Terry McDonagh, poet and dramatist from County Mayo, taught creative writing at Hamburg University, in Germany, and was Drama Director at the International School in Hamburg before becoming self-employed as creative writing instructor and drama facilitator in 2004. He tours in Europe, Asia, and Australia, doing readings, working on education programs and at festivals. He has published eleven poetry collections as well as letters, drama, prose, and poetry for young people. His work has been translated into German and Indonesian. His most recent poetry collections are Lady Cassie Peregrina, published by Arlen House in 2016, and Fourth Floor Flat – 44 Cantos, published by Arlen House in 2018.
A Review by Jack Grady of Terry McDonagh’s Latest Collection of Poems, Fourth Floor Flat
Ger Reidy has referred to fellow Mayo poet Terry McDonagh as a poet of displacement. That label brought to my mind another Mayo poet, Dorothy Molloy, who was also a poet of displacement, caught between two worlds, dividing her life between Ireland and Spain. Terry McDonagh’s two worlds are his native Mayo and Germany, where he taught English at the University of Hamburg. For 15 years, he also served as Drama Director at the International School there, and he continues to work in Hamburg as a creative writing instructor and drama facilitator. Displaced though he may be in Germany through much of each year, Terry somehow manages, in his latest collection, Fourth Floor Flat, to straddle his two worlds, to meld them without effort, to be at home in both, no matter whether he is seated in his armchair in a Hamburg flat ‘far enough from the yowl and yelp of his home crowd’ and chatting to his sole flatmate, a crumb-eating mouse, while reflecting upon his youth in Ireland, or standing at his window and viewing the passage of German life in the street below. Ireland remains beside him, there in his Hamburg flat.
In this collection, Terry invites us all into his abode, and not only into its rooms. He invites us into the place where he lives entirely alone: the private world of his mind, his hopes and fears, his self-doubts and, most wonderful of all, his imagination. Indeed, the fourth-floor flat is a symbol of that place in all of us, that place where we all experience alone our own private lives and deaths. In 44 cantos, he tells all, letting us into every secret nook and cranny of his inner life. As American poet Jorie Graham once wrote in The Paris Review, ‘A poem is a private story, after all, no matter how apparently public. The reader is always overhearing a confession.’ And, in Fourth Floor Flat, Terry McDonagh has delivered his most confessional and profound work of all.
With the addition of Fourth Four Flat, Terry now has a total of eleven poetry collections, a remarkable feat. I regard his previous one, Lady Cassie Peregrina, as an evolutionary precursor to this one. In Cassie, there were two voices, two stories, in a sort of dialogue – the poet and his dog, each viewing and interpreting the other and the world through its own eyes. But, in Fourth Floor Flat, Terry has combined two voices into one, his dialogue being with himself, although he grants an occasional aside to the mouse whose presence he tolerates as his only audience, a silent stand-in for the reader, or perhaps a substitute therapist. But the mouse is even better than a therapist, for it never threatens with a question to make Terry uncomfortable by guiding him to focus on a disclosure prematurely, thus leading him to unmask himself sooner than he would like. It never compels him to turn ‘over old stones of disgrace’, as Terry anticipates the therapist doing in the poem Therapy. All the mouse ever does is eat crumbs and listen until it is full, whereupon it retreats into its hole in the wall for a sleep. It leaves Terry in his ‘sanctuary of hard limestone and soundbites’, where not ‘a whisker of a vesper’ will disturb him.
If there is a word which most accurately describes Terry in this collection, it is iconoclast. Nothing is sacred, not even himself. A life’s journey that began in innocence was racked only too soon by the conditioning of guilt and the intrusions of reality, leaving in its place cynicism, illusions shattered, and a bitterness against fantasies, religion, and fairy tales. And, regarding the conditioning of guilt, it is the Catholic Church which bears much of the blame for that, as implied in these lines from Covering Up:
… I grew up
in a confessional box where
no day went by without a sliver
of guilt to beat myself with.
At school I retreated into a void
between flagellations. I’d blast
the sky open looking to Heaven
to escape my fond body…
But, despite his prayers, Terry informs us, in the poem I’m Here Now that ‘God doesn’t reply’. There is only the Church, and, in many of these poems, it and its clergy receive a relentless bashing, and rightly so, considering its hypocrisy – of which Terry is keenly aware – in persisting in anointing itself the world’s supreme moral authority despite the scandals of recent years and its failures in dealing with them properly. And one of the consequences of such disillusionment is a weakening, if not an outright loss, of religious faith or a turning to another alternative. But, for Terry, faith in an alternative religion, whether demonic or divine, would be just as much of a fantasy, as he reveals in the poem At One:
There were times when I considered
a pact with Mephisto.
but no one has seen hell and
I have no faith in the Garden of Eden …
Much later a carpenter, his wife, their baby,
wise men and a donkey added romance.
We had a new god and a gutful of guilt
to help keep our actions in check.
But, if God is indeed dead, as Nietzsche proclaimed, Terry is still not entirely sure. ‘I’m saying as if / there was nothing out there – or is there?’ he asks in the poem Covering Up. But the sceptic in Terry soon knifes the embryo of his agnosticism and twists the knife in with these lines from Blissful Road:
… that final crossing
to where a grim gentleman waits.
I’ll face him on proud horseback
and hope he’s not another illusion
designed to shatter innocent hope …
Thus the dilemma: Terry cannot know for sure if there is a God or an afterlife until the final crossing. So, for now, all he can have is faith, and he has about as much of that he has belief in the tooth fairy. But he shrugs, gets on with life, imbibes in wine, enjoys what he can, and, as he writes in the poem In Vino Veritas, ‘if a kind of paradise is / tacked on at the end, well and good.’
But Terry’s iconoclasm is not reserved solely for the ecclesiastical. Our secular masters get pilloried as well. He targets all controllers, political and educational, and all those who try to put nature into a box, regulate it, tame it, garden it. He is a contemporary Jean Jacques Rousseau in that his ideal is in the natural inclinations of children and in nature itself. In the poem Children Are Wise, he urges us, ‘Let’s not teach anyone. Let’s listen / Gather up the bliss and thrills of youth / go to the fields to be young again.’ Throughout the collection, Terry revisits his childhood, revels in memories of it, where his imagination was unfettered and boundless, as in these lines from All in My Head:
I heard hoofbeats in cowboy comics
There were mean men riding low,
guns blazing and
A sheriff job would have been perfect
for me. I had a stray ass for a nag,
a homemade saddle of canvas …
The saloon in the corner
under arching blackthorn was
brim full of gunslinging gals,
cowpokes and fearless men that
never turned a back on rustlers
or lost eye contact with batwing doors …
The bad stayed bad, got shot
or locked up, thanks to me.
But, in growing up, encountering reality, he discovered, like all of us do, that the world did not bend to the will of one’s imagination; and, for a while, his imagination was reined in. However, it could not remain subdued for long. It was just lying dormant, awaiting fresh stimulation, as he tells us in these lines from the poem My Lot:
Set up a monument to me, I’d cry
into my pipe dream. Battles got lost
in harsh light. I raced to manhood,
a stray wolf, blind, silent as a suite
of dislocated piano keys waiting
for a flange of fresh fingers to set
music free …
But there are other hindrances along the way to foster self-doubt, much of it resulting from the limitations of his own field of artistic expression, for most poets experience that poetry has little of the popularity and even less financial reward than many other arts or literary endeavours potentially possess. And he provides us with an example from his own personal experience in the poem Armchair:
This morning on the phone
about a reading tour, I said
I wouldn’t budge without cash …
It was all over in a click.
And he gives us, among other examples, this one in the poem Disquiet:
I did a sort of
in an art gallery for no money …
I was the guilty horse in harness
that couldn’t pull a crowd. I sold
a book and downed the profits in a gulp.
But, despite all the hindrances, self-doubts, and frustrations, and all the political and religious controllers, Terry found a haven, where he could resurrect the imagination of his youth and revitalise and sustain both his life and his art, as revealed in the poem Tranquillity:
My greatest discovery was
getting closer to the monk in me.
I could stay put and pilgrim
to a tranquil place
where language started singing
like water serenading a balcony
in an Italian townhouse square.
Terry concludes the collection with a poem titled Conversations with Self. In it, he declares:
I languish in my bloodstream
and rub my eyes raw to see
if I can sense the childhood
I left before it left me.
I hedge by it, reach out my hand
but we no longer connect …
How wrong Terry is, for, not only has he demonstrated how easily he can straddle his two outer worlds, the two physical localities in which he lives, making each of them his home, he can straddle as masterfully the inner worlds of his past and his present, and bring both to life in his best collection yet, Fourth Floor Flat, a tour de force of resonance and rhythm, association and imagery, and, above all, imagination, as intact now as it was in his youth. No, Terry does not have to rub his eyes raw to see. Terry McDonagh connects.
Jack Grady is a founder member of the Ox Mountain Poets, based in Ballina, County Mayo. His poetry has been widely published and has appeared online or in print in Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Canada, Portugal, Indonesia, and India. He read in Morocco at the 3rd annual Festival International Poésie Marrakech, as the poet invited by its committee to represent Ireland, and he was invited to represent Ireland at the 3rd annual Poesia a Sul, in Olhão, Portugal. His poetry collection Resurrection, published by Lapwing Publications in 2017, was nominated for the T.S. Eliot Prize.