There are Monsters in this House,
Southword Editions, 2018 €5.00 (shipped internationally)
Talking about taboos
Matt Damon’s character in Martin Scorsese’s Boston gangster drama The Departed (2006) famously quoted Sigmund Freud to the effect that the Irish were the only race impervious to psychoanalysis. In fact, Freud said no such thing, but the quote resonated with many because of the traditional Irish resistance to addressing personal and/or psychological matters in an open and sober manner.
Many of the poems in this publication from Southword Editions (the publishing section of the Munster Literature Centre in Cork, Ireland) deal either directly or indirectly with taboos around depression, addiction,
treatment, and recovery, as well as the continuum between love and co-dependence in different kinds of relationships. The chapbook considers these themes not in nicely rounded narratives but rather in understated evocations of psychologically difficult situations and contexts.
The poet’s self-declared ‘closet [optimism]’ in ‘It Gazes Back’ finds no comfort in the harsh conclusions of ‘Roker Avenue’: ‘The unmerry-go-round keeps turning. This is life.’
In ‘We Now Share Pots and Have Matching Dressing Gowns’, the woman appearing in the poet’s dreams is ‘made of spiders and spit teeth’, and ‘What I Miss Having Left You’ concludes with a paean of sorts for co-dependence: ‘I miss being there to save you. / I miss trying to save you. / I miss thinking I could save you.’
In the treatment facility in ‘Admitted’ there are ‘IV lines, doctors, benzodiazepines. Flowing walls [...] hand tremors, drinking dreams’. At the morning bell in ‘Institution’ the poet wakes ‘to an old dread’. Later, ‘[d]ifferent selves show up every week’ for Saturday psychotherapy (‘Compulsion’).
The references to suicide attempts are at times brutally direct — ‘The rope broke / instead of your neck’ (‘Talking You Through Morning’) — and at other times more subtle — ‘I look at the soft-rubber coat hooks / and quietly ask you how you did it.’ (‘Holding Joe’).
Everyone has a shadow-side, a set of ‘monsters’ within. The same goes for societies, and in Ireland and elsewhere much social dysfunctionality arises from taboos that
unjustifiably work to foreclose valuable and potentially healing discourse. James O’Leary is to be commended for a poetic account of unfortunately commonplace traumas and the taboos surrounding them.
What do we understand by ‘monsters’ at this point in the twenty-first century? If given this title in isolation, with no other clues, I’d guess at a children’s book, reinforced by the reassurance of a full-sentence title. It has a jokey, smiley feel to it, as though this house is inhabited by likeable, lovable versions of the Wild Things —large, woolly but good at heart. Some people even refer to children as ‘little monsters’. If there’s any menace left in ‘monsters’, it appears mainly in news media as a label for humans who are criminal or abusive.
The opening poem (‘It Gazes Back’) begins:
I’m a closet optimist. One day
I’ll come out to my family and friends
This bounces the reader’s expectations in one direction before they’re overthrown when the page is turned to the blunt opening statement of ‘Talking You through Morning’: ‘The rope broke / instead of your neck.’ The pamphlet’s title comes from this same poem:
There were monsters
in that house. There was one.
When I see pigeons, I remember
your fear of them
and my teasing.
When I want to kill myself,
I think about what you said.
Nothing is specific, even though the poem has already given clues with its list of ’firsts’ — ‘first fight, / first drink, first arson’, followed by the real gun, sirens, an alias. Who or what was the monster? Perhaps it’s better left unnamed, allowing readers to bring their own deepest fear into the narrative. It could be the attempted suicide, or it might be the list in ‘Admitted’: ‘IV lines, doctors, benzodiazepines. / Flowing walls, dancing jesters, spiders under my skin.’
Is the final poem — with some lines so long the whole has had to be printed sideways — autobiographical, with the first-person narrator ‘three years sober and just out of a half-way house’? There’s an attempted suicide here too.
Monsters indeed, making the ‘closet optimist’ an ironic commentator.