Music From The Big Tent is Macdara Woods‘s thirteen collection of original work in English, his ninth with Dedalus Press.
The collection partially deals with Woods’s recent ill health and subsequent recovery, the poems within described by the blurb as having “a defiant and by times exuberant energy”. Yet there is little raging against the dying light to be found here. Understandably, as a man feeling the sting of his own mortality, Woods is melancholic almost by default. However, the poems present the impression of, not a man trying to survive, but a curious bystander, almost at the fringes of the hospital ward. This reviewer wanted to be dropped in the middle of all the gristle and grit; instead the action is played out as a safe distance, bemusing rather than bewitching.
The ‘music’ offered is questionable. Woods is fond of lyrical poems, used no more than mere exercises in rhyme, such as ‘Big-Top Music’:
I’ve been drunk and I’ve been clear
I’ve been straight and I’ve been queer
I’ve been young and I’ve been old
I’ve been hot and I’ve been cold
I’ve been black and I’ve been white
I’ve been wrong and I’ve been right
I’ve travelled far and I’ve travelled back
I’ve been tight and I’ve been slack
And on it goes. It’s bewildering to read, not due to any emotion provoked, but due to its teenage level of writing, Woods jumping to wild non sequiturs just to force a rhyme. All the rhyming poems here lack any real conviction or substance, relying on the air of a familiar tune to usher the reader to the end. If this is music, please, unplug the stereo.
Even worse is the regard of women in the collection. It’s difficult to recall mention of a female where she is not reduced down to a sexual being. Clothes disappears in a fantasy. A delirious fellow patient is observed for her nakedness. “Bums and tits” are mourned over, no longer offered or caressed. The supposed event is that the reader is to be sorry for the passing of the sexually active stage in the author’s life. And while there is certainly merit in exploring this subject, it’s not to be found here.
‘Disentangling Mars and Venus’ relies on the old view of the two genders having different views regarding friendship, love and of course sex, without adding anything new to the argument. ‘A May-Day Aisling Skazka’ (a Russian fairytale) is a lengthy, rambling piece, again using rhyming couplets to carry the singalong torture. It’s difficult to pinpoint an easy narrative through the poem; but at about mid-point, a woman appears, to be measured by ‘ the curving beauty of a breast’, ‘flash of nipple’ and ‘a dress malfunction’. It’s all rather teenage and embarrassing, but at least Woods can self-deprecate to some extent to suggest that he is not ‘up to snuff’.
Where the poems work best is when the big tent is packed away, and the writing is stripped of dressing and flamboyance. Real vulnerability is to be found in ‘My Degas Words’, that captures the frailty of old age and illness.
Elsewhere, when Woods is capable of stepping outside of himself, he uses external images effectively to portray his mood, such as ‘In Tomis He Remembers’. ‘Members Of The Sheridan Family In The National Gallery’ (great Durcan-esque title) has the haunting lines,
You a dying man perhaps already dead
Before the artist started the commission
Blood-distance and disease between
You all and toiling back
To pick up in the Diplomatic Corps
But you don’t really look
As if you have the strength for travelling
To keep the certified appointment
Woods is better at empathy that self-sympathy, yet the scales of the collection tip heavily to the wrong side. ‘Today I Joined The Company’ skirts between the two stances, Woods joining the ranks of the old men who ‘look so much alike’, ‘unsure of foot’, weighed down by anoraks, arthritis and the results of medical checks. There is humour and spirit here, and you wish more poems were as strong and emboldened as this.
Woods is no friend to brevity, and by the time you near the end of this collection, you might be wishing that that stronger poems were picked out and presently as a tightly concise, themed pamphlet. Some snatches of melody prevail throughout, but overall, there are just too many bum notes, along with too many notes on tits and bums.
Music From The Big Tent is available now from Dedalus Press, priced €12.50