Tom French’s fifth book of poems, The Last Straw, reveals an ever quickening sense of what a poem might be — and do. With its capacity to move his readers and listeners and to register ordinary moments in a luminous glow, it’s no wonder his work attracts an ever growing host of admirers.
‘In this collection, when I’m not witnessing maimings and getting electrocuted on building sites, I’m eavesdropping on bridge painters, hanging around public houses, and failing abysmally to leave behind me the bog I knew. I appear to be trying to get to the bottom of what I learned there. Whatever coasts I find myself on offer some small relief. Spare a thought for me — staying out of the sun, reading, channel surfing, counting the days until the flight home.’
The local hubbub of history – and the eerie silence of the past
The opening poem in Tom French’s fifth collection, The Last Straw sets the tone for the volume, finding him in an evening frame of mind: “Above us, a flight banks in the dark, / beginning its descent. The road, this night,/ goes quiet. I extinguish the last light.”
In Station the narrator similarly finds himself moodily “crepuscular and iambic”, as Heaney put it elsewhere: “some evenings/ a nearly empty northbound going through at speed/ between the lit-up platforms/ leaves me feeling inexplicably bereft, / as if it were my life.”
The narrative tone of a Tom French poem is immediately recognisable: detached but sympathetic; sensuously nostalgic; watchful; alert to the serendipities of time, place, and logos; acutely aware of the local with its twin taproots in history and landscape. His poems abound in place-names: Derrywinny, Ballinfoyle, Lisselton, Kilmacabea, Kilcreene.
This is a poetry deeply rooted in locale, as shown by his habit of dating and placing many of his poems, as though each functioned as an act of witness to the convergence in time, place and consciousness of the obsolescent or already vanished objects of his regard. Thus he meditates on photographs of the first World War (a recurring theme); or of a Peasant and Turf Stack; or on two wristwatches which survived the war although their wearers did not. A meditation on Heywood Gardens uses an epigraph from Pope: “Consult the genius of the place in all” – an expression elevated to the status of an ethos in French’s work.
Formal experiment is not in French’s line, and for the most part these poems use a four-line stanza pattern with lines that hover around the tetrameter or pentameter length, with occasional variation. It feels comfortable, like a garment the poet is assured and at home in, and the low-key skill with which he handles his lineation and phrasing is one of the great pleasures of this volume: “This is the bed he will not get up from, / even when we come to bring him home.”
The influence on French of Michael Longley, that great master of the singing line, is clear not just in formal terms but also in his commemorative instincts. In poems such as The First of July, La Boiselle, Lord Strathcona’s Horse at Moreuil Wood, March 1918 or Unidentified Farriers, Western Front, French shows himself to be similarly haunted by the history of that great conflict. But there are moments of levity also: After Hours is an extended sequence on pubs and their names; Costa Blanca manages to wring a certain wry philosophical significance from a beach holiday. As always, however, the sense of return in French’s work is inevitable, as the latter sequence makes clear in its conclusion: “To our ‘Anything strange?’ on the road home/ our lifts’ ‘Divil a bit’ is all we need to know.”
— Caitríona O’Reilly, The Irish Times
Publication Date: 2018
ISBN PBK: 978 1 91133 734 8
ISBN HBK: 978 1 91133 735 5
Cover: ‘Sunset’ by Sadie Mackey