Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Carol Hodder - Shorelines

This review first appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 14th August 2016.

The Catherine Hammond Gallery has moved from Glengarrif to the centre of Skibbereen - just down the road from the great corten steel hulk that is the West Cork Arts Centre. Its dedication to work of the highest quality continues. The inner gallery currently contains paintings by Michael Canning, Martin Gale, Stephen Lawlor, John Doherty, and Donald Teskey. The main gallery features an impressive new show by Carol Hodder - who has shown at the RHA, RUA and the RA and who won a prize last year at NOA, the UK's largest open submission exhibition. Although the title of the show is Shorelines these are not landscapes or seascapes in any conventional sense. They are inspired by the real world but they push beyond it towards abstraction resulting in work that seems more metaphysical than physical. Many, such as Evening Shoreline (above), capture that elegiac mood when the light is fading and the divisions between land, sea and sky begin to blur. The predominant darkness of the work is relieved by a positively Turneresque use of light and by dramatic splashes of rich colour, mostly yellows and reds. These powerfully atmospheric and expressive works invite contemplation rather then mere viewing.

Catherine Hammond Gallery
Mon-Sat: 11am-6pm
Tel: 028 51690

John P. O'Sullivan


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Rineen Forest Incident

Alone all alone with my dogs In Reen, a couple of miles of bad road from Union Hall - that poor relation of prosperous Glandore. Out on my peninsula there's little scope for a decent walk - any alluring path crosses fields containing sheep or cattle - and probably a farmer with a loaded gun after that incident in Kerry recently. So I head off looking for a suitable location to get a brisk hour in - the minimum for this man and his beasts. The Drombeg Stone Circle beyond Glandore sounds promising so we head there first. It's a perfectly acceptable stone circle with lots of attendant stones and a fine location on the side of a hill. There's additional amusement to be had listening to the Germans trying to separate the Irish from the English on an information board that clearly hadn't had a usability test. We speculate a little on what those guys got up to 3,000 years ago and move on - our walking urge unsated.

Heading south towards Castletownshend I happen on a sign for Rineen Forest and park in the spacious but totally empty car park. A path leads from the car park into the forest so me and my intrepid hounds head off boldly - me swinging my gentleman from Gascony type walking stick (with its hidden extras). While attending to my rich inner life I simultaneously note things on my path. To my right, down a very steep incline is an Atlantic inlet with the tide fully in. Here an uprooted true, there two unfeasibly large dog turds. I come upon occasional small stone pyramids in the middle of the path: one with arrows going in three different directions, another suggesting P Run - ambiguous that. On I stride blithely. After about 20 minutes there was a fork in the path, one way was downhill towards the sea and the other further in to the forest. I took the latter. The path gradually narrowed but was still quite discernible for a another 10 minutes or so. Then I came to a dead end but noticed a smaller route uphill through the tress. Off I went - slower now clambering over fallen trees and up slopes that involved more climbing than walking. My breath came in short pants. I wondered what my cardiologist would think. The path suddenly seemed to peter out but I kept on - following traces of paths here and there hoping I might come upon a substantial trail or even happen on the car park - as I seemed to be heading in that general direction. I went left, I went right, I went up, I went down but no sign of any significant path. Before long I realised that I was completely lost. The woods were getting denser, the terrain more difficult, and I was unsure of how I could retrace my steps. I was now getting alarmed thinking that if I twisted an ankle I could be in trouble - images arose of my mouldering corpse found flanked by my faithful dogs. Shyla, the more sensitive of my two animals seemed to pick up on my anxiety as she began emitting the occasional whine. Missy strode on treating my plight with lady-like disdain. After wandering around for a while I glimpsed a field over to the right and thought I could get in there, find the gate, and be delivered. It meant fighting my way through brambles and rough terrain but I eventually reached the perimeter of the field and espied some comforting farm machinery in one corner. However the fence was about four feet high and electrified - and the wire mesh was such that the dogs couldn't squeeze underneath. Also, there was evidence of sheep wool on the wire so I wouldn't have risked it even if I could have got them in. I was sweating freely now and remembering creepy scenes from the Prelude where the boy (young Wordsworth) was lost in the woods and he felt that the thorns and branches were hostile nature clawing at him - the down side of Pantheism.

I began to toy with the idea of rescue at this stage but my mobile phone declared No Service. Also, I would rather perish than be the subject of an item on the news suggesting that I got lost on a routine walk. It's just me and nature - and my hapless dogs. I got a grip on myself and decided that the only way was back - trying to retrace my steps. I'd been walking more than an hour, and was soaked in sweat but there was no other way. I knew that the sea should be on my left and that I should be about half way up the hill. After a few desperate minutes I spotted the sea below. Back I went slowly and painstakingly all the while keeping panic at bay and the sea to my left.. After a while I lucked upon a discernible path then one of the little pyramids. A little later I passed the great uprooted tree and eventually the comforting sight of the unfeasibly large dog turds. Looking ahead I saw my roof rack peering over the bushes. Deliverance.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

I Do Like to Take Umbrage

I do like to take umbrage so maybe that's why I regularly turn on Newstalk in the early evening despite my antipathy towards George Hook: saloon-bar bore and tireless be-labourer of hobby-horses (refugees, Sinn Fein, abortion etc.). But now he's gone elsewhere, to a time slot where thankfully I shall never encounter him again and Newstalk has a nice, lightweight lad called Simon Delaney in his place. Perhaps he's a summer sub rather than the permanent new host - I don't know. Anyway things have not improved. This evening he had some financial type on called Jill Kerby. In the course of a discussion about a new phone banking initiative she opined that older folk only used their iPads and smart phones to access photos of their grandchildren and would never use them to access their banks - preferring more traditional methods. This is not just ageist, patronising, twaddle - it's also wrong. Maybe a recent birthday has made me more sensitive to these matters. Right, time for a gin and tonic.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The End of the Tour - David Foster Wallace Imagined

I am an unabashed fan of David Foster Wallace. I like the self-deprecating humour and sharp observation of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. I love his highly technical and insightful pieces on tennis - especially the essay on Michael Joyce. And I bow in awe before the cornucopia that is Infinite Jest. I'm not mad about his footnotes but that's a foible I'll accept because it's a small price to pay for the quality of everything else.

The End of the Tour depicts a promotional road trip with Wallace and the Rolling Stone writer (and Wallace memoirist) David Lipskey following the release of Infinite Jest. Jason Seger absolutely nails Wallace, capturing the slightly shambolic physical nature of the beast. He also captures the caged wariness of a writer who always seemed too thin-skinned and sensitive to survive in this world. The dialogue is based on Lipskey's recordings of their discussions and it exposes the uncertainty and anguish that was his constant burden. Aside from the big questions a lot of interesting incidental stuff comes up in their chats such as his reasons for wearing his bandana - sweat absorber and security blanket. Anyone interested in what made Wallace tick should check it out but it also exists in its own right as an absorbing road movie. I found it on iTunes but I'm sure it's available elsewhere.



Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The End of the Modern World by Anthony Cronin

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 17 July 2016.

When the dust settles on Anthony Cronin's career I suspect that he will be remembered chiefly for Dead as Doornails, his classic memoir of Dublin literary bohemia of the Fifties and for his highly-readable biography Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist. Despite a substantial output, his reputation as a poet doesn't seem to have acquired the heft of near contemporaries such as Heaney, Longley, Mahon or Kinsella. He is best known for RMS Titanic, his poem "about the death of an old school morality or decency.” In 1986 Thomas Kinsella omitted him from his capacious New Oxford Book of Irish Verse. A very pointed snub. It has been suggested that he went to London at a crucial stage in his career and thus fell out of favour with our parochial literary establishment. Or perhaps his versatility as a man of letters is looked askance at in a specialist area.

The End of the Modern World is ambitious in its scope. It is no less than a sustained elegy for the decline of the west. The poem is an expanded and amended version of a collection of sonnets first published in 1989. It now contains 179 sonnets - 18 more than the original, and some of the earlier sonnets have been amended. Cronin is not for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in, he aims at reason not rhyme and his sinewy iambs often feel more like declamatory prose than poetry. He describes his work as a "psychic history of western civilisation". The tone is sombre throughout and it concludes with the empty triumph of materialism and intimations of the essential meaninglessness of life. We are far removed from the romantic myth of Adam and Eve and a Paradise Lost:

The sun, a crucible of nuclear rage,

Knows nothing of such ends, it thrummed out rays

Of heat until the ooze transformed itself.

The nearest comparison is to T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland. In addition to their eloquent pessimism, both are replete with borrowings from literature, both lament the death of romantic love and they both occasionally let the poet intrude into his poem ("I must keep my iambic beat").

The key to understanding Cronin's poem is Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came. This poem also inspired Stephen King's highly lucrative Dark Tower series of book - an irony that Cronin I'm sure appreciates as his poem laments the triumph of brute capitalism. There are specific references to Roland and the Dark Tower within the poem, and many oblique ones. The final sonnet paints a picture of Manhattan and its skyscrapers, those symbols of materialism, that give the Dark Tower its contemporary shape:

Money's convulsions too are life-giving,

Neutral, imply no purpose in our hearts,

But blazed upon this rock to make Manhattan

Rise in resplendence, such a culmination

Just as Childe Roland involves a journey and a quest, Cronin's poem is a trip through Western civilisation going back to Roman Times, beginning with the invention of the plough:

Until the mould-board plough dragged through the mud

From there we are taken on a ride through feudal society, the cult of courtly love and the growth of the great manors, and the French Revolution. Ireland gets a look in via the Famine:

The horror of their hunger, so reflected

Even by burnished mirrors of rich corn

Was what they fled from in dumb multitudes.

Literary figures emerge regularly. Section two Of the sequence opens with a meditation on Milton, and Baudelaire and Byron also appear. Cronin is much possessed by sexual matters and he grimly records the transition from the brutal to the business-like with just a little courtliness in between.

Newspapers dangled girls like carrot bunches

The range of allusion to historical events is very broad, and abrupt changes occur with little transition - like Pound's Cantos. Mussolini "hung by the heels", scenes from Auschwitz, Robert Kennedy's funeral, Gaughin in Tahiti, De Sade's sexual prowess, Elvis's penchant for white panties all form part of his journey.

Sonnets 152 to 155 are all new and it's not difficult to see in them Cronin's ambiguity about his own role within the dark tower as Haughey's arts commissar:

A padded door, to lunch with Evil in

An inner sanctum. And of course he loved it,

While Cronin may have supped with the devil, his poem also contains many references to the hardship he endured by abandoning the Bar for a literary career:

The admonition from the EBS

Which threatened to uproot me every month,

The ESB which threatened instant darkness

This has a topical feel to these lines. His tireless advocacy for state subsidies for artists is based on bitter experience. But his concluding sonnets suggest a despair at the impotence of the arts in the face of the all enveloping power of capitalism:

A passionless acceptance reigns within

These air-conditioned spaces which absorb

To the faint murmur of a distant duct

The last assault waves of the avant garde




New Island Books


pp. 96

John P. O'Sullivan