Trevor Conway, a Sligoman living in Galway since 2005, writes mainly poetry, fiction and songs. He has recorded an album of his songs, released in 2013. His work has appeared in magazines and anthologies across Ireland, Austria, India, the UK, the US and Mexico, where his poems have been translated into Spanish. These publications include ROPES, Decanto, Read This, Fusion, The Literary Yard, Cuadrivio, Periodico de Poesia, Poetic Expressions and Poetry Salzburg Review. Subjects he’s drawn to include nature, creativity, football and people/society, especially the odd ways in which we look at the world. In 2011, he was awarded a Galway City Council bursary. He is a contributing editor for The Galway Review, and his first collection of poems is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. (See trevorconway.weebly.com)
Home: A vein of nostalgia runs through this year’s edition of ROPESReview of ROPES 2014 By Trevor Conway
When I read anthologies of poems and fiction, including each new yearly edition of ROPES, I often find myself coming away with a sense of hit-and-miss, and there’s usually a bit more “miss” than “hit”. This year’s edition of ROPES, however, in aid of COPE Galway, seemed to have a particularly high level of quality control. The theme here is “home”, and each writer’s name is followed by the name of the place he/she considers home, which is a nice touch. It’s also interesting to see multiple submissions from some writers, as most editions of ROPES include only one piece from each writer.
While the first few pieces seemed fairly average to me, things got going properly with Alvy Carragher’s poem “Our Attic”. It’s a nostalgic piece that doesn’t get too sentimental. Referring to a painting of Bambi on the attic wall, it ends with “In time, Bambi got blotted out/ and floors refinished, to sell it all off,/ but you can’t get glitter out of years of grit/ no matter how fresh or thick the coat of paint”. It’s followed by “Thunder and Ice Cream”, an enjoyable two-and-a-half-page story describing a thunder storm from a child’s perspective. It boasts lines such as “She said that under the stairs was the safest place in the house. The lightning would have to be very smart to find us and anyway it would have to bend and dive and everyone knows lightning doesn’t do that”.
The first piece that really impressed me in a big way was Breda Speight’s simple, sad poem “Visitor”. It’s a quiet, visual poem that I could almost imagine as a silent short film. “Hardly anyone calls/ to our house anymore./ The rooms are dying;/ their blood bleeds/ in dusty corners, cobweb/ hammocks strung from picture/ frames between windows […] word has gone out,/ as word does when hedges/ become unkempt, dahlias turn brown”. Christopher Meehan’s poem “The Memories that Thaw” has some fine moments, like “pillows/ Told of children who slept with too much sand/ In their hair”, but ends too abruptly. We are told of people “huddled/ In the darkness during the storm of ’91”, but hear no more of this storm, which seems like an opportunity lost.
Ruth Quinlan’s “Salthill Ferris Wheel” begins arrestingly: “I’m eager for a bird’s perspective/ on a place I know at sea level./ For the chance to see Galway Bay/ through the pinhole stare of a seagull”. There’s a bit of back-story here, which blends very well with Quinlan’s well-observed descriptions: “But this week, life is flat. Ironed out./ The routine’s carving furrows in my head”. The description of “a man who flashes sand-boy grins” is one of the standout moments. A couple are kissing below, before the poem ends on what seems to me a sad note: “I comfort myself with toffee/ and watch the sea watching me”. I was most impressed by the combination of story, imagery and tone here, woven deftly into each other.
“Tapies”, despite an interesting title, was one of the few points where the standard seemed to drop. It felt very laboured and, at times, fairly clichéd. Compare the opening of Quinlan’s poem with the opening here: “Hot summers we played ball in the parking lot”. Much like the ball of tape featured in the poem, this piece just felt too flat. A decent poem with an interesting tone by Tim Dwyer is followed by Niamh Boyce’s “Tom”. It has a very minimalist feel, with only four verses of two lines each, mixing pathos and (what seemed to me) humour, all working together to create an effective poem. “I’ve gone and broke the spine/ of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying// Facebook tagged you in Sligo/ and for that second […] well I thought you were alive”.
The next major highlight of the collection came with Maureen Gallagher’s short prose piece “Teeth”. It’s only a half page long, but it’s surreal and it’s brilliant. I was reminded of Little Shop of Horrors to some degree. A selection of lines don’t really do this justice, but anyway: “This house has grown teeth,” it begins. “They certainly weren’t here when I moved in last year […] They’re here now. I hear them at night. Grinding. Like the sound of sabres sharpening up for a showdown. I lie in bed imagining canines lengthening by the minute […] I called my doctor out for a home visit. It cost a fortune and he refused to do a goddamn thing about the chompers. Said I should go visit a head doctor.” It would be hard for anyone to follow that. Dean Buckley’s “Darkness Is the Absence” gets off to a good start, it must be said, but it fails to go anywhere interesting.
As with most editions of ROPES, there were images as well as poems and fiction this year. Although the kind of paper used for the book doesn’t really lend itself to rendering images very well (the images are monochrome, and glossy paper might have proved more effective for those parts), there are some attractive visuals scattered throughout. The sketches/etchings of Nerina Burke made me stop and stare, while others seemed fairly nondescript, partly due to the limitations of the paper, I’d say. A very neat image of a cottage by Marion Clarke also halted my progress. I found myself trying to imagine a great bluster of colours emerging from the shades of grey offered here. Although it’s clearly a pleasing image, I couldn’t help but feel I was really missing something by not seeing those colours.
Kevin Higgins is a perennial contributor to ROPES, so perennial that I’m tempted to compare him to Ryan Giggs. I’ve seen Giggs’s after-match interviews, however, and can confirm that Higgins has much more wit. I’m not a big fan of list poems personally, but his account of a live-in landlady’s request for various chores uses the device well, sketching an entertaining portrait of the lady in question solely through her own words. The standard remains pretty high until we get to “There are Two Ways” twelve pages later. While I certainly wouldn’t call this a poor story, it’s really too scatter-brained to get into properly, and the repeated phrase “there are two ways” at the beginning of every paragraph simply feel clunky and annoying. It does, however, have a worthwhile punch line at the end: “When I finished, they paid me in cash because, really, that’s the only way”. It struck me that it might have been more effective as a poem, getting rid of more than half of the material to achieve a good flow.
A similarly unfocused story is “They Sold Their Calves in Spring”, though it’s full of brilliant touches which alone elevated it to one of the book’s major highlights. Here are only a couple of examples: “Growing up having a shop attached to your house had its ups-and-downs. You were almost destined to lose the fight against Nestle and Cadbury […] Only looking back do you realise how glad you are people come to wakes. They take a bit of the grief with them, shaking it out of your palms and into theirs, carried off to their own homes and corners”. “The Move” is a poem by Rachael Hanaphy-Pigott dealing with a mundane subject – throwing things into a skip – but the fact that all the items listed are abstract is unexpected and thrilling. “Several memories whistled in the breeze […] I threw the last of the harsh words in”.
In “Nomad”, Aideen Henry deals with a poignant subject, dementia. The use of snatches of dialogue at the beginning of each verse, while an interesting idea, hamper the poem, rendering its rhythm formulaic. Similarly, a series of three poems by Ann Egan based on a specific event from Irish mythology offer some promise through the basic idea involved, but end up feeling a bit laboured. Quite a contrast comes with “Sunroom, Midnight”, which begins in a slightly clichéd fashion, but later becomes anything but clichéd, with wonderfully incongruous lines such as “Ten thousand yawning blossoms stretched down/ to laughter on the lake as an old man yelled/ about a fish fixed to the end of his grandson’s line”, “Tonight, the violet smear of the Milky Way” and “My old dog went deaf in this room.// A lightning bolt took his ears, split”.
As might be expected with the theme of “home”, a vein of nostalgia runs through this year’s edition of ROPES. Although delivered pretty heavily in the first third or so of the book, the sentimentality quotient is nicely balanced overall. The main thing I took from the book was the solid level of quality throughout, with some pieces rising even higher than the normal standard here and a few dipping below it. The book finishes with a pair of poems by Máire Morrissey-Cummins, who has four poems in ROPES. “Seeking Light” presents an original idea, viewing the world almost solely through colour. Lines such as “I seek colour/ in rosy sunsets/ and in juice squeezed/ from blood oranges” are simple but effective, and the last poem of the book ends with a suitably high standard: “I vow to bend with the wind”.ROPES 2014: Home is available in the COPE shop on St Augustine St, Galway, in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop, Galway, or here: http://ropes2014.wordpress.com/ Proceeds go to COPE Galway, who do good work supporting the homeless, the elderly and victims of domestic violence, among many other services they provide. Cost: €10.