Christopher McLaughlin’s Five Poems broadside, published by Pen Points Press, is a collection deft on the wing. Appropriately bookended by images of birds, the collection is concerned with death and loss; a subject it approaches with a rare grace.
The first in the collection, ‘Debt to the Dead’, fragments into half-recalled anecdotes. It is hard to keep track of the cast and geography in this navigation of a fading past. Formal details serve to twist memory: it is only towards the end, for instance, that the narrator’s ‘I’ enters and the poem’s gaze pans out, revealing that the past tense is not only there to colour the lines with a sense of remembering but is tied to a personal memory.
The confusion of recall also finds expression in metaphor. ‘Debt to the Dead’s central figure is a woman who stitches hot air balloons, and their slow flight delicately harmonises with the haziness of being lost. More than just a confluence of subject and feeling, the balloons are repurposed throughout the poem as a rich metaphor for human emotional movement. The recalled woman speaks in the narrator’s head ‘like we are also stitched together — invisibly conjoined’, and she is herself gently, surreally, balloon-like: ‘Perhaps she was tied to the top of a bonfire’. Indeed, all the figures in this poem drift — through the streets of Paris, but also in relation to each other, and to reality itself. Just as the woman cannot decide if Phileas Fogg ‘was a figure of fiction or fact’, so the narrator is not quite sure his departed ‘ever existed at all’. ‘Debt to the Dead’ shows us what happens when we try to steer our craft by dying stars, relying only on the light which reaches us from the past; their beauty tempered by the melancholy of forgetting.
Remembering also features in ‘Stages’, a dispatch from the dead ground following loss which brings with it ambiguity and conflict. Even as ‘Stages’ writes from sadness, so it also shines in moments of glory; not least in the sheer lyricism of McLaughlin’s lines, which might seem indecent in the po-faced dirges other poets favour. Its opening, ‘At first, of course, he was a stand-up comedian / until Texas started asking for / their tumbleweeds back’, invokes the claim place and belonging have over us all with an agility that matches Kavanagh and Austin Clarke. Later in the poem, we find McLaughlin already revealing a talent for the sort of rhythmic half-rhymes which bring to mind Louis MacNiece or perhaps Carol Ann Duffy at her best. For all that the craft of poetry is as much about refinement and practise as it is talent, it surely takes a certain ear to think of placing the words ‘jelly queen’ and ‘nightly routine’ in conversation.
It is tiresome how frequently Irish poets are discussed for their Irishness rather than their poetry but, nevertheless, it cannot be ignored how well McLaughlin’s lines give new expression to a space-specific tradition. Poems like ‘The Wake House’ show the aftermath of death to be a communal affair in a way that English culture, at least, does not quite comprehend; and there is a Heaney-esque, unpretentious intimacy to McLaughlin’s images that allows him to render loss with subtle elegance.
Nowhere is this as clear as in the final poem of the collection, ‘The Watcher’. Here, an exhausted gull flies around an office roof before finally succumbing to death. The tale has obvious feathery canonical precedent, but any poetic resonances are complicated by references to popular culture which syncopate with the poem’s reverence. In McLaughlin’s seagull, death is revealed as the point at which drama meets ordinary. The dying bird, reflected in mirror surfaces, serves to dramatise the narrator’s relationship not only with God but also with himself.
As with another, well-known avian title — Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird — trying to identify precisely who ‘The Watcher’ is is to miss the point. These Five Poems are not about specificity but about confluences: between the stories we tell ourselves and the precision of real life, and between the sacred and simple.
McLaughlin’s equal attention to the mythic narratives of death and to the everyday gift these missives from different stages of grief a bitter-sweet familiarity for any reader who mourns.