Thomas McCarthy, Seven Winters in Paris

Conor Kelly
Some years ago, in a radio programme entitled 'The Poet's Voice', Thomas McCarthy introduced a selection of his poems with a recording of De Valera's voice intoning his political vision of the Irish nation: "The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people, who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit, a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sound of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youth and the laughter of happy maidens ... " Those words and that vision have often been subject to comment and discussion. but, in the programme, they were neither endorsed nor condemned. Instead, by being played over a recording of O'Riada's music for 'Mise Eire', a critical identification was established: the nation was personified in an individual.
That identification of De Valera's vision with the Irish nation and the subsequent sundering of vision and nation have long been the subject of Thomas McCarthy's poetry and of his numerous versions of party politics. To understand and to appreciate what he is trying to make poetry do, to follow the scope of his audacious artistic ambition, it is necessary to do more than merely sympathise with the aims he has set himself. It is necessary to assent to a particular tone of voice; not to the way in which the world of contemporary Ireland is viewed but, more importantly, to the manner in which that view is expressed. And therein lies my continuing problem with this poetry. In some poems, I cannot identify with the tone; in many more, I cannot identify the tone.
This problem is poetical, not political. But it has its roots in the vision of Irish politics that emerges in the poems. In that radio programme, a legacy was identified: "Ireland, in the war years, was living inside in De Valera's mind because it controlled the press as Stalin controlled, say, the press in Russia and, in a way, the story of Irish politics in the last three decades has been the flight from
De Valera's mind." This is a statement of such breathtaking historical simplicity that it seems hard to credit. The Irish Press was never the Irish press; De Valera never exercised the power or the control of Stalin; and the story of Irish politics in the last three decades has been the flight from far more than De Valera's mind. This is not to quarrel with the apparent simplicity of view, the tone, that permeates the poetry.
These tonal problems are evident in Seven Winters in Paris, Thomas McCarthy's fourth collection. Here, for example, is a representative poem entitled 'Thinking of My Father in the Musee Picasso':
It breaks my heart to think of your failures, for you were not a bad man, just hopeless. The lost Party, those lethal social forces
that broke your will broke others less poor. Talent is a muscle that needs constant exercise and Ireland was your disagreeable milieu all the end-of-term banter of the Dail
couldn't hide that truth. But look at Picasso: he was a bullish, besieged Stalinist,
yet he worked and worked and worked.
Every butterfly of an idea he embraced became art; and every false move he made used material
more permanent and more beautiful than the Dail.
Many of the salient themes of his poetry are evident here: the contrast between the liberating world of art and the constricting world of politics; the debilitating effects of political parties on those who support them; the disagreeable milieu of Ireland. It is easy to follow what is being said, but much harder to identify the tone. Those first four words can hardly be intended to convey a literal freight of meaning - that would be too sentimental - but what other tone can be intended? That last line can hardly mean what it says, but what else can it mean? That word 'every' is surely an exaggeration, but to what effect? And, most critically, he can hardly call his father 'hopeless', tell him to turn to Picasso rather than to the Party, accuse him of keeping bad company, and still expect to be taken seriously. It sounds more like a father hectoring a child than the other way around.
This poem, in short, conveys many of the difficulties of the collection at large. To contrast the world of politics with the world of art may be inspirational, but to come down so heavily in favour of one side of that equation, and on the more aesthetically respectable side at that, is to take the easy option. The book is peppered with references to poets, painters, novelists· and philosophers. But, in most cases, they are no more than comforting talismans like the pop-star posters a teenager might use to decorate a bedroom wall. and the other side of that equation, the disagreeable milieu of party politics, is treated with such animus that the lines grate. If the Dail is, as these poems suggest, beneath contempt, then it is beyond poetry.
When the poems move beyond the Dail, beyond the dreary rituals of party politics, they offer Paris as a viable and vibrant alternative. A pithy couplet from the title poem puts it clearly:
Love, we withdraw from the mess of the Dail By flying Aer Lingus to Charles de Gaulle.
Paris is identified with art, freedom, love, elegance, all those guidebook cliches against which "our poor republic" is measured. This title poem, in a new departure, is composed of thirty vignettes of between two and five lines each. But the art of the brief poem is elusive and, lacking the light music of a Mahon or the lithe movement of a Muldoon, these impressionistic miniatures cannot evade the grip of the inconsequential, the tedium of the tiny. Utilising puns, literary allusions, artistic name-dropping, some sharp images and a constant sense of enervated movement, they combine to produce a vision of Paris that is just that, a vision. And the rose-tinted romanticism of that vision infects this poem and most of the other poems about Paris. A second tribute to Picasso puts it well:
Truth is
we are all born to an artless, provincial stench. If we are lucky, Picasso, we die French.
This is neatly expressed, but the unequal equation, like that between art and politics, is a little too comfortable and the poems suffer accordingl y .
This is a pity, because there is a genuine talent here, even if it sounds like a high toned old Christian woman wincing at the jovial hullabaloo of Irish life. When they get down off the soap-box and start probing more personal purlieus, the poems can be far more effective. There is a relaxed and sardonically humorous account of a serious operation in 'Mercy Hospital'. A sequence on train journeys and train stations builds to a mood of nostalgic poignancy. And some of the personal sequences dealing with the birth of a daughter are genuinely moving, although, even here, a Government Minister is allowed to intrude and the mood sours to bilious invective.
Thomas McCarthy ended his selection of poems and music on that radio programme with a record of the Morrisseys singing 'Arise and Follow Charlie'. The choice was neither ironic nor supportive. It attempted to reflect the reality of Irish political life, just as some of the poems in this book attempt to evade that reality by flying to Paris in search of art. Yet there is another alternative, one charted in the best poems in this intriguing collection, which would imaginatively engage with the intersection of the personal and the poetic. If that alternative could be actively pursued, with De Valera's Ireland left to the politicians and Picasso's Paris left to hordes of tourists, there is no saying where this poetry might lead.
Page 69, Poetry Ireland Review Issue 28