Review: Michael Farry – The Age of Glass

The Age of Glass, Revival Press, ISBN 978-0-9957333-2-9, p90, €12.00

Farry’s second collection is presented in five loose themed areas of study: genealogy, archaeology, biology, sociology and gerontology, the study of ageing. Choosing such a method of delivery for the poems tells the reader right away to expect a studious and methodical approach. Farry here is the veteran correspondent, reporting from the front line of retirement, with plenty to muse on, lament over, and celebrate.

The richness of themes is perhaps testament to Farry’s own interests and curious mind. We have of course the obligatory poems about grandchildren, and growing old. However, unlike say Macdara Woods’s Music From The Big Tent, where old age is something to be cursed at and where pitiful figures roam, Farry is positively brimming with action and hunger.

Archaeology is clearly a passion, although Farry is by his own admission, “a novice”. Yet he successfully conveys the slow thrill of easing out bones from soil, his trowel disturbing and scrabbling until something is found: “The first skull shocked me”. There is also a strong sense of the macabre, of disturbing things long dead, betraying a sacredness.

+++Infants take much longer, their bones fragile,
+++faint, more difficult to dig.
+++
+++by then, worn out, spent that restless night
+++brushing soil from friendly skulls, staring

+++at their smiles.

We shouldn’t be disturbed at the anthropomorphisation of human remains, yet the dark magic Farry conveys is enchanting, yet sinister. Researching Louisa O’Flynn nee Stockdale (1883 -?) is a poem of two halves mirroring each other, telling of O’Flynn’s grave in Manorhamilton, then imagining her visiting the joint grave of her husband and son in Drumshanbo. After reading of the kinship found in the poem Meeting His Brothers, the sad fact of a family being buried apart seems all the more tragic.

Biology is where we find the poem The Age of Glass, and at first it may seem an odd choice to title such a personal collection after a poem of damning social commentary. Technology and social media are our villains here, with “intimacies on general display”. One is reminded of The Circle by Dave Eggers, where society is encouraged to live a 24/7 existence online, ubiquitous cameras ensuring that everything is known and nothing is secret. As Farry keenly states:

+++To sin in secret is impossible
+++so we surrender in public
+++
+++we are lost in numberless reflections,
+++desolate splinters, anonymous
+++among thin transparent millions.

The language here obviously draws a neat parallel to the unearthing of fragments which archaeology deals with. It’s a clever analogy, showing us that nothing is truly hidden or will remain so. The anonymity on offer is no sanctuary either, merely a reminder that by constantly sharing and promoting ourselves, we are at risk of losing the direct human connectivity that make us special. Farry chooses instead to celebrate the small moments that can be life-affirming or life-changing: oneness with nature in Clarification, the “giddy laughs” of a grandchild in Under Surveillance, or marvelling at “the intimate breath of steam trains” in Ordnance Survey Sheet 54.

Two other poems particularly show why The Age of Glass is a deserved title for the collection. The Gun is a symbolic piece, detailing the attempt to get rid of a mysterious gun that the speaker unexpectedly finds in his pocket. It’s reminiscent of Chekhov’s dramatic principle, “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off.” Taking pains to ensure it doesn’t trigger, and discarding it in a river with a “deafening” splash, the speaker remains anxious:

+++kept checking if it had left a bulge to advertise
+++my guilt although I knew it hadn’t the last time
+++or the time before. Still I felt unsettled, deleted
+++all my saved emails when I returned home.

What exactly the gun represents here is debatable – an affair perhaps, as the family dinner table is mentioned, or some family secret – yet the piece brilliantly captures the paranoia and jeopardy akin in Crime and Punishment, The Tell-Tale Heart, or Thérèse Raquin. In Wedding Invite, the age of glass reflects the age of terror, the speaker turning down an invite to a wedding in some unnamed Middle-Eastern location, in case the “high jinks” be mistaken for “jihad”. It’s a brilliant short poem that turns on the power of misconception, where the “dumb remedy” of a drone seeks to take out what is seen as a terrorist gathering, the poem’s lines get shorter and shorter, reducing down to a single “no”. Again, nothing is private, or sacred, and everything is open to misinterpretation.

Genealogy’s We Are All Refugees foreshadows the trials of the Middle East, dealing with a stark displacement of people who have “learned to abandon those who die”, their paths “littered with remnants of forsaken keepsakes”. One thinks of the long marches to German death camps, and again, we have the reflection of family lines being eliminated, again social media preserving so much. Gerontology’s His Last Poem deals with a different form of elimination, that of dementia, reminding us that no matter how we seek to secure or safeguard things, the fallibility of our own bodies and minds will win out in the end.

Usually, it’s easy to spot the filler in a collection, the poems that could have benefited from a good editor, or just shouldn’t have made the cut. There’s none of that here: in each poem, every line speaks to every other line, concrete, essential and assured of its direction and purpose. Perhaps overall, it is the power of death that is given the most reverence within, its touch seen in others, felt too close. And yet of the call to rage against that dying light, Farry tells us that death is to accepted; the wearing of a crucifix is “gentle on my neck, | the body no extra burden”. With touches of dark humour, knockout phrases and overwhelming poignancy, Farry has truly delivered a contender for book of the year here, and one hopes that there will be more to follow soon.

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