London Grip Poetry Review – Donall Dempsey

Poetry review – THE FOX THE WHALE AND THE WARDROBE: Alex Josephy explores the world of fantasy and memory captured in Donall Dempsey’s poetry

The Fox the Whale and the Wardrobe
Dónall Dempsey
Vole Books 2023
ISBN 978-1-913329-83-9
120pp   £10.99

“The Fox the Whale and the Wardrobe.’ With such a title, unconditionally and at first sight I wanted to read this book, for its word music, for the nostalgic tug of its Narnia reference, and perhaps also for the riddle it proposes. In fact the three components come together in the marvellous title poem about a child trying to cope with the loss of a sister. The fox in the wardrobe turns out to be ‘my auntie’s fox stole, eyes beady with death’, while the whale is ‘my auntie’s whale bone corset’. These creatures are both horrific and wonderful:

Whale and fox
show me their dreams

the seas and forests 
of their lives.

The poet does not shy away from grief. In later life he returns to the dark wardrobe, deploying the rich resources of his imagination in coming to terms with it:

I come to comfort
the nine year old I was.

Dempsey’s poetry is prolific and distinctive, prone to flights of fantasy but rooted in the real world too, informed by his career as a care worker, schoolteacher and parent. Despite this being his sixth collection, he is clearly not finished with exploring family history in which he discovers a wider world of ideas. Dempsey’s Irish boyhood comes across particularly poignantly, with its loves, sorrows and terrors; this extends into affectionate poems about adult love and about his daughter, in whom he seeks to recapture his own innocence:

 ‘So I didn’t miss anything?’
I comfort her.
’Not a thing!’ I assure her

‘Good! she sniffles
‘I hate to miss
anything the world does!’

This collection is chatty! Humour and direct speech are often employed in order to smuggle serious concerns into a poem that seems all set to entertain. In a Dempsey poem, anything might find a voice or start a conversation. For instance, “Regeneration” touches on the future of the Universe via a dialogue in which the molecules of a human body reveal lives and opinions of their own:

the other molecule sniggers
‘…this present formation has not been
shall I say the most interesting!’

I wait for the molecules 
to shut up so
I can get on with my life

Sometimes Dempsey just can’t resist a joke, taking the poems into territory close to stand-up. If you are a serious poetry reader who deplores the use of hyperbolic punctuation, you might baulk here and there. But like me, the next moment you are likely to be drawn back into the sheer joy of Dempsey’s wildly inventive curiosity. A light-hearted account of everyday experience can open into reflection or metaphysics; in this respect, some of the poems remind me of Billy Collins, for instance “Don’t Forget to Write”, in which a poem converses with its poet:

 ‘Ok then…I’ll be
says the poem awkwardly

‘Thanks for …like…bringing
me into…em…being!’
it shyly says

not really
knowing how
to say goodbye

As in Collins, here a serious point is made (about poem endings), without being remotely didactic.

In contrast to a tendency to come close to banter, these are also consciously literary poems, aware of their place in cultural tradition. Employing many epigraphs and references, Dempsey walks alongside Irish heroes such as Heaney and Joyce, riffs on ideas from both T. S. and George Eliot, Shakespeare, Dante, Emily Dickinson and Whitman, to name but a few. He gives Miss Havisham a happier ending, and imagines a time-travelling meeting of poetic minds with Catullus. He has a terrific ability to take the reader effortlessly back and forth in time.

I especially love the poem on the Biblical idea, irresistible to poets, of ‘trees walking’ (said of the blind man in the Gospel according to Mark). Dempsey weaves this into the sad tale of a dying vicar who keeps a bowl of goldfish:

…I see men as trees walking…
the vicar reads
his thought visible to the fishes

‘…but what does it mean?’
one fish asks the other
‘…and what are – trees?’

In “The Emperor of Now”, music is the inspiration for a strikingly lovely epiphany. Listening to a Haydn quartet, the poet watches the movements of a robin trapped inside a church:

my little emperor
dances on the altar
it has become the music

it gazes at itself
reflected in the gold
of the tabernacle

a host of sunbeams
chase each other
little fishes of light

This poem is clear and beautifully expressed, so I am not sure why it is followed by a paragraph of explanatory notes. There are a few of these throughout the book; perhaps they are simply an indication of what the poet might say when giving a reading, but or me they are an unnecessary distraction. On the other hand, the very short epigrammatic poems included at the end of some of the pages break up the format in an interesting way.

The collection has made me think in a fresh way about form. Sometimes Dempsey’s abbreviated lines work beautifully to suggest a childlike logic morphing into more adult contemplation. In “Be De Holy Dublin!”, the poet revels in memories of a beloved uncle, and through him, much loved Irish traditions of wordplay and story. These are selected stanzas:

uncle’s old hat
inhabited now
by a feral black cat…

his green corduroy trousers
nothing but rags
to shine shoes…

attacking with a pin
the dirt caught
in the green ridges…

words loved him
and would do anything
he said

Dempsey could of course also be wittily describing his own word magic there.

At other times though, reading through sixty or so poems composed of very short lines often arranged in couplets or tercets, I found myself yearning for more extension of line or variety of form. I realise that this is a form Dempsey has made his own, and one he uses with skill and originality. Yet still, sometimes the quick succession of line and stanza breaks creates a distancing effect. Counter-intuitively it slows everything down, as if to insist a little too heavily on each separate point or image. Yet the images are often marvellously original, and the poet’s imaginative wit sustains the enchantment.

Dempsey relishes strangeness waiting to be discovered in what seems ordinary. In the first poem, he approaches a woman, perhaps his mother or aunt:

like an astronaut
an unknown planet

a tempest
in our teacups
shaken by the train

that trundles past
the open window…

In “Ball Goes AWOL”, on one of the final few pages, he is still, you could say relentlessly, wondering and questioning. Do all these stories fend off the essential loneliness of being?

Only I
& the moment

keep happening
in the attic of my head.

I think Dempsey’s quest is well worth pursuing. I love these poems for the way they celebrate an Irish childhood and the energy of imagination, and for their moments of tenderness.