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Waiting for Saint Brendan and Other Poems by David McLoghlin

Waiting for Saint Brendan and Other Poems by David McLoghlin

Reviews, Vol. 8.1, March 2014
Salmon Poetry, 2012
ISBN: 978-1908836052
Paperback, 110 pp., $22.95
Review by Cynthia Reeser

Saint Brendan, the navigator, is the center around which the poems in Waiting for Saint Brendan and Other Poems (r)evolve. This three-part, full-length collection is, itself, a journey—at times, personal, and at others, magnanimous and outward-looking. The journey can be read as the depiction of a transformation, but McLoghlin underpins his immram in verse with a meditative nuance that becomes his terra firma.

The title poem traces a history, moving from the poet’s travels Stateside to his native Ireland (“the Connecticut Post road / became the Castleconnell bog road, / but only after too many lives”). There is a searching inherent in this journey, one that draws on the tradition of questing but that is ultimately made contemporary in its proximity to the author’s experiences:

Now, I am looking for lost ground
from a time when learning was listening
as stories laid the marrow of belonging.
There was that time too. But sometimes it seems
learning too late casts doubt on what is true.

But is the questing, itself, the aim of the journey, or is the journey taken on as a quest for something else—a search for the path that, the seeker hopes, will end in enlightenment, in answers? We learn by book’s end that both the answer to that question and the question itself are more complex than this. And simpler, too, for the quest is ultimately a search for truth.

The lives of the saints mark points along the journey. “Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child” is especially notable (“He has walked so far to reach this moment”) and marks the point of departure:

It begins in endurance—and in the marks of endurance—
scored round his dour mouth,
and fugitive eyes
that always see what is behind him:
his house a plague ditch; the black flag
raised over a town put to the crossbow.

So we begin the journey from a plague ditch cast beneath the shadow of a black flag: both from a point of darkness, and looking into darkness, which is where we leave off from Section I in “Sandymount Strand: Vigil”:

now that we fill all space with ourselves,
grant no point of entry.

[…]
I stand, and look towards the dark,
the unmanned lighthouses rotating.

This looking into darkness points the way into Section II, which is, it could be argued, the crux of the journey, the difficult center of things. This section explores the dark side of religion and the destruction that results when those who stand as representatives of religion—church leaders, priests—abuse their power and prey on the innocent. Here, the hardest questions are confronted and the journey is one of self-exploration, in coming to terms with the past and with the motives and actions and cruelties of abusers. But the journey out of darkness comes after confession and after a confrontation with the effects of the abuse, which comes after a looking inward (from “Russian Dolls”):

It is atomization, falling apart
as the lies come together,
as the feelings that were blocked
bleed back, you feel you are dying alive,
within yourself, within him,
he within you, lies within truth within lies—

Russian Dolls, coffined,
and inside: you, the
tiniest thing.

After the confession, after the confrontation with the past, is the finding of the self: all which are points on the journey out of darkness. The path out of that darkness comes at the end of the final poem of Section II, “Unrhymed Sonnet”:

…follow it down the years, down twenty years,
all the way to the root. Then tell the loves I lost
(their gentle voices shake me out of the dreams),
tell them why I needed sanctuary

at twenty-one. Explain why I woke afraid.
But not off course, now. Not ever again.

With this determination to continue, to move on, we pick up in Section III with another “Sandymount Strand” poem, which is where Section I left off: the implication being one of structure—the structure of the self, that the self remains intact even after the journey into darkness—here I am, still here where I left off. In the “Sandymount Strand” of Section III, we see the moving on as a decision that has the ability to “sweep / everything out in the undertow”:

And yet, the noise of history
grows mute the further out you go.
You come here because once

Too much happened.

The journey, the immram, of this book is not just a journey of the interior, but a physical (on its surface, as a container) journey as well, spanning countries (Ireland, Belgium, the U.S., Spain). The movement from one place to another is, however, background to the more important exploration and coming-to-terms inherent in this work. On a mechanical level, McLoghlin is a painter, his medium words; the book from start to finish is a visual as well as a philosophical experience. His “Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child” is inspired by the Hieronymous Bosch painting of the same name. There is a meditative, reflective quality to McLoghlin’s poetry that serves as a sort of glue. There is also great variety in Waiting for Saint Brendan; we travel to Spain, to the coast of Ireland, to Mount Eagle, to Kansas, on a subway, and encounter flamenco dancers, buskers on the metro, and saints and sinners and the common man alike. McLoghlin captures, in this collection, a complex relief etching of humanity, in all its variety and piety and insanity, all cast in a patina of introspection and wonderment.

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