Be they delicate couplets, which have become a signature form, or the extended narratives at which he is adept, Tom French’s poems are immediately recognisable as his and his only.
Self-questioning in his search for identity, the quiet reflective tones of much of this work are offset by his ‘1916’ which, a century on, is generous in the options it offers the reader. Tom French’s poetry continues to win admirers, at home and further afield.
Deceptively simple and straightforward, they weave family memories and recollections seamlessly with wider histories. From his tender imaginings of an outdoor nativity or his record of a christening to his evocations of war and its pity (in particular World War I and Ireland’s War of Independence), his reports arehonest and convincing, his gaze unflinching. Local idioms feature prominently. People’s names, place names, field names and nicknames recur. There are elegies for musicians; tunes abound.
Tom French’s fourth book, The Way to Work (Gallery €12.50pb; €18.50hb), is a rapid, weighty follow-up to 2014’s Midnightstown and shows all his customary skill with line and sentence, sound and tone. French is a librarian as well as a poet, and it is easy to see why these roles so often fit together as his poems collect objects as memorials to a person or place or way of life.
The contemporary elegiac mode is marked by fealty to local people and places, rather than heroic deeds, but a poem lives when, additionally, it snags a reader’s memory. French’s craft generates air and lift-off as he arranges and sets his material: unexpected music emerges as The Sixth of March observes
snowdrops melting; clay opened, loosened, let
breathe; moss peat bearing the marks of the rake,
and a woman walking to the compost bin,
her greeting encompassing God and spring.
The book is structured around a series of poems about a family swim (‘The Neptune Pool’) and another series about Francis Ledwidge’s home place, Janeville. These lyrics engage the domestic and historical poles of French’s imagination, while there are also several terrific meditative poems, such as ‘East’, the title poem and ‘The Fathers Raising the Nets for the Last Game of the Season: A Triptych’. And he is unencumbered by any pieties when he approaches the Rising: ‘1916’ is a state-of-the-nation poem which lets no one off the hook as it imagines the centenary as an automated phone call, with readers offered 16 different options, among them:
If you would like to watch a selection of Star Wars characters
deliver the line “a sustained engagement with our cultural heritage”
in your first language into the teeth of a Force 10 gale
on Skellig Michael, please press 5 now.
— John McAuliffe, The Irish Times
Publication Date: 2016
ISBN PBK: 978 1 85235 680 4
ISBN HBK: 978 1 85235 681 1