The Kindest Revolution?

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A review of Ghost Estate by William Wall, Published by Salmon Poetry 2011

‘…& are we supposed to sympathise

when the gentry find themselves

in the same boat

or plane

as everyone else?’

From ‘Job in Heathrow’

William Wall is a novelist, poet and blogger. I better ‘fess up straight away that ever since I read William’s Booker Prize long- listed novel This is the Country’ I have been a fan of his work.

This collection of poems has landed right on time for our Ireland of 2011 and not just in the obviously contemporary title poem ‘Ghost Estate’.  The poems range from the very personal to the overtly and unapologetically political. The collection as a whole works as an astute and artful commentary on who we are in the recessionary times we find ourselves in.  Right from the foreboding image of a steel padlock on the cover I was drawn into a startlingly diverse and image packed collection that wears its left wing politics on its sleeve.  More than politics though, this is poetry doing exactly what I believe poetry is for – challenging us to try on new ways of seeing familiar things.

Ghost Estate does not read like an Irish poet’s book, the settings for its poems range from Cork to Italy and beyond and in many cases features of the natural world from all of these places are combined in the same poems. It also trips the reader lightly through the nearer geographies of family, health and frailty with a wry and self effacing humour such as in the plaintive ‘ I am not well at all’ refrain that William uses in the  long poem ‘Behind a hospital in somewhere in Italy’.

It is in poems such as the darkly funny ‘We Imagine the Police’ that Wall’s craft is apparent. This is a poem, which in less sure hands could be an off- putting zealot’s rant against consumerism. However, Wall puts himself centre stage. He drags us in by using ‘we’ repeatedly so the poem never descends into preaching, and it is through this use of his ‘writerly’ trick of pairing humility and humour that the reader remains receptive to the final lines which are a reflection on absurdity and our shared mortality;

‘ & a fold up tent

for when we fold our tent

& a wallet full of promises

that there will still be shopping

no matter how dark the times.’

It might not be a coincidence given its leftist slant, that the book reads as the work of an internationalist albeit with a definite Cork turn of phrase. The poems in Ghost Estate, read together, make up a compendium of what we have worth saving. Whether the writer likes it or not even at their bleakest these are hopeful, curious, life- affirming poems.  Though it’s impossible just now NOT to read this book as contemporary and engaged wholly in the world as it is, I also have a feeling that these are poems that will last and last.

In case I have put you off by calling this an overtly political work – don’t read Ghost Estate expecting to discover any tired formulaic dogma – this is poetry from a man who is clearly in love with words and at the risk of sounding overly romantic it is the work of a writer full of love for our flawed world.   Wall’s poems are deceptive; though often short or written in sequence with short sparsely worded stanzas , there are many poems here that reveal layer after layer of meaning on each successive reading.  Stylistically the poet uses clear language and practically no punctuation. I may be nit picking to point it out in a book of such obvious craft, but I wasn’t mad about the frequent use of ampersands and found them somewhat distracting. It may seem an odd comment to make in a review of a book that is often caustic, sardonic and doesn’t pull even one punch that it could conceivably throw, but this is a collection thats lingering motif is one of kindness.

‘’I never consider

the meaning of love

knowing is less important

than being

& feeling…”

From the sequence Urchin

The masterful poem ‘In Forli I dreamed’ reproduced  below shows how William, expertly and in very few words, can conspire to combine an unflinching look at unpalatable truths with humour and humanity – Wall specialises in this – if this unpredictable writer has a trope or a tendency it is a fierce facing up to the truth of things.  If ever there was a poem for the zeitgeist this is it;

In Forli I Dreamed

for Adele D’Arcangelo

that they made my bed

of all the things that Europe did

blood & the dead

stony futures

torture loss

I dreamed

I woke in pain

& all my friends were there

I said this is the bed that Europe made

the worst bed in the world

why me

& someone said

everyone sleeps here once

count yourself lucky

that it came to you

on a night such as this

the moon on the campanile

the cloisters & the wine

while we were here in Forli

& I slept again

& dreamed some other dream

now gone

& woke in the early morning


Ghost Estate is a long collection (reportedly these poems were written over seven years). It’s a big book in every sense of the word- it’s not possible to do it justice here in anyway other than to entreat you to read it slowly and often, and to assure you that it will repay your effort in spades.  As our small Island nation weathers an economic, political and identity crisis the very few works like this one that pay lip-service to no one should be required reading.

‘’..who listens to eulogies

though they may be well done

& occasionally necessary”

From ‘In Memory of David Marcus’

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