Mickey Finn's Air

Gerald Dawe's new collection takes the reader on flights of nostalgic fancy

Something about the image on the cover of Gerald Dawe’s latest poetry collection, Mickey Finn’s Air, reminds me of Galway’s cathedral.

The picture, 'Landscape in Blue', is by Swiss/German artist Paul Klee. It’s an urban scene, a patchwork of colour and shape, and something in the angular, faceted aspect of the work echoes the cathedral’s texture and dimensions.

There are similar echoes in the content of the book: poems that remind the reader of other times, other people and other places. Some of them rely on geography or dialogue to spark recollection, and some use pure nostalgia as their springboard.

In fact, Galway does figure in the title poem – which takes its name from a traditional composition by Bill Flinn – which is one of those compact pieces of writing that describes very little on the surface of it, yet ultimately captures an immense and emotionally-charged concept.

The poem recalls a moment from long ago, when the author, while crossing a stone bridge on a blustery day in the city, passed a man – a fiddler – that he recognised.

Beyond the facts of their brief meeting, the poem draws attention to 'These little islands you forgot all about / inlets, isthmuses, promontories, / canals and walkways and ridges / between one thing and another'.

In the poem, Dawe asserts that 'Heading west is not so easy this day', and by the end of five short, two-line stanzas, he has evoked a far larger journey than that of two acquaintances meeting by chance on a windswept bridge.

Other, longer poems travel far greater distances in their imagery. 'Déjà vu', the first poem in the collection, for example, is dedicated and addressed to Dawe’s uncle, describing aspects of his life, as Dawe remembers them. The poem drips with memory: place names, disjointed events and visual fragments that encapsulate both the person and the atmosphere in which he thrived.

Another long poem, 'Shortcuts', is a geographical tour de force, starting from Melrose street and Skegoneill in Belfast, Dawe's city of birth, quickly traversing Dublin, Greenland, Massachusetts, Tuscany, Portstewart, Geneva, Tokyo and points between and beyond.

Each location is fixed with a specific memory, a moment in time that sets it in place, like a tile in a mosaic. Poem, song and film fragments are part of the mosaic as well.  

Dawe’s writing is skilful and ambitious, and retains a firm grip on reality and a sense of purpose that doesn’t allow for, or lose sight of, the reason he writes. He is wary of sentiment, to be sure, but nostalgia – an undeniable theme in the book – is a different matter.

To that end, there are a couple of poems that reference the economic collapse in Ireland. These starker, contemporary snapshots sit somewhat at odds with other poems that have a more sepia-toned sensibility to them.

Even so, the last lines of one such piece, 'Promises, Promises', are emotionally warm, even as they describe the starkness of newly-built homes and buildings left empty when the property market crashed: 'the half-lit caverns of office blocks / with the reflected moon in walls of glass.'

Overall, Mickey Finn's Air is a powerful and cohesive collection. The poems stand as individual works but they also work in sequence, tweaking our idea of what memory is, and how it colours our sense of both past and present.

If pressed to sum up what he’s trying to do in the poems, Dawe might point to the end of 'Torc', which describes a school visit to the National Museum, and the few lines that capture the essence of a lived moment and place it, jewel-like, into a setting that is both forward and backward looking:

'Under all those forgotten faces / a simple arc of sun, the torc’s beaten gold, / like nothing seen before or since.'

Mickey Finn's Air is out now, published by the Gallery Press.