The Chimaera: Issue 7, March 2010

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Barbara Smith

The Heat of Shoeprints in Frost

Nigel McLoughlin; Chora, Templar Poetry, 2009

Chora, the New and Selected from Nigel McLoughlin, is a strong testament to his poetic development over the last decade. It encompasses work from four previous collections: At the Waters’ Clearing (2001); Songs for No Voices (2004); Blood (2005); Dissonances (2007), as well as new work. Chora demonstrates the expansion of a muscular aural and oral talent, as well as showing a poetic journey through the landscapes of the poet’s inner ear. In its Introduction McLoughlin lays out his overarching theme, with the tri-stranded notion that the word ‘chora’ covers. These are: ‘the permanent other, ... that which is outside the polis’; ‘the relation to land and landscape’; and the ‘creative flux in which things shape themselves and find birth’. These three facets to the one concept of ‘chora’ are indeed borne across this New & Selected.

At its beginning, poems are of and from the bleak landscape of Donegal, sometimes with its bleak inhabitants. But it isn’t enough for McLoughlin to invoke isolation or wintry scenes; its people have a knowledge that he wants to get at, to bring through onto the page. Whether he does this through hints from the mythological otherworld —  the cracking, roasting hazelnuts in ‘Firesides’ that foretell who will die first — or things that are of this world — the ‘crombie coat’ or the ‘poppy wreath’ of ‘Restoration’ that speak of the aftermath of death — these all come to stand for knowledge won; learned or collective lore. Humans are compelled to put patterns upon what they observe; creatives re-utilise those patterns in craft. What McLoughlin has, in this New & Selected, is a gathering of that hard-won craft, language and knowledge.

McLoughlin also has a great capacity to allow his subject matter to sing clearly, as can be seen in a poem like ‘Deora Dé’. The red and purple floret of the fuchsia shrub is a familiar part of any Irish summer; its bushes can be seen lining roadside ditches all over western counties of Ireland. Folklore has it as the ‘tears of God’, as the poem’s title makes reference to. “When God cries”, says one speaker in the poem, “His tears are sweet / and red.” But the answering voice sees “little ballerinas / red skirts, red tights /and little purple knickers.”  One speaker uses the plant as a metaphor for God, the other as a metaphor for more earthly matters. The closing answer, “You’ll never make a priest,” initially seems a smartarse throwaway remark, but actually succinctly shows how the division between the spiritual and the earthy view of nature is never easily reconciled in Ireland.

Later in the selection, when ‘A Hill Farmer Speaks’, McLoughlin alludes to the poverty stricken ‘black hills’ of Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Shancoduff’ and allow the poem give tongue to the modern poor farmer’s predicament: ‘I took the second job / to see the animals foddered over winter.’ Although other influences whisper through his lyrics, still these poems are stamped with McLoughlin’s aural owning as surely as the Hill Farmer can lay claim to his ‘dark mass of the hill’ being his ‘to the bone.’

Although McLoughlin is a fine poet working these vivid word-scapes, his most haunting poems are when he writes from the deeply felt human experience of raising small children. ‘Drawing Blood’ and ‘Meningitis’ are two examples of deft inducements to the reader to step inside the family circle and experience the helpless fright of parents watching their baby in the throes of meningitis. Details are lightly sketched and pared back, so that we too come to know:

what it is to curl
all our hopes up in a ball
and do nothing but
watch the peak and trough
beep across the monitor
                ... squint
through the dark as numbers
change and you slip in and in ...

Later poems such as ‘Seanduine’ show the poet’s keen interest in language development in his own children, and their latent potentiality. He avoids the sugar-trap by focusing on words, the ‘da-da da-da syntax’, and posture; how a toddling boy can seem to foreshadow the male pose, ‘hands / clenched behind your back / or relaxed into a wrist- / and-kidney strut’. Parental understanding only reaches so far, like that of the child, as is shown at the poem’s close: ‘You mean like hell. / And so do I. And so do I.’

McLoughlin hasn’t been afraid to reach past tradition either. His experiments with white page conventionality and use of fragmented phrases and scraps are represented. Most effective of these is ‘News’ where each fragment piles upon each until the picture forms. The result is ‘heart-sore’ even if the ‘words are swept away’. To use a more conservative mode would have robbed the white space of its ability to simultaneously hold back and yet deliver the news of death that Constable Hughes brings. This method also contributes to the later slippage in phrasing that similarly double-bucks the reader as the poem moves to its awful close.

As for the latter new poems in this selection, McLoughlin investigates what the wider landscape of the UK holds. In ‘From Paddington Out,’ the train journey through urban scenes and landscape shows a disconnectedness, both in the landscape and the people observed on the train: ‘out in the country no-one moves’; ‘Inside the train, people avoid people’ through mediums more and more complex. In a way these references throw us back to the bleakness, the seeming simplicity of the home landscape that haunts the reader in the early-to-mid poems of this selected — what is ‘other’, what is ‘outside the polis.’ The closing poem, ‘Chora,’ demonstrates that third, overall ‘sense of idea’ of ‘creative flux in which things shape themselves and find birth,’ where ‘the weight of one person’s heat cuts ... the shape of a shoeprint in frost.’ McLoughlin’s New and Selected shows the variety of footprints that he has made, and the consistent flexibility of the heat poured into them. These footprints will last.

Barbara Smith lives in County Louth, Ireland, where she teaches CW. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Queen’s University, Belfast. Recent achievements include being shortlisted for the UK Poetry Business Smith/Doorstop Poetry Pamphlet competition 2009, a prizewinner at Scotland’s 2009 Wigtown Poetry Competition, and recipient of the Annie Deeny 2009/10 bursary awarded by the Tyrone Guthrie Centre for Artists and Writers, Ireland. Barbara’s first collection, Kairos, was published by Doghouse Books in 2007. Read her blog at
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