Nostoc by Daragh Breen (Shearsman Books 2020)
Reviewed by Tim Dooley
Daragh Breen’s fourth collection leads the reader through a chain of transformations. Its three separately titled sequences, interspersed with loosely linked shorter poems, build a complex and troubling vision. The book’s cover, a detail from a medieval tile in Dublin cathedral, seems to show two staff-carrying dog-men, creatures once believed to inhabit the lands beyond the gates of Alexander, outside the known world of reason and Christendom. Their dark other-worldly appearance is suggestive of Nostoc’s moods — of poems that slip easily into unfamiliar territory where the reader can feel disoriented, forced to think again about their surroundings.
‘Hymnal for Dogs’, the opening sequence, starts with a piece of visionary prose describing the breeding of ‘the alpha Irish Wolfhound’ as ‘a human-mapped aberration’ that leads to an influx of carrion feeders ‘clouding to feed on the red robes’ left behind by the dogs, making ‘Hibernia the Corvid Capital of the Avian Empire’. Breen’s Ireland is a wild place dense with history and myth where the human and animal worlds intermingle. The poems of ‘Hymnal for Dogs’ explore the uneasy results of human intervention. Captain George Augustus Graham’s 1879 attempt to create a modern version of the extinct ‘wolfe dogges’ of the Cromwellian era is doomed. He is ‘utterly/ dismayed’ when his ‘newly-fashioned’ Irish Wolfhounds prove ‘silent/ and unwilling to hunt’. ‘Victorian’ describes how the Reverend Jack Russell’s breeding plans, ‘miniaturising at every step, unpacking/ the Russian Doll of a fox-hunting dog’, initiate a disturbance in the natural order:
Every dawn and dusk he has watched
the local foxes steal their red cloven way
across the fields, the tinderbox
of their nerves scurrying for sanctuary
now that the covenant has been betrayed.
There are more strange encounters as the sequence progresses: a fox ‘wearing a God-Head mask’ initiates a boy into the experience of the seasons; in ‘Nostoc’ a domestic dog licks and chews the eponymous fungus (also known as ‘witch’s butter’) and as a result vomits what seem to be ‘miniature// dogfish, skate and sharks’; a fox in the middle of the road has ‘his/ dress all opened-up like a hospital gown’.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, when the collection moves its focus from the wild to the world of art in the first of the two untitled groups, that many of the artists and artworks focused on (Paula Rego, Francis Bacon, Rembrandt’s ‘The Carcass of an Ox’, Gauguin’s ‘Yellow Christ’) are known for their power to shock. Breen’s treatment of these works often foregrounds pity over horror, however, as when Gauguin’s Christ looks down on the indistinct Breton figures below him ‘marking out where all/ his future sons will fail’. Another ekphrastic poem, ‘Two Readings of Cy Twombly’s “Leaving Paphos ringed with waves” ’ takes a different tack. Twombly’s canvas makes use of a fragment from the seventh century BCE by the Spartan poet Alkman (in full it reads, ‘Leaving Kypros the lovely/ and Paphos ringed with waves’). Breen builds on this to create two parallel lyrics evoking the seas to the west of Ireland from Blasket to Aran and from Inishbofin to Achill.
Each starts with a lament as epigraph; ‘the dead stain the sea with their shoals’ in the first becomes ‘the dead sea stained with their shoals’ in the second. The poem proper, in each case, begins ‘And then went down to the currachs’, parodying the phrase from Homer that Ezra Pound used to open The Cantos. The first poem celebrates seaside holiday resorts from Youghal to Salthill and Westport, as they would have been in the mid-twentieth century. The elegiac tone continues as undercurrent while the epigraph’s ‘blood of orange dripping through the sea’ undergoes a seaside-change:
and then to be released into the
damp July night as the music of the Funfairs
bled orange in the blue rain
In the second poem, we find ‘dull orange buoys knitted/ in among the coarse once-blue netting’ that is thrown in the air to harvest seagulls. The magical turn becomes stranger as the poem proceeds:
and later, when we tried to drag
the netting down, part of it had become
entangled around the tender hoof of the moon,
folded beneath the sleeping form of the beast
from which the Earth first tumbled
in a sodden mess …
Breen’s extraordinary imagination makes similar leaps in ‘Bird Movement Above the Viaduct, N71’, where the clearing of damaged wings under a railway bridge on the coast road west of Cork is transformed into a fantasy about failed attempts at human flight and a lament for ‘all those boys and young men that did not/ want to become those men who spend/ their Februarys tramping around the/ fields that surround us’. At first Breen can seem a quirky, if interesting, outsider, but the more one reads these strange poems the more profound their vision appears. Peter Riley has described him as an ‘Irish super-Ted Hughes’, but there is also something of Samuel Beckett’s deep compassion in his work and a luminous quality reminiscent of John Clare.
‘Heron & Witch’, the collection’s central section, is a nocturnal affair lit up by the moon and the flames of witch-burning fires. A goat ‘from an age of sticks and stones’ is caught in headlights, unused ‘to a light/ that isn’t bled from handheld torches’. ‘(S)omething darker’ is suggested by an orphanage near a river ‘where all the young boys/ slipped into the water to drown’. Women over 65 are examined to see if they have ‘goats’/ hooves’. ‘Syzygy’ evokes a lunar eclipse, noting ‘when everything is aligned/ nothing is right’.
In the second run of shorter poems, the identification with the non-human world deepens. A raven ‘unfragment(s)/ its egg-self’ to face ‘the wild-glare of empty bogland’ (‘A Raven is Crowned in the West’). One snail ‘lets himself down/ out of the skull of himself’ after rain, while another is dropped by a seagull to become ‘a Sputnik re-entering the Earth’s orbit’ (‘A Pair of Shell Cases’). Ireland’s Christian heritage also finds its way into Breen’s world here. The ass bearing Christ into Jerusalem is itself the incarnation of a God; a lobster suggests the crucifixion; Neil Armstrong plants fragments of the true cross on the moon with startling effects.
Irish history, implicit in many of the poems, is foregrounded in ‘The Bearing of the Dead Across on the Dursey Island Cablecar’. The prose poem juxtaposes the fates of O’Sullivan Beare in the early seventeenth century and of Edith Somerville and Violet Martin at the start of the twentieth. The island’s population were massacred by English troops in 1602 when O’Sullivan was ‘Captain of his Nation’ as part of the Tudor ‘clearances’ of West Cork. Edith and Violet (better known as the writers Somerville and Ross) saw the end of Anglo-Irish ascendancy at nearby Castletownsend. In Breen’s poem their ghosts inhabit the same space. Violet, frenzied and impoverished, ‘says that she saw a procession of about a thousand bedraggled souls, marching beneath the moon, she wanted to help them’. The poem ends in frosty desolation:
With a Spanish Church bell ringing of white pointed hoods and meshed veils
of black roses, his death echoed as he was stabbed, and the winter of 1601/2
once more flowed from his side, along with the trampled footprints of the
965 who had carried his blood and the glass altar of his Title through the Irish
frost and snow and the medieval dying light.
And poor Edith, out on the lawn, lost in the Centuries-old fog, still looking for
Violet, and Violet exiled on the moon, unloading the ships, their hulls full of
snow and ice.
That the wound in O’Sullivan Beare’s side should suggest Christ’s wound in the crucifixion and Violet should be associated with the moon is an illustration of the way Nostoc needs to be read as a whole, its images and symbols slipping from one poem to another, gaining resonance on the way.
The final sequence, ‘A Boat-Shape of Birds’, continues this process as we re-encounter crows, herons, Neil Armstrong, Christ and the two thieves on their crosses, a harpoon on the moon, and fog. But this is also the most personal of the poems in the collection, at heart a meditation on the death of the poet’s father. Breen presents himself as an apprentice augur, hoping to read meaning into the movements of birds. Delivering his father to the hospice, four days before his death, he finds ‘nothing significant to see/ nothing metaphorical in the sky’. Nevertheless metaphors continue to come. Leaving the crematorium, the mind is:
like the frantic
thrashing tussle of a horse
swimming in water, as seen
from beneath, its legs like
The ‘God-lie’ is confirmed as he watches: ‘
a parasitic wasp…
inject her eggs
deep within a caterpillar
giving her off-spring an instant
feast of beast
Daragh Breen’s poetry is refreshingly unfashionable. Its complexity feels unforced; certainly not dictated by any theoretical programme. The poems are often moving but refrain from exploiting personal feeling in any manipulative way. This seems a serious and surprising enterprise. It may be that Daragh Breen is the real thing.