All this is happening for a reason,
or it is not. Take this apple,
as we once did, exact from
its lip dark bell a white,
a staring gape, a void,
a love staved in, its long pangs at last passing.
As well to reproach the light
spearing aslant King’s College
that May Week, vaulting the Backs
to a body in exultant flexion,
cleaving the clean flow, spilling
upon your new grace, disclosing all the world withheld.
You laughed, you know, when,
bicycling to the Hut or a picnic,
I dismounted a moment before
the chain, in slipped sequence,
came unfast, wanting a part
I did not have, that could not be had in war time.
So it is with codes, which instruct
their very unravelling; before
a mark is scratched, the other
must possess you, comprehend you
again from alpha and beta, teach you
to turn as he might, to feel his twist of purpose.
Yes, it is happening for a reason,
or it is not, a man is sitting
unseen in that room, or merely
an idiot tissue of ordained things
set in train when our plain text
was written, when we were first made to be broken.
I first came across Paraic O'Donnell on Twitter where he was posting delicately wrought, sharp fragments from an imagined novel-in-progress. They were deeply literate but in a slightly-over-the-top parodic way, which was the point. But there was poetry in the prose, a sense beyond cleverness of something with a life of its own, something poignant yet barbed and at the same time playful. It was literature moving through the same space as its harum-scarum models but looking to a further space. It was in fact a poetic sensibility working its passage through irony.
It is only very recently I have read any of his poems. He sent me a few by my request and I am pleased he is happy for me to publish one of them. I chose this one, Cryptography.
The setting is Cambridge, or rather a memory of an attachment in Cambridge. A moment is recollected - the chain slipping - the rest being a consideration of the matter in the light of cryptograms or secret codes. But we begin with an apple in the first verse. The apple opens up the territory in fully sensory terms: that lip dark bell from which a white is extracted that then leads to the love that is staved in. It is complex, the most complex part of the poem. Once we are through it, the rest, which depends on it, is relatively straightforward.
The events are straightforward but the language is pieced together in a jewel-like fashion that doesn't become too precious or nostalgic. We move from "exultant flexion / cleaving the clear flow" and arrive at "an idiot tissue of ordained things" and that "plain text". The lines sit well, delicately balanced, the progress of the narrative is paced for meditation. We understand the love involved, we understand the loss. We certainly understand the intelligence at play.
The chief dangers of poems of recollection - nostalgia and preciousness, as mentioned above - are avoided here. We hear a courtly voice, slightly on edge and all the better for that. There are love poems - not all of course - that prosper to the degree they are withheld and understated. This is like that, but under the understatement the senses are raring to go. Better still, there is fresh air in the poem, which is what matters.
I think there will be more poems to come from Paraic. I am very glad to welcome him here.