Seán Dunne’s review of Arboretum in Cork Examiner, 9th February 1991

Originally published in Cork Examiner, 9th February 1991

Poems of beauty “like a tightened bow”



The Goose Herd by Roz Cowman, (Salmon Publishing) £8.00/£4.50). Arboretum by John Ennis, (Dedalus Editions) £4.95. 

HERE is a sense in which each of these books is part of a contemporary development. With Roz Cowman, there is an association with the growing group of Irish women poets and with John Ennis there is an association with ecology. Within each of these categories a great deal of very bad poetry has been prepetrated. Thankfully, neither of these poets is guilty of it.

John Ennis’s long poem is set in Wexford’s John F. Kennedy park and is a mediation on trees, history, family and transience among other things. Like those Indian villagers who hug trees in protest against deforestation, he embraces and celebrates the arboreal world.

Where he writes with a lush extravagance and expansiveness,, Roz Cowman’s style is tightened and bunched like a nut within a shell. Each is capable of social comment: Ennis on the despoliation of the countryside; Cowman on the Irish male. Ennis has written a number of books and this is Cowman’s first.

The best of her poems remind me of that line of Yeats where he talks of beauty like a tightened bow. Taut and loaded, her style is pared and precise. Many of her poems are ciphers of disappointment: the disappointment of adulthood; the women from a home who stand at the sea’s edge, watching nothing; Berlioz at sixty and knowing too much. This melancholy surfaces in language and images that startling, clear and memorable,. Nothing can be added or taken away.

There is about many of her poems the compressed air of a child tormented by dreams, putting wounds into words that stay in the mind like the memory of Rapunzel’s hair. Images from mythology and fairytales abound and I found the personal poems, in which a psychic pressure seems to force the deeply- felt images to the surface, more successful than the almost- token and programmatic references to Irishness. Her best poems – and there are many- are quite beautiful and memorable, their language more sensual than the spare forms at first suggest. Her strong and admirable gift deserves the widest notice.

John Ennis has written a number of long poems and it is a form in which he has always been comfortable. From the very start, there has been a sense of the symphonic about the arrangement of his work. His poems suggest music in other ways as well: he is one of the most word- haunted of Irish poets and in Arboretum the sound of names of trees and plants sometimes echoes like incantations from the old Latin mass.

Such music in counterpointed in the poem his anger at modern ravages and by the sheer amount of information he gets in. He writes with infinitely more effect of the trees than of the hurt which economists can inflict on the countryside. Here, for example, is one passage:

The homes living on loans till May
The big ranchers buying up quota,
Chequebook up front, fattening.
Co- op preference for the large milk supplier.

The trouble with this is that while it’s true it’s also prosaic, like an agricultural journal’s editorial. It’s a tone which seldom occurs but it does hint at what I found to be a central problem with the poem: John Ennis’s over- riding desire to get an enormous amount of information into it. It contains megabytes of information on trees and the encyclopaedic references outweigh John Ennis’s rich lyric gift. I like his work a lot and as I have suggested before on these pages it is time that his Selected Poems appeared, and while stray lines of this poem remind me of what is best about his work, I did not feel this from the book as a whole. As with all criticism, the problem, of course, may lie with me and not with the poem. Either way, I admire the way he publishes form and theme to the limit. Such daring, though, sometimes has its price.

Words: Seán Dunne

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