And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them lock’d up in coffins of black;
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he open’d the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.
William Blake: The Chimney Sweeper
Of all the forms of writing that there is it seems that poetry is the least read. More people read manuals for discontinued electronic gadgets than read poetry. It is the most esteemed yet least consumed form. Many years ago I remember listening to Paul Muldoon explain why poetry despite being so unread still mattered to people. It provides consolation in times of trouble, he said. Sure they wouldn’t read it everyday, but when things fall apart they reach for it to put words around an experience they hadn’t prepared for; that goes beyond their understanding of how things work. Poetry has a resonance that can act like a soothing song, which is capable of lulling us again after we have been shaken by a nightmare.
Dave Lordan’s collection of poems Invitation to a Sacrifice forces us not to forget but to experience the nightmare. He is a chronicler of bad dreams. But dreams, even bad ones often make us look at what we try to ignore in our daytime world.
In the poem Nightmare Pastoral, Lordan imagines a scenario where the South American poet/novelist/activist Roberto Bolaño stays for a week in a small village in the West of Ireland around the time of the first moon landing. He sits in a pub (and general store) on the night when man’s boot first hit the lunar dust and gets ‘destroyed with all the local gawkers’ while watching it on TV. Later that night, during a fitful sleep in unfamiliar lodgings, he has a terrible dream.
“In the dream two pissed priests are raping a nine year old girl
up a boreen (he says ‘grassy lane’)
in the back of a van not too far from a petrol station.”
The terrible dream gets worse. They kill the girl, dumping her body out the back and drive off, stopping at the petrol station to get petrol and cigarettes. The cops, to use Bolaño’s word are about to arrest one of the priests but are forced “by the powers that be” to back off and to drop it. The priest themselves are hauled before the Bishop, with a ‘face like a pack of cards’ and sent off to the missions in Africa.
When Bolaño describes his terrible dream to the locals in the pub the explanation is simple: “Bad pint/the last in the barrel/the mind-bending dregs”.
Bolano continues to drink hot toddies, and according to his account got very drunk. Later he is arrested “for this own safety/ and to preserve public order”.
But none of this happened. None of it is real. But Roberto Bolaño’s disturbing dream is no different to Tom’s in the Chimney Sweeper, of seeing thousands of his work mates, child workers like him, lying in coffins. The dream expresses a reality, speaks beyond our everyday understanding to what is happening and what has happened, even though we find easy explanations of it during the day. We know from the Murphy report that systematic abuse happened in the Church and we know that ‘the powers that be’ cover it up, moving the perpetrators around to avoid a scandal. There is also the complicity of those who chose to ignore it.
But while there is a message here, it would be a mistake to reduce Lordan’s poetry to a vehicle for political point scoring, no more than Blake could ever be accused of being a mere polemicist. Lordan considers himself to be a “performance poet”, someone for whom the poem takes on an extra dimension when it’s read out to an audience and where the sounds and rhythms of the poem work like an incantation, a mesmerise act of communion. And like the best standup, its good to get a laugh too.
In Surviving the Recession Lordan adopts the style of a newspaper article, providing advice to those in the grips of austerity. It mocks the mantras of the media and politicians who say that we must sacrifice ourselves, hence the ‘invitation’, for the greater good.
“We are all of us together as one going forward sharing the pain knuckling down wearing the jersey sporting the badge licking the whip sticking the sticker shaking the sleeve drinking the milk patting the mascot sucking the cloves rimming the bowl flying the flag of surviving uh surviving uh surviving uh surviving the recession.”
Reading the poem you get a sense of the humour and energy of the poem, but listening to Lordan perform it gives a proper flavour. Especially, the repeating of words and phrases, building to a kind of mania – not of the poet, but of the simulacrum that passes for what we’re supposed to accept as reality.
Dave Lordan performing Surviving the Recession
Another poem, Spite Specific, works on the theme of church’s part in the abuse of children, but does so in a carefully crafted way. It involves a conversation with a nun at an exhibition in a workhouse in Birr. I like this poem a lot, not only for the power of what it has to say but also because of the way the poem breaks down, regenerating previous lines, mixing them up, repeating them, hammering them home. The mixed up lines don’t make any sense quoted on their own, but because you have read them already, Lordan is able to riff with them, turning them around, using repetition as a kind of rhetorical reinforcement. And the use of ‘riff’ here also suggests the way that so much of the construction of these poems seems to be influenced by music, rock music specifically. After all, rock music repeats lines again and again, in order to build up the effect on the listener and uses guitar feedback to create a distorting loop which builds a piece of music to an increasing crescendo of ear-splitting white noise. The effect is supposed to be hypnotic, to build excitement and involve the listener completely. These poems try to involve the reader in the same way.
The book is divided into five sections with the final one the long poem Resurrection in Charlesland. This is a brilliant scream at the destruction of society that Ireland is experiencing especially by those who think that we only live in an economy and provides some finely turned satire, my favorite being against those Killiney Pinocchios that pass themselves of as experts:
of all the high-toned Pinochets
on the Radio
of a thosand and one Killiney Pinocchios
of the UCD Friedmanite
and his unchallenged pubgang of preppy echolytes
in the necessary suffering of others
and how well they should bear it
and of a brutal commentariat
droning for national government
for slashing whoever’s timid and convenient
they keep saying that
deep and swingeing cuts
must happen quick and always,
always be more significant
These poems have a liberating quality too, one that defines death as the willful negation of life – if capitalism has an animal spirit it is a distilled one, with the power of formaldehyde, preserving the dead creatures with the floating semblance of the living.
You can’t help but get a kick out the vivid account of death that capitalism renders on those coffin borne fools that pass for consumers in Funeral City Passeggiata:
How beautiful, how beautiful, how beautiful we are!
The policemen so proud to be upright and dead
and beating dead gypies and junkies to death.
The girls with the surgical tits
and the mannequin heads
are a thousand years old
and ten thousand years dead.
And I couldn’t help but thinking about Funeral City Passeggiata while following the deadening circumlocutions of our politicians, the Frank Fahy’s, Michael Martins, Brian Cowens, and those other dead politicians, claiming that they are still alive, still vital, worth more than just imposing misery from a height:
“The headless politicians round here don’t stink any worse/ For being dead and digesting dead donkeys./Anyway everyone gets to be political when they’re corpses”.
Although there is great diversity of style, structure and themes in the poems presented here elements of death, nightmare, rage and satire seem to move through each of them. There are great prose poems which use everyday language in an act of ventriloquism, providing a character with gruff, charged speeches and it is not surprising that Lordan is a dramatist too. But there is also a wonderful lyrical quality in some, such as Invisible Horses, which reminds us of the childhood game of galloping rather than running, imagining ourselves on a tall handsome stead, a hand whipping our backsides to get the ‘horse’ to run faster. The poem tell us about the eldest child of a family that has parents who are unable or unwilling to help their offspring and the responsibility that child takes on, herding their brothers and sisters back and forth to school:
You used to whoop and lasso
As brazen and loud as you could
From up front
As you all went by together,
All you brothers and sisters
On your way to school or from school
Urging the smallest, the last, the wheeziest,
Whoever downhearted was falling behind
To get up and ride
This poem contains the kernel of what Lordan is trying to say I think: that we can’t get through this on our own. We have to act together, with the strongest helping the weakest, not acting together in order to sacrifice the weakest imagining that we are protecting ourselves. We need rage to give us the energy for the fight, but need love too so that we will fight for each other.
You were Love and you were Rage.
Imagination’s Crazy Faith.
All tomorrow’s Sustenance and Glory.
The Undefeated Forward Flow of Hope and All-inclusive Energy.
And this energy is needed to fight an enemy that has made its appearance in Lordan’s debut collection, The Boy in the Ring. It’s the bully that needs to be faced up to. But the bully has no power of their own, they need the complicity of a ‘community’ of adults that allows the bullying to happen.
These is dealt with very directly in Bullies:
Unlike Mom I can’t seem to stop remembering
although I sometimes wonder if such cruelty
as I can recall going through and witnessing
could really have been allowed go exist as it did, that is
with the complicity of thousands in an average Irish town.
You see the little brute who made me chew worms
with bleeding gums was only a compact, a figurine,
a garden version inspired by the cell of fat-sadists in ‘teacher’ masks
who lined up in a five year long guantlet
of terror for infants at the heart of the parish,
in the midst of our ‘community’.
Ultimately the poems are about power, and its abuse, and how it is used against people to make them ‘dead’. The dead look upon the living with contempt, treating them as ‘living scumbags’ with ‘filthy germinating breath’. It is those living scumbags that Lordan is trying to set free, using poetry as a life affirming weapon against those who consider the Euro sign, the dollar and the pound as more important than the quality of people’s lived experience. While Blake said of the theological Milton that he was of the ‘devil’s party without knowing it‘ Lordan rages and laughs like a devil. But he is, at the end of the day, a consoling angel and his poetry is the bright key with which he wants to open the coffins & set us all free.
Previously published at Irish Left Review