Dec 20 2019
Poetry Review – Crawling Out and Falling Up: Fiona Sinclair waxes lyrical about the poetic gifts of Donall Dempsey
This collection is about what it is to be an authentic poet. I do not mean those writers who share without editing their emotional landscape; or indeed poets who jump on the bandwagon of whatever is perceived as fashionable or current by an intellectual elite. It certainly does not portray the clichéd fey idea of ‘a poet’ either. No, Donall Dempsey is something far rarer; a writer for whom poetry is an inherent part of his being. There is about this work a sense of a vocation formed in childhood. It helps us understand what it is to have an imagination so overwhelming that at times it verges on the visionary. Whilst many of us have such qualities educated out of us, this poet has been true to his calling and lived an authentic life whatever the cost to himself. Just as importantly, this is a poet who has worked hard to learn his craft. This is evident in the gorgeous imagery which I could fill a page with and also in his ability to edit work judiciously and make sensitive use of rhyme and rhythm. The subject matter moves from the personal to the universal. Dempsey is also, as one would expect, an excellent story- teller.
For the poet, the past and present co-exist. Many of the poems recount aspects of his childhood in Ireland. Throughout the collection we are given brief commentaries that add another layer of understanding for the reader. Such notes bring us closer to the characters and events in the book but do not intrude. The tone is conversational, as if the poet has broken from the poetry briefly to add information, rather as happens in a live poetry reading. In the notes about the poems of childhood, the poet informs us that ’I saw these things when I was seven and I felt them intensely but had no words for them. ‘ Now he does indeed have the words. So, in poems such as ‘Just is’ and ‘Prayer‘ the poet interprets for the first time what he saw and felt then. Many such poems are linked to the natural world and we see the child’s ability to make such a landscape fantastical. Yet these are not poems of whimsy; the adult by reinterpreting such visons allows them to become a springboard for abstract – and in places philosophical – thought. Yet the poet’s abstractions are never beyond the reach of the reader but instead take us with him. For example in the poem ‘The Memory of Me ‘, the narrator considers a person’s legacy after death; and ‘Small God ‘celebrates the endless swathe of time we have as children. The collection is further enhanced by haiku that are reverie like but also seem to have the intensity of imagist poems, for example:
tears at the school gate mine not hers she runs into her new life
Behind these simple lines lies a truth acknowledged and experienced by most parents.
Dempsey also reinforces the wonder of life by incorporating poems celebrating his daughter’s imagination. There is a sense of the poet being able to identify with and relive such youthful wonder at the world. Here the poetic sensibility enhances what might be overlooked as mundane by many people. So, we have poems such as ‘Be thine own Palace‘ that deal with religion seen through a child’s eyes and the title poem ‘Crawling Out and Falling Up ‘where a child’s logic is examined. These are charming in their evocation of the little girl but also carry the sad truth that often these memories cherished by the parents are quite forgotten by the child as they grow up.
Many of the poems deal with loss of loved ones in adulthood, particularly in the poet’s case the death of a younger brother who, we are told in the notes, ‘was the solid, dependable, honest fellow so he was able to deal with anything the world could throw at him.’ Consequently, we are told he felt more like an older brother to the PIP (a Poor Irish Poet). Whilst the brother had no space in his life for poetry, ironically on approaching retirement he came to read and enjoy it. What comes out is the intensity of the loss of a brother who was in a sense ‘found’ again in the freedom of his retirement. Here the poet’s imagination and visionary qualities enable him to deal with the death. The brother is in a sense kept alive by the poet’s imagination. He returns in the poem ‘Visitation’; he is conjured in ‘I like to say your name’; and invoked again in ‘Beyond the Clouds’. These poems are more than wish-fulfilment. They seem to come from a deeper place within the poet that is perhaps part clairvoyant in its truest sense.
Also included in the book are some fine poems about love. The adoration of brother and child has already been mentioned, but added to this is romantic love. Such poems are a constant throughout the book and would I think have many women, including me, experiencing a pang of envy at these open and genuine displays of affection. ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ resonates with anyone who admires Donne. It is a modern take on ‘The Good Morrow’ and is as sensual and captivating as the original. This poem is also a fine example of the poet’s playfulness that recurs throughout the collection.
The collection in its examination of what it is to be human is not afraid to look at the darker aspects of life including loss, war, and death. But what strikes the reader is that having poetry as a calling is not an easy life. From the various narratives we gather that there is often bewilderment and even disapproval from families for not going the expected route to sensible job and pension but rather being seen as somewhat feckless. The poem ‘Parallel lines do not meet’ is both philosophical but also hints that the path to happiness is quite personal. Yet whilst the role of poet is the constant, it does not pay the bills and it does not necessarily mean that the individual fits into school or later the army. Indeed, institutions are entirely at odds with the poet – as is best seen in ‘A corporal’s definition of poetry’. The cost then is a troubadour life of working to live, where poetry is the constant and the reward. The poems also reveal another pitfall to having a poetic soul, that of having an acute sensitivity to the harsher aspects of life. This is in a sense the price to pay. The poet lacks the emotional carapace that most of us develop. Whilst this makes positive emotions such as love and the imagination a blessing, the downside is feeling too deeply when affected by death and loss and the passing of time.
Dempsey is a poet as bard who reminds us of the pleasures of the imagination; who invites us to look up from the white noise of our busy lives. The poems tell of an individual who could not help but follow his own path which may not be the life others respect or even understand but where the rewards are richer and less material. Here is a man who does not live a life of quiet desperation but follows his calling with its rewards and pitfalls and is a happier man for it.