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Maiden Names by Martin Dyar

Writing.ie | Poetry

By Trevor Conway

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Martin Dyar’s debut poetry collection, winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is full of poems that are, in a way, more stories than poems. They present the most interesting details of a narrative, and Dyar is very successful at this approach. “Doctor Foster” offers a portrait of a real character, a man with a “shrewd, womb-tinkering air”. We hear that “He’d always been the warts and depression man,/ effective with his similar approach to both./ Only in later years – market forces –// did he style himself a pregnancy guru.” The poem which follows, “The Group Scheme”, similarly gives us a fully rounded picture of a character (an old woman whose son drowned years before). It’s well-observed, but the writing feels less skilled in parts, too prosey.

Sharp humour features in “Margaret and Tony”, about friends’ expectations in the build-up to a wedding: “we texted each other…astounded either had found/ another to bear the hooves of their personality”. The poem “Cassanova to His Army” adopts a more absurd kind of humour, and this works very well, but the poem is ultimately unsatisfying. Maybe this is because it’s too concerned with the humour it has created; it needs to break free from this and develop into something more interesting and dynamic.

The main characteristics of this collection are an intense focus on the voices of people/characters and a very precise writing style. It’s interesting how Dyar can manage to use clinical language while writing in the voice of characters which aren’t themselves necessarily clinical. There’s even a poem in the voice of a rooster. It’s a very involving poem, with characteristically excellent phrases such as “their dung accountancy”, though the language is too grand for the subject in this case. Still, the poems that didn’t quite hit home nonetheless simmered with interesting language, with evidence of careful thought, precision. One example is another based on an animal, “The Heifer’s Yes”, an enigmatic effort that I didn’t quite get.

One of the poems which announce Dyar’s brilliant skill most loudly is “Death and the Post Office”. It’s note-perfect, original and, in parts, extremely funny. It sets the scene without any fuss: “The job they’re given is fairly simple./ Find the place,/ go in for half an hour and discuss the settlement”. This language gives way to wry observation: “these Cathleens, these Annies…For some of our lads their ways/ are just too compelling”. Less funny but just as well observed, are the lines: “You don’t want to be sitting at an old table,/ under a clock that strikes you// as fabulously loud”. It ends with a perfect example of how Dyar uses clinical language: “if you will not sign off/ on expired things for us,/ then, I’m sorry, but you are not our man”.

Dyar is also pretty good at setting memorable images before the reader. “In There” describes a pregnant mare as “an animate hillside dolmen” and describes the act of a vet inserting his arm into the animal with the words “I imagined/ tongues of Braille-flesh spoke things on his hand/ that my parents paid him to translate”. We’re also treated to “the mare’s soaked oak neck,/ big veins there like suede worms”.

“Independence” lacks the sharpness of this and other poems, while “Tugmesh Witches” felt like a half-baked effort, very unlike Dyar’s normally well-crafted pieces. If this book has one overarching flaw, however, it’s a lack of warmth. The poems are very precise and clinical, which generally works to their benefit, allowing the author to exercise a great eye for detail in his observations. But maybe there’s too much of a focus on this at times. More warmth injected into a few of the poems could lend it a nice sense of balance. Poems such as “The Souterrain Nun” typify this, as such warmth could have elevated it, rather than leaving the reader a little cold, though still entertained by Dyar’s sheer skill with language.

“The Reformer” is another great poem, but it’s too close in subject matter and tone to “Death and the Post Office”. Here, the speaker is closing schools, not post offices. There’s a fine anecdote at the centre of it, describing how the people he visits try to butter him up in order to influence his decision. “They’d hosted me for three days…I pretended to be charmed…but then, on hearing my verdict, they wanted the cost of their hosting returned”. One of the book’s strongest pieces comes near the end. The speaker of “Annunciations” is a clairvoyant visiting the Mayo town of Knock. It’s supremely imaginative, to the point that it feels as if Dyar has done a great deal of research to capture the details of such an event. There’s a sudden shift half-way where the speaker begins addressing the Virgin Mary. This, too, is a very imaginative and well-executed decision on Dyar’s part.

The title alone of “Tea with a Silage Queen” was worthy of particular investigation. The poem is good, but it’s one of the few poems here that feel a little underdeveloped. Still, it boasts some great stuff: “With your young arm wedged into this old bale of hay/ you could reach for the heart of the shed itself./ And know a special moisture there,/ a rude seepage mouthlessly kissing your hand”. It’s a pity that the collection ends with two weaker efforts. “The Badger” is quite flat, crippled by needless repetition. “The Simple Man” isn’t a bad poem, and it does offer some variety in the sense that it is a rhyming, four-line poem, but it’s one of the less memorable efforts in a very impressive collection.

Finishing the book, you’re left with a sense of having met many people at a party. Almost every one of these had their own memorable charm. Despite the heavy focus on the voices of characters, there is no sense of a lack of variety in this collection. The poems knit well together without limiting the work as a whole. I suppose that’s a testament to Dyar’s sheer skill as a poet, keeping us hooked on that most basic of a writer’s skills, potent language.

The second edition of Maiden Names, published in 2015, is available here.

Trevor Conway is a writer of poems, fiction and songs based in Galway. His first collection of poetry, Evidence of Freewheeling, was published by Salmon Poetry in 2015. It contains poems on subjects such as sport, nature, creativity/writing, modern life and the odd ways in which humans act, often without being aware of how unusual these are (when you really think about it). Trevor is currently working on a GAA-based novel and another collection of poems. More info at trevorconway.weebly.com.

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