| University of Almería, Spain | Published: 17 March, 2017
ISSUE 12 | Pages: 179-189 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2017-7114
2017 by John Liddy (Intr.) | Germán Asensio Peral (Tr.) | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Details into Light
It has been said of David McLoghlin’s first collection Waiting for Saint Brendan (Salmon Poetry, 2012) that “These are big, ambitious, sometimes sprawling poems, rich in narrative and in detail, an autobiography of sorts, where the voyaging soul is concerned to find home and meaning in a dialogue between self and other.” It has also been pointed out that McLoghlin “unites sharp ‘eye work’, in rich and telling detail, with what Rilke called ‘heart work’, in a series of clear and powerful images”. I found the book to be the work of a courageous poet, particularly in section two, where he confronts his own demons as Brendan confronted his.
But the common word in the above commentaries is “detail” and the poems under discussion now are from a forthcoming book, also from Salmon, called Santiago Sketches. For “sketches” we could read “details” because the poems are made from observations in little notebooks kept during a year in Santiago de Compostela and then transferred to bigger page-a-day diaries that the poet bought in those “great Spanish stationery shops”.
I remember watching the poet Desmond O’Grady jot down words on torn corners of newspaper pages and carefully fold the tiny pieces of writing and place them in his wallet. Also, I once came across a poem by Heaney on display in the British Library, written on the inside of a Kellogg’s cornflakes box. We all have our methods and anything will do really: beer mats, paper serviettes, cigarette boxes, even mobile phones; they all serve the poem, helping it along towards the printed page or to never see the light of day again. Thankfully, we have McLoghlin’s perseverance and “eye work” that has given us, in these poems, an outsider’s / insider’s view of the ordinary, day-to-day happenings in Santiago.
These are not “big, ambitious, sometimes sprawling poems” but rather ethereal, worked-on but not overworked, slightly-controlled reactions to what caught his eye. Instead of photographs, we have photowords. Glimpses, gleanings, scratches and scrapings of life as he experienced it during the course of a year (from 1993 to 94) in that great pilgrim City of Galicia. They are the poet’s own searchings on a voyage that would eventually take him to New York.
In a sense, these poems are a pilgrim’s store of experiences and longings brought to us by a keen-eyed poet: from “Café Derby” we read of the waiter who could have served Valle Inclán (how we wish for those tertulias again), the bikers in the Obradoiro (this barrio is where the poet mostly hangs out) and the zinc bar counter (not many left now). In “Lamed” we are treated to a wonderful juxtaposition of proud, Napoleonic-type strollers and the medieval clerk wearing a one, four-inch orthopedic shoe and the presence of the Moors – never too far from us in Spain. “Map” makes the connection with Ireland and West Clare cheekbones, “Agua De Colonia” “is the smell of Spain” (well, one of them) and “Civil Disagreement” is a snapshot of its political divide. We are back with McLoghlin’s penchant for saints in “All Saints” and the day, November 1, tastes of saint’s bones (a type of bun), its sound as old fingers rake the dominos (an exact image) and the poet’s imaginary escape from the spewing rain to the smells of late summer in Nerja, a thousand kilometers to the south, where the younger McLoghlin used to holiday with his parents.
From here we enter the terrain of people and place and the details that go into making up their lives. In “Pepe’s Wife” we can see into her sad apron eyes, the traditional pipers and their flaccid bagpipes like deserters from a forgotten peninsular war, the gong of the poet’s silence and the call to prayer (McLoghlin cannot avoid it!). “León with Regina” takes us on an excursion to High Castile and the presence of water where cypress trees grow, a walk past unofficial shebeen bars and the glassed-in balconies are sun traps (they also provide winter warmth). We are back in familiar territory with the seven year wait for a holy door to open as the poet pokes fun at the twelve apostles, while someone else has painted their lips with lipstick. Rain again, as Beckett said, while the priest ignores the beggar and life is a lottery ticket, a street sweeper, a junkie, the poet’s dead grandfather in a suburban fir tree in Dublin via Santiago, and the over-grown moss on the cathedral is a beard. Víctor Jara’s broken hands are recalled in “Antonio”, a poem about a busker, a second chance with Lucía (a girlfriend at the time), Basque rebels and the poet’s refusal to play the Irish card. This is followed by “Evening, Quintana” and its café life of dark-haired men, a medieval pilgrim from Dingle (one of the caminos and the place where the poet lived for a few years) writ in stone and gypsies jamming.
“The Book of Beginnings”, “First Night” and “Leaving” close the selection included in this issue of Estudios Irlandeses. Each poem is a return to the time when his Santiago experience began. They speak naturally, from hindsight, of sharing cigarettes with old female acquaintances, that Iberian confidence and penchant for profanities that would be shocking in more prudish societies, an epiphany in his old barrio and that predawn walk of loneliness and discovery.
These sketches or searchings are better than any tourist guide. The information is precise, accurate and loyal to people and place. With a little imagination, the reader will relish the detail and if the urge is carried to its conclusion, you could do worse than go to Santiago with these poems in your pocket to guide you. They are the stuff of a poet’s pilgrimage, homages to a place that helped him to grow and to complete some of that dialogue with himself and the other. Is not this what the camino is all about.
John Liddy. Madrid, August 2016.