Review: Ron Carey - 'Distance'

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'Distance' is the début collection from Limerick-born, now Dublin-based, poet Ron Carey. He is a multiple prize winner and finalist in many international poetry competitions including The Bridport Prize and the Gregory O’ Donoghue Poetry Award. After racking up a number of impressive achievements, does Carey's first full-length volume live up to his promise?

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The first section of the collection, 'Time Travel', is firmly rooted in childhood and family, hinting as testing rites of passage, that are trying to settle their way in surroundings of countryside and country life. The collection opens with a quote from an Elizabeth Burns poem, mentioning "the sense | of time and place dissolving, so what divides us | from the past and elsewhere, and from each other". It is this idea of space, of what keeps us separate from each other, that prevails throughout the book.

In 'Moving', the opening poem, the voice is one of the excited but fearful child, a voice that lingers through all the poem.

      Then, coming to a hill, we saw the thousand boxes
      Of the new estate and the house that was to be ours,
      Its emptiness concrete.
      As we came down the unworn road, its black tar
      Barely solid under the wheels, Joe put the reins
      Into my electrified hands.

A poem like 'Background', focusing on Carey's grandfather, almost feels too personal and private to let the reader in, before reaching a pivotal revelation halfway through which immediately grabs our attention. In 'The Fields', we see Carey's ability to oscillate between dark imagery and tenderness, reminiscent of Ted Hughes, speaking of "killer blows of his blackthorn" and then "from the cup of Childhood, I poured my selfish tears". This is Carey's skill, counterbalancing savagery with pause and reflection, as in 'The Murderer's Dog':

      We stampeded through the house, shaking
      China-cups from dreams of immortality

Hints of darkness crop up throughout in phrases such as "emptiness concrete", "bullet-hard buds", "sooty walls of hell", "patches of last night’s row" that "darken the warm cement", and in 'A Christmas Story', a "strange man, | Who sounded like you, cried and threw dishes | On the floor". The short section 'The Beloved' is perhaps the most violent, Carey tackling issues in a mixture of first and third person, as if looking for a comfortable distance himself from which to speak of sore matters.

The 'New Oceans' section sees the poet perhaps attempting to rediscover some of the pastoral idyllic found in his childhood, yet taking care to remind us that paradise can hold its fair share of torment too. The various environs are somewhat more exotic, with rocks "as smooth as dragon eggs", where "every sunrise the women appear" and "warm hands of the sun push us forward". In 'Amelia's Wedding', idealism and the blunt insertion of reality are again presented, dream and nightmare merging as one.

      The altar is wild with craboo, its yellow fruit jam-ripe
      And all the chairs and the tables are dashing new.
      Let him eat my stupid heart and paint his face with my blood.
      Let him drag my bones below Amelia’s opstayz house.

The new beloved of Amelia is explored over three poems, which are certainly a highlight of the collection. using language that suggests a wild playfulness that wants and waits to break out of careful, studied ways.

After exploring foreign what-might-have-beens, it is appropriate that Carey returns to Ireland for the closing section 'The World Will Break Your Heart' (a curiously trite title that doesn't suit the writing). Here, we are concerned with the conflict between old and new - preserving of traditions, the introduction of electric light, decaying cottages and the need for new buildings. This tension is ingeniously captured in the image of a crying baby amidst the antiquity of the Chester Beatty Library. What Carey makes of this tension is perhaps best reflected in the opening lines of 'Lineage':

      I was thinking only this morning as I turned the road
      From Kinvara to Ballyvaughan –
      Thank God for all of this.

Carey's poems are set on the edge of modernity, from one who knows that old ways are dying, but need to be preserved and celebrated. Some may argue that these poems are very much - or too much - of Carey's own generation.  Not many contemporary poets still write of turf fires, dry stone walls (the ancient compared wonderfully to a very much modern particle collider) or even the graves of other Irish poets. Yet in a post-Heaney literary landscape, it is encouraging - and rare - to see a poet willing to take on the past and bring it ever forward to our present minds

'Distance' is published by Revival Press, and available to order through The Limerick Writers' Centre.

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