So Long, Calypso, Turas Press, 2017, ISBN 978-0-9957916-0-2, €12.00
Liz McSkeane is the founder of Turas Press, set-up to “provide an independent publishing space that would offer a platform for innovative poetry and fiction. With So Long, Calypso being its first release, the obvious question is: does it stand up as a work of literary merit, or is it a mere vanity project? Such questions have to be asked in publishing, as one might welcome a new Peter Fallon book from Gallery Press. It’s not stated within whether McSkeane has used an external editor, but with endorsements from Paula Meehan and David Morley, McSkeane’s third collection is clearly not without its credentials.
McSkeane excels at the instructional and directional, whether directed inwards or outwards. Visiting Monuments shows us the step-by-step thought process of the speaker, spontaneous and not thinking ahead. Into the Blue repeats this step-by-step IKEA manual approach without coming across as cold or clinical. Root sees the speaker tackle the uprooting of a tree, “a job for weight and skill | not strength.” It is a methodical piece, taking us slowly through the process and pains of the task, carefully to underlie each point of progress and frustration as a morning’s work passes into the afternoon.
The others offer help. Thanks, no
this is personal, Distractions
are filtered out now, all that’s left
is weight, this blade, that root, the will
to rip it from the ground. Past noon.
An aside to Newton’s Laws of Motion is unexpected and welcome, showing the logic behind the sweat and determination. It’s echoed in another instructional poem, Orbital Mechanics, dealing with how the lack of gravity in space perversely affects velocity. It’s as much science lesson as poetry, with an acute parallel between the velocity of a spacecraft with “planet Earth where increased velocity | looks to solve so very many of our trails”. Similarly, the reader also receives directions on how to study a painting by Jack B. Yeats (Willie and Maud on Getting the Late Jack B.). Often, poems issue a request or demand to imagine or do something – “Think of a number.”; “Pick a village or a city.”; “So take a bridge.” There’s an emotional disconnect here, McSkeane perhaps finding it easier to put the “you” rather than the “I” into the central picture. Sometimes, this is a matter of misdirection. Arguing with Arithmetic starts off as a curious mathematical, only to reveal its startling theme of genocide, starting with the simple word “Armenia”.
Most intriguing are the five ‘Angela’ poems, anti-paeans to old age and memory loss, concerning the character of Angela and her home help team. It’s a heartbreaking study of dementia and dependency, reminiscent of Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing. There is an whimsy in the tone of the speaker, a strange acceptance – verging on cheerful stoicism – which unnerves the reader. When Angela suffers a fall in her garden, she comments that “it feels good to see the stars again”. Such positivity, coupled with a desire not to bother anyone, makes these the most striking poems in the collection, and certainly the ones that will linger afterwards.
As much as McSkeane is skilled in picking themes, places and settings that will interest and evoke the reader, at times it is language that dulls the edges. There are passages with obvious word choices – birds “dive” and “plunge” with beaks “gaping”, the sun is “beating down” – or Storm telling us “this is what it is to be alive”. Contrast these to lines such as “bathing an electric cloud that filled my lungs | with sky” or the description of a battlefield: “The sun is black with arrows”, and we know that McSkeane is capable of more. Elsewhere, a few poems spell out their intention. Moscow tells us that “Yes, it’s possible to yearn | for something you’ve never had and can’t define”, after twenty-four lines of showing us that yearning. Last Night, You Offered Me a Glass shouts out its sense of longing at the end. These poems would be more effective is the scenes were just left to speak for themselves.
Also striking is how McSkeane uses rhyme, feeling natural and unjarring. Often, you can get halfway through a poem before you fully realise it follows a sonnet form or a particular rhyme scheme, such is the easiness of her sounds and lines. There are places where metre could be tighter, but the impact of the poems do not suffer.
The first time she was outside after dark
she must have been, oh, two. At that hour, eight
or nine – in winter, coming home from work,
maybe, or visiting? Not sure but late,
she woke, her face an exclamation mark
of joy and disbelief and pointed straight
ahead: The lights, the lovely lights! She gazed
at the streetlamps, cars, that’s all they were – amazed.
(Remembering the Child)
So Long, Calypso is a moving collection, one whose characters and stories are easy to empathise with and relate to. Paula Meehan is right to praise it for its insights and compassionate storytelling, yet its language could be sharper, uniquer. One is not asking for Muldoon-levels of obscure nouns or eccentric words for the sake of individuality, but as noted, some poems certainly could have been pushed a few drafts further into full execution. It’s certainly not a dud, especially as a calling card for the Turas Press enterprise. Most of it, it is the memory of the speakers’ various emotions, laid out and exposed, that will stay after reading.