Review: Phil Lynch – In A Changing Light

In A Changing Light, Salmon Poetry,  ISBN 978-1-910669-45-7, p68, €10

Lynch’s debut collection comes to us after nearly fifty years of writing and performing. Progress, it is noted, was first read on national radio c.1970; The Other Side of the Wall is dated 1991. Although looking at the Acknowledgements section, it is probably fair to say that most of the poems are culled from recent years, from current publications or competitions held this decade. It is nevertheless interesting to speculate on the weight of experience and practice on offer here.

The title, In A Changing Light, is appropriate, for this is a schizophrenic collection, shifting shades and focus between standard or more formal poems, and work that is clearly spoken-word in origin. The despite Lynch’s various publishing credentials and listings in competitions, it is as a spoken word poet that he is more known for within Irish literary circles, especially as a co-founder of the Lingo festival. Reading a poem such as If Saint Patrick Could See Us Now, it’s clear from the rhymes that don’t follow any scheme, the shifting metre stanza-to-stanza, and the pacing, that one might be better off hearing this being delivered rather than having it on the page. Despite its echoes of Yeats, it’s just annoying to read two-thirds of a page in blank verse, and then for the poem to shift to rhyming couplets for no stylistic reason.

Likewise, Here is the News relies heavily on rhyme and structure, for a lyrical feel that drives the narrative on. Yet as a commentary on the nature of news reportage and interactive media, it lacks vitriol, no venom to its bite. At the end of it, you’re left admiring Lynch’s rigid application of form, but still hungry for sentiment. It fails to build on its initial conjecture, without any revelation or challenge. The Sunshine is Someplace Else suffers the same fate, the story not really moving on from its primary observation.

It’s frustrating, for Lynch does show that he is capable of brilliant and evocative work. Taking Stock uses a challenging structure with the repeated motif of “in time” which is mostly successful, if one ignores the ill-fitting pairing of “grapes” and “apes”. The sonnet Encounters shows that Lynch can fully deliver within the confines of form, a poem of lost love that could sit alongside Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

+++I might have met you once while on the road
+++but how was I to know you would be there?
+++No map to guide, no picture to compare,
+++so why would I have stopped or even slowed?
+++And yet if you had signalled me your code,
+++I would have shyly shuffled, unaware
+++that you and I could have so much to share;
+++I’d still to learn what nature had bestowed.

“Shyly shuffled” is clumsy, but the poem is still tender, full of the speaker’s recognition of their own fragility and vulnerability. Lynch is keen on spotting human weaknesses and shortcoming, such as in the short poem Loaded, dealing with the folly of harsh words, or the professionals toasting to their glory days in Smoke without Fire: “No one saw the future creep up | becoming part of the past| they meant to change.”

One wishes that Lynch would let the action speak for itself. The pleasure of spring-cleaning and clearing out a garden shed is lovingly explored in Opening Time, the movements of clutter and post-clutter relaxation allowed to stand on their own, without extra commentary. Contrast this to the bold self-awareness of The Night of the Swallow:

+++There’s something sad about the way I feel tonight
+++it’s as if I could be a master at my art
+++but dark clouds obscure the canvas from my sight
+++the paint falls to the floor like a flightless dart

There the writing is as flat as this, it’s different to care for the plight of the protagonist, and Lynch is guilty of spelling things out throughout the collection – “he cries inside dry tears to ease | the knot that’s tied around his soul” is one such glaring example. Similar, we have love poems when one just isn’t given a reason to care about the circumstances of the couple. Compare this to the keen humour found in poems like My Wife Thinks I at a Poetry Reading, or the witty analogy for sex found in a game of Monopoly in Winter Sports. A series of poems concerning travel and foreign in the middle of the books are striking, but are tainted by ending with Overheard in Brussels, it’s conversational tone jarring with the preceding poems. It feels as if Lynch is playing with the dimmer switch, allowing his inventiveness and imagination to shine at times, and then turning everything down to a dull picture. Perhaps we should be thankful as readers for the moments of illumination, which can dazzle, but too often, we are left stumbling in the dark, looking for the purpose of a poem, only to find precious little.

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