Leland Bardwell,
The Noise of Masonry Settling
(Dedalus Press, 2006)

Leland Bardwell's fifth collection of poetry, the wonderfully titled The Noise of Masonry Settling, is a meditative, deeply contemplative work befitting one of the elder stateswomen of Irish letters.

As in her previous collection, 1998's The White Beach, the poems in Masonry Settling showcase Bardwell's amazing gift for creating something extraordinary from the ordinary. Her language gifts are incredible and she is blessed with an incredible economy of words.

Thematically, much of this collection is taken up with explorations of memory and motherhood. The two, of course, go hand-in-hand at times, but not always.

Memory is writ large across the pages, with many old friends and acquaintances remembered, mostly with a melancholic tone. There is a series of such elegies throughout the book, beginning with opening poem "The Knowledge of Beezie McGowan." "She knows where the whelks gather, / The booty of waves, / The mussels," she begins. "She knows where the limpets lie, / How the rocks / Are spreading." The poem is something of a glorification of the eponymous heroine's old-fashioned gift of the knowledge of nature. The final stanza, "But wages were poor / In this industry of God's, / The learning got so hard, so hard," brings a dose of reality to the nostalgia. Yes, they were great, these past generations, but life was tough. The repetition of "so hard, so hard" works to drive the point home.

Overall, the mood is celebratory, however, and it is continued elsewhere in "Lobster Fishing," another paean to man's hard work within the context of wild nature. Here she describes a fishing trip in Co. Clare: "Under the jawbone of cliff, / Whipped by the anxious sleeves of wind." She recounts the hardship of the work: "It was fighting for hours, it seemed, / The wet ropes rasping already frozen fingers / Till crowding back on the baize shelves of Kilbaha / The crates are counted. Six. All safe."

Living in Co. Sligo in Ireland, Bardwell would be well acquainted with the sea. In these two poems she displays a remarkable sensitivity to those who essay to make a living from it. The elegiac timbre of the poem about Beezie McGowan is continued in "Bag Lady." "I knew her when she was a bag lady. / She trundled places like the North Circular Road, / O'Connell Street and Fairview, / Followed the Liffey, a restless bone, / Lay down under the lid of Clery's." The poet recalls noticing the bag lady making her way around Dublin. The poem ends telling us that she "took the long dark highway / That had always beckoned."

"Prison Poem III: For a Friend Doing Life in Portlaois," "Two Poems i.m. Stevie Smith" and "Mrs. Katherine Dunne, Street Trader, Camden Street, Dublin, Died March 1983" all follow this common theme creating a thread of elegy through the book. The theme of memory is more fully explored in poems concerning seemingly deeply personal moments from the poet's past. The fantastic "Ghost Child Runs," detailing the aftermath of a fire that consumed much of the poet's house, is filled with vivid imagery forged in the smithy of her memory. "I burrow through the basement / And drawing room -- cyclamen wallpaper / Shrouds my shoulders or falls dog-eared / Into folds of heavy dust. / Two bats flash past -- a spitting sound, / The radar of childhood quickens." As well as evoking a strong sense of the recollection coming from a place called "memory," the language is so utterly sublime. This is a poet at the peak of her powers.

Elsewhere, memory is explored to a similarly successful degree in poems such as "The Grave Digger" and "Four Woodbines." The latter poem -- its title refers to a brand of cigarettes, Woodbine -- has her remembering how she, as a child, "In the torn and dirty sheets of those winter years / Spent in my wet mac, clutching the green packet / With its fiery orange sash -- four Woodbines -- / And my mongrel dog scratching its pedigree of fleas, / I was happy as a child could be, hiding under the shelf of Confey." She describes the "spilling rain," the "stumpy field," the "ruined church," the "glue factory," the "winter mists," the picture forming in beautiful detail, hewed from memory, etched onto the page with exquisite, fine lines of lyrical language.

The other dominant theme in The Noise of Masonry Settling is motherhood. Again it is through the prism of memory that the poet looks at her status as mother. The book is dedicated "To my six children and numerous grandchildren, with thanks for just being there." One of the most striking poems in the collection is "A Mother Mourns Her Heroin-Addicted Daughter." With empathy, the poet places herself inside the head of the mourning mother. "How could I have dreamt / That my bird of paradise, / My green-clad hippie girl, / Could be so reduced / To the gammon face of poverty, / The incessant whinge of a child," she asks at the outset. The verse encapsulates the sheer unforeseen tragedy of the wasted life. The next stanza is the clincher, language-wise. "If we rolled up time like a ball / I'd give you the cherries of my nipples, / I'd wash you almond clean / And lay your hair like lint / On the cartilage of my breast." It has the momentous clarity of Shakespeare's free verse, but it is the image of the breast wherein the genius of this passage lies. The link between mother and child is no better drawn than by this image. The mother would have gladly give the child her breast, if only they could control time. It is a beautiful and truly sad image.

"Megan Fair Remembered, 1977" has Bardwell reminiscing about her daughter, sitting around a campfire making soup for the family. Again the language is superb: "In a pit, we have made this fire. / Scooped the crusted earth with our fingers / And lain criss-cross the twigs, / Ignited by sandwich wrappings, old newspaper, / Till the bronze flame entered the sides of the logs / And was comfortable, would work for us, / To make the grass warmer for our thighs, / The skin tighten on our cheeks."

The remainder of the collection includes poems about incipient development of rural Ireland ("The West's Asleep" -- "When the leaf snaps, / Sleeps and stalks back, / When the bud quickens" and "No light shines from the windows, / No dogs bark on the long road, / That hangs from Cloonagh"); politics ("Prison Poem IV: Written During the Hunger Strike 1980"); family (there are poems written for two of her brothers); the current situation in Iraq; and a number of surreal little verses that are difficult to discern meaning from, but as exercises in poetry are cute and effective.

Overall, this is as good a collection as one would expect from a poet as good as Leland Bardwell. There is a maturity at work here, an authority that younger poets -- no matter how good they are -- cannot match. There is much wisdom in these pages and that -- combined with the deft skill of a true poet -- makes for great poetry. Seldom does a new book of poetry fly so high and so freely.

by Sean Walsh
4 November 2006

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