This year looks like it’s shaping up to be an interesting one for new British poetry. There are several exciting debuts that have recently been released or are shortly forthcoming, not least Sam Willetts’s New Light for the Old Dark, which I mentioned here a couple of months back, Miriam Gamble’s The Squirrels are Dead, a first book of rhythmically taut poems that, if the stuff of hers I’ve spotted in magazines and elsewhere is anything to go by, will include lyrics and narratives from animal and curiously alien perspectives, and, of course, Dan Wyke’s long awaited debut with Waterloo, whose subtly suggestive poems address the domestic, familial and everyday with knowing insight.
One book I’m particularly looking forward to, though, is the first full collection from Adam O’Riordan. Titled In the Flesh and due to appear from Chatto & Windus this July, it follows on from a pamphlet, Queen of the Cotton Cities, published by tall-lighthouse in 2007 as one of the first in its acclaimed Pilot series, and winner of an Eric Gregory Award. A short volume of only sixteen poems, this pamphlet was the first introduction readers got to O’Riordan’s work, but it leaves a lasting impression: lyrical, thematically wide-ranging and Donaghy-like in its formal panache, the poems combine dazzling metaphor and simile with sudden shifts in perspective and detailed, provocative contemplation.
Having read an early proof, I’d certainly say that In the Flesh builds on this early promise, including many new longer poems and a sequence of sonnets, ‘Home’, which imagine episodes from the lives of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, inspired by O’Riordan’s time as the Wordsworth Trust’s Poet-in-Residence at Dove Cottage. On the strength of the collection taken as a whole, I’m even inclined - for once - to agree with the publisher’s hype, which describes O’Riordan’s poems as “confident, seductive, and thrillingly assured […] seeking familiarity in a world of ‘false trails and disappearing acts’ […] in language both clear-eyed and sensuous”. Adding to that list of superlatives, I’d also call his stuff jaunty, vibrant, and satisfyingly disorienting: take vignette ‘NGC3949’, below, as an example of his ability to marry incongruous subjects in atmospheric and convincing conceits. And since it's often interesting to hear a writer's own thoughts about their work, as well as a bit of background, Adam answers a couple of questions below.
is a galaxy in Ursa Major whose formation mirrors, almost exactly, that of our own.
Back from the perforated dark and growing distance,
Hubble’s milky image brings us to ourselves.
The echo pitched up from the moss-wet well:
a lover’s shape, that indelible stain on the iris.
(Years down the line, you swear blind
the cut and sway of a dark form is her.
Neon dazzles the rain-slicked street
as you wave away the cab and push
back down through the crowd into the bar,
pilot charting the wrong star by candlelight,
leagues off course, the face, of course, is another’s.)
In this spiral galaxy the arms embrace the core.
Not her – or your idea of her – and never will be.
It doesn’t matter how beautiful your guess is.
© Adam O'Riordan, reproduced by permission of the poet
BW: One of the first things readers will notice about In the Flesh is a strong sense of place threaded through the collection: Manchester, the Lake District, specific locations such as a college window in Cambridge or an escalator in Paris. Can you tell us a little about your background, upbringing, and what we might call your 'imaginative hinterland', and how you see these as contributing to your writing?
AOR: I was born in Didsbury in South Manchester.
My father’s family were from Scotland. His father was a third generation Irish immigrant and the third generation in public service, in his a case as a career naval officer. His mother from Fife, what you might call, haute-bourgeoisie. She was a descendant of Sir Michael Nairn, the linoleum manufacturer who took his father’s floor-cloth business and industrialized the process.
My mother’s family were a mix English, Scottish, and Irish. Her father’s family had come down from Aberdeen where they worked in the fisheries to work in the newly built Trafford Park, the world’s first planned industrial estate. Family legend has it they sailed down on board a fishing boat during the herring famine.
My father worked in Trade Union education, in fact he met my mother when they both at the same college. They were both active in the Labour party and for a period my mother ran the office of our local MP.
I was the first generation on my father’s side to go to a State school, but the fourth or fifth to go to Oxbridge.
I suppose these factors made me acutely aware of class and identity but also the fluidity of both. Leaving me feeling not particularly at home, or too uncomfortable, in any.
I remember my father telling me about an exercise called ‘Dig Where You Stand’ from a book of the same name by a Swedish historian Sven Lindqvist which encouraged workers to re-discover their history.
My poem ‘A Trade Union College’ from the ‘Vanishing Points’ sequence recalls a story my father told me about teaching a group of shop stewards as a young man and carrying out the exercise. Part way through he realized that the college they were in had once been a rather grand private house and was the place his mother was born. Though apparently they didn’t give him too hard a time about it.
The other poems in the sequence looks at similar themes – flux and change and forgetting of identity. The poem ‘A Wedding Letter’ takes a note written by the son of my last Gaelic speaking ancestor on the night of his daughter’s wedding in 1906. He describes in a wonderfully Edwardian way how she ‘would carry her hospitality to extravagance’ and ‘never spoke English with any satisfaction’.
It occurred to me in reading the letter that once it was lost or forgotten that the woman (my great great great grandmother) would vanish. It was that chilling sense of erasure coupled with the privilege of being perhaps one of the last to catch a glimpse of her in that description.
BW: That title, In the Flesh, captures well the blurrings between the sensual and the violent, the physically beautiful and the rawly animal, which much of your work centres on. Do you see this as an especially contemporary concern?
AOR: I think it’s always been there. Certainly in the lines and traditions I respect and have learned from: think of Yeats’s Leda and the Swan with that ‘’sudden blow / the great wings beating still’.
I always loved that line in Romeo and Juliet where Mercutio, in a lovely coupling of the two, describes Tybalt as ‘the very butcher of a silk button’.
I remember when I was in residence at The Wordsworth Trust showing my collection in progress to Pamela Woof, the president of the Trust and academic. She wrote a note to me talking about ‘the nearness of violence to beauty, of beauty to the vulnerable’ which I think captures it.
I struggled with the title for a long time. I wanted something that suggests not just the blurrings of sensual and violent you mention but also a sense of presence and absence and the familia. I think ‘In the Flesh’ ties it all together quite well.