Tuesday 24 October 2017

Review: The Fall by Anthony Cronin

New Island, €10

Theo Dorgan

Anthony Cronin has always been brisk, impatient with sentiment, as sure of himself and his vision of truth as the Prophet Isaiah was. He carries a formidable intelligence with a deceptive modesty, distrusting the grand gesture and the stately pronouncement equally. The signature note in his song of himself is a resolute refusal to be taken in.

John Jordan got it right when he praised Cronin's eye on "the undoctored and unmanipulated normal in human existence". In his poems as in his prose, Cronin has kept his singing voice under strict control, perhaps from distrust of excess in words, perhaps from a puritan instinct that truth is always sparing in expressing itself.

Cronin as biographer, novelist, memoirist and critic has been trenchant and influential, but his first loyalty has always been to poetry; these other manifestations have sometimes obscured his continuing fealty to and development of this primary gift. It is significant, therefore, that his latest book, at the age of 82, is not the volume of memoirs some might have expected, but a fresh collection of poems.

As far back as 1948 we find him writing:

"Nothing remains to be remembered,

Or ever for time's remembrance to be said,

Before on the homely pillow of white death

You lay your tired with longing, mortal head."

Sixty-two years later we find him, one beady eye on death, writing:

"Thought bounces back

a dull thudding ball

From this pitiless, featureless

Blank wall."

Between these two terse meditations on death and its obviousness Cronin has written a great deal on the human predicament, usually coming to no satisfactory conclusions -- for the most part. In this new book, however, try as he may to keep things cool, a certain unexpected exuberance keeps breaking through. In the title poem The Fall, for instance, he is cheerleading for Adam and Eve:

"Let us praise their exclusion from the tuneful gardens,

The new tasks, harsh and long,

Let us praise the birth of a new stubbornness,

And then a new song."

In Love Fills All Spaces he tells us that:

"Nowhere is unfilled

Or pointless, empty and apart,

Love in all places,

Even in the desolate spaces

Of the long unvisited heart."

If Cronin down through the years has cultivated his inner sceptic to powerful effect, he is unexpectedly convincing, too, when he raises his voice in praise; in part three, for instance, of the sequence Intimations Of A Fall:

"The force and fire of the incoming waves

Subsume the waves withdrawing.

The fruitfulness of the fruit

Is part of the flower's dying.

The fruit falls to the teeming earth

To begin a new tree's growing;

And the sea devours its waves

Lest bliss should end its flowing."

Not everything in the book, of course, is benign and positive -- there is plenty of the black cap here, too. Mr Cronin is not impressed with the Celtic Cubs and their helicopters, nor does he care much for God the Father's mismanagement of human affairs (see, for instance, On The Death Of An Auschwitz Survivor). There is plenty here for admirers of Cronin mordant. The bum note (forgive me) is struck in his sequence 8 Poems About Women -- framed as awkward endearments, intended, he says, to be taken humourously; odd that he should so misread the spirit of the times.

This is a minor discord, however, in a collection both vigorous and surprising. What we have here, to quote Cronin to himself, is that " ... kind of rightness/For which we all have a great thirst." And for which I am, I hope properly, grateful.

Buy 'The Fall' from Eason

Sunday Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment