The Soft Underbelly of homo lordaniensis-being sort of a review, but more an anatomy I’d like to think, of
Invitation to a Sacrifice (Knockeven: Salmon, 2010) pbk, 124pp
Most English-language poetry suffers from its practitioners’ besetting niceness and an excess of formula. A poet writes a book in which persons, stories and places are sculpted into illustrations of her or his sharply registering, ethically engaged, tenderly elegiac subjectivity. The book wins a prize. The poet gains a residency. The poet writes the same book with different poems in it. This can go on for a lifetime. It is a rather precarious and boring way to make a living, though there are much more precarious and slightly more boring occupations.
Dave Lordan isn’t exactly an outsider in this literary-establishmentarian world-he has won prizes and bursaries: at this point in an essay they are sometimes listed-but he does stand out. The Boy in the Ring (2007), which won a couple of those prizes, covers much expected first-collection matter: childhood, family history, adolescence, social dynamics in small communities. Lordan’s interest in violence, deprivation and loss is not unusual, but his truthfulness is. Those subjects do not figure in his poems as they often do in Irish writing, as tokens of authenticity, but something like (not quite) the reverse. The characters of The Boy in the Ring are trapped in a ghastly revue, performing lives which are as thoroughly phony as Tidy Towns competitions, potted tour-guide history and miniature villages, all of which also feature memorably. And their lives are every bit as real as those things too: blows hurt, young people die needless deaths, just as Clonakilty really did win gold in the Entente Florale in 2000 (and indeed, again in 2009, which surely delights the malevolent speaker of ‘On winning de Entente Florale’). There are directly political poems in The Boy in the Ring, opposing the Iraq war and Israeli occupation of Palestine, celebrating solidarity in Genoa and Derry, mourning victims of racism, imperialism and institutional abuse. But its most radical act is to expose the inauthenticity of life under capitalism and the brutality with which even inchoate dissent, dumb defiant ecstasy, is punished. That radicalism is not well served by the collection’s structural narrative, however, which is a fairly conventional coming-of-age arrangement, augmented by the motif of encircling hostility figured in the ‘ring’ of the title.
Invitation to a Sacrifice is more ambitious. At 124 pages it is long, reflecting a general trend towards greater bulk in poetry books. I am wary of saying too long since Lordan’s apparent redundancy is frequently strategic. Readers may find mental blue pencils hovering, but be uncertain exactly where to strike. I’m sure that any given volume probably only needs one surreal prose poem imagining a world in which plumbers, like artists, work under a regime of public funding and patronage, but ‘The Methods of the Enlightenment’ is funnier about bullshit and backstabbing, and ‘The Plumbing Council’ has more about wanking: it turns out to be a tough call. The poems often need length and space: the printed version of ‘Spite Specific’, an uncompromising (and deserved) attack on a child-abuse-denying nun, is intellectually and rhetorically more powerful than the truncation that Lordan usually delivers in performance. In other ways, though, Invitation reflects his development as a spoken word artist. His reputation as a compelling performer has been built over a number of years; he continues to be a mainstay of an Irish poetry performance scene which is ignored, patronised and denigrated by literary mavens, but with these poems he has accessed a fuller and more dynamic range of stage skills.
The first poem in the book, ‘From the Museum of Pre-Cinema’, engages immediately with ideas of performance. As audience we may take a ‘seat / both in front / and behind / the screen .. in order to look accordingly / at the shadows / or .. The man who throws the shadows.’ A vital art must admit (in both senses) illusion. The shadow-puppeteer or poet disciplines the performative impulse which-as The Boy in the Ring has already shown-partakes in and yet has the potential to be an antidote to pervasive cultural unreality. The first section, ‘Surviving the Recession’, is dominated by Berlusconi-era Italy (Lordan lived in the province of Mantova in 2009), a Hades inhabited by impeccably-dressed undead, a whited sepulchre where there are yet ‘no little people’s footprints / in the polar snow’. White (especially the white of snow) recurs as a symbol of moribund viciousness throughout the section: Lordan is refreshingly distrustful of high modernist notions of ‘silence’ and ‘white space’, preferring to fill his pages with words and his performances with noise. ‘Invitation to a Sacrifice’, which opens this first section, acts as a manifesto for politically and morally engaged poetics. An injured woman is pursued through snow by dogs, followed by their drunken owners, ‘boasting about / what they each / are going to do with her’. Potential melodrama is eschewed by an affectless narrator: this is the opening scenes of a snuff movie with Breughel the Elder as cinematographer. And it is a movie: ‘Behind the drunk men whistling / there is only the darkness offscreen’. The speaker poses a challenge:
If you could perforate the veil
stretch a giant hand
and raise her from this picture
And then what would you do with her?
Art turns terror and pain into tension, suspense, cartharsis. It turns human bodies into containers for meaning. Rescuing the sufferer means facing her not as part of a picture, where she conveniently symbolises Victimhood, but as a being with her own bodily autonomy. The reader who answers Yes to the first two questions finds himself thrown into the position of the would-be rapists and killers: having to do something with her. Doing nothing with her is the ethical choice, and it means no more pictures, no more films, no more poems. Anyone who finds the prospect of a world without art unpalatable has to solve this problem: how can artists make anything meaningful without evacuating the integrity of every person and thing they touch? Lordan, typically, puts it more self-interestedly, but also more frankly than that: ‘Poetry for me is a way of surviving others and of making myself as separate and distinct from other people as possible. I’m hoping it will help me evolve into another species altogether.’ Lordan’s ambition is at odds with that of most contemporary Irish poets, who put great store in appearing humane (or failing that, human) but it is continuous with Yeats’s desire at the close of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. Like W.H. Auden, I think that Yeats is telling ‘what my nanny would have called “a story” ‘. That doesn’t mean we should disbelieve him, and we should believe Lordan too.
‘Nightmare Pastoral’, the second section of the book, tackles embedded corruption and violence in Irish society. The poems are provocatively framed by questions of truth and representation: the title poem of this part announces itself as a ‘little-known lie’, which imagines the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño getting drunk in a West of Ireland pub, falling asleep and dreaming of two priests raping and murdering a child, a crime which is then concealed by the authorities. He returns to the pub the next day only to have his nightmare dismissed by the barman and regulars as the consequence of a bad pint. He gets drunk again and is arrested ‘for his own safety / and to preserve public order. / This is the kind of thing / he would later go on / to write about.’ Bolaño-who, outside the Lordanverse never visited or wrote about Ireland-becomes Irish Everyman: an aisling visionary who instead of being inspired to liberating action by his dream, acquiesces in denial and excuse-making, tries to expiate guilt in chaotic drunkenness. The rape and murder committed and concealed is situated within fictional structures: the dream, the novelist’s retelling of it to the barflies, the poet’s claim that this is all, in any case, ‘too absurd to be considered a rumour’. The absurd turns out to be the truth, but there is no consolation to be taken in truth. The epigraph to Invitation-‘no truth oppresses’-is from Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Lough Derg’, the more socially and politically wide-ranging follow-up to The Great Hunger, which Kavanagh suppressed during his lifetime as a poetic failure.
Lying is also central to ‘Spite Specific’, which begins in the comforting mode of the poetic anecdote: ‘I met a nun today / [..] not a fake or phantasmagoric nun / but a real one’. The narrator charges the Catholic church with imperialism (‘She didn’t like it much / when I referred to / the church as “the Romans” ‘) and raises the issue of child abuse, to which the nun responds with denial (‘She got riled and asked me for my sources’) and accusation: ‘She did. She actually said: / “What do children do only lie?” ‘. The narrator’s counterattack uses terms which polite opinion dismisses as cheap, counterproductive and crude to build an informed argument:
I asked her then
how someone who believes in drinking blood and eating flesh
of a Sunday
I asked her how a fucking cannibal and a vampire like her
could talk to anyone about their ‘sources’?
She walked away
and I knew that I had won
Right there and right then
in that contemporary exhibition
in a workhouse in Birr
against that rotting old hypocritical wanker of a nun
Pagan Roman suspicions about early Christianity are turned on one of ‘the Romans’; though their qualms about a sect which eats the flesh of its founder may seem literal-minded, we are also asked to consider the dangers of metaphorical and symbolic thinking. The nun’s position is in one sense ‘hypocritical’-she believes in something impossible to square with observable phenomena, yet distrusts the words of living witnesses. But it is also terrifyingly consistent. She does not believe the evidence of eye and ear: the appearance of the bread and wine stays the same, its substance is changed to flesh and blood. People say that as children they were raped and beaten, that their peers were murdered; she dismisses that as mere appearance, the substance is something else. What do children do only lie?
The narrator admits to glee at his victory, but also to its contingency: “right there and right then”, but nowhere else. It is a battle that has to be fought repeatedly at hundreds of specific sites, an effort which leads to phantasmagoric derangement of language:
Abused children I had met about and read
were the words my sources said when
I asked me for my sources. Riled she got
In order to deal with the problem of the workhouses
the unmarked Romans inflicted countless children
on the tortures of the poor
leather heads and iron rape and shaven graverants.
‘Invisible Horses’, meanwhile, addresses a child whose energy and imagination have transcended the dismal circumstance in which the family are entrenched. It draws a distinction between the liberating qualities of the child’s horseplay-the horses are real, you just can’t see them-and the malign illusions that control an ‘Ophelia [..] voodoo doll’ mother and the other children of the family, who have been emptied of integrity in order to be filled with allegorical meaning:
Your little brothers and sisters
I see them too as medieval stragglers
strung out beggars going village to village
on a rope
Each in a role like ‘Hunger’, ‘Misery’,
‘Penitence’ and ‘Doom’
Jag ska vara tyst, men under protest, as Jöns says in The Seventh Seal. I’ll shut up, but only under protest.‘But the child addressee is a personification too:
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.
Is it significant that we’re not told the child’s sex? Personifications are so often female, we’re told, because abstract nouns are gendered feminine in Latin, but isn’t it dead convenient that the female body, which our culture can barely bring itself to consider autonomous, is the one so often made a vessel for other people’s meaningbaggage? Liberation lies in not just being one thing, but also in not freezing into flux, like the child’s ‘paralytic [..] shapeshifter’ father. As in the poems of the first part, there’s a lot of Yeats here: deliberate mis-readings, counter-readings of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ and ‘Easter 1916′, but it’s difficult also to look at the capitalised nouns and not think of the dizzying paradoxes and ironies of Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
From the ghastly Arcadia of ‘Nightmare Pastoral’-not a classical or neo-classical place, but a Gothic one, for all the thinkable meanings of Gothic-the book moves to neo-Gothic post-boom Dublin in the third part, ‘Somebody’s Got to do Something’. These poems, to me, were the least satisfying, though I couldn’t work out quite why (overfamiliarity?) because they are as good a psychogeography of that city as has appeared in the past decade: from the antiseptic Leviathan of Dundrum Shopping Centre to multiethnic Moore Street to dreaming beaches in Dominic Street flats, to the distinctly undreaming Spire, and finally to the bowels of the International Bar on Wicklow Street and a non-confrontation with ‘The Heckler’. (Spoken poetry in Dublin does not do enough to cultivate the precision-grade heckle; a puzzle, not to say disgrace in a city that prides itself on both literature and the art of slag.) ”Gaff” is an exception in this part, with a stronger narrative drive than the other poems. Lordan has the instincts of a flâneur, but moralised post-Romantic observation is not his bag, and a good thing too, because there’s far too much of that around.
The book’s fourth part, ‘The Methods of the Enlightenment’, is the collection’s thematic mixing desk, a series of short prose pieces which in their compulsive punning and pervasive surrealism modulate and highlight aspects of the verse sections. They’re narrated by a person called Vade Nadrol, and take him through a career which encompasses economic migration, political success and downfall, prison visits wearing mini-skirt and no knickers, philosophy, plumbing and onanism. ‘My Emigration’ considers labour, commodity culture and migration in a parody of the chirpily optimistic immigrant narrative, implicitly challenging Irish diasporic exceptionalism. Here, Nadrol stands at the opposite end of the chain of production from the housing-estate-dwellers who haunt the collection’s last long poem, ‘A Resurrection in Charlesland’, but his work is as pointless, his consciousness as false, as theirs. ‘My Tenure in the Whitehouse Comes to an End’, a memoir by Nadrol as drunken ex-President, looks back to the chilling white spaces of the first section, brutality taking the form of dilatory riot: ‘the hole in the ivory floor of the bathroom wasn’t I no one wouldn’t was my brother Roxy smashed it quand he was dancing around stocious elephants.’
‘C Section’ is a blackly hilarious account of Vade’s encounter with a hunger striker variously named Body Songs, Boggy Sons, Bouncy Slums and Bonny Slings. The hunger striker is the very exemplar of the allegorised body; emptied of substance in order to be filled with political significance. B-S- resonates with all of the bodies in Invitation which have been evacuated, forced to mean something other than themselves. But that meaning is in itself unstable, as shifting as the name assigned to the martyr. Selfhood, and the ability to enunciate it, can be represented by the confrontation of two interrelated and opposing acts: sacrifice, and artistic creation. Sacrifice, codified into religion, prohibits the dissolution of self in bliss, producing myth and eventually, scientific knowledge. The very fact that these creative disciplines exist, however, suggests the role of art-especially the arts of the body: poetry, music, dance, theatre-in continually reintroducing the possibility of ecstasy. To the extent that art is not madness or complete synthesis with nature, however, it is always also accepting the regulatory role of sacrifice. “C Section” enacts that basic faceoff between sacrifice and art, and concludes on a brief moment of victory for the latter, with this elated reflection from the Occult Lordanian History of Northern Ireland: “Oh, and the bin liddin” thing with the footpaths, that was my idea! I luvvvvvvvvvvvvv the fucking clatters, the tinny echoing!?
The reader emerges through ‘Self-Portrait in the Eye of a Horse’-which might have made more of the Ashbery pisstake implicit in the title-to the book’s fifth and final section, ‘A Resurrection in Charlesland’. Set on New Year’s Eve in that recently developed area, just outside Greystones in Co Wicklow, the poem takes as its epigraph Basil Bunting’s line from ‘Chomei at Toyama’: ‘Men are fools to invest in real estate’. Bunting’s poem describes a series of natural and social disasters following a catastrophic fire in Kyoto in 1177. Chomei, its narrator, eventually became a hermit, in Bunting’s words, ‘noting events forty years’. Another line of Bunting’s poem might stand as well as an epigraph for the whole of Invitation to a Sacrifice: ‘This is the unstable world and / we in it unstable and our houses.’ Lordan takes more from Bunting than a fortuitous potshot at preoccupation with property ownership. Bunting’s early poem is informationist as well as didactic, Poundianly prosy on occasion, lacking the dense sound patterning that characterises his later and more famous work. ‘A Resurrection in Charlesland’ does more namechecking than Lordan’s poems typically do, its tone is vatic rather than ecstatic, despite all the ghosts in his ‘not yet a ghost estate’ the phantasmal is reined in, especially when compared to the angry absurdist play of the book’s preceding section. But this more sober style is best understood having absorbed those savage ironies. Not as the ‘hangover’ after a decade of ‘partying’, but as a necessary recalibration: having imagined our unreal neoliberal capitalist real word as ultimate dystopia, the banality of it-‘Dan Brown, valium, parox / Gerry Ryan and angelology’-has to be recognised also, for the unreal real evil it is. As Ireland creeps cautiously into a lunar landscape of austerity and swinge, Invitation to a Sacrifice is the guidebook-Baedecker and Mrs Beeton-we urgently need. It is sometimes a rough guide, usually erring on the right side of hectoring; its many nuances and subtleties unexpected in a performer who has been compared to a natural disaster. Most important, however, it teaches us to recognise homo lordaniensis in his natural habitat, and warns us that he does not necessarily mean us remaining sapiens well.
Kit Fryatt was born in Tehran in 1978 and has lived in Ireland since 1999. She lectures in English at Mater Dei Institute of Education, where with colleagues she co-ordinates the activities of the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies. She runs the Wurm im Apfel poetry reading series and its associated small press, Wurm Press.