POETRY: EAMONN WALL reviews Askeaton Sequence by James Liddy, Arlen House, 76pp. €12 and Wexford and Arcady by James Liddy, Arlen House, 78pp. €12
FROM THE publication of his Collected Poems in 1994 to his recent death at the age of 74, James Liddy maintained a busy publishing schedule that included three collections of poetry and a volume of autobiography, as well as essays, reviews and translations published in the United States and Ireland.
In common with his peers who emerged with the Dolmen Press in the 1950s – John Montague, Thomas Kinsella and Pearse Hutchinson – Liddy reminds us that in poetry writing age is no impediment to innovation.
These new volumes start from divergent points: Askeaton Sequence setting out as an exploration of Wisconsin and Wexford and Arcady beginning as a re-visitation of Liddy’s native Wexford. However, both books are underlined by various migrations across nations, time, and space and are, therefore, truly complementary. A visit to a Wisconsin Askeaton will evoke memories of the poet’s family connection to Limerick’s Askeaton:
Bless them as we exit in the rubied clumsy noon
Highway 43, county road Z,
to Askeaton, satellite of ancestral
Limerick where my grandmother said early rosary.
Likewise, a Wexford poem will often, in its movements and commonplaces, oscillate back and forth between Ireland and America:
I’ve floated from the Song of Songs
my mind has gone upstairs,
this is not the French Quarter
its licentious soldiery drunk in bed
so I cockade down Wentworth St
a Munster aisling for the princes
in the ink in my pen in my pocket.
Being a Jacobite
In this respect, Liddy is simultaneously both a global and local poet, his favoured strategy being to start his poems in tight, bordered spaces and to move from these into the larger, and more global, arenas of politics, history, love, ideas, mythology, religion, theology, and folklore. Throughout these volumes all are in free play and are woven together impressively, both formally and stylistically, by Liddy’s ability to forge diverse imaginative connections that would be unapparent to others, and by his magic-realist sense of linkage.
In his embrace of the public space, particularly the culture of bar, café and restaurant, Liddy’s work hearkens back to the Neo-Classical world of Johnson, Pope, and Swift, where the public and the personal were not separated, but on display:
The café is at the center of the universe
specially a café with a liquor license
in the dire corridors of music
a niche for poetry.
Love from Café Bremen
Particularly important in these volumes are Liddy’s various acts of recovery – of literary Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s, of the early days of the Wexford Opera Festival, of which his father was a founder, of the experience of growing-up in Ireland during the “Emergency”, and of the role and fate of the Anglo-Irish gentry of south Wicklow during the poet’s lifetime.
In keeping with his Augustan world-view, Liddy can call Ireland to task, and America too, when he finds idealism forced to play second-fiddle to expediency:
Ahern is not crowned
King of Ireland
at Tara . . . which he sold.
Cocktail on the Trays
Liddy is by turns exited by and ambivalent to the energetic zeitgeist present in the new Ireland, seeing in it a new vitality, though one that can be diabolically allied with what he regards as a new and home-grown colonialism:
Reproach of Jesus Over Dublin
I fed you alcoholic drinks
in the colonial desert
and you trekked from
churches into condos.
His decision to leave Ireland in the 1960s to live in America was to be an important development in Liddy’s life as a writer. There, he came under the influence of Jack Spicer and the Beat poets and quickly absorbed what was useful to him. Following the example of these astringent Americans, he was able to question deeply what had been handed down to him in Ireland as poetic and moral dogma.
Of all the Irish poets who have taken up residence in America in the last half-century, Liddy is the one who embraced his second home the most completely, aided no doubt by having grown up in a home presided over by an American mother, whose presence floats benignly through these volumes.
Nowhere is this American embrace more important than in his love poems, which are a call to his readers to recognise that homosexuality has long played, for Liddy, a sacred part in the Western tradition. In this regard he seeks to unify the various classical, modern, and Gaelic ways of reading the body.
Askeaton Sequence and Wexford and Arcady are two intensely readable and impressive volumes. Each poem navigates a confident path between the learned and the demotic. Throughout, the work is guided by a fierce and an independent intelligence and by an unwavering faith in the importance of poetry:
Poems are diamonds
in your button hole
spend them on the golf course
let assholes ask questions
poems a man’s best friend.
Eamonn Wall is professor of English at the University of Missouri – St Louis. His latest book of poetry, A Tour of Your Country , was published by Salmon last year
Article appeared in The Irish Times on Saturday, January 24th, 2009.