reviews

 
 

From reviews of recent books by Peter Sirr



Reviews of The Gravity Wave


The Gravity Wave is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

'The title, The Gravity Wave, evokes several possible interpretations and he extrapolates these, suggesting, among other things, both a momentum (wave) and a restoring force (gravity). “The gravity wave” connects all life, past, present and future. In terms of the universal, our existence may be of negligible consequence, and transient, but our songs and stories, energy, our very particles, are all part of the continuum . . . With a grace and tonal quality reminiscent both of Derek Mahon’s meditations and Vona Groarke’s lyrics, Sirr continues to be open to the world, like the dog who is following his nose; doing, as Denis O’Driscoll would declare, “whatever it takes to make it last”.' — Afric McGlinchey, Dublin Review of Books


‘Peter Sirr draws on the classics — Homer, Catullus, Sappho — to ask if we, in comparison, live in a disenchanted world:


Diminished? Really? Gods don’t hold us, the temples
wither, the priests are all in sales
but the sun still shines, the oxen low
and the winedark sea is still as dark as wine.


He acknowledges world-traumas — the Final Solution, “Shahad, Rawan, Maram / this hand in the rubble / these broken shutters / shrapnel on the bed cover” — while risking, as Auden had it, a voice of affirmation and praise. I admire this book for how it registers the weight of the world, and also for its creative resistance to the brutality of the actual. Sirr combines vivid forms, their hewn heft . . . with a felicitously wrongfooting weirdness all his own: “as if here we might be, when it’s all over, / walking through fields of Lidl”; “the deviceless avenue / notified by trees, alerted / by fuchsia, montbretia”. Each poem seems written with immense care, not only to arrange words scintillatingly, but also to preserve the briefest, most otherwise-ephemeral details. Reading these poems, we’re reminded that exactly where we’re vulnerable is where change is possible.’
— from the PBS judge’s citation


Reviews of Sway


Peter Sirr’s fluent, lyrical poems have a natural affinity with the medieval troubadours he translates in his new collection, Sway (Gallery, €11.95, €18.50). These Occitan poets developed courtly love as a subject and their songs were formative for vernacular poetry across Europe. They are still so much part of our vocabulary, in pop songs as well as love poems, that the poems can sometimes slip by too smoothly and easily.

Sirr, like Ezra Pound and others before him, aims to prevent this. His best work has always thrived on recalcitrant material, Dublin’s medieval streets and modern shopping, abandoned houses and office life, medical spells and state bureaucracy. Occasionally, the troubadour material fires up this aspect of Sirr’s imagination, especially in the marvellous A Busy Man, whose propulsive strangeness carries the reader away with it:


A man gets busy

and the world is wide

a servant I was and more

besides a gilder a girdler

a ceiler a carver a dapifer an arbalestier

a pimp a pedlar a purser


From the Vidas likewise dreams up and relishes its improbable world: “He was a good lover though treacherous, / after the secret marriage he legged it to Treviso / where he wrote many good songs or he didn’t he vanished, / it’s as if he never lived.”


The Last Song, too, catches the way these poets insisted on the precarious and temporary:

And still it comes out,

the punctual tune,

the gift still spinning

whether I sink in gloom

or salute the moon.

Fulfilment, despair,

I weigh them both,

calibrate

the brimming beaker,

the empty chair.


This is a book about that eternal sub-genre, the lovelorn, and when the poems yoke together the contemporary with the original arcana, Sirr’s distinctive, jagging imagination finds real purchase: “dull ministries monitor”, he writes in Road Songs, “the inputs of light / the outcomes of flowers. / Birds of the new dispensation / submit for their supper / their triplicate wit, the trees apply for leaves.”


John McAuliffe, Irish Times


Reviews of The Rooms



‘The mapmaker downed his tools.
I’ve caught it: every alley, every street . . .
the city fixed and framed.

Now I want everything else . . .’


‘The Rooms cements Peter Sirr’s connection with the things around us — pavements sing, bricks breathe and shift underfoot. In the stunning title-sequence, he leads us on a ghostly walk through rooms of a distant memory, creating an uncanny reflection of the spaces we all inhabit.’ — Poetry Book Society ‘Autumn Reading’

 

Peter Sirr’s eighth collection is characteristically finely tuned to the facts and flux of contemporary life. It continues and broadens the adventurous exploration of the room as a ‘stanza’. Another long series, ‘An Audience with BB’, arranges pieces of a jigsaw to invoke the spirit of Bertolt Brecht and to converse with it in a sparkling display. With its European perspectives and rich imaginings, this copious book is a model of style as distinctive as a fingerprint.

 

Reviews


Peter Sirr’s The Rooms offers endless variations on the individual in relation to place with sustained attention to craft. His opening poem ‘The Mapmaker’s Song’ encapsulates the theme: ‘I want to be a historian of footsteps, / a cartographer of hemlines and eyelids.’ From here he proceeds to unpick how individual lives repeatedly reinvent themselves within the homes they inhabit. We have the woman in ‘Delirium’ suffering memory loss: ‘It’s as if // a hand had nudge her mind / from room to room through / cloudy neighbourhoods. Whose / furious life is this?’ ‘Sold’ shows how the landscape works back into human inhabitation which itself has permanence beyond the human but not enough to undermine life choices:

 

there’s nowhere

doesn’t work its slow removal:

lean back

 

into yielding grass, the long

tree-lined avenues, take root

in the brick whisper, the flight

stored in the furniture,

the key as you turn it

slipping from hand to hand;

hesitate, linger, take what you can

from the opening door.

 

And within this theme of creation and decay we have an unusual, haunting poem on a decaying whale: ‘Every so often a windfall whale will blow through the depths / and where it lodges the pitchblack waters begin to stir, / specialists in their brilliant bodies to wake and move’ ‘Whalefall’. The speaker in ‘Home’ implies there is some single whole existence that presumably makes life meaningful but it is hidden behind the changing lesser selves:

 

… If I could believe

somewhere, unheard, unseen,

 

the unplayed music sounds,

the great distance loosens

 

and the undiluted life comes striding

giantly from the walls

 

but only the silence comes

and frail music from the social room.

 

‘Cold’ is a beautifully crafted poem that interplays the changing self within the setting and seasons to explore the shifts in a long term relationship: ‘you bend to light the stove / and I see how its flame is as wholly yours / as your bending to it’, lines prepare us for the subtle mix of literal and metaphorical in the speaker’s reaction: ‘that wrapped in winter I turn to you / your streets that have vanished / your house that alone of its terrace survives’.

And if that were not enough, Sirr then milks this theme even further with the stunningly beautifully and sustained sequence ‘Rooms’ where he takes the context of his grandfather’s home for a continually shifting meditation on self and place:

 

and darkness floats, your whole life down, the whole span

settles on skin and hair, everything you were

like branches come together, a forest

of small touches. Here you are

 

yourself completely, so completely

your fingertips reach the lake,

your body drifts, and falls like mist on the fields

and all your hours rain down …

 

The skill with which he shifts between the specific and individual to the universal is done in myriad ways including careful verbal shifts between conditionals, simple present and imperatives(‘You could stand here’, ‘if you could go back and forth’, ‘All you can do is stand back and listen. So stand back. Listen. Let the darkness come’) combined with open-ended use of ‘you’ so we ponder on who the interlocutor of the poem is – all providing further evidence of Sirr’s craftsman ship.

The collection is substantial and it does include a rather fragmentary mix of translation and poems inspired by Bertolt Brecht which, though it has some lovely stuff included might have been better placed elsewhere, but this apart, Sirr who can always be relied upon has really surpassed himself with this stunningly rich collection.


–Belinda Cooke, The North (UK)


Waking into ecstasy, escaping into books, buzzing into death

 

‘Cock your ear and a tradition // opens”, Peter Sirr writes in Continual Visit, one of four long sequences in his new book, The Rooms (Gallery Press, €18.50/€11.95). And Sirr writes so gorgeously that you would like to believe in the “open” tradition he proposes. Again and again his speakers wake into a world that they slowly apprehend, as if for the first time, rapt and ecstatic as when, later in Continual Visit, he describes how,

 

Wherever

you look fills up and sways, the details

slip to their places. Everything is

convinced. Inside

is the ache of furniture, the dreaming

bone-handled knives, blue willow

dramas.

 

 

Last year his poems’ stand-out appearances in Gerry Smyth and Pat Boran’s Dublin anthology, If Ever You Go, made it clear that he is one of the city’s most exhilarating scribes, but Sirr’s new book has other places than the capital in mind. The Mapmaker’s Song declares, “The mapmaker downed his tools,” and turns its attention to more transient subjects, especially the body as it ends: “I want to lie in the atrium / of the museum of the fingertip / and touch, touch, touch.”

 

 

Sirr likes to place his poems in the constellation of poets from around the world that he reads with admiration. The closing couplets of Drift recognise a kindred Europhile spirit in Dennis O’Driscoll: “A room for you where poetry comes / Holub Milosz Holderlin Brecht // the door wide open for miraculous draughts / the rivers washing through us to where they began.” And it is Brecht, surprisingly, whose work Sirr ventriloquises in the book’s long closing sequence. Previous collections similarly ended with encounters with Catullus, and with the Irish writers of medieval Latin poems, and here Audience with BB translates and reflects on the great German writer.

 

 

Brecht’s dialectical imagination is a challenge to Sirr’s aesthetic, which may be what drew him to adapt the German poet:

 

They won’t say, ‘When the cherry trees

blossomed in Rathgar’

but ‘When the bondholders crushed the

workers’

They won’t say ‘When the boys spent all

day skimming stones’

but ‘When they were fine-tuning the

drones’

They won’t say

‘When she glided into the room’

but ‘When the great powers twiddled

their thumbs’

And they won’t say

‘The times were dark’

but ‘Where was the poets’ tune?’

 

 

Sirr’s “they” might not be appeased by The Rooms. His poems’ tunes emphasise not Brecht’s propagandistic side but the lyrics he wrote during his 1930s exile in Svendborg: Sirr mentions drones and bond-holders but mostly sets them aside. The Brecht sequence, like the rest of The Rooms, restates the case for his sensuous lyric art.

— John McAuliffe, The Irish Times

 

 

The Rooms is Peter Sirr’s eighth collection. A beautifully orchestrated meditation upon the meaning of the word ‘home’, it weighs in at just over one hundred pages and is thus a substantial addition to his work.  By profession, Sirr is a linguist, teacher and translator who, like Joyce, Mahon, Clifton, spent many years abroad. It is not surprising, therefore, that throughout his poetic career he has explored the dichotomy between ‘home’, seen often as a temporary refuge, and ‘exile’, its obverse image: ‘That’s it all / exile and interlude, that the grass / escapes me, the implements hang heavy in my hands // that the roads are narrow but the wind is mine.’ ‘Mapmaker’s Song’, Sirr’s opening poem, is a prologue to what follows. A statement of intent, an ars poetica, it is a bravura performance which invites the reader to follow in its footsteps:


The mapmaker downed his tools.
I’ve caught it: every alley, ever street,
every fanlight and window ledge,
the city fixed and framed.


Sirr’s project here will seem reminiscent of Joyce’s mapping of Dublin or, more recently, Ciaran Carson’s Belfast poems, but in this poem there is also a sense of restlessness, so that the evocation of details seems never quite complete:


Now I want everything else,
I want to be a historian of footsteps,
a cartographer of hemlines and eyelids,
I want to catch what the pavements say
when they sing to each other
in their deep laboratories, plotting
every journey since the place began.


Having established a mood and sketched out his terrain, Sirr explores it in a group of nine individual poems before moving on to ‘The Rooms’, the collection’s eponymous sequence.  Among these there is ‘House for Sale’, a fine version of Andre Frénaud’s classic ‘Maison à vendre’ and a poem about Robert Graves on the island of Mallorca. ‘Nando’s Table’ is an attractive celebration of domesticity and friendship: ’and that must have been it, or something like it: / pane, olio, formaggio, sole / Nando’s table washed with October, / all of us sitting there as if for ever.’ ‘Delirium’ is a study in bereavement in which it is the daily routine of chores, ‘a thousand / ancient duties … a thousand fretting tasks’, that helps a widow to survive; while ‘Whalefall’ is a strikingly memorable evocation of mortality in which the carcass of a beached whale becomes a habitable space for the waves of tiny creatures who strip it down and then probe the very marrow of its bones until, like houses of bricks and mortar, this huge bone-house also disappears.

Good as these poems are, it is the collection’s burnished central sequence that impresses most.  Divided into three sections with a coda in memory of the Irish poet Dennis O’Driscoll, it consists of thirty-three blank sonnets arranged variously as to their line length and stanzaic form. A remarkably precocious poet, Sirr had three full collections under his belt by the time he reached his thirties. However, from as far back as his 1995 collection, The Ledger of Fruitful Exchange, he has shown a willingness to explore longer, more open-ended structures, that move beyond the limits of the well crafted set piece. In the opening stanzas of the first poem in ‘1 CONTINUAL VISIT’ there is a wonderfully poised and musical evocation of rural isolation and a darkness far removed from the polluting lights of town:


Somehow a wilderness grows. The grasses
are full of small animals, the nights so absolute
you could haul yourself through blackness to the stars
and stream down like a stray god on the meadow.


In the next sonnet the poet imagines an afterlife in which there seems to be an exhilarating trade off between security and freedom:


To be loosed like that, streaming through the black countryside
or stopped somewhere, holed up in a ditch, stretched
on a bale under the whistling galvanize …
and darkness floats your whole life down, the whole span
settles on skin and hair, everything you were
like branches coming together, a forest of small touches.


Sometimes restlessness is balanced against a zenlike calm: ‘Star-gathering, lake-stalking // pilgrim head plugged in to draw the powers / out of what my leisure falls on.’ Trying frequently to capture the ineffable, Sirr convincingly demonstrates that the ‘poetic’ has little to do with straining after effect, but is more a question of well observed images and a music that is grounded in natural speech. This he achieves even at his most literary, as in these lines with their buried quote from Rilke: ‘Who has no house now will hang his hat / on the ramshackle, the provisional, a summer’s // quick labour; will sit for hours inheriting a silence / stitched with warblers and lake tunes.’

In ’2 HOUSED UNHOUSED’ the poet comes in from the cold to catch up with his lares and penates: ‘small gods have come to rest / in hearth and threshold, tile and countertop, / in doors, in handles smooth from long use.’ Perhaps, too, a hint of irony can be detected in this first sonnet’s conclusion: ‘’Robed with home we go / from room to room moving with grace, / lords of our little universe.’ Elsewhere his lines have an intensity that is reminiscent of Proust:


… dream of the footscraper
outside the door, the march of a hundred shoes
shining with purpose, climbing through floors,
dream of the linen chest, the rims of glasses,
hands in the air, hands within hands, the memories
of bones …


In ‘3 DRIFT’, the sequence’s final section, we sense that there is a fine line between  security and entrapment and that existential uncertainty may be the price we have to pay if we are to become ourselves and escape the ghosts of the past: ‘I woke in darkness, someone else’s, / someone’s night into which I’d slipped like a draught / and lay like nothing, unbodied, unselfed.’ Having at this point, like Eliot, brought his ‘exploring’ to a provisional halt, Sirr presents the reader with another group of free- standing poems before moving on, in another long sequence, to explore the life and work of Bertolt Brecht.  Opening up new perspectives on what has gone before, the poet gives ample testimony, also, to his polyglot tastes in poetry with a version of Jean Follain’s ‘Hardware Store’ and pieces inspired by Breton and Borges. In ’Habitable Space’ he contemplates the possibility of life in a distant galaxy; while two poems, ‘Harm’, set in contemporary Syria, and ‘Elegy’, set in Sixteenth Century Nuremberg, depict the violence that many lives are a prey too.

Finally, the volume is brought to a close with ‘An Audience with BB’, a twenty four page collage that incorporates versions of Brecht’s own poems and Sirr’s responses to them. It’s a form that Sirr has used elsewhere to present the Roman poet Catullus and the world of medieval Irish poetry. On this occasion, there is clear parallel between Brecht’s aspiration towards peace and security in the ‘dark times’ of his Danish exile and Sirr’s brooding peregrinations. A richly imagined and resonant volume, The Rooms, is Peter Sirr’s best book to date. It can only be hoped that work of such quality will find him the readership he deserves on this side of the water.
— David Cooke, Manchester Review

 

 

PETER SIRR’S eighth collection – “The Rooms” – is an astonishing work which takes the reader deep into the heart of the spaces we have sometimes created for ourselves, whether in our cities, our homes, our rooms, or indeed out in the vast space of the natural world. The book is imbued with an energy and pace, with the flavours and scents of ordinary life, especially in Dublin, but it also offers an undertow that is decidedly European in feeling.

The sequence which marks the heart of this collection – “The Rooms” – brings us on an archipelago of journeys, through country dwellings and life in the spaces and interstices of country life. However, this is absolutely not a geographical journey so much as a carrying of the external effects of living, deep into the imagination and transforming these. Sirr the poet imagines himself loosed like the foxes at night, or the dead or the gods, streaming through the black countryside. There is a seeking for wholeness and resolution throughout the work that reflects an attention to that journey which this poet embarked on much further back in his writing.

 

What I most admired about this collection was the manner in which his subjects are explored. The writing is unhurried, perfectly crafted, and reveals the exemplary patience that rests at the heart of the work of a true poet. It is the poetry collection I have read this year, and displays Sirr’s genuine giftedness. He is without question the leading poet of his generation.

— Mary O’Donnell, Medea999's Blog

To see the full review visit: http://bit.ly/1lhG7Q7



Reviews of The Thing Is and other books



. . . The Catullan renderings and evocations are one of the joys of The Thing Is . . . The recklessness of some of Catullus’s poems seems a guarantee of the perfect tuning of others. Similarly, the versions of Catullus (and Brecht) in Sirr’s volume offset and add resonance to the more important poems grouped in the sequences ‘Shhh’ and ‘The Overgrown Path’.

The ‘Shhh’ poems are poems of globalization, with titles such as The New Regime Inherits the Electrodes and For the Hanged Boys . These pieces help us to put names on some contemporary sources of confusion. An even finer achievement is the sequence entitled ‘The Overgrown Path’, concerning the poet’s expectant wife, childbirth, and the early childhood of their daughter:


           . . . I look over and see, suddenly, how close you are,
           what gravid means, how we are walking slowly

          out of our old lives . . .


In the title poem:


           The thing is this: you hold them to the light
           and laugh, you bring them to me
           one in each fist like the edges of a cross . . .


A little girl plays with crayons under the shadow of a cross: the reader is touched by a quattrocento gust. Then:

           

                                   . . . the joy of it lifts you to your feet
           where you sway with possibility, conducting your colours
           and the thing is this, the thing is always this


That such a celebration of children and creativity occurs just as our birth-rate begins to top the European statistics is one of the ways in which Sirr, MacNeice-like, captures our current reality. Speaking as a Dubliner, I can testify that reading this labour of love I came both to know Dublin better and to like her better.
           

— Philip McDonagh, The Irish Times, 21 November 2009



‘Everyone who takes poetry seriously should read him attentively.’

—Bernard O’Donoghue,  The Irish Times, 2005


‘Peter Sirr’s quietly accumulating oeuvre has at last been sculpted into an accomplished Selected Poems, and it is about time too. Never less than flavoursome and often proudly flamboyant, each of Sirr’s six collections to date possesses the same sense of adventure and Continental vivacity that make for such distinctive and exciting writing...Nonetheless confidently builds on Sirr’s achievement, and thanks to the Selected Poems, that achievement can finally be acknowledged, consolidated and celebrated.’


—Aingeal Clare, Metre, 2005



‘Sirr's mature poetry is both about, and proceeds by, means of accretion and change. His forms grow by responding to their own leads and suggestions, to their lineation and enjambment. These often turn the sense in a fresh direction, one that can take in a wry comedy and understated pathos... "The Writer's Studio", one of the new pieces in both Selected Poems and Nonetheless, is about what happens to his preferred modus scribendi with the onset of cultural memorializing. He teases the custodians of the Francis Bacon studio at Dublin's Hugh Lane Gallery: "They've been worrying for ages / how best to show your chaos". Fortunately, a Selected is just an interim report. In his two new publications, Sirr displays an array of skills that show his own "chaos" in such characteristic detail as "a smashed cloud" that floats in and out at a line ending. Doing so, he escapes from the museum of past performances with his vitality intact.’


—Peter Robinson, Times Literary Supplement, August 2005


‘The outstanding and most surprising pages  of Nonetheless are to be found  in the section entitled “Edge Songs,” which are “workings,  adaptations, versions, ‘skeleton’ translations of poems in Old Irish,  Middle Irish, and Latin, as they might be remembered or misremembered by  an imagined Irish poet, and sometimes original poems written in response  to or in the shadow of poems from that tradition,” as Sirr puts in a  note. For over two centuries, this kind of material has been used to fuel variations on nationalist ideology: so, reading these poems in Nonetheless is somewhat like watching butterflies take flight from  museum cases. It is startling that Sirr’s intense engagement with the  dirt and glitter of recent developments in Ireland has given him access to  some of its most ancient origins. Moreover, the great liberties he takes  with the Irish and Latin sources come out of a deeper faithfulness to the  mode of translation often practiced in the Middle Ages in which inventio  was a integral element in the process of bringing material over from one  language to another. This is the ground which Ferguson, Yeats and, to an  extent, Muldoon appropriated for themselves and their times; Sirr’s  entranced revision of this past is the new brink.’


—Justin Quinn, Contemporary Poetry Review, 2005



‘His poems are forever on the move, travelling hither and yon, so it seems a shame that after five collections this fine writer’s reputation has yet to travel as far as some of his older Irish contemporaries. Perhaps a Selected Poems is needed.

— David Wheatley, Times Literary Supplement


‘In his new collection of poems Bring Everything Peter Sirr, by way of a fluid musical tour de force of words, send the hungry imagination out into the world, from east to west, through “the havoc of the market..madly Singing in the City…’ looking for Carthage, looking for Atlantis’ and ultimate transformation.’

Fortnight


‘Peter Sirr shares Gioia’s fluency and passion, but it is for a world of vivid colors and rooms not vacant but stuffed to bursting. It is the lyricism of life rather than of the afterlife. A Dubliner, Sirr has a Joycean sense of the city’s quotidian majesty….Sirr’s The Ledger of Fruitful Exchange contained one of the most powerful erotic poems of the last twenty years.’

Poetry, Chicago


‘It’s hard to imagine anyone disputing that Bring Everything is Sirr’s best book to date…It represents the perfection of a mode that Sirr has been working in previous books, encompassing a rich imaginative profusion and amazing sensual force. Though it includes love poems of the highest order, its central character is the city of Dubllin as it has never been seen before in our poetry.’

—Justin Quinn in Metre


‘Peter Sirr won the Patrick Kavanagh Award when he was 22 and in Poetry Ireland, his fellow Waterford native Thomas McCarthy praised the ensuing first collection Marginal Zones (1984) as the best Irish debut since Death of a Naturalist. Sirr’s subsequent collections Talk, Talk; Ways of Falling; the Ledger of Fruitful Exchange show the same remarkable technique: the poems glide from detail to fabulous detail, recorded precisely and luminously; the narrator is a wry, smart observer; and in each book alongside fluent lyrics that command a wide, sensuous vocabulary, there are substantial attempts at the long poem.’

—John McAuliffe, Southward


‘There is a language “in which the word for family/is also the word for departure”, someone points out to Peter Sirr in his elegantly titled fourth collection, the Ledger of Fruitful Exchange…Absence also looms large in “A Journal”, the long poem recording the break-up of a relationship which occupies the entirety of the book’s second part. In keeping with its epigraph from Montale, this is often hermetic but never less than compelling, writing:


Unshakeably

the difficult words take root, brilliantly


flower in the waiting mouths.


It is Sirr’s attention to both the difficulty and the brilliant flowerings of language that makes The Ledger of Fruitful Exchange a genuine breakthrough, and his most interesting collection to date.’

Times Literary Supplement


‘From the moment of opening The Ledger of Fruitful Exchange we know we are in the company of a real poet.’

—Aisling Maguire, Metre


‘Peter Sirr’s The Ledger of Fruitful Exchange [is] a marvellous fourth volume, where he really makes an enormous psychic jump. Here you have the culmination of all his technical expertise, which he has been developing in his previous volumes, but this time cum corde, with a great infusion of heart. His style is very cool and almost American, and he does what the Americans do, but so much better than most of them.’

—Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Irish Times.


‘The Ledger marks a great leap forward, placing Sirr at the forefront of the younger poets in these islands.’

—Brian Lynch, Irish Times