Michael Foley,
Autumn Beguiles the Fatalist
(Blackstaff Press, 2006)

Autumn Beguiles the Fatalist is the intriguingly titled new collection of poems from Northern Irish poet, Michael Foley. Coming 30 years after his debut collection -- True Life Love Stories, also published by Blackstaff Press -- Foley's verse bears the polished mark of a craftsman comfortable with his art. These poems have an easiness about them, an unhurried confidence, which -- while not being flashy -- strides through the reader's mind with a proud gait.

It is not, however, a strut. Many of the poems in this book are meditations on the mundane. It is one of the oldest preoccupations of art, to make great drama from the commonplace, the everyday. Candles, matches, soap and snails are just some of the subjects he discusses, dissects and celebrates. "Single petal of gold on a stalk of scorched black / At the top of an alabaster column that shrinks / -- This egregious bloom flowering only at night" he writes of "The Candle." He continues with the observation that "Women even nurture it as though it's a living thing, / Stroking the plaint lip, staunching the hot tears, / Monitoring its equilibrium and removing its waste."

Not too dissimilarly in "The Match" he opens with "Stalwart the long body, head hard and full / -- Yet it's happy to lie in dark rows / Till the silk robes of flame give it soul." He finishes the poem with the assertion that "And the worst not that this exaltation should cease / But that what's left is such a disgrace / -- Brittle, ravaged and unrecognisable, / Bent as an old crone and black as a priest." Foley's playful love of language is all too evident here. He personalizes these "lifeless" objects. The match is "happy" to lie in its box. The candle has "hot tears." Imbuing the objects with this almost-humanity gives him the freedom to truly celebrate them. The language is playful, fun and, at times, abstract. The "silk robes of flame" giving the candle "soul." The imagery is representative of the entire collection. The image of the burnt match "bent as an old crone" and "black as a priest" is superb. Foley is careful in most cases to chose words wisely, and the associations work almost every time.

Another source of everyday objects comes from the insect kingdom, with poems about wasps, spiders, snails and, presumably, a mosquito. The poem "The Buzz" tells the story of a buzzing bloodsucker ambushing an unassuming "barbecuing buffoon." Again the imagery is good: "Locking onto his heat like a missile, I land / On a spacecraft's deft legs to perform keyhole / Surgery, slitting the skin with twin stylets / That vibrate like motorised carving-knife blades." The use of assonance -- "slitting the skin with twin stylets" is pretty close to poetry perfection, while the imagery of the spacecraft's legs is spot-on as well. While drinking he blood of its victim, the narrating pest continues, "I put to shame beer guts / By drinking three times my own weight."

There is no shortage of humour in Foley's verses here, as poems such as "Why Satan Loves the Old Movies," "The Vilest Men are Exalted" and "The Unclean Miasmas of Rancour and Bile" attest. In "God's Insomnia," he writes "What makes this 5am world so strange, she understands in sudden dread, / Is its fear of the insomnia of God. The world knows He's still up. Probably / Had one of His drinking nights, dropped into heavy unsatisfying sleep / And then woke at four -- perched, aching, guilty, sour." His mastery at creating images that are at once lusciously surreal and immediately recognizable is part of what makes Foley so readable.

Other sections of the book are devoted to cities he has visited, including London, Paris, Madrid and Rome -- anecdotal snapshots from memory, evoking nostalgia amid place.

The closing section of the book, "The Drunkenness of Things Being Curious," is the most eclectic in terms of subject sources, taking in themes covering age, mortality, failure, loss, disappointment, jealousy, memory, time, all with a wry humour. These last poems are, perhaps, the strongest, of the collection, Foley saving the best wine 'til last.

The final poem, "The Rapture of the Dust," is the poet's request that he not be buried when dead. "Don't lay me in earth" he insists, "I've always loathed not just the concept / Of holy ground (a third of that unholy trinity -- soil, faith and blood)." It is one of the occasional moments in the book where Foley touches on Northern Ireland politics (albeit obliquely). He decries the burying of people in the earth where they are "eaten by maggots." He would prefer to "blaze and be liberated into air, free from responsibility / And the shame of the sweating self." The poem -- indeed the book -- ends with the line "Eternal the freedom and rapture of dust," and it is a worthy finish to a very fine book of poems.

by Sean Walsh
28 October 2006

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