Another article, another disclaimer: Alan Gillis was my tutor at Edinburgh Uni. I learned a fair bit from him. And Here Comes the Night is a powerful collection of poems. Again, if you see any flaws in the arguments that follow, I’d chalk up some of that dissonance to knowing the human dude behind them. Hopefully that won’t be an issue.
Reviewing an excellent book is as difficult as writing a character who is smarter than you. Many excellent films show their villains’ villainous cerebrelosity by utilising hypersyllabics to express a simple idea. So does bad criticism, though of course not to be confused with writers like Edna Longley whose ideas are complicated enough not only to justify her vocabulary but necessitate it. So the pitfall is that in trying to grasp exactly what is going on in a book whose complexity is tangled up not only in its variety of language, locations and mental/emotional states but in its philosophy and view of the world (inhale) is that I may end up flailing at the nothing that is there and the nothing that isn’t. So let’s go back to Professor Longley for a sec.
Gillis wrote his PhD on Irish poetry of the 1930s under Longley’s supervision. Both Longley and Gillis have written extensively on Louis MacNeice, who now seems as important a figure to Northern Irish poetry as Yeats once was. While my understanding of Longley is too limited to identify points of contact, it’s clear MacNeice is a guiding force. Gillis has picked up the facility with language that characterised LM’s early work, the disquiet of his parabolic later work and his overarching mission that reads something along the lines of ‘the poet should read the newspapers and get lairy on a regular basis’. All of which is to completely undermine and cheapen Gillis’ own achievement, which does all of the above while maintaining a more intricate understanding of the nature of love, a more comfortable and empathetic (discuss) engagement with characters so rarely found in quality poetry (trying to define them succinctly would do them a disservice), and above all a measured optimism (oxymoron?) that time and again rises out of the book’s bleakest moments. Let’s get in amongst it.
The collection opens with “Down Through Dark And Emptying Streets”, one of many long-form poems. It frames itself with the speaker at the computer screen, as I am now and you are now, reliving a memory of Belfast in the 1980s through a facebook friend request from an old flame. (Is there some metaphorical power in the computer screen? It’s kind of a window/page/mirror/portal into almost endless information, as explored by both Gillis and Leontia Flynn, more on her later maybe. Mirrors and reflective surfaces occur again and again in MacNeice. This half-formed thought is brought to you by Digressions, your one-stop shop fluh fluhbubuh) The memory is presented as one long sentence, a single illogical unit of communication that gathers artefacts as it goes. The effect is to make the scene feel longer than it is and to preclude the possibility that the reader might change the subject until the memory is complete (or ends, at least) as it might have done for the speaker in reality. The swift and seamless movement from present to past and back without missing a tonal beat is one of the book’s hallmarks, and its humour, wit (not the same thing), warmth and grounding in real gardens with real condom wrappers form an unusually involving whole.
The problem with leaving a review too long (I started reading this about three weeks back) is that miscellany starts horning in on your immaculate waltz of discursive progression. I’d like to talk about Nick Laird and Leontia Flynn – Laird being someone I didn’t totally grasp until reading Flynn and Gillis (and Derek Mahon and Don Paterson ad infinitum) – and their role as something resembling a ‘generation’ of N.Irish poets. While it might help to conceive of a group of poets with similar influences (both literary and otherwise, discuss) as engaging in something like a conversation or sibling or generational rivalry, the process of demography in poetry is reductive at best, brand-creation at worst, and is more likely to constipate our understanding than to catalyse it. Just sayin’. I’d also like to talk about Don Paterson’s influence on the book, discreet as it is, but I’ve meandered enough. From here on in IT’S GILLIS ALL THE WAY DOWN.
I could give an entire paragraph to lyrical flourishes that spring out at unexpected moments, but here’s a choice few: ‘But then you’d point up / to the wrens, smallest of birds, sweeping the breadth / and buffets of the sky, flittered and fluttered / on a whim, on a buck-and-wing of breath.’; ‘I want to do with you / what darkness does with candlelight’; ‘how much of heaven and atoms do we grasp / before, as a matter of course, / we are cast on four winds and give / up the ghost’; ‘We’ve been sifted through an impassable wall / we will pass through twice. That is all’. That last one is from a poem for his kid called “Approaching Your Two Thousand Three Hundred and Thirty-Third Night” (which is in itself a masterclass on mustering an atmosphere before a word is written in anger), which both resembles and reassembles (watch out Helen Vendler) his previous poem “Bob the Builder is a Dickhead” and several poems on fatherhood by Don Paterson (Sorry, I lied. enough brackets) in not only rendering the night, previously a harbinger of death and dissolution, as a motherly presence: ‘Now that night lets fall her black hair / and watches over you, wraps you in her shawl’ but creating the remarkable figure, ‘If there is a heaven it is chained to the earth / like flight to the air, a mirror to light’; if the collection can be said to have a central preoccupation, it’s probably summed up in these lines.
Gillis has a way of baking his cake out of real ingredients and transcending it too, cf the masterpiece “If There Was Time All Day To Wait”, which combines its formal tricks of ending its lines with the last five words of the title, also for being the only poem in English (to my knowledge) to address the rapid decline in Harry Kewell‘s form for Liverpool; cf “Graduation Day”, particularly relevant for me, which deals with the hope and despair of recent graduates, their loans and their careers (has any collection since Wallace Stevens been so unafraid of engaging with the world of debt and finance?); cf “In These Aisles”, a dramatic monologue from a shelf-stacker in Asda who leads his liason officer ‘to The Winds where the peelers won’t go’ (it seems to me that in this line cocks might be snooked towards poetry in general, which very rarely ventures ‘where the peelers won’t go’, and accordingly suffers a huge reduction in its potential scope) and dreams of the Audi that the doomed Johnny Black owns in the rich, ballady “In The Shadow of the Mournes”. It feels wrong to gloss over and omit so much, but we’d be here all day, and providing a precis on a poem’s concerns seems particularly redundant in a book that invests so much attention in how it sounds, in the richness of detail and emotional attention afforded to its characters and the often oppressive worlds they inhabit, in its fear of and desire for solitude, its constant search for a fresh approach, the coming dawn and the wrens. Because birds are still cool.
Of course, taking all those snippets out off context is picking the flower from the stem, and they are best enjoyed with the rest of what is a hugely challenging collection. If there are weak spots it might be the slightly exercise-y short poems, but even then they are far above-par and at the very least display a skill at arranging line, sound and narrative in a condensed space. I hate to reduce a book so powerfully poised between the needs of the earth and the aspirations of the spirit to a pithy bottom line, so I won’t.