Formal poetry is old-fashioned, stuffy and hopelessly square. That, anyway, was the prevailing wisdom for several decades in the 20th century. Free verse had innovation and the spirit of radicalism on its side; to write a sonnet was the poetic equivalent of donning a tweed jacket and professing nostalgia for the good old days before women’s emancipation and the invention of the telephone ruined everything.
Fortunately, that myth has since been exploded, and we can in large part thank Irish poets for the detonation. Writers such as Paul Muldoon and Ciaran Carson have made careers out of finding new possibilities in old forms, exploiting their strengths and subverting any conservative tendencies they might have been thought to carry.
Nick Laird is part of the younger generation of Irish writers that is continuing the revive-the-tradition-by-subverting-it practice. The poems in “Go Giants,” his third collection, are nearly all in one traditional form or another, and they are remarkably fluid — one gets the feeling that if he stubbed his toe, he’d swear in iambic pentameter — yet at the same time they are streetwise, edgy and downright cool. He also possesses a magpie’s interest in diverse source material. History, Greek myths, personal gossip, library carrel graffiti and the general ephemera of contemporary urban existence all find their way into his elegant assemblages. And he also has a novelist’s flair for narrative; unsurprising, perhaps, given that he’s the author of two novels.
Indeed, what is more surprising, given his accomplishments in prose fiction, is how much restraint he shows in holding back parts of the stories he tells. We don’t learn much about the title character of “Donna” — and the first half of this short poem is all about her brother — but what we are given paints an incisive, memorable portrait. Similarly, while a few of the poems may be a bit too economical to be fully engaging, the abbreviated narratives of “Condolence,” “Santa Maddalena” and “Cabochon” withhold at least as much as they reveal, while managing to be not only suggestive but emotionally satisfying.
Perhaps the key lies in Laird’s grasp of the fact that what is undetermined and untold is often more intriguing than the resolved facts — as in “The Package From Latvia,” whose titular package remains unopened “in the corner / beside the toaster and the broken kettle” while the speaker reminisces about a girl he once met in Lithuania: “a Canadian called Rain, who I expect no longer has a little / silver barbell piercing her left nipple.” “The Package From Latvia” is a poem about missed opportunity and loss: The speaker has never been to Latvia, the package is not from Rain, and the glorious possibilities of that long-ago acquaintance are destined to remain unrealized. Why, under such circumstances, open the package and reduce lovely possibility to disappointing reality? The inevitability of loss and the injustice of a world that contains so much of it are the subjects of the deepest and most accomplished poems in “Go Giants.”
One of the best, “The Mark,” revolves around the Greek myth of Marsyas, who challenged Apollo to a musical contest, lost and was flayed alive. Laird writes of Marsyas’s agony that “the death is not symbolic; / all pain’s non-fictional, / based on the true story of pain.” The myth of Marsyas was often understood as a corrective to human hubris, but Laird’s sympathies are squarely with the victim, the individual who suffers unbearably at the hands of the murderous authoritarian powers that be.
The book’s final poem, “Progress,” takes up a third of its length and is substantially more ambitious than anything Laird has attempted in his previous collections. Borrowing elements from John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” the poem at first feels a bit like a catch-all, a shaggy dog in which the speaker, who has returned, presumably from America, for a visit to his childhood home in Ireland, dithers, distracts and digresses his way through a succession of recollections, speculations and flights of fancy. But eventually, “Progress” gets down to business and reveals its true nature: It is an elegy for a lost friend, and all the evasion and hand-wringing was a response to grief — a response that manages to make the poem all the more plausible and moving. Some poems pretend that suffering can be contained, if not vanquished or transfigured, by pretty language. “Progress” achieves a greater effect and a deeper resonance by admitting that “the true story of pain” always has the upper hand.
Poetry will not justify our pain, let alone magically transform it into something fundamentally pleasant or beneficial. But in its better moments — or in ours — it can provide just enough solace to allow us to go on.
Jollimore teaches philosophy in California. He is the author of “At Lake Scugog: Poems” and is a 2013 Guggenheim scholar.
By Nick Laird
Norton. 69 pp. Paperback, $15.95