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There is a diffidence in the breezy dismissal of this collection’s title So Long, Calypso, that is at odds with the poems within, which are anything but diffident or dismissive. In this collection, Liz McSkeane treats us to poems that reveal themselves slowly. They are concerned with issues of life and death, memory, returning and moving forward. There is something uncanny happening in these pages—a universality combined with a definite and real sense of the specific and peculiar.
Liz McSkeane is not one of Ireland’s most well-known poets, and this may be in part due to her extensive career outside of poetry. A rich and varied career in education, broadcasting and journalism has given her the tools to write poetry that evades easy categorisation.
This is her third collection of poems, and her first in almost fifteen years. She is the woman behind Turas Press, new to the Irish publishing scene and publisher of Christine Murray and Anamaria Crowe Serrano among others. In her poetry, McSkeane is lyrical but aware of the limits of subjectivity, she instead writes through the eyes of characters, some of her own invention and others from sources like Greek mythology.
Threaded through the collection are a series of poems concerning a woman named Angela. It begins with “Angela, Gazing at the Stars” after a nasty fall. In the poems Angela gets home help from carers and neighbours. She wears an emergency button around her neck but doesn’t want to use it too often in case people tire of her,
“meantime, it feels good to see the stars / again. She knew them all, once. Venus, Mars. / The wind is up. A shower’s coming on.”
Over the course of the collection we meet Angela again in a series of darkly comic poems that show the slow decline of her health and her ability to care for herself. She is left in the end, it is hinted, with the prospect of leaving her home for a home.
The theme of home and what it is, or might mean, is present in not only these poems, but throughout the collection. McSkeane, Scottish born but living in Ireland since the 1980s is a master of describing that disjointed feeling of one who is living in one place but always ultimately from somewhere else.
Home is an unfixed idea in the realm of this collection. She even offers us in one poem instructions on how to “discover other ways to tread out home.”
Of all the poems in the collection, the two that I keep returning to are “Kelvingrove” and the title poem. These are the distillation of the rest of the collection. Kelvingrove is ostensibly a walk around the museum of the same name with its “visitors trawling memory or something else”, amidst all the hustle and bustle of a museum, McSkeane thinks that “there must be something solid and unchanging / in the realm of things”:
something that withstands the advances
and the crumblings of time
unless the constant flicker
Is in a self which sparks from life
to many lives.
What we find in the museum, and what might be suggested about life itself is that “it is an eternal present.”
The collection ends with the title poem in which we find an unnamed Odysseus answering Calypso’s offer to stay with her on the island where she was said to have detained him for seven years. McSkeane, through Odysseus, is looking back on the what-ifs that nag at most people. When Odysseus in this poem says that:
I’ve too much time to think
back on journeys made, on other voyages
that ended well or not, on old friends left to sink
or swim. I ponder the lives I haven’t lived:
crews, ships I might have led. Still could.
There is the inescapable sense of the metaphor for readers that it can be terrifying to pause and reflect on other lives we might have led, had things gone differently, it is better, as it is for Odysseus to keep moving. The poem, and the collection ends with our hero saying finally to Calypso:
It’s not you, though. It’s me. I only roam
where the tides flow. Who knows where next.
Home here could mean any number of things – not least of all the home of non-existence, death. For that is the end point of the human journey – a different kind of eternal present, that something solid and unchanging in the realm of things sought out in the Kelvingrove museum and elsewhere in this fine collection.
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