tradition’. These circus animals are all put through their paces again in Fiction.
The title-poem begins ‘None of this is true’, a reminder that the writer is never in the place to make an authoritative judgment, ‘smiling in the mirror/ at a face/ you’ve just made up’. The point is made even more unmistakably in ‘The Narrator’, reminiscent of Auden’s ‘Novelist’ as ‘an absent-minded ‘Where was I?’/ echoes through and he returns/ to the place that you left off’. O’Callaghan now adds to the earlier virtuosity a more vulnerable humanity often linked to parenthood. The operative note is no longer wit (though there is still plenty of that: in the brilliant lexical sequences of ‘Fall’ and ‘Ring’, for instance), but homesickness: a surprising emotion in O’Callaghan’s sardonic and unimpressed world. It is all the more effective for catching the reader off guard: for example, in ‘Retro’, one of the poems in ‘Hello’, a wonderful fantasia on the variations on that crucial word of greeting. You ring home, dreading your own recorded message: ‘you secretly can’t help/ but hope upon hope/ it will be picked up/ by some other hobo/ who isn’t you./ Then your own voice,/ as though recorded in a portaloo/ desperate to sound human/ and wallowing in its echo.’ The previous poem, modelled on Li Po, is a distant address ‘To His Two Kids’, which admits that, despite the exasperated parenthesis, ‘daily my heart (I know) breaks in two’. In both cases we recognise the real poet’s gift of expressing a universal feeling with an exactness that makes you share the desolation.
Its effectiveness is still attributable to O’Callaghan’s deeply impressive technical range and accomplishment, put to great emotional use. The great things that Thorpe saw presaged in the first book have appeared.
— Bernard O’Donoghue, The Irish Times
Poetry Book Society Recommendation
Year Published: 2005
ISBN PBK: 978 1 85235 382 7
ISBN HBK: 978 1 85235 383 4