Contributor to ‘The Gloom Cupboard’ and more recently to ‘Full of Crow’, Miceál Kearney is a breath of fresh air to Irish poetry, as evidenced by his first collection, ‘Inheritance’. To anyone familiar with contemporary Irish literature it seems like we’re plagued by books harking back to the golden past of a rural setting, they mourn and wake the passing of ways and generations where our ancestors would turn in their graves if they knew how the countryside was being defiled; or novels and short stories set in Ireland before the 1970s, an Ireland many of us never saw or would have cared to live in, that claustrophobia and paranoia peculiar to insular midland towns. ‘Inheritance’ shows that all is not lost; that there is a changing of hands, new turns on old practices and ways for the outside world to enter. Country lore has not vanished, particularly not when it can be transmitted by SMS or poetry, for that matter.
The ominous opening poem, ‘The Calves’ Field’, has an undertow of darkness and loss coupled with a more overt familiarity with death. There is an enviable frankness in ‘The Killing Fields and the Turlough’, a poem about the range of experiences to be had on a farm where “Wonderland meets Gulag”, of submerged terrors that fuel a child’s imagination and courage, where horror can spill over into fantasy and magic before being humbled when brought into a harsh and unforgiving midsummer light.
The reader is introduced to a provincial aesthete’s stomping-ground in ‘My Milieu’, where the poet inhabits solid air that “stops the clouds falling down /and the water falling up”. Phantasmagorical occurrences are not out of place in this collection – but they remain rooted under the boot of hard labour as everything is in a place where there is “No time for pity, / jobs to finish” in one of a number of poems featuring stillborn farm animals (‘And God Said’). Much like Ted Hughes, Kearney is well-acquainted with the endless cycle of life and death. There is a confluence between his writing and farm work that “Some editors / don’t find too amusing” in ‘Never Off-Duty’ and in the likes of what happens in ‘Delivered by Jack’. I like the fact that he seems nonplussed by the juxtaposition of internet access from his mobile phone while attending to ancient duties, it would seem like insouciance were it not for a steady matter-of-factness with which he incorporates contemporary technology in his views of blood on a family farm.
In much of ‘Inheritance’ technology does not encroach on traditional ways as is seen in most portrayals by the canon, here it is not so much working in tandem or even confluent with but operating at an easy parallel to traditional farm life – it’s almost impossible to separate this tradition from technology in ‘Shepherd’. In this quality, Kearney is somewhat unique among his peers. Perhaps a quote from ‘Mí na Samhna’ can illustrate this point where old and new inhabit the same space:
“As I check my email from my phone,
two daddy long legs mate
on the discoloured floorboards –
no business of mine
enter my password –
no business of theirs.”
At other times there is a conflict between old and new, as in ‘Obsolete’, a poem that begins with the “clockin’ hen / [that] hatches eggs in the half-cut blue barrel”, which used to terrify the poet as a child with her “feathers black as a moonless night, / hell-red comb”: she is the one scared today for “hers is an old fashion, / no longer popular. / Another nail in the coffin / where you’ll find the scythe / and plough horse”. The title poem of ‘Inheritance’ explores this tension, as it moves from a discussion between his father and friend as they reminisce about the past on the farm to the sharp point of the poet examining the multiplicity of uses for a length of twine “that often held up a pair of pants, laced working boots / and for now hangs onions from the barn wall” in contrast to the nylon nets “now used to wrap the bales” which are not given a further use and cannot be passed on to another. The poet’s sense of this conflict is not a dispassionate displacement of archaisms or a raging Rimbaud-renunciation but a perception of what is understood as natural, where what is seen is accepted as being enough.
Many of the poems in ‘Inheritance’ might be read as being unnecessarily bleak, raw or messy in their distribution of vital fluids, the reader’s senses may be disturbed but only momentarily before regaining balance and a new dawn emerges, as in the lines “Puzzles in my eyes / I am thankful / for my Christmas presents” (‘Open Your Eyes’). Sometimes there is an overwhelming sense of futility – “branches reach out to grab the clouds / but are thwarted by the wind”; which is but one example of a pleasing touch that Kearney has to hand, a disciplined, almost stern haiku-like quality to his descriptions of pathetic fallacy in which I discern echoes of Seán Dunne. That same deceptive simplicity is at work in ‘Groundhog Day’, in his attempt to depict an age-old problem – that of writing in order to faithfully represent experience and actuality.
It may be a peccadillo of mine but I quite enjoy poems possessed of the antithetical dose to the simpering that many poets present when faced with something small and fluffy; the cackle that can be heard when reading ‘A Little Kitty’ is the same to emerge from reading Ondaatje’s ‘Application for a Driving Licence’. ‘Moonlighting’ shows another side to the poet’s humour where he displays a wry touch, a self-deprecating irony in lines where “The wind steals my full stops”, making me want to read more about where his “sentences escape / through briared, broken walls / into the night, silent / bar the rustle of badgers / or the passing motorcar”, fine muscular rhythms. There are only a few minor blots on the landscape of ‘Inheritance’, such as ‘The Beaufort Scale’ and ‘Grown No More’, where the poems end too easily, too abruptly for my liking – not that I think the poems are badly written, just that they could (and I think should) be revisited and pushed-out a little more in their meaning.
A more sombre, exposed note rings through the poems of the final third of the collection where “The wind ruffles moulting trees / and my blank leaves” (‘That Time of Year’), and “a lone swan pirouettes – half a Claddagh ring” in ‘Inkwell’, broken only by a flash of unfettered innocence and joy where the poet delights in seeing lambs’ “tails waggle, / suckling in the sun” (‘Wait and See’). The last poem of ‘Inheritance’, ‘Should I Fall Before the Leaves’ is an exquisite parting benediction by way of last request. Kearney is sensitive to loss and what can never be regained – there’s tremendous pathos regarding his and his siblings’ childhoods in the last stanza of ‘Written at Work’, the same childhood revisited in ‘Don’t Be Hammering Nails into Trees!’:
“What did I know
as I made my tree house
of childhood hopes and dreams
with six inch nails.
Through the years
that tree gradually rot
murdered by me.”
I believe a new collection by Miceál Kearney is forthcoming, one I hope to have the pleasure of reading before very long.