Paul Durcan’s review of Dolmen Hill

Originally published in the Cork Examiner, Monday April 17th, 1978

A book for a lively classroom debate? 

Dolmen Hill

Dolmen Hill

Although born in Westmeath, 1944, John Ennis is a Munsterman by adoption; a graduate of UCC, he is a lecturer at the Regional College in Waterford, where he has put down roots with wife and daughter. In 1975, he won the Patrick Kavanagh Award and in 1976 he published his first collection Night on Hibernia. In 1977 he won the Open Poetry Competition at Listowel Writers’ Week and in February of this year he published his second collection, Dolmen Hill (Gallery Books: £1.50 paperback; £3.30 cloth bound).

The title poem refers to Gaulstown Co. Waterford where there is a megalithic tomb comprised of six upright slabs supporting one huge capstone. but the most memorable poem is ‘Birth at Airmount’, which concerns the birth of his daughter. The squeamish will recoil; the insensitive will shrug their shoulders; yet it is the most honest (I stress honest) statement I have seen made by a males in the face of the extraordinary phenomenon, more awesome than death, of childbirth. Have we not all (especially men) perplexed ourselves with the question as to why we were born at all? Why us? Why me and not somebody else? What unspeakable fears doe we experience when we accept the face that the precious newborn babe is bit the result of chance? Is birth control ever a barrier holding back human beings wishing to be born Why are we born into this family and not another? Why is it that most males are too terrified to witness childbirth?

Ennis faces up to things as squarely, yet as humbly, as he can. Waiting, he stands at a second- floor maternity window, casting a rueful eye on the cityscape, obliquely reminding us of the grim living- conditions into which so many children are born.

The ageing jute men unemployed with sons in AnCo,
Marriages on the verge, daughters out for a Glass Craftsman,
Most settling for young apprentices. Heart trust all in
Tomorrow here and the IDA.

Then childbirth:

Minute by minute savagery. Verse is a cold
Travesty.

Thanking the doctors and nurses, he concludes on a wry, humorous note:

Miss Egg Head, in an inkling, sits on your diaphragm. (To whom I’m a blur or nothing at all).
She’s swaddled, warm to touch.
If I say she has my dead father’s face. Who knows.
Yours, truly, of all that agony, bears not a trace.

In ‘Alice of Daphne 1799’ Ennis writes a Barry Lyndonesque recreation of a teenage romance in late 18th century Ireland. This is a prose poem whose phrasing is very fine. In ‘Poem for Donagh’ there is a bitter, fiercely controlled picture of the fate in Irish Society for a boy who fails the Leaving Cert.

There are two elegies for a boyhood friend: the first is bleak, yet in the end he points not to death, bit to “where bees sucked, frail words combine.” The second elegy recalls happy days of the two boys playing handball and hurling. Then, the inexplicable, accidental death. “I felt strangely on edge. Loss I could not identify.

In other poems Ennis recreates midland rural Ireland of the 1940’s and the 1950’s; a strange, harsh, world, which, for all its hashness, had a rough innocence, a raw honesty, which have been replaced by ignorant smart- alecry and smooth skull- duggery. But, if future historians wish to aquire real insight into the history of pre- 1960 Ireland, they will do well to read Ennis’s poems.

The Listowel prize- winning poem, 46 pages long, is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. At first glance, Ennis’s syntax resembles the tortuous improvisations of of a beginner, but, on close reading, you realise that here is a poet who is conscious of word- values and who regards himself as an inheritor of the language- revolution tradition of Hopkins, Joyce and Beckett. (As if to cock a snook at critics who have accused of ineptitude, he gives us a fine Villanelle- i.e., 19 lines based only two rhymes.)

His Orpheus is scatted with some beautiful lines; yet there is lack of rhythmic variation and excessive use of pigeon language and over- forced rhetoric. Perhaps he should have broken it up into a shorter series of lyrics. A good poem (plus the whole book) for lively classroom debate on how a poet has to tear apart language in order to build something new with it. In Dolmen Hill John Ennis has wrestled mightily with the recalcitrant angel of his Muse.

Words: Paul Durcan

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