Bearings by Joseph Woods


“The opening poem of Joseph Woods’s Bearings suggests the heartland of his new book will be ‘the middle country [ … ] alternative routes -/ Athy, Stradbally and Abbeyleix … ‘ (‘Surveying the Midlands’). But this is a poetry of transition rather than place: of  ‘ignition and the shudder bond’ (‘Bearings’) as an engine springs into life once more – rather than the dreamed-up authenticity of pastoral. Whether it’s the engine of thought or a car taking ‘this trajectory trawl across the country’ is almost beside the poet’s point. Bearings are provisional markers to steer by, measures which change as we move; and several of the poems in this collection chart a heart adrift ‘in a room near the harbour/ longing for you over eight time-zones’ (‘Plastic Butter-flies’).For it’s not only in country places happened upon by accident tbat ‘Evenings were low and immense -I light leaving a vacancy in small towns’. Something similar’s happening in an internal narrative. ‘The bananas in the basket! have developed agespots’ (‘A Basket of Bananas’); cleared for auction, a house comes ‘unhooked of its moorings’. Ballyowen, the book’s central sequence of 14 unrhymed sonnets, is an elegiac portrait of house and village. A partner’s childhood home, still lived-in, ‘could shift/suddenly from sunligbt ship , to cathedral dark’ (‘Dreaming of Cill Chais’); but ‘old glass emits yellow’ (‘Empire des Lumieres’) and these are equal poems, their tone hovering between nostalgia and something much less whole-hearted – a fascination with decay, ‘the voyeurism of\the outsider?’

Distinctive as these tones are, Woods gives us variety – of diction, of colour – too. Bearings includes travel poems, set both in and beyond Ireland (including an Achill Miscellany), and comes to rest on a short series full of narrative suggestion.

A poet writing out of ‘the room with books, – that old insulation’, Woods can’t help but evince his deep, extensive engagement with contemporary poetry. Wide-ranging but subtle effects suggest there’s much held in reserve here; and more to come.

At first sight it looks as if the poems in Joseph Woods’s Bearings are also going to concentrate on the same territory as Beran’s. The first in the collection is ‘Surveying the Midlands’; later there is a charmingly laidback short piece called “Irekicking’, which conjures up a place somewhere east of Drumshambo, where the small talk is of angle-grinders, carburettor-crankshafts and bent axles. But his sense of the local setting is mixed with keen awareness of a world elsewhere, and his range opens out to take in encounters in Russia, China, India. At their lightest these may be little more than postcard poems, offering a momentary evocation, in ‘Jasmine Tea’ for example, of ‘Chinese New Year in Chengdu, / grim if you weren’t local’, but others, like ‘The Far Side’, carry real imaginative weight.

The centrepiece of this collection is a group of poems called ‘Ballyowen’, about the last months of a family’s occupancy of a large country house. This might have been just another contribution to the crowded set line of ‘Big House’ writings in Ireland, but these poems are distinguished by a sense of real involvement with the impending transition. The poems allude to the sonnet form: the sequence comprises fourteen fourteen-line poems, but unrhymed and deploying varying line lengths and line-groupings. As the poet observes the owners make preparations for leaving, recollections of his own visits to the house take shape, as in ‘Dreaming of Cill Chais’: ‘… a door ajar I on the dining room left ancestral portraits whispering.’ This sets in play an interaction between the preserved history embodied in the fabric of the house over several centuries. the owners’ generational past that they have grown into and must now exchange for a relocated future. and the more recent presence of the poet as visitor being welcomed into the family. It allows for a rich background where ‘Echoes return to wither every room.’

Poetry Ireland Review