THE POEMS IN John McAuliffe’s Of All Places are also said to contain ‘a hint of Auden’s formal patterns’ in a back-cover note. It is undoubtedly McAuliffe’s strongest collection to date, and the poems in it reveal the poet’s sincere concern with communicating something useful out of his everyday encounters with the world. Poems such as ‘House Fire’, ‘Bringing the Baby to Rossaveal’, ‘Week 2’ and ‘The Hallway Mirror’ give generous insights into domesticity and family life, but Of All Places also contains strong new poems by McAuliffe on broader social and historical themes. Among the most significant of these are ‘Crash’, which deals with the downfall of Roger Casement, and ‘Transfers’, a poem based partly on “the sale of works of art from the Bank of Ireland collection” in 2010.
McAuliffe sometimes allows his poems to become “too neat and a little too close to whatever we call home”, as he puts it himself in ‘Marriage, the Realist Tradition’. At times he seems to throw in the towel just when things are getting interesting or tough. And yet the acknowledgment that the poet or poetry cannot provide all the answers is important in itself if what McAuliffe calls “the free drift to nowhere in particular” in the book’s opening poem (‘Old Style’) is to be attempted. As the speaker of that striking lyric puts it:
Not just the lay-by, or the motorway
or its central reservation.
Not just the ring road, or the cul-de-sac
with its pretty forsythia border.
Not just the house, or its extension,
and its hundred windows shining away.
Instead the known world and the unseen,
to which you’ll come back:
Despite moments of curious self-doubt — in ‘The Whole Show’, for example, or in ‘A Midgie’, the volume’s disappointingly slight closing poem — the journeys McAuliffe made “to the known world and the unseen” in the making of this book have been worth the effort. Of All Places is a compelling third collection.
— Philip Coleman, The Irish Times
John McAuliffe’s new collection, deservedly a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, is his third outing in an authoritative and distinctive Gallery Books suit and tie. This is a poetry that’s certainly washed behind the ears, thanks to severe and consistent editing. McAuliffe is one of that still very youthful group of poets of the calibre of Conor O’Callaghan, Leanne O’Sullivan and Sara Berkeley, poets who have already created a resolute and robust re-imagined Ireland for their own generation. Those of us who are the newly greying generation born in the 1950s can only look at these poets with a kind of wistful longing, for these are the first poets to stride purposefully through the shattered canon of an older Irish poetry. Not only have they left all Dolmens behind them, along with those 1980s tired clichés of “sense of place” etc., etc.; but, imaginatively, these poets are everywhere at once—in the bedroom with lovers, in hotel foyers between gigs, in Beara and Listowel, in California, Manchester and Villanova. History and politics have their uses in such poetry, but only as patterns of colour or props to extend a metaphor:
absorbing the west Limerick and Co-op surplus,
Wheeling it all past the town’s built-up backyards,
The Island’s empty racetrack,
And this tyre-spinners’ gravel car-park,
The town’s learners practising turns and how to reverse,
The heat and 2FM turned up to the max.
These are the closing lines of a complex poem on Charles Haughey, or not: for the poet has reversed gingerly away from history into a more contemporary urban moment. McAuliffe works by splendid evasion, an evasion that’s as technical and perfect as a glaze baked over a watercolour. This is his working method and the reason that so many of these poems require rereading. In ‘Badger’, for example, the entire, sickening wickedness of deranged terrorism is reduced to the management of one incident where a boy coughs up blood after a night of football training: here, the agency of history is “a little movement in a Volkswagen”. There are poems here that have all the loveliness and lyricism of a young Thomas Kinsella: in ‘Bringing the Baby to Rossaveal’ the small wheel squeaking is either a small baby or the moon going down while in ‘Marriage, the Realist Tradition’ he describes with Larkin-like verse endings, and “like novelists, the last to specialize in everything”, not marriage but an ending we might believe in, something more than “a picture frame gilded and ornate”. Life for McAuliffe is indeed a celestial omnibus.
Such celestial moments spring from the nova of letters. Literature for McAuliffe is the great filter through which all of history passes into a form the poet wishes to record. ‘Transfers’ is a masterful document in this context; here the collapse of an entire economy is presented as a catalogue of the sale of artworks from the ruined Bank of Ireland’s collection. I defy any Irish person to read this and not feel sick at the thought of such national losses deliberately left un-described. These paintings will be hung again, as he says in another poem, ‘Canvas’, though “no living matter will remain”. Of All Places is full of marvellous, shimmering poetic gems, glittering particles of history left on the workbench by this evasive jeweller. Tight, small poems, epiphanies like ‘A Midgie’ and ‘Grave Goods’, are interspersed with challenging meditations like ‘Aerialist’ and ‘The Listowel Arms’—but all accumulate into the one lasting impression of an Irish writer who is a poet’s poet, an immortal watchman in poetry, a guardian sent to mind the guardians. McAuliffe has given us a glorious book.
— Thomas McCarthy, Southword