Sorrow never travels
far from home.
Dermot Healy’s death in the summer of 2014 reverberated deeply and far. Yet for all the admiration his work accrued he suffered something of the fate of those who abound in talents. Was he a poet? A novelist? A story writer? A memoirist? A playwright? He was all these — and more.
When Seamus Heaney was editing Soundings (1974) Dermot Healy ‘sent a pile of material that was sprouting talent in all directions . . . he was the exception’. Four books of poems have already touched and tickled readers in surprising ways. Like all his writing they are marked by insight, empathy and wit. Ordinary acts and exchanges become luminous, even transcendent.
The Travels of Sorrow is a windfall, the last gift of a compelling, original and charismatic artist.
Clarity and a delicate touch surely mark Dermot Healy’s The Travels of Sorrow (Gallery, €11.95 pb; €18.50hb), as does Healy’s death last year at the age of 66. ‘The Mirror’ begins with a baby seeing itself for the first time in the mirror: its tale of conjoined twins, first separated and then reunited, is not a cause for satisfaction, but further meditation on loss: “You will be taken from me,/ the eyes said,// but the silence/ was never broken.” Alongside such silences, the book finds room for much music, songs for digging, a tribute to Liam O’Flynn, the blues, a robin’s sentinel song.
Healy had the rare ability to listen and hear things in our speech and our speechifying. His poems give the words we use back to us, with a new dimension to them. The Plough looks up as “the shape/ it once threw// moves on/ along the lazy bed of the constellations,/ like a letter in an old alphabet// whose sound is lost to the tongue;/ till, at daybreak, the work of the metaphor// is done.” It’s a description that is clear, daring, yet hedged with self-consciousness and an almost self-deprecating tone.
Any reader would wish there were more to come. More heartbreak, more (terrible) jokes (zen koans like Fetch: “If you want/ to break a dog’s heart/ throw a stone// into the sea.”), more transcriptions of the Sligo coast and clouds he wrote his books from.
— John McAuliffe, The Irish Times
Silence in the Mirror
The Travels of Sorrow generally gravitates around themes of ageing and death — and their attendant profundities and absurdities. There’s also a great sense of kinship, of the importance of friendship and indeed of the bond that exists between humanity and nature. A number of the poems are elegies, hinting at vital words that were simply never said — an especially poignant subtext in a posthumous collection.
. . . The majority of these poems are emotionally engaging and thought-provoking. The sombre themes are occasionally leavened with humour or vignettes that have the grace and resonance of pub tales told by a storyteller of uncommon eloquence, empathy and insight. For all its darknesses, in other words, The Travels of Sorrow, is an enriching and enjoyable read.
. . . Sometimes he writes in a manner that is intense, memorable, quotable (‘Loneliness gathers. Here we are’). At its best, his writing achieves a marvellous synths of clarity and depth.
. . . With The Travels of Sorrow, Healy packs so much life and death into his work that the reader feels mentally and emotionally enlarged for the reading of it. In a just world, this collection would be celebrated as a final gift from an enormously talented and underrated mind.
— Kevin MacNeil, Poetry Ireland Review
The Note for Grief
Healy’s posthumous final collection, shaped by his editor, Peter Fallon, out of a draft manuscript sent him by Healy and out of poems Healy wrote in the months afterwards, echoes with painful losses.
. . . In doing so, it never seems to wander far from the theme of loss as fate, in a physical world whose rules hold sway. Such loss, these poems seem to say, is an intrinsic aspect of our world, inseparable from its material reality; and so depictions of loss are wound through with depictions of the natural world. There is nothing “pastoral”, in the romanticised sense of the word that is, in this. Nature is never depicted as an idyllic escape from reality, but rather as reality itself.
. . . Healy’s poetry has long been admired for its plainness of style and the way in which his poems deal with “everyday” life and, in The Travels of Sorrow the language is always accessible, always bringing the light, familiar ring of “ordinary speech”. There is even humour, if a dark one that is never just humour, in the hallucinatory “The Souls”, for example, where “on the way to a funeral / in Cavan” and to others after, animals and birds die through their encounter with the poet’s car – a crow flying into the windscreen, a rabbit going under the wheel – until he decides: “I’m going to no more / funerals in Cavan. Soon there won’t be a bird / or a badger left alive in the country.” There is tenderness throughout too, from the careful depiction of fireflies and zigzags in “The Tickles of Mating” to the love song that is “October Winds”.
. . . Grief and loss may be inevitable consequences of being alive in the world, but in The Travels of Sorrow, Healy shows that so too are joy and hope. As the end of one of the last poems of the collection goes:
There’s fresh onions
in the earth. The wounds
on the wrist are healing.
— Liza Costello, Dublin Review of Books
Date Published: 2015
ISBN PBK: 978 1 85235 641 5
ISBN ebook: 978 1 85235 697 2