Poet with a social conscience
Martin Mooney was born in Belfast in 1964 and educated at the city’s Queen’s University. As co-editor of The Gown Literary Supplement and The Big Spoon he quickly became a critical presence in the Northern Irish literary community.
His first pamphlet, Brecht & An Exquisite Corpse (1992), established his own chiselled, socially conscious poetic voice, while his first collection, Grub (1993), won the Brendan Behan Memorial Award and was nominated for the Forward Prize. Mooney followed this success with two limited edition pamphlets, Bonfire Makers (1995) and Operation Sandcastle (1996).
His second collection, Rasputin and his Children (2000), was later republished by Lagan Press, who also produced his third book Blue Lamp Disco (2003), while in 2002 Grub was reprinted in by CavanPerry press. This recent productive period has reaffirmed his position as one of NI’s most intellectually curious and formally capable new poets.
With the long poem Brecht, Mooney announced not only his skill in developing character and narrative in verse, but also his on-going determination to interrogate the relationship between poetry and the social order. While the main speaker, Brecht, argues that the artist has a duty to work as an agent of radical change, ‘a stimulant/at work in the world’s body’, ultimately he admits:
I was asking for harmony
when I think I really want discord,
of the goods train in the river
the buttercup on the mass grave
the place so far to the North
that the harvest needs snow...
It is in these tense spaces between life’s abundance and its cold denials that Mooney’s versatile imagination flourishes. Equally at home in revolutionary Russia or Sherlock Holmes’ love life, in Ulster alleyways or a child’s world, he draws from even the most familiar situation that sense of estrangement crucial to good poetry.
Emily Dickinson’s contention, ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head is coming off, then I know that is poetry’, laid down a challenge that Mooney tackles with scalpel-sharp imagery and a steady hand. It could in fact be argued that his early poem in Grub, ‘The Anatomy Lesson’, based on the Rembrandt painting, describes his own careful approach to his craft:
And do any of these rotund burghers
feel the hair on their heads
rising to the occasion
while Tulp unravels my fibres,
warp from weft, untangles
vein and artery, muscle and sinew
like live, earth and neutral...
The most remarkable thing about this poem is that the speaker is no-one visible in the painting, or observing it, but rather the ghost of a petty criminal aching to be immortalised by his own ‘dissolution’ under the surgeon’s knife. Chameleon as well as vivisectionist, Mooney is able to wear the skins of others as convincingly as his own, displaying not only technical expertise in his work with various personas, but also compassion, humour and a deceptively light touch with vernacular speech.
The first section of Grub demonstrates the range of Mooney’s interests. Like the jazzmen in 'Through the Jazz Window' ‘… digging their rhythms out of/pure light …', he seems able to riff on nearly any theme from ‘Anna Akhmatova’s Funeral’, to ‘A True History of Atlantis’.
Poems like ‘The Man Who Ate Crow’, however, deploy his skill as a wordsmith to accentuate the stark diminishment of lives led in poverty. ‘King William Park’, for example, a poem about an alcoholic homeless woman, ends with the tautly surreal lines:
In daylight almost everything says DRINK ME.
The moon’s policemen batter me awake.
The second section of Grub develops this combination of social awareness and verbal dexterity into a virtuoso narrative sequence of poems set in the underbelly of London.
Here rent boys, Irish immigrants and punk buskers collide with the ghosts of ‘God’s banker’ Robert Calvi, the drowned dancers of the shipwrecked Marchioness, and an Inspector investigating the death of an MP in sexual circumstances. Undoubtedly contributing to the success of Grub, the originality and daring of this modern ‘Beggars Opera’ also developed the dramatic skills seen in Brecht, skills which Mooney has since put to work with various theatre companies.
In Mooney’s later collections his roving poetic eye often settles closer to his own backyard, or his own body. In ‘Two Pages from a Travel Diary’, a poem in Rasputin and his Children for example, the speaker sits on a plane, unsure how to react to the news that his partner is pregnant:
The engines kick alive, I wince and grin.
Months before impact, your minute passenger
is already folded into the crash position.
Poems about his own childhood sit next to explorations of Rasputin’s family life, and small, tender lyrics such as ‘Pipistrelle’, which ends:
Gods and starlings
the world brims with our opposites,
everywhere but this brief now
and pipsqueak life.
I will tell you I love you.
I will serenade you in a whisper.
Blue Lamp Disco continues to mine this more intimate vein, containing poems about fatherhood, coming of age in, as well as many poems dedicated to friends both alive and dead. Mooney’s tender lyricism cradles the uncertain speaker of ‘Neanderthal Funeral’, a piece of poetic prose based on the case of a woman who abandoned her dead infant. Here, the speaker goes to the hills to bury a ‘scrap of blanket’, declaring:
im giving you something i love nearly as much as i would’ve loved you you tiny surprise you gift you glacier
A theme of habitual and tribal violence also runs through this recent collection. ‘Why All the Riot Gear for a Nice Weekend’, for example, debates the proper attire and mental attitude one should adopt for a punishment beating, while “On Good Authority’ skewers the general complacency toward human rights abuses in Guantanamo Bay:
You’d as soon kiss a cockroach.
As soon embrace a petrol-soaked bag of spiders
as lift this mujahid from his knees.
Blue Lamp Disco provides many other demonstrations of Mooney’s talent for surprising the reader with his imagery and subject matter. He is a poet who can conjure lyric beauty from road kill, gentle self-mockery from a ‘Wind Farm’:
… the triple bladed rotors
diffident, precise, as poets on their first glass.
Solid craftsman and incisive social critic, as faithful a chronicler of his own limitations and fears as he is of the injustices around him, Martin Mooney is one of Northern Ireland’s best kept secrets.
By Naomi Foyle