Dermot Healy: “The Ballyconnell Colours”

Stark poems, cold form, fierce emotional heat.

The colours of life are often drained, washed-out, running into each other like waters – or storms or skies. Location is impermanent, unmoored (a favourite trope), identity tumbling; perhaps what coalesence there is rests, moves rather, in the acceptance of the flux, the world that will not be held down. This is hard:

Sometimes I am bewildered
By all this foolish energy
Battering away
Miles from people.

I envy those
Who live upriver
At the quiet source.
Here we are forever

Stepping between
The incoming roar
Of life and the tides
That carry death out


Much of the domestic detail – expressed in this collection with precise images – is lost as soon as uttered: a man comes onto the high street, and is split into not only two minds but two people with two directions which will be taken without purpose (although the purpose will come later – the narrative proceeds the happening). It’s not difficult to envisage, as in Rosses Point for instance, the equal claim to existence of the dead, “though you can’t see a soul” among them any more than you can among the living, sense though in the “solitude they lack” the living sense which is a temporary surfeit to existence, the individual consciousness, apart from its practicalities and pleasures, a correlate of the living and dead as one, as vulnerable, open to wounds.

For children in Domestic Lives , section 6:

… you will distrust the tempers of parenthood.
All our arguments to preserve your faith
Mean nothing. You will be forever alone

Notwithstanding the evidence of art and laughter.

These are love poems, love of people and place, not in spite of pain and wounds, emptiness, loss and general suffering but through them, by them, in all their colours. A companion volume to A Goat’s Song, this is largely as resonance of feeling, texture, and imagery but sometimes by direct narrative correlate as in The New Town – echoes of hospitalisation for alcohol recovery, the motif of writing itself being a temporary balm but ultimately leaving the void that all words and stories leave. Even in the intimacy of fulfilled relationship we see – in O Woman:

O woman for whom
I have withdrawn

From naming the brilliant things of the earth
Lest they might lose their vividness,

Can we now without myth
Sustain the emptiness?

It’s the sentimentalities, the convenient phrases of social enjoyment, much as they are important, that are emptied out to an honest celebration, joy and not in the least contradictory melancholy that marks Healy here. It would be wrong to end without pointing out that there are myriad points to be made about each poem; Healy has many ways of writing. Just one point I’d make is that there’s a sense of bordering on imagism of great compression(Li Po/has circles/under his eyes/from the drink….) and more extended imagery that fuses short breaths of expression into fluidity (and see the magnificent Rain is Coming as an example here).

Overall, a great collection. Storming, in fact.


Dermot Healy’s “A Goat’s Song”: the missing review

My reader may be wondering whatever happened to my review of this book. Let me quote from where I am known as abailart:








abailart:This reviewer has been out at sea three days. I’ve been hurled and whirled, up and down and backwards all at the same time, been beaten up and chased by goats, and had three barrels of rum, gin, brandy, vodka, Jack Daniels, whisky, whiskey, potcheen and every other spirit of Irish moonshine poured down my throat. What a way to spend Christmas. If I recover I will say something about this brilliant novel.


Elizabeth But keep this part, too. It’s funny. Were you chased by goats on the boat?


Abailart Would that a boat had been involved. No, my whole peninsula became unmoored after fiendish rodents chewed through my isthmus. My three hitherto tame Nanny goats with whom I have lived in peaceful harmony these many years were driven berserk by the raging seas and mistook me for a Billy goat.


Elizabeth Slightly different from the description of the book but I think you have a compelling story there. Maybe “A Goat’s Story: An Autobiography” is in order?


K.D. Cool way to spend Christmas! I know you will recover so I will wait for your review, Ab!

Happy New Year!


Abailart Happy New Year, K.D. to you too!

Am off for asylum in Scotland for a week, and will return to review in 2011.

So that was my second New Year’s resolution broken (the first being never to make resolutions). Seriously though (as if), being away from a book for so long before reviewing it does bring insights. I realise that I usually review immediately upon completion, with close textual references to specific points of theme or form, and a general evaluation. I am looking forward to doing the forthcoming review with a much broader sweep. Perhaps this is most appropriate, for the novel got into my head as few have, just as my head seemed to enter the novel. Such swirly, unsettling literature that changes with every point of observation sets up a task I relish.

By the way, the novel has nothing whatsoever to do with goats. Except that it has.

Dermot Healy’s “Banished Misfortune”

I was put on to this by Alan Beard at the great goodreads community where I share and receive a  love of reading. Alan read it in his bath but he said “it’s all expanded and got dog eared. I kept it by the bath because I would read and re-read the dense, poetic, obscuring prose over and over because it seemed to me to want re-reading”. I observed the caution about reading it near water, and agree with the rest.

As it happens, I have just finished reading A Goat’s Song which is extremely watery, and there is something about water and Healy that seems inseparable. I couldn’t face having to finish Banished Misfortune so I’ve saved the last three stories to read later, taking the wonderful novel as a thick filling: I’ll review that later, but it was extraordinarily powerful reading it with the stories still pulsing in me.

I too will be re-reading the stories. On the book’s blurb the extract from the Irish Press review says “no two stories are alike in theme, or length, or structure, or style…” In an obvious way this is mainly the case, but I’d say the similarities are far greater than the differences. The ones I’ve read are all straight in and straight out leaving a fictional world contingent upon what came before and also what comes after the story: time and perception are both disturbed, disturbing, disorientated. The dislocation and lack of comforting ‘centre’ seem to me so far a hallmark of Healy, and they are congruent with the same attributes of personal identity.

There is a readerly intensity invited. Relatively quickly one gets used to the way a sentence can hold three separate discourses, for instance, three phrases separated by commas separating perhaps times or places or character perspective; one gets used to the intrusion of a single short sentence to state (recall) of a place or scene in winter, an image of it in summer (with no ‘plot’ relevance, but certainly germane to texturing the a collage). Fairly quickly too one handles the compression of ideas, metaphors and other images. Healy is fascinated by ideas and words, inexpressibility, fiction and ‘truth’, clarity and fog, feelings: he’s as likely to employ pathetic as unpathetic, echoing and contradictory, elements – say between character’s feeling state and landscape – in the same grasping for total impression. The very short Betrayal is excellent: very close to poetry, the sort of images and ‘symbols’ that have no existence in the literal world; too, a delightful intellectual exercise.

Related to the poetic, a great pleasure for a reader is desire frustrated. A text which tantalises, brings a world to life so real you feel you could walk in it, yet purposely (as a function of the writing) withholds itself. A major method of this is in the way only the merest suggestion of the world whence the moment of the story is given, so one has the startling clarity of that momentary world in stark contrast to the unattainable, vaporous trace of a world of which you know almost nothing, yet, paradoxically, because of the ‘reality’ of the story’s world, accept as equally real. And in this, the form matches perfectly with central themes: desire itself, memory, consciousness, and a kind of permanent vagueness about the past the only bulwark against being the construction of stories. This is psychological realism.

Umberto Eco in Six Walks in the Fictional Woods discusses time and memory,  with reference to narrative, verb tense, narrative time, discourse, plot and story; also he talks about ‘mistiness’ in relation to discourse, imagery which consists not of identifiable elements but something very intense and sensuous (I think dreamlike). Eco’s wonderful set of essays conscentrates on Labrunie’s  Sylvie, a novel that has provided with a fascination since his student days. I do believe that what Eco achieves by way of analysis would find good exemplary focus with Healy’s work. The ‘mistiness’ (often literal at the surface level of his landscape descriptions) is achieved primarily through disturbing the possibility of constancy of time (in duration, quality or any other attribute) or orienting spatial centre, with the barest hint sometimes of ‘story’ except that which coincides with ‘plot’ (the way the story is put together especially in its temporal sequencing).

Eco says of Sylvie, “although I have treated Sylvie with almost clinical rigor for years and years, the book has never lost its charm for me. Every time I reread it, it is as if my love affair with Sylvie I’m not sure whether I mean the book or the chaacter) were beginning for the first time. How can this be possible, since I know the grid, the secret of its strategy? Because the grid can be designed from outside the text, but when you return to the text, and -once within it – you cannot read in haste….as you slow down, as you accept its pace, you forget about and grid or Ariadne’s thread, and you get lost again in the woods…”

Wise words on many levels, talking of which Eco distinguisher between a ‘model reader’ who reads for a story so only needs to read texts once, and the second level reader who enjoys the pleasures of the fictional woods. In those woods or texts the various paths may be compared with a musical score. Says Eco, “It is like a melody, which the reader can enjoy first for the effects it elicits, and later by discovering how an unexpected series of interals can produce these effects. This score tells us how a tempo is imposed upon the reader by ‘shifting gears’ so to speak.”

For myself, by coincidence reading Eco straight after Healy, firstly Eco shines brilliantly! Then, inseparably, both he and Healy equally. Incidentally, Eco’s Serendipities is a great book. Eco generously allows for an ’empirical reader’ as well as a model reader (and, of course, neither exist in their pure state). The empirical reader is, in the fictional woods, very likely to read the paths using criteria drawn from their private life (that is, by projecting onto the text what I.A. Richards called’mnemonic irrelevancies’), adding ‘meaning’ to a text that isn’t supposed to be there. Healy welcomes such ‘intrusions’ not as distortions but to add to what is a created liquiity. (And Eco’s brilliant ‘grid’, as he reminds us, theory, template is no use at all when you submit to the pull of the actual text, its discourse, its music.)

I finished reading Banished Misfortune happily aware I would be revisiting. Some of the stories do work extremely well at the level of story (yes, I know it’s a very crude distinction) but all of them contain the refractions of a single discourse. The Tenant is geometrically apparent in its plot and story. The empirical reader could well enjoy Bad Day at Black Rock meets Dad’ Army, and why not? There are many stories of strangers coming into small towns, dreadful tension beneath the public order. Healy does it well, also replay in the motif that plays through much of his writing about identity, history and the instability of the present. Tension is achieved formally, but where Healy describes psychic states very thickly in thinly drawn characters  the tension of Northern Ireland’s ‘troubles’ are located at the personal level; history and the reality’ of life are put, not to much in counterpoint as counterpart.

Always,  this historical dimension, really a question of identity, memory, is begun with the individual, with feeling, with personal sense of being. Yet this is different from the cosy concept of fixed person, fixed mind: the mind itself is free floating, as the reader’s perceptions are tilted, misted, disoriented int ime, so too the person who is reading’s mind, being; so too the writer’s; so too the human. And though you can’t ever really know that much even about yourself, as your Dad might have told you, “In a foot of land there’s a square mile of learning.”


A few quotations:

I have lived with faith yet never found its expiation. If I have discovered anything it is that life is bare and vital, embroidered by language and laughter, and still so quick that no image can satisfy or symbol call up all the longings. I am at least free of association. Names have fallen away. The village people have become like shadows, like stains years old. Stains not of blood, for those are the city people walking the streets, alive and caricatured, but the village shadows are old friends, like decaying domestic matter.

(Note the above contrast between ‘real life’ city folk as caricatures and the shadowy, ‘decaying’, ‘stained’ humanity he feels at home in.)

No hint of flesh or hair could persuade me that I existed at twenty, nor companion at forty give evidence of my worth. Nor could I defend myself from reality, when, as some part of me chooses to consider the exciting and deepening possibilities of my life ahead, there for one terrifying moment remains only my life before. And from these unwilled insights, emerges myself, unwilled, judged, unreasonable, and from this flow the lives of other people.

And there is an important double meaning, I think to the phrase “from this flow the lives of other people”: our mutual humanity, and the nothingness from which the writer weaves a narrative.

I’ll be returning to this review. May buy an extra copy for the bath!

Dermot Healy: Sudden Times

I’ve been away from reading literature for a while apart from some poetry, Wallace Stevens and the like; I’ve been reading philosophy instead, and – as has happened in my life before – felt a distaste for literature and its accoutrements. My return was prompted by somebody slipping me a copy of this novel after having extolled Healy for a year. I read it in 24 hours and loved it. I’m certainly on my way to reading more of the Irishman, and want to retain some initial responses at this stage, and concentrate upon his formal elegance. I think too that a complete appraisal of the novel would require close attention to its narratives and hence retelling the story.

What may be said, however, is that there are two distinct narratives. You can think of all ‘flashbacks’ as being intertwined with the present but here there is something more complex going on. The book is ghosted from the protagonist’s mind wherein the narratives of self and identity shift and vaporise, where stability is unattainable, and memory is perception is memory. One is brought close into unease and it would be tempting for the overly sensitive reader to locate the instabilities within some secure classificatory scheme of pathologies such as paranoia, schizotypical or psychotic anxiety. A differently sensitive reader may share the prismatic dislocation of reality.

That ‘reality’ is of place, of relationships, of self incorporating all contingencies, and a removal of privileged perspective. At a naturalistic level the novel is largely set in shabby urban backroads, much on building sites, temporary structures, wastegrounds; signs predominate: shop signs, warning notices, advertisements; these sharply quotidian images are as fragmented as their counterparts in ‘mind’. The geography of the city becomes as a text or palimpsest, upon which the protagonist moves or reads for meaning, carrying his bare necessities, but carrying too the mazeways or palimpsests of the accidents and contingencies that  thicken to  weight the apprehension of some destiny beyond his control.

One is deeply sympathetic to this wanderer,  an innocent abroad enmeshed by circumstance. Loss is stark and brutal (there is some grotesque imagery in the novel, yet this too is seen refracted, not, as it were,  full on; certainly there is no appeal to sentimental or stock response techniques to evoke cheap horror) To some extent as the meshes and webs thicken and stick, response becomes numbed, muted, autistic, conventional. Relating to an other human being – full on – proves, after all, to be one of the most difficult tasks that face us.

Appropriately, there are several minor narrative discourses sliding over each other. In particular, a court room cross examination ironically represents transparent naturalism only to reveal itself in every sentence as an absurd distortion of the truth. On this last piece of theatre,  language is seen as crucial to the form of the novel. The shadows, fantasies, surreal elements of the protagonist’s encounter with the (imagined reality of) a ‘world out there’, have no words, no public, off the shelf, conventional containers of expression to shape feelings and perceptions. That there is no such thing as a private language is shown to be horribly true; in the outer theatre, it is the wrong word said at the wrong time which causes so much tragedy. Words are devestating. There is always the implication of a slippery disjunction between expressed language and what was thought, or what was nearly said, or what one wished one hadn’t said, or, most devestating of all,  between what was said as a mere necessity to say something while knowing that there were no words that could be said.

It would be good if we could read stories not in serial time but absorb them all at once, like a dream. What we can see taking this book as far as we are able as a whole is that it’s a powerful portrait, frozen like an image on the other side of a window,  of a mind, of a human being, whose past narrative and present narrative are not only related but are the same. This is a great novel,  possibly deserving to be called tragic.