Smith/Doorstop  2008  £4.00

I couldn’t read these poems without reading them aloud, cursing myself slightly for not being able to produce the requisite Irish lilt—my County Kildare sounds more like Brooklyn—but rolling around in those consonants and vowels all the same. It is the energy of Padraig O’Morain’s language that makes him a storyteller, almost more than the stories he tells; his poems are virtuoso arias rather than ballads:

Death introduced himself to the country boy
in a sweet smelling, rank fruit market,
in a great loud barn by the quays in Dublin
where he stood all agog beside his aunt …

Thus begins ‘Stronger Than Death’, a poem about a child losing an elderly relative he barely knows. This small event sends the visceral presence of death “screeching into” the boy’s life, until his mother arrives “to save him from this knowledge and this place.” The poem reads like a good little ghost story, as does ‘Influenza, 1918’, an operatic tale of children watching their mother die: “her terror has begun to ring/ and echo down the passage to their graves.”

Even O’Morain’s pastoral poems (and there are several here, reflecting his childhood on a farm) have an almost mythic feel that’s larger than their subject matter but entirely appropriate. Twenty lines about a red heifer that does not escape through a hedge hold a boy’s unspoken longing to see the world. A poem about sheep giving birth “in the brilliant moonlight/ to glistening lambs …” is one long breath of wonder, even though it ends “under brilliant slaughterhouse lights.”

I’m not saying O’Morain is a fever-pitch poet. He’s often a wry, quiet observer. The closest he comes to drama while sitting by his young daughter’s hospital bed is to glance at the briefcase where he’s stashed a bit of liquor. He’s gentle, almost funny, about addiction, dementia, the detritus at the end of a life. Tucked among the flights of history and husbandry, the quieter poems in this collection give the reader plenty of good places to land. And the book itself, I should add, is very nicely designed, with sturdy cover stock and an actual jacket with endflaps. It doesn’t look expensively made, just practical to carry and keep.

Marcia Menter

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