You're Not Singing Anymore - Niall O'Sullivan

Published by Waterways
Price £5.99

The wonderful lines There's no such thing as a poet, only an absence / of reason and modesty exemplify the wry humour and self deprecation that Niall O'Sullivan brings to much of his work. In this debut collection of thirty-three poems we find a poet who, in addition to those qualities, exhibits a liking for clear communication. The language is unambiguous and colloquial; the structures mostly anecdotal. O'Sullivan's manner is up-front; there is no disguise. And for that clarity we should be thankful.

The landscape is mostly urban. The poet concentrates on the decaying inner city: the council estates, the dilapidated playgrounds, the ill-kempt parks; and his heroes, with whom he clearly empathises, are those who survive against the odds - not so much the downtrodden as the hard-working, low paid but essentially dignified members of society who will never really 'make it', but who equally won't go under. Thus we have the minicab driver, the forecourt attendant, the estate workers, even the priest. Thus we have the frequenters of the greasy spoon caff, who bring their headaches, divorces and second division hopes. Yes, it is suggested that the only creatures which really prosper in this environment are the scavenging foxes that come out at night. Sure, our protagonists hang on to their dreams and try to recapture their pasts. But this is still poetry of aspiration rather than despair.

Within that context, O'Sullivan has the capacity to illuminate his accounts with real poetic gems. Only two lines into the collection A police helicopter breaches the cusp of its jurisdiction is delicious, and in Poem for All the Old Guys that Still Have Elvis Haircuts enough / to send our boy home to plunge his fingers / into a tub of Brylcreem and baptise himself simply could not be better. What we need, actually, is more of that exalted standard. Because if O'Sullivan has a fault it is his tendency to prolixity. Too many poems have stretches of rather ordinary language and a whiff of repetition. Thus The Living Room , a great evocation of a middle-aged man's fantasy of spectacularly reviving his love life, fatally loses momentum at would you like a cup of tea? , and forces the humour too far with three mentions of Alan Titchmarsh. (Humour which is temporarily rescued with your beautiful behind / (immense and intense as / Shakespeare's complete works). )

This characteristic of O'Sullivan to stretch his legs, poetically speaking, is at an extreme in the two extended pieces: A Night in the Life of an Unlicensed Cab Driver and A Brief History of British Christianity . They cover several pages each. In the first there is, again, accurate observation and a clear sympathy for the protagonist, but oh!, it is long-winded. The second comes across as over-wrought polemic. Christianity, in particular the poet's lapsed Catholicism, is in fact another strand woven through the collection: colourfully and wittily in Just Say No , with incredulity mixed with nostalgia in Garrettstown, and with humanity - and a degree of disgust - in Confession . Another strand is his loves. The schoolgirl at whom he launched a snowball, the girlfriend whose family he shocked by mis-identifying the vegetables. They are treated with wistful regret but not rancour. With O'Sullivan you have the honest acceptance that disappointments are inevitable; that they contribute to one's growth. He is a poet who illuminates the depth and range of his thinking with a clear-eyed appreciation of people's good points ( That's why I like working the old folks homes; / they don't take a single crocus for granted. ), and with wit, and with clear and sometimes delightful language.

Two excellent, and relatively concise, poems point the way forward. Finally moving out of the city and his own history O'Sullivan deals with deeper and richer material. Stock Footage concerns the holocaust. We get the picture very quickly: being loaded / onto the wagon. Men, women, children. There is a camera which momentarily catches a woman's expression - fear giving way to gratitude as she is helped up the awkward height. Some readers might think he is stretching the point somewhat cheaply to conclude In a way, we're all on that train , but he is right: in both everyday and extreme situations it is the small acts of kindness which matter the most; in both everyday and extreme situations there are within all of us the seeds of brutality. And then, in Astronomer Converts to Existentialism , whilst reflecting on the eternal conundrum of human consciousness within the uncomprehending universe, we have the poet facing himself: From what darkness, into what darkness, am I? Brilliant.

Graham Buchan


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