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Chopping Wood With T.S. Eliot by John Walsh

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Poetry

By Christine Murray

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John Walsh’s Chopping Wood with T.S Eliot  published  by Salmon Poetry 2010 , is a taut wonderfully controlled collection of poems that forms a panoramic exposition of modernism but never once sacrifices form to mere expressiveness. There is a directness about Walsh’s vision that is encapsulated in each poem’s edifice or super-structure. Chopping Wood with T.S Eliot provides an exemplar of how form and distillation free the poet’s voice .

This puts me in mind of Ted Hughes’ reference to his practice of sometimes retaining an  image in his ‘black box flight-recorder’, the poet wryly observes disaster and proceeds to condense it spectacularly, be it about Tara in Yes Minister, or the dangerous beginning-flight of the bird in Tipping Point.

Tipping Point’ is the pivot upon which the book turns, it is editorially placed almost at centre of this work , and it interweaves it’s theme with the other poems in a manner that denies simple utilitarianism or easy answers to the conundrums the author likes to present the reader with. Tipping Pointis the weft , the dark thread, that landscapes this book, be it in frank memory of his native county or in our peculiar Irish euphemisms for war and grief. The colours that dominate this book are the dark-greens of bower and forest,  or multiple shades of russet, red, wine, blackberry and autumnal shades. These colours are not decorative nor are they  intended to be so, they provide a backdrop to the  business of living.

Tipping Point  is an almost obdurate poem. The poet works with his hands and he’s not going  to change an iota of his creation to accommodate the wee bird that comes bashing and smashing into his careful construction.

‘A bird just hit the kitchen window.
A dull thud. Maybe too hard.
I don’t like when this happens. I get
the feeling the energy is wrong.’

Later, the sense of pity and concern is balanced against  the author’s own creation,his home and how an unexpected occurrence, such as harm , cannot be allowed to interfere with the idea of home. There cannot be a compromise for ‘safety’ countenanced by the owner, who has planted the trees, who has constructed from his hands the place that is his and those of his family.

” So it disquiets when like today
the pattern is broken and something creeps in to make one think
how finely the balance is poised,
how easily it could tip the other way.”

The theme has pivoted between stanza five and six,

(Stanza 5 )”That’s what makes it so worrying, so strange

(Stanza 6 )  I feel sorry for them.”

Place, home, the work of the hands are the important things in this book. Instruments, and utilitarian objects  are there to solely  express the human voice and experience. They are and should only be constructions of ingenuity, tools, the web, the bureaucratic forms involved in an adoption process, the sense of gambled and irresponsible governance, all  of these things impinge upon the reality he is attempting to create.  Things feel wrong or out of sync in Sales Pitch ,

” The Blackberries are early, they look like they’re a bit
confused. It’s barely August and here in Ireland we put up
with this mushy rain, mobs of fly-things in the wind-still,
lawnmowers going on the blink and mulched balckberries,
no good for eating, best left to wither on their stems.

(from Sales Pitch)

Nature confronts the poet along his route, his circuits, but he refuses the romantic
vision with alacrity. Walsh’s admiration for the  male blackbird’s tenacious ways,
is balanced against his realism,
” With all due respect, I feel he carries it a bit too far.
All this Le sacre du Printemps goes to his head,
when all it really means is mouths to feed.
I’m still struggling to get out of bed,
never mind attending to other people’s needs.


Walsh never once breaks with either form or lyricism, the poems look clean on the page.
They are structured and underpinned with a very definite foundation, here  he can accomodate his snarly rejection of wonderment, or illustrate the needlessness of utilitarianism. Here, in these poems, he can confront nature and study animal adaptions to circumstance, be it weather, or human encroachment intoanimal spaces. He is very confident in his work as a poet, even if he constantly questions the veracity of his own poem-making ! The Poet take his entitlement of revenge in relation to the cultural destrution of the royal-centre, Tara in Yes Minister, where the idea of the Minister’s clean hands and his failures in terms of ecological protections are spelled out to him,

“But he says he is not in a position to go there
for he afraid to get his hands dirty
and he’ll have to go washing them all over again,
wasting everyone’s time and energy,
including his own.
Seamus Heaney thinks it’s a disgrace
But sure noody listens to him.”

(Yes Minister)

The debacle at Tara and a severe inability to join the dots on policy in ecological issues is something both the press and government have not realised is in the gift of the poet who will sing and describe the characters and miscreants as part of their observations and ideas about Ireland. This is a magnificently understated poem , which likens the Minister to Lady Macbeth. We do not think he will ever get his hands clean.  The words and actions of government do not tally with each other. Few historical episodes in the Irish annals have exposed such a failure in duty, it is the poet’s place to chronicle these disasters when the reams of press-release have been consigned to the shredder or tip.

Words will have their veracity, of that the poet is completely sure. He is writing a celebratory work , a memoir and he invites us to partake of it’s history. It is not a wonderment but a voice of experience. It is up to the reader to delve into what we have created here in terms of our flawed grasp for modernity. The poet will not hide it from us. He makes us look at what prescriptive and hollow language has achieved for us in the midst of  an apocalypse of ecological disaster brought on by our willingness to accept the drone of political language and refusal to look at what our hand has achieved.

(c) Christine Murray

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