The Drowning of the Saints, Reviewed by Fred Johnston in Books Ireland April 2004
Paul Perry is a young Dubliner who won a Hennessy in 1998, was a James Michener fellow of creative writing at Miami University and a poetry fellow at Houston, Texas, a scribe-in-residence in Longford in 2002 and currently writer-in-residence at the University of Ulster. No mean feat. Or, as a famous Texas wit might put it, no degrandisification poetical-wise for this Irishlander.
I can bring Bushifications into this legitimate-wise because a jacket screed penned by Fred D'Aguiar disturbingly describes these poems as a 'coalition' - presumably a willing one - 'of imaginative flair and formal discipline'. Must one prepare to be shocked and awed?
Shaking from an encounter with D'Aguiarotype images, so clearly a product of the world we live in, used to describe poetry, one opens this book and falls in among pleasanter fruit. For there is marvellous and welcome poetry here, a breath of fresh air, one might say, in the occasionally shut-tight and barred bunkhouses of Irish poetry. Poetry as Words of Mass Instruction?
On first inspection, there is ample evidence from the get-go of WMI and plans to produce more. 'Blessed is the fruit' is the first salvo, tidy verse-lets of three-lines each:
...and I'm a ghost
dunking my head
into the cold
like a dumb fish...
'Frivolous water' is a marvellous sound. The stanzas are haiku-intense, everything stripped down, every word balanced. In 'The Red Dogs of Wicklow' Perry uses two-line stanzas, longer in line, with the same clustering effect:
...that things are passing from our lives. And so,
we walked on, with our own small hurts
to contend with, until we turned from Terenure
Dublin city and environs are encircled by some of these poems, as are the images provoked and invoked in them: Stillorgan, a Dublin bus, the history of the city as explored through anecdote or memory. It's as if the poet himself has to investigate sightings of the past before pitching over the top into new territory. 'Rhapsody with owl' is fast-paced, sharp, poignant, and tragical:
...addiction like an angry owl pledging
your faith to the body body of the listening
moon still the two of us are running away...
I do pray that neither poet nor publisher writes in to say that the repetition of the word 'body' is an error! [BI's editor deleted and now hastily restores it ] for this is poetry of a modernist kind not often tackled in this country, a chancy, racy poetry, breathless and emotive and risky. More power to Perry here.
As this reviewer has noted often, visual art holds a particular attraction for poets; not surprisingly, Perry has a couple of poems whose inspiration was a painter: Chagall, Breughel, Goya. He likes jazz too, for that matter.
I am a smear of lightning
over Barley harbour
briefly and writing to the sound
of rain is religion
my new blue singing religion
we took a walk
and grew too big for the town
we took a walk...
- 'The Walk', after Chagall.
Chagall painted this picture between 1917 and 1918, and its central note is the stable and feet-on-the-ground young man holding the hand of a girl who appears to be flying, or floating like a balloon, above him to the viewer's right: what have we come to when it's available now as an e-card! 'The Straw Mannequin' is a poem 'after Goya', whose nervous breakdown produced such horrific images:
they think it funny
what they're doing to me
they think it hilarious...
The Goya painting, which I'm sure must be 'El Pelele', in which four women toss a man-mannequin dressed in a fashionable French style on a blanket, is disturbing for the boneless shape of the figure in the air. It has interrogated the imagination too of the poet Tripp Howell, in his 'To the puppet in a Goya painting'. If you want synchronicity into the bargain, the work of the contemporary artist Grayson Perry - no relation, I'm sure, but what the hell - has been compared authoritatively with that of Goya! Paul Perry's poem is, however, both disturbing and poignant; one feels sorry for the puppet-man (I think the Goya image is ambiguous in this respect, frankly, and plays with ambiguity in the title) and through him for all men tossed about as puppets. Now by dropping capital letters to start stanzas or lines, Perry effectively alters the state of the body of the poem and what it means; this is a poem about personality on the edge of dissolving, of paranoia.
On the other hand, Perry's denser, longer poems are resonant with a kind of sad philosophy, as if despair is a thing best discussed at length. A poem such as the word-think 'To Dexter Above', dedicated to the jazz great Dexter Gordon, rants brazenly and wonderfully, word-jazz, Ferlinghetti-ing all over the place:
white winged students waiting for the shabby
saxophone to start its praying, chipped
and dented, bedraggled gold like the sun-
light hazy, weak and sweet on those early
morning in Paris, restless, unsleeping...
Only a poem which talks like jazz could do the great jazz man justice.
It is the bittersweet taste, touch and word-feel of Perry's experimentation, his desire, like the best of painters, to reach out further than his contemporaries, that makes him both interesting and, in this conservative Irish literary scene, his own worst enemy. Irish society and Irish art, like Irish Arts Councils, are conservative. Irish society is a nation of born civil servants for whom, say, a poem mysteriously and fragmentarily called 'from the valley of dry bones' might just be too much altogether. It bangs off with a run of prose, a barrage of words, then dives into a minefield of single lines and doubles:
And the discarded wings of angels.
Tell me: there is nothing you need to know.
There is nothing you need to know.
A boat without oars jostles on the water.
Fragmentation, alienation, a poem which reads like a script for solo performance or, given it's 'stage-direction', sotto voce, perhaps for two; Beckettesque, different, challenging. Come on lads, some student theatre group, even some lunchtime Peacock producer: I dare you to perform it, to try something new, something not Synge, not Yeats, not safe. I would love to hear a good actor, a good voice, give this poem life.
Paul Perry's début collection startled me, confused me, made me think, made me angry and envious. His voice should be heard and anyone who doesn't buy a copy of this book is missing out on a real poetic find.
© Books Ireland, 2004.
The Drowning of the Saints, Reviewed by David Arnold
The Crimson Feet Review, Nov. 2003
Paul Perry's first collection of poetry, The Drowning of the Saints, is an exciting one. It covers a vast area in terms of the geographical distances from rural Ireland to urban America, with other out of the way places thrown in for measure, including the Swedish Gotland, and Mexican Chetumal. These poems of travel, of arrival and departure have a certain displaced feel about them. They chart the thoughts of a wanderer, of a young man finding his way in the world.
There are indeed many good Irish poets writing now, and yet Perry is different to them all. In his poems, he displays a desire to experiment with form, something not common in Irish poetry. In poems such as "from the valley of dry bones", w ritten sotto voce, the poet tells us, there seems to be an avoidance of narrative as if reflecting the lack of a story of those who travelled from Berlin to Dublin in 1945, "stars fall like rusted anchors into the sea".
Perry has a musical ear, and I don't just mean the poems he writes which allude to music. One of the collection's finest is a poem in memory to the late, great tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. But there is a real care and attention to the sound of the line which is to be admired, a sensual adherence to the sonic quality of the word. In "Leap Year Lake", the poet writes "leap year lake, the joy in just saying it."
He is a thinking poet, yes. Poems such as 'The Seducer's Diary' with its allusions to Kierkegaard prove that, but more than the intellectual acuity of the poems is an impassioned tone of pathos and compassion. In "Fill the room with lilies", he recounts a trip around Como, Italy with a lover which ends on a balcony with a storm coming in, the two characters in the poem witnessing something like "the end of the world". And in "The Ring", a wedding band is returned to a pawn store with all the other "pornography and guns".
There seems to be an implicit argument in the book which has something to do with the loss of faith, tradition, and love in the poet's life and in the life of our society's perhaps, that I take it is the drowning of the saints, those ships which sank off the west coast of Ireland during the Spanish Armada's retreat. The poet refers to this directly in "Tonight, the sea". And in one enchanting poem, "The Red Dogs of Wicklow", the red dogs are really fox's which echoes the Irish word for fox, the poet writes about this sense of loss, "with no benediction other than the thought that things are passing from our lives". It leaves him in a kind of secular world, a magical world, where a dead fox "darts off in every direction possible".
Perry is indeed an Irish poet, but a well travelled one. A poet who has been influenced by the poetic tradition outside of the island. Perhaps his years in America have something to do with that, but I feel the sensibility to be still somewhat European. Dream poems echo the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer. The lack of punctuation, the shape of the poem on the page all of it intrigue the reader, something which another Irish poet like Peter Sirr does.
I can do nothing but recommend this collection as strongly as possible for anyone interested, not only in contemporary Irish poetry, but contemporary world poetry. It's an enjoyable read, always entertaining, sometimes demanding. Salmon Poetry (salmonpoety.com) have produced an attractive collection and are to be commended on their high production values. The book does not read like a first collection. And with the publications Perry has behind him, the TLS and Scribner's the Best American Poetry 2000, a pantoum in homage to Paul Celan, that is no surprise. The Drowning of the Saints is one of the best first collections this reviewer has read in a long time and Paul Perry is certainly one of the most exciting Irish poets writing now.
David Arnold is a writer and critic
The Drowning of the Saints, Reviewed by Steve Mueske
threecandles.org, Nov. 2003
Book rating: 8.5 out of 10 stars
Paul Perry's debut collection of poems, The Drowning of the Saints, is as good a book of poems as I've ever read, and certainly one of the best first books. Poet, novelist and playwright Fred D'Aguiar has called his work "a coalition of imaginative flair and formal discipline." Critic David Arnold writes "Paul Perry is certainly one of the most exciting Irish poets writing now". I agree. While it may be too early in his career to make such claims, he seems destined to join the ranks of fellow countrymen Paul Muldoon and Seamus Heaney as the Emerald Isle's Poetry ambassadors to the world.
Perry's work, like the apples in "Blessed is the fruit," is effective precisely because it amplifies several related themes simultaneously. It has a canny sense of music and balance, but not so much that it stultifies the progression of images. It begins:
Desolate apples, hold
tight in your bowl of water
red, blushing and blossoming light;
too big for the fruit bowl,
bitter pie stuff, clean and
like some dowdy bouys
in a storm...
Already we can see that the applies are not just apples. They signal innocence ("clean and eager"), sexuality ("red, blushing and blossoming light"), and later they become "biblical beacons / of a lost faith", as much a symbol of temptation as they are "bitter pie stuff," ordinary in their thingness.
In poem after poem, Perry performs a kind of magic with words, each redolent with themes that build toward a sustained song. In "The Red Dogs of Wicklow" a group of boys look at a dead fox "with no benediction other than the thought / that things are passing from our lives". The speaker, prompted by the scene of death, imagines the final image in the fox's mind as those of red dogs, which I take to mean Setters, or the fox's adversaries. As they turn to walk away, however, the speaker looks back to see the fox not only springing to life, but "skulking" by a tree and then "darting off...in every direction possible". Here we have a coming-of-age story, and a lesson on survival by deception; we have empathy and empathy turning on itself. That the animal is a fox calls to mind all sorts of legends and stories, including the Native American trickster. It was a fox, too, that visited Lucille Clifton in The Terrible Stories.
It's Perry's imagination that I find most compelling. A good example of this is "The Gate to Mulcahey's Farm," a two-page poem about an unusual gate made of a bed's brass headboard. In fourteen quatrains, he moves from description ("crooked / sinking into infirm soil like a ship") to speculation about its history ("Perhaps this is another version of heaven / imagine the bedroom it might once have graced") and its future, sold "to an antiquarian in a Dublin shop".
This is a first-rate collection of poems that invites several reads, each as satisfying as the last. I cannot recommend this book enough.
"What's New", The Irish Echo, July28 - August 3, 2004
This sensual and lyrical collection of poems marks the debut of Dublin writer Paul Perry, 1998 winner of the Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year award. His distinctive voice creates poetry that explores every person's search for meaning. "Each poem bristles with life and longing, intelligence and wit," says Fred D'Aguair, contemporary author and poet.