Ian Davidson, From a Council House in Connacht (Oystercatcher Press)
23 February 2021
22 pages of poetry (18 poems)
Review by Sean Colletti
At the launch of From a Council House in Connacht, Ian Davidson recounts the various ways in which his recent pamphlet has been identified—poetry, memoir, diary and essay. The length of the poetry pamphlet as a medium belies its versatility in being able to bring together so many of these genres. And while a reader is best advised to not take an author’s view of their own work as irrefutable (even if that view is informed by others’ commentary), From a Council House in Connacht is certainly more than just poetry.
The pamphlet is bookended by its only pieces written entirely in verse, though the first is titled “Foreword” to signal the sequence’s playful movement between forms and styles. All but three of the other fifteen pieces feature a combination of prose and poetry. Often, that prose could rightfully be called prose poetry, with the same attention to diction and rhythm that appears in the verse sections. Sometimes, though, the prose reads much more like casual prose, as Davidson leaves room to explore his subjects through—as he says—histories, geographies and everyday observations.
The end result is something which, to me, mirrors the process of poetic craft. Often, Davidson’s speaker will be in mid-observation until some detail or image gives way to a piece’s transition into verse. This happens, too, with the movement from piece to piece (you could also reasonably call these entries, but I don’t want to limit the experience to something which reads primarily as a journal—or primarily as any one thing in particular, really). A dog or a name—Feenone, a small settlement south-west of Louisburgh and the setting for nearly all of this pamphlet—might be introduced in one piece off-handedly or near its end only to be the transition at the beginning of the next piece, where it might receive more detail or prominence. How From a Council House in Connacht is arranged typographically and how its narrative progresses both feel like good approximations for how a more traditional poem takes form—first as a question which needs to be prodded in a sort of summation of observations and then as a carefully-considered response to that question, each successive piece being a part of a larger communication. These pieces are hugely in conversation with one another, which seems like one of the hallmarks (though not a necessary one) of a strong pamphlet. The locals, looking at a poodle like a black sheep, just ask why? Later, when Davidson’s speaker winds up in Dublin, finally removed from the serenity of Ireland’s underpopulated farmlands of the west coast, more of the same: “I look at the dog and wonder why.” Some special kind of existence lives beneath, on and above the soil in Feenome just as living, even briefly, in the pieces of From a Council House in Connacht is its own special existence.
While most of this pamphlet takes the form of prose, the poetry is consistently memorable. Davidson’s use of enjambment feels both effortless (it’s not, of course) and surprising. For such a pastoral setting, lines run over with ferocity:
When cloud found its way round a
mountain, or water thunders
underfoot through tunnels of
peat or the eye of the sun
is on you. A distant is-
land is a volcano for
the time the sun shuts its eye
The first line whips around to the second and the second rushes into the next couplet (“thunders” is used in several of these pieces, here as strong and visually representative of what the poetry is doing as any other instance; the other masterstroke of this stanza break, “underfoot” literally being the next foot—a dactyl—which appears underneath, risks being looked over at such a fast pace). You can hardly read the full stop in there with the kind of breath a full stop normally warrants, just as you can’t slow down enough to mistakenly read “island” as the two words of which it’s composed. All this to describe the descent of the sun—something which appears to us to move slowly despite the actual speed being almost unfathomable.
This kind of enjambment appears throughout the pamphlet when Davidson reaches the right material, and it lends so much power to the small snippets of verse. In “6”, we’re treated to “tombs / like bombs” (the visual rhyme!) and the meta “trochaic / emphasis”. These lines, pared down to their essentials, are also just enough. Could this pamphlet have functioned as something more resembling of a pamphlet of (only) poetry? Sure, and it probably would have been great—just different. Part of what’s so exciting about reading From a Council House in Connacht is how these smaller moments of verse react to the larger chunks of prose.
Rarely does Davidson indulge, which makes those brief moments of indulgence feel earned and almost triumphant. “11” is a great example of this in which the speaker, fully integrated into Feenone (as early as “2”, the sheepdogs “become used to the sight of a new dog” just as the people become used to the sight of its owner), gets to aim at some of us who pass through these picturesque locales
as if the wild might
be found in a
picture of the
social media, a
declaration that we
were really here
the use of “we” here making the speaker needlessly but sympathetically complicit. This is the only piece which contains both prose and poetry where the wordcount of the latter eclipses that of the former. It’s not quite the pamphlet’s midpoint, but it may be its turn—the remainder a sort of slow, meditative exit via the area’s history.
Because enough of the prose has the energy it does, these historical interludes do read in a different way. Where, before, we would see sheepdogs “ghosting” or “sliding” within prose, the pieces which trace the composition or repurposing of buildings or the ones more interested in the practicalities of farming here fit more into something like memoir or diary. These do sing sometimes, as with subterranean guns “[jostling] for place amongst the bones of those who died too soon”, but the shift to a more matter-of-fact prose style gives the final movement of the pamphlet a sort of subdued nostalgia for what we’ve just read—something the speaker seems to go through, too.
How the reader gets on with this will depend on if they’ve bought in. It’s more common in the language of the televisual arts to see or hear someone say a great piece of art “teaches” you how to watch it. There’s certainly some flimsiness in a description like that, but there’s also something in it which rings true for me and—I think—helps with reading poetry. It’s not just that you get used to a writer’s style after enough time; it’s more that there’s something in the way the writing is arranged which helps you begin to anticipate what’s coming next, almost like you could finish another poet’s line before your eyes get to it. This was my experience reading From a Council House in Connacht—that it was put together so precisely that parts of it were inevitable. So, while reading these pieces as individual pieces, the language might give some less weight than others; but I’m not convinced these should be read as individual pieces. There’s too much interconnectedness and too much evidence of control over pace that only jumps out when looking at the pamphlet as a whole. If you can listen to a track on a concept album out of context and it still seems to function, I’d call that sublime chance. Like “11”, “7” can be read in isolation with its complete immersion and focus on the presence of wind in its setting (“If you leave out your bin without tying it down then you might kill a neighbor” in the prose section and how the terns, trying to fly, end up just hanging out in the sky, “unconcerned”, in the poetry section). But isn’t it just better coming off the heels of “6”? And aren’t all these pieces better because of how one propels itself into the next and creates an atmospheric arc in addition to its narrative one? This kind of engagement requires more out of the reader (more patience and more willingness to hold everything all at once rather than digesting these like poems in a collection), but it’s the kind of engagement which makes better readers.
On an incredibly subjective level, I needed From a Council House in Connacht right now—something which feels so far removed from the rest of the world, out in the open with eyes pointed to the enormity of the Atlantic Ocean and without the inescapable clattering of machinery that comes with living around too many people you could call neighbors but not neighborly. Great poetry gets you outside of yourself as much as it brings you back in. And, whatever you want to call this—poetry, memoir, diary, essay—Davidson’s pamphlet does just that.