Mícheál McCann reviews two Belfast poets, Leontia Flynn & Dawn Watson

Leontia Flynn, Slim New Book (The Lifeboat Press, 2020) and Dawn Watson, The Stack of Owls is Getting Higher (The Emma Press, 2019). Both are available for £6.50 and leave a title for this such as The Undiscerning Age?: Belfast Poets and Tradition.

Slim New Book, Leontia Flynn’s boisterous and utterly unique compendium of Catullus translations, gathers all of Flynn’s prior translations of the Roman poet from her four collections of poems in a, well, slim, yellow pamphlet published by The Lifeboat Press. Flynn is widely appreciated for her poetry’s conjuncture of nonchalant virtuosity, unforgiving humour, and jaded deep-heartedness, and these translations chart a similar territory. Responding to the alarming interview question “What would your epitaph be?” with “Leontia Flynn. Dead. Sorry” exemplifies but a kernel of the wit on display in this pamphlet of poems. Flynn’s reworking of the Roman poet reads as effortlessly contemporary (as opposed to effortfully, so praises David Wheatley); the re-situation of the ancient poet, as well as the very first poem in the pamphlet, demonstrates Flynn’s mature and extensive thinking about poetic heritage, without ever being “so learned, […] so laborious” about the fact. “To whom will I dedicate my slim new book” Flynn’s Catullus asks, and the poem concludes with the hope that this book, perhaps the poem, may “stick round at least one generation”.

            The pairing in Slim New Book of Flynn’s brilliantly ironic and clear-eyed verse with Catullus’ aversion for pretence make for a pair a reader would simultaneously take meticulous notes from as much as want to have a glass of wine with, but more significantly gives rise to a strikingly new version of the Roman poet. From

Flavius, that sweetie of yours (Catullus speaking)

must be totally inelegant and unsmart—
you couldn’t keep quiet otherwise, you’d tell me.          
(‘6’ translated by Peter Green)

to this in Slim New Book:

F–, speaking as a friend here, your new hottie
must be incredibly rough around the edges
or you couldn’t contain yourself — you’d spill the beans!

Flynn’s ability to accurately transplant the elegant combativeness of Catullus to somehow allow for colloquialisms like ‘rough around the edges’ or to spill some beans is equal parts baffling and genius. However, nipping and acidly funny versions of Catullus are not this pamphlet’s sole achievement. The moments of tender address or elegy are all the more surprising and affecting, hidden, as they are, among lines such as “I’ve had my lunch. I’m on the bed, reclined / yet entirely UPRIGHT with anticipation” (’32’). ‘5’ is a notable example, that begins with the simple, disarming line “Let’s live my arty girl and let us love”, as is ‘85’, printed here in its entirety:

            I hate hate HATE and love love LOVE, and you want to
                        ask, like, why?

            I don’t know. It’s what I’m made of. It’s killing me.

Ruthlessly and brutally funny as they are, Slim New Book justifies, once again, Flynn’s status as one of the few poets writing in English with the know-how and the gall to perceive ‘poetic tradition’ (whatever that means) with a combination of qualified respect and (seemingly) whimsical humour. The final poem ‘14’ concludes with Flynn’s Catullus lambasting new poetic voices, and “the feet you haven’t learned to use!”. It seems that Flynn’s efforts here argue that a poet’s originality should always be counterbalanced by their awareness of where, and from who’s work they emerge from; and I’d happily wager that Catullus would appreciate his accusation of Asinius’ provinciality being translated by Flynn to say “you awful fucking cultchie”.

Dawn Watson’s first pamphlet of poems, The Stack of Owls is Getting Higher asks similar questions of lineage and heritage as Flynn’s, but Watson’s poems interrogate a maternal lineage as much as a poetic one, all via a scrupulous and tender lens trained on non-biological, same-sex parenthood. The binding referent of this pamphlet is anxiety. The title, discomfortingly long and jaunty, comes from ‘Yellow Punkins on the Oolenoy’, where Watson layers and layers surprising and sometimes frightening revelations in a poetic line that expands and contracts:

“I pry one green fruit apart.
Its skin looks like a forest seen from a lighthouse.”

Appropriately to how this pamphlet’s focal points cross between Georgia and the poet’s hometown of Belfast, there are certain resonances with the poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Ciaran Carson in The Stack of Owls is Getting Higher, and Watson intelligently situates her influences throughout. The above poem has Bishop’s rich and reticent poetic gesture (“River names tell the real stories. / The streams were green with change.”), while other poems (‘The Boxer’; ‘Non-Biological Motherhood in Euclidian Terms’) capture Carson’s surgeon-like eye for urban detail. That said, Watson manages to distil these facets of other poetries, while bringing a use of language and an openness in these well-crafted poems that are entirely her own.

            While this pamphlet, or certain poems within it, are scaffolded by bodily anxiety and uncertainty, Watson’s poems consider positions of uncertainty as a valid and important ideological standpoint. These poems think seriously about anxiety, and rightly so, given their attention to a queer life in Northern Ireland, and to same-sex parenting. Communication, and its breakdown is explored in ‘‘We Can Chat About It by Teletext Which I know Is Impossible’, through the pleasing conceit of a poem based on the now largely defunct broadcast teletext. This poem dramatises an attempted conversation between the speaker and an unnamed you; while ‘you’ is always a few pages ahead, the speaker is hearing the subject’s story at an eerie, slight delay:

            On page 64/88
            I’ll cave in and ask
            are you happy?
            Are you glad we’re not friends?

            Then wait through ten pages
            of admittedly moving soliloquies
            on Princess Diana’s memorial
            until page 87/88
            when you’ll reply, honestly, I—

Grim or reticent humour is a feature shared by both the pamphlets considered here; if Flynn’s is acerbic or caustic, Watson’s is self-effacing, and surreally funny. ‘Bird on the School Path’, Watson’s frequently-cited poem, portrays a bird “furiously hoking / through the bushes / like What. / The fuck.” Further, Watson is a skilled technician, and some of the poems’ humour emerge only when read aloud (“Do you // remember you said your dad was wearing your socks when he shot your dog; / I laughed because I only heard the first bit” [‘The M1 to Belfast’]). ‘Hello, I Am Alive’, the concluding long poem, is a crowning achievement of the poems that compose The Stack of Owls is Getting Higher. In the simplest terms, for all the unsureness the pamphlet charts its way through, the pamphlet resolves on an emphasis upon assured love for “a small boy” who “asked for more blue / for the sky”. ‘Hello, I Am Alive’ demonstrates Watson’s utter ease with maintaining the long poem, with vernacular aplomb.

            You’re a lesbian.
            I said, I’m not
            but I was.
            I am.

The resolute movement from the past to the present tense is Watson’s concluding instruction. This is not resignation to the present moment, rather than revelation to it. It takes remarkable verve to range from the cathedral address of “We, in poetry, // has a reach” to the remarkably intimate “Oh, / let’s just sit here / and look at this lake / for a while.” This pamphlet exists in the in-between of poetic tradition and parental traditions, and most affectingly, Watson’s poems embody the hard-won realisation that just being, depending on who you are, can be a kind of victory.

Mícheál McCann is from Derry. His poems appear in The Manchester Review, fourteen poems, Poetry Ireland Review, and in the Outburst Queer Arts Festival 2020. He was grateful to be recently shortlisted for the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Prize, and his first pamphlet of poems — Safe Home — was published in 2020 by Green Bottle Press.

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