John McAuliffe’s book continues to explore a contemporary life whose domestic spaces and routines are lovingly itemized and reassembled: these poems tell stories and find images for ‘soul-making’ in the everyday world of sheds, swimming pools, concert halls, parks, ferry ports, galleries, protest marches, cinemas and street corners.
And The Way In also ranges further into ‘public’ life in a central sequence which brings its reader off the beaten path on a tour of Ireland and England: that sequence, ‘Home, Again’, combines autobiography and travel writing as it probes the countries’ shared history, borrowing the form of Edmund Spenser’s ‘Colin Clout’s Come Home Again’ as it summons the ghosts of those who haunt the places it visits.
These are open, vividly imagined poems which speak directly to readers as they look to find ‘A way of answering / to a day, to years of them, that we step into and speak up for’.
Subtlety is a word that defines the poetry of John McAuliffe, whose previous collection, Of All Places was a Poetry Book Society recommendation. The title of his fourth collection, The Way In, suggests that he is an intuitive poet, who waits until he finds the right size and shape of key for the lock, then turns… and we’re in. Though nothing is as simple as it seems:
In the cities it’s a beach
it’s a night
it’s a glass of wine
it’s the morning and the radio
in a small glass
saying something out loud, oblivious
McAuliffe’s skill is in his deftly selected details. In the narrative poem ‘Shed’, human nature is revealed as slowly and steadily as the shed’s journey from one neighbour’s garden to another: “half full cans / of paint and petrol, full potential, evaporating into the air.” These are quiet poems; no psychedelic whirligigs. ‘The Retreat’ might be describing his spare writing style: “A white wall / with nothing on it at all except what I put there. This. The bell / of that church, clean and punctual.”
. . . It is through things that John McAuliffe tells his narrative, and like Don Paterson’s “great twin-engined swaying wingspan of us” in ‘The Thread’, McAuliffe’s dragon in ‘Exeunt’ (part 4 of ‘Knight’) becomes a symbol of the thread that holds them together as they find themselves:
on our knees, putting the evening and years of practice
into pushing it between us, making plane noise,
mmmmhmmmm, nnnng, ng, ng, nnnnng,
revving through take-off, bearing it all, up up,
and no thought of landing.
The poems archive private and family memories in language that is crystalline, uncontrived and intelligent. Sometimes the intimacy is so tender, the reader feels they have stumbled on a private diary, or letters to a loved one. There is a truth to this collection, and a sincerity that is achieved simply because he is not trying to impress anyone. The skillfully wrought poems are
A way of answering
to a day, to years of them, that we step into and speak up for.
There is no one else I am talking to.
— Aifric McGlinchey, Southword
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Although John McAuliffe’s new book is founded in what the back cover describes as “the domestic spaces and routines” of a contemporary life, subjects of which he is such a master, its general drift is out from the domestic centre and back.
. . . the later poems in the book have turned without notice towards the wistful and the autumnal. We should have taken more interest in the flowers since “Summer we’re about again to give up for lost”.
The danger for the everyday is its vulnerability. The book does end, after all, with a group of beautiful poems about the reliable domestic virtues of “the household of continuance” (a phrase from another 16th-century poet, Surrey). One unforgettable poem, The Rebuild, has caught perfectly the movement from familiarity to anxiety. A woman is moving into an old house “and tipped a little, as though she’d taken a drink, / or lost a heel, or aged overnight by years”. She hears birdsong and branches moving, “familiar, quiet, unpredictable music”, “but also, farther off, a bus’s creaking brakes / at the stop a street away, hearing even, / the torch in her hand, the doors clatter open and the driver / name the price, there and back”.
— Bernard O’Donoghue, The Irish Times
Joint winner of the Michael Hartnett Award
Publication date: 2015
ISBN PBK: 978 1 85235 630 0
ISBN HBK: 978 1 85235 631 6