“a mix of awkwardness and facility”

Unfinished Business, Gene Barry, Doghouse Books, €12
reviewed by Fiona Moore

‘Growing Down’, the opening poem in this first collection, has an epigraph from Oscar Wilde – ‘Be yourself. Every one else is taken’. The adults in the speaker’s life

.. gave me lies and pain,
disbelief and discouragement;
selflessness stood in a queue.
It hurt to lose oneself.
When I start again, it
will be a million miles
nearer my childhood self.

Those last three lines read like a manifesto for Barry, who founded the Fermoy International Poetry Festival. <a href="Unfinished Business“>Unfinished Business documents life from family outwards to friends, neighbourhood and wider world. Poems about Barry’s children mix loving memories with analysis of how that love works. ‘Time Flown’ counts down to one child’s start at secondary school. Three consecutive verses begin:

Five years filling the Piranha Pine bookshelf
I made for you, of three times a week swimming…

Three days of secondary school,
delivering you and my new passengers in your
sensibly too-big uniforms and big-girl bags…

A split second of peer pressure and your larynx
is silenced, your lips un-puckered and your heart
astray with the introduction of an uncool flutter.

It seems to me that there’s a mix of awkwardness and facility in these poems. “Too-big uniforms” is just right – accurate and a little sad. But the next three lines feel forced – “larynx” feels both distancing and clumsy, as do “lips un-puckered”, and “with the introduction”. This style may work better in performance. Similarly in the opening poem, “selflessness stood in a queue” is original and the closing declaration fluent; while examples or metaphors might have had more impact than the generalities in the first two lines quoted, and “oneself” in a first-person poem is awkward.

I think this unevenness applies to many poems. Not all: ‘Generating’, a poem for friends, set among tractors, daffodils and calves, describes their new-born as “same age / as the soda bread I baked last Sunday”. In the page-long list poem ‘She was’, the surprise is sustained:

a sea that couldn’t take lives
a favourite sister
a below the waist swipe
a found sock

Poems about earlier generations are darker. ‘In their Kitchens’ imagines aunts’ “spinster dreams / of children arriving without sex, / with good manners and obedience”. This bitter poem may work better for writer than for reader. “Spinsters”, stereotyped either as above or desperate for sex, appear in a couple of other poems. Barry writes better where he loves; or in empathy with misunderstood characters, as in ‘Beautiful Man’.

There are story poems: bad relationships, imagined letters from a member of the brutal Black and Tans, and parallel scenes in the Gaza Strip and Ireland. Some I couldn’t unravel, for example ‘Managing’. ‘I Appeared at the Opera House’ stands out because of its fluency. It begins

as an eleven year old tea-boy;
Craven A, Bristols, Carrols, slices of donkey’s gudge,
loose tea, warm milk, the paper in the morning,
‘Echo’ in the afternoon, billy cans, unlabelled
salad cream bottles, loads and loads of men spitting…

Fiona Moore

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