Review: Chopping Wood with T.S. Eliot reviewed by Chris Murray for writing.ie
John Walsh's Chopping Wood with T.S Eliot published, Salmon Poetry 2010, is a taut wonderfully controlled collection of poems that forms a panoramic exposition of modernism but never once sacrifices form to mere expressiveness. There is a directness about Walsh's vision that is encapsulated in each poem's edifice or super-structure. Chopping Wood with T.S Eliot provides an exemplar of how form and distillation free the poet's voice.
This puts me in mind of Ted Hughes' reference to his practice of sometimes retaining an image in his 'black box flight-recorder', the poet wryly observes disaster and proceeds to condense it spectacularly, be it about Tara in Yes Minister, or the dangerous beginning-flight of the bird in Tipping Point.
'Tipping Point' is the pivot upon which the book turns, it is editorially placed almost at centre of this work , and it interweaves it's theme with the other poems in a manner that denies simple utilitarianism or easy answers to the conundrums the author likes to present the reader with. Tipping Pointis the weft , the dark thread, that landscapes this book, be it in frank memory of his native county or in our peculiar Irish euphemisms for war and grief. The colours that dominate this book are the dark-greens of bower and forest, or multiple shades of russet, red, wine, blackberry and autumnal shades. These colours are not decorative nor are they intended to be so, they provide a backdrop to the business of living.
Place, home, the work of the hands are the important things in this book. Instruments, and utilitarian objects are there to solely express the human voice and experience. They are and should only be constructions of ingenuity, tools, the web, the bureaucratic forms involved in an adoption process, the sense of gambled and irresponsible governance, all of these things impinge upon the reality he is attempting to create. Things feel wrong or out of sync in Sales Pitch ,
"The Blackberries are early, they look like they're a bit
confused. It's barely August and here in Ireland we put up
with this mushy rain, mobs of fly-things in the wind-still,
lawnmowers going on the blink and mulched balckberries,
no good for eating, best left to wither on their stems.
Walsh never once breaks with either form or lyricism, the poems look clean on the page.
They are structured and underpinned with a very definite foundation, here he can accomodate his snarly rejection of wonderment, or illustrate the needlessness of utilitarianism. Here, in these poems, he can confront nature and study animal adaptions to circumstance, be it weather, or human encroachment intoanimal spaces. He is very confident in his work as a poet, even if he constantly questions the veracity of his own poem-making ! The Poet take his entitlement of revenge in relation to the cultural destrution of the royal-centre, Tara in Yes Minister, where the idea of the Minister's clean hands and his failures in terms of ecological protections are spelled out to him,
"But he says he is not in a position to go there
for he afraid to get his hands dirty
and he'll have to go washing them all over again,
wasting everyone's time and energy,
Seamus Heaney thinks it's a disgrace
But sure noody listens to him."
The debacle at Tara and a severe inability to join the dots on policy in ecological issues is something both the press and government have not realised is in the gift of the poet who will sing and describe the characters and miscreants as part of their observations and ideas about Ireland. This is a magnificently understated poem , which likens the Minister to Lady Macbeth. We do not think he will ever get his hands clean. The words and actions of government do not tally with each other. Few historical episodes in the Irish annals have exposed such a failure in duty, it is the poet's place to chronicle these disasters when the reams of press-release have been consigned to the shredder or tip.
Words will have their veracity, of that the poet is completely sure. He is writing a celebratory work , a memoir and he invites us to partake of it's history. It is not a wonderment but a voice of experience. It is up to the reader to delve into what we have created here in terms of our flawed grasp for modernity. The poet will not hide it from us. He makes us look at what prescriptive and hollow language has achieved for us in the midst of an apocalypse of ecological disaster brought on by our willingness to accept the drone of political language and refusal to look at what our hand has achieved.