Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Sheepman of Loughcrew

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 2 February 2014.

Review of: 

Peter Fallon, Poet, Publisher, Editor and Translator - Edited by Richard Rankin Russell

Few Irish poets get as close to the muck and manure of rural life as Peter Fallon - not perhaps since Patrick Kavanagh manned his plough in Inniskeen.  Heaney's digging was a metaphor, Fallon experiences the rural actuality in his daily round.  And, unlike Kavanagh, who abandoned Monaghan for the badlands of Baggot Street, Fallon has persisted in combining his sheep farming in Loughcrew with the writing and publishing of poetry.  He has also produced a well-received translation of Virgil's Georgics - empathising no doubt with its concern for man's struggle against a hostile natural world.  This curious confection, edited by American academic Richard Rankin Russell, is essentially a celebration of his life and work.  No reasonable person would quibble with the worthiness of the project.

Fallon's declared aim in life is "to keep the art of poetry alive and in good health" so that we can "improve our chances of fulfilling ourselves individually and collectively as a human, decent, kind society".  He has certainly succeeded in achieving the first part of this.  Without his Gallery Press it's doubtful that we'd have a poetry scene worth talking about.  Irish poets seeking publication would largely be left either to the tender mercies of the UK publishing houses or to a few small underpowered local imprints.  Seamus Heaney declared that "The poets on the Gallery list are indispensable to the art of poetry as an ongoing endeavour in Ireland.".  The importance of the Gallery Press for Irish poetry became even more marked following the demise of Liam Miller and the Dolmen Press in 1987.  Derek Mahon describes it as "a cottage industry with a global reach."  The Gallery Press is renowned both for the quality of its poetry and for its attention to production values.  The finished article is always worth looking at as well as reading.  Fallon has long been an enthusiastic supporter of Irish art.  In the early days he used Jim Fitzpatrick and Michael Kane and these days he features the work of contemporary artists such as Mary Lohan, John Shinnors and Martin Gale.

Fallon's earliest literary incarnation was as a member of Tara Telephone, a poetry and music ensemble that occasionally veered into Edith Sitwell territory.  A certain twee earnestness may have prevailed but in time it proved to be a hot house for a host of creative types and its alumni went on to adorn the Irish rock and poetry scenes for many years.  These included Fallon, Eamon Carr from the Horslips, Declan Sinnott, and the youthful Phil Lynnot - apparently a very nervous performer in those days.

The book is part critical study, part Festschrift - a kind of selection box for poetry lovers.  You can dip in and enjoy your favoured flavour.  It could be a poem, a critical essay or a biographical segment.  It's divided into five parts, each focusing on a different aspect of Fallon's life.  The first part deals with his work at the Gallery Press.  Parts two and three, the heart of the book, contain a series of critical essays on his poetry.  Part four establishes, tenuously, a US connection and the concluding part consists of 17 poems written in Fallon's honour by such luminaries as Paul Muldoon and Seamus Heaney.  A couple of the contributors are no longer with us.  There is an affectionate account of Fallon's life and work by his departed friend Denis O'Driscoll.  His perceptive essay is fulsome in its praise:  "Such is the extent of Peter's contribution that he is ensured a permanent place in the country's literature and literary history."  Heaney, in addition to his poem, contributes a short tribute written for the Gallery Press's 40th anniversary celebration at the Abbey.

Derek Mahon suggests of Fallon that "perhaps the publishing obscures the poetry a little, but I doubt this bothers him".  I'd be surprised if this piece of presumption were true.  All poets aspire to Parnassus.  A number of the critical essays in the book promote his cause.  The best of these is Maurice Harmon's Profane Rituals, a sure-footed stroll through Fallon's poetic output.   Harmon notes the varied settings:  the town of Deerfield, Massachusetts, Ballynahinch, Co. Galway, and principally his home in the townland of Loughcrew.  Most of the poetry comes from his engagement with his local community.  His daily rituals are reflected in his poetry: badgers and hares, sheep and goats.  He notes that Fallon's "ear is true to local speech".   This is not Arcadia.  Farm work is hard and dirty, not for the faint-hearted, or the dung shy.  A poem about the death of his new born son John sounds a chilling and tragic note amidst his poems of rural life:

We pray at best for the open wound
to grow a scar.
We welcome him his deliverance.

There are things worse than death.

Both editor Richard Rankin Russell and Bryan Giemza trace American poet Wendell Berry's influence on Fallon's work.  The poet farmer from Kentucky also contributes a handsome review of Fallon's work:   "ordinary events made extraordinary by the amplitude of his care and the precision of his notice".

The book concludes with the 17 poems written in Fallon's honour.  A fine legacy in itself considering some of the names.  The one that snagged my attention was Northern Lights by Nuala Ni Dhomnaill (translated by Caoimhin Mac Giolla Leith).  It has little to do with Fallon or Loughcrew but all to do with the eternal concerns of the poet:

"the whisper of the solar wind
above the black abyss"

Irish Academic Press
268 pp

John P. O'Sullivan
January 2014