Many of the poems in Hawks and Doves are in transit, by car or by foot, coming or going, their personae wondering ‘what to do, who to be, the way things are’. They shift swiftly, but uneasily, between what’s outside the door and what’s on-screen: between Belfast with its processes of ‘normalization’, and a wider world riven by conflict, poverty and environmental havoc.
Many deal with families, parenthood and responsibility — with the hawks and doves that circle the home, the heart, and the head. Exuberant love poems mingle with scabrous parodies of self-satisfied apathy and masculine aggression. In their formal virtuosity, linguistic incandescence and imaginative intelligence, these poems are deeply affecting and often searing examinations of the world in which we’re living. Ending with major pieces that traverse the waste and beauty of our time, Hawks and Doves is an unforgettable trip.
Alan Gillis won the Rupert and Eithne Strong First Book Award in 2005 for his collection, Somebody, Somewhere. His debut was remarkable for ‘its punch-drunk language, for its formal dexterity and for Gillis’s sheer glee at the variety of references a single line could be made to contain. The big question was whether his follow-up would shake off the presence of Ciaran Carson, to whom he is indebted for the long punning lines and a Belfast demotic which mixes the paramilitary and the mundane. It doesn’t quite, but the question is becoming less important. These poems stage a verbal crash of pop culture, the globalised capitalism it serves, and the defiantly and problematically local embodied in nonce words and dialect. A country walk in The Mournes begins “Our heads plunged deep in BlackBerries,” before putting technology aside for pastoral: “we lose the city for the russet rills/ and quiet of those heather-shagged mounds,/ hunked and fallen crags that ruck and reel,/ hollow and heave like the incredible body/ of nobody living.” The innuendo of “heather-shagged” points to the comic machismo that extends beyond content and tone to Gillis’s Don Juan rhymes (favourites include “bark-stripped trees” and “Bacardi Breezer”; “Lexus” and “Texas”; “Fuhrer” and “angostura”).
Typically his double sestina features dreams of Emmanuelle Béart, while the rhyming couplets of Bob the Builder is a Dickhead cite as their anti-hero the Fat Controller from Thomas the Tank Engine. Since these poems can crack a joke, they risk being underestimated. While the hurly-burly of Gillis’s compound adjectives, lists of synonyms and endless puns can seem best appreciated in individual set pieces, the references between poems across the collection demonstrate a more complex plot. To my mind, the less cluttered his lines become, the more Gillis’s talents come to the fore, even as he acknowledges other masters (Michael Longley is a tender antagonist in several). A Blueprint for Survival, There and Death by Preventable Poverty are each very powerful poems. In conclusion, Laganside finds Gillis adopting a wise credo for thriving on the real streets of Belfast’s literary village: “Of course, this happens all the time: you walk/ up to your neighbour and note his nostril/ hairs, dimples, pocks, scars, cheeks and creviced/ chin; then five minutes later you catch his nut-/ brown eyes in the light and all the features/ of his face fuse into something whole but shifting/ like this river . . . ” Hawks and Doves shows that process of literary fusion to be developing into a uniquely contemporary talent.
— Selina Guinness, The Irish Times
How often have you been excited by a new poem? Excited enough, that is, to pick up the phone and tell people about what you’ve just discovered? Like me, perhaps, you would answer well, no, not all that often. We all find different poems exciting for different reasons, of course; and the last two poems that had this particular effect on me were in the same book by the same author: in Alan Gillis’s debut collection Somebody, Somewhere (Gallery Press, 2004)…
With his new collection, Hawks and Doves, Gillis has moved up a gear, and produced a very substantial, haunting, and troubling book. Although he now lives and works in Scotland, Gillis has written a volume which puts into poetry a new Belfast – one which is partly ‘the new Belfast’ of contemporary perception – in such a way as to change the literary map. The strong precursor for Gillis is Ciaran Carson (too strong, at times, in his first book), whose poetry gave the city of Belfast an extraordinary (and often menacing) literary life; now, Gillis has moved on decisively, and has become secure in a voice that is all his own. Belfast also, of course, has been moving on in the meantime – into the life of a modern city, with all the good (and the bad) things that life generally entails. In the long poem which ends Hawks and Doves, ‘Laganside’, Gillis provides a wonderful panorama of the commercially regenerating city (regenerating now on the basis of a 27/7 service industry of fast food and drink), and its potentially unregenerate inhabitants:
Closer to the riverside, terraced doors keep
their mouths shut and children are clamped
in by barricade from this steep fall of river-
bank and clean public walkway, though buttered
faces size me up from behind a useless wall,
cursing the river’s limitations, my trespass,
this tourist sprawl. But then, moving onward,
by a cream call centre, a sunbed-skinned sales team
have finished their shift and stream through
the fence-gate to traipse toward happy hour
promotions, black power retro-nights, their navel
studs and highlights sparked by waterlight.
This may seem a far cry from the lines of workers tramping home from the shipyards, but Gillis’s focus on Belfast is not in any simple way an ironic one. Indeed, this poem includes the armies of cranes that preside over the Belfast skyline, ‘looking towards their unused elders hung/ in sorrow in the dockyards to the east’, adding to this little conceit only ‘whether/ in sympathy or saying up yours, I’m not sure.’
Gillis’s great skill, which in this new book has reached its impressive maturity, lies in the extended sweep of description, and the panorama seems in many ways his natural mode. In this kind of writing, the central problem is how to combine momentum with detail – and there have been many failures over the years. Time and again, Gillis has startling success, as in his poem ‘Driving Home’, where a strong narrative (of striking a dog in the road, then driving on) is carried along with an extraordinary eye (and ear) for particulars, like ‘the sky churning/ buttermilk, lobster, apricot and kale’: the painterly brilliance here simultaneously churns up a kind of subliminal queasiness, entirely in keeping with the distaste in the story being told. All through the book, Gillis gives evidence of his ability to accumulate detail in ways that are telling, rather than random. In this, Gillis is heir to the Louis MacNeice of great urban poems like ‘Birmingham’, and there is much in Hawks and Doves that recalls – and brilliantly revivifies – MacNeice’s earlier manner.
But Gillis’s book is more than a series of accomplished performances; the volume has a coherence and a depth which many older poets would (or should) envy. Those old chestnuts, the public and the private, are put at odds in original ways in Gillis’s poetry; and here it is the completely convincing grasp of the particular, in time and place, which grounds his complex and dark intimations of the world’s troubles, and the self’s helplessness in the face of these. An additional strength is Gillis’s emergence as a poet of personal material, delivered with utter assurance and lack of affectation. Some poems, like the three-part ‘Harvest’, bring together the personal and the public very memorably: in writing about his own parents, and himself as a parent, Gillis can find unforced room for the discordant matter of ‘Trigger-happy tomcats and hornets’ with ‘their motherloads dead set/ on the clay-baked cities of Iraq’. The poem’s conclusion, which thinks about a son’s future, the parents’ past, and a jittery present, is perfectly judged:
Someday I might return and tell him this
is near where they met, where thy might have been
married, as the rain batters remorseless
on watchtowers, their camouflaged polytetrafluoroethylene,
as I lead him down the road of falling
hazels and vetch, finger to finger
until he lets go and leaves me by a reed-slushing
brook under the sky’s orange plumes,
the fallout winds and elder
stealing kisses on the road to Killymoon.
Hawks and Doves will be seen, I think, as a decisive volume in the developing story of poetry from Northern Ireland, full of independence, imaginative strength, and a confidence that is fully justified. It is also entertaining, gripping and moving by turns, as Gillis follows a path that is impressively his own.
— Peter McDonald, Tower Poetry