APRIL 16, 2017
ADAM O’RIORDAN’S SECOND COLLECTION of poems, A Herring Famine, is a sleeper agent of sorts. The poems are refined, polished up like a cricket ball — and, like a cricket ball, much harder, denser, and more damaging than they initially appear. Their surface elegance suggests restraint, calm, and ease, but these are mostly poems of alarm, of panic and disappearance. Their craft and guile risk obscuring the talent that birthed them. Hugo Williams, channeling Fred Astaire, has long held to the dictum that “if it doesn’t look easy, you aren’t working hard enough,” and O’Riordan does indeed make hard work look easy; one potential consequence is the possibility of his being dismissed as a mere stylist, or fancy boy, when in fact he is fascinatingly terrified. What he exhibits here is less dandyish flair than the ability to cope under pressure.
In “Christ of Taüll,” the speaker “stare[s] into the face” of the eponymous Savior, recalling a scene of murder on a church’s steps and performing a quietly remarkable sleight of hand. The violence of the summoned, or reported, memory — “the lead slug / fingered at but irretrievable, tiny / bubbles bursting at the corner of his mouth” — is not the real disaster here. The actual damage is psychic, silent, prolonged — “Ego sum lux mundi, by the Christ of Taüll / I saw the face at first, then no face at all.” Apparently a play on the idea of looking through an image, of simple disappearance, there is more at stake here than the optical, surface effect. If man is made in the likeness of God, to look through the picture into nothing, for there to be “no face at all,” isn’t merely a sense of identity slippage, but of the loss of salvation: the Christological light of the world — “lux mundi” — is not so much occluded as snuffed out entirely. O’Riordan’s smuggling in of this damnation, or at least turning from favor, is so subtly done it practically begs to be missed; to express it directly would be too portentous. And yet, we are unmistakeably operating in a world from which grace has been removed, as in a Flannery O’Connor story.
“Christ of Taüll” comes from a sequence titled “Catalunya,” and its companion poems also feature disappearances: “Whatever was left of that other life / I laid it out on the Carrer Sant Pau”; “as if my hands might pass right through her”; “smoke rolling in like fog, / erasing every one of us.” These are poems written after fracture, trying to remake themselves and the world around them — sometimes hot with the terror of desire, and at others mourning loss and the curses it bestows. In “Sulphur,” one of the highpoints of the collection, lust and fear are intermingled, and the passion of “man and wife, / eyeing each other like traitors” is no different from the vulnerable, antic impulses of the “screaming chicks scratching in the rafters” or the cocaine-injected stallions “frothing, teeth-bared, wild-eyed in the darkness.” It finds a companion of sorts on its facing page, “The Caracalla Baths,” which also highlights the death drive and recklessness involved in love. The poem’s addressee “recognise[d] the need / to crawl on hands and knees, initiate, deep into” the blood of a drugged bull; this isn’t a horror scene, however, but part of the construction of a cult of loss, a place where “each bitter kiss, each fumbled, flickering lust / lives.”
Desire and departure combine most dramatically and emotionally in the sequence “Six Scenes from a Marriage,” which aren’t so much remembrances as reconstructions, “vanishing acts” staged and pored over but never quite resurrected. The speaker “want[s] to write my way back into this love,” and, in these snapshots, exploits the lyric poem’s ability to speak to someone who can’t answer back. He wishes to perform a sacrament rather than confess to a diary: “to come to her as softly as wind or rain moving through the barley,” to “trace you back to the room / before we left.” This is poetry as time travel and haunting — the lost lover alive but absent, no less irrecoverable than Hardy’s Emma, “leaning against a bicycle on a treeless hill at dusk.”
O’Riordan writes of other sorts of losses, too. The sequence that gives the collection its title bemoans the damage wrought by the loss of skill and trade, which came when the poet’s forebears abandoned their fishing nets for factories, taking on “the shame / that no wealth / would ever erase.” The closing poem, “The Boundary Line,” is another standout — an elegy for a school friend that opens out onto a Larkinesque “silence that is unending / through that dense nothing that awaits us all.” At their best, the poems draw the reader into just such silences; one is made to feel the lure of the void at, say, Berlin’s Berghain nightclub, with its “rituals of disappearance.” There are lulls in the book, poems that don’t quite stretch themselves beyond a gesture at an interesting thing, and a flat, journalistic sequence about the 1990 Strangeways Prison riot, which keep O’Riordan’s knack for the telling insight at arm’s length. That said, this is more than an admirable return, and evidence of a hard-won development in O’Riordan’s sinuous voice. The added grit pleasingly scuffs some of the more polite and less interesting luster of In the Flesh, his 2010 debut.
As well as a new book of poems, O’Riordan has produced The Burning Ground, a collection of short stories all set in, or at least spinning out of, Los Angeles. They’re no less interested in the idea of vanishing, with more than a few of the characters being diminished or acting out their own “rituals of disappearance.” One senses O’Riordan having fun with the form, the slight cheer of the trespasser; the poetry feels innate, while this feels more often like writing. Luckily, he’s a fine writer, even if “Rambla Pacifico,” a rheumy fixer’s quest to rescue his boss’s daughter from a kidnapping, with the aid of a no-nonsense toughnut called Jesus, for all its obvious merits, comes off as an attempt at a sequel to Drive. One also gets the nagging sense, at times, that his influences are crowding in a little too closely. There’s plenty of Salter and Yates to the moments of despair or lust, but enough O’Riordan for this never to feel like fancy-dress. The choice to set the stories in Los Angeles is winningly knowing, and the thrill of escape is as much the English poet O’Riordan’s as is it is that of his characters. “Black Bear in the Snow” is one of the most interesting stories here, not least for its more pronounced sense of cracking up, or failing to perform. It features a line that seems to get at the heart of both O’Riordan’s recent books, comparing a light aircraft’s wings to “the arms of a man on a high wire trying very hard not to fall.” When O’Riordan is less interested in keeping up appearances, the stories feel fresher and more daring. His poetic talent for simile and image is certainly transferred intact to prose. Perhaps the biggest revelation is that he’s also an admirable humorist: the less poised narrator of “’98 Mercury Sable” — “not a natural driver,” is transplanted from Southport, which is “so mind-numbingly dull in the evening all you really want to do is stay in and learn your highway code,” to a seemingly throwaway piece about male incompetence and the charm of the open road, at least until its twist ending. It provides one of the book’s most memorable voices, a welcome change of pace and tone.
The world being as it is, O’Riordan’s prose will likely reach a far wider audience than the poems, but one hopes it will draw readers to seek out the latter. To readers of his poetry, the stories feel a bit like getting to know someone’s holiday self rather than the bundle of incoherence that sits down to breakfast back home. The Burning Ground reads best in the round.