Transmissions: A Review of Leontia Flynn’s The Radio

Trust a poet to come along and to do a better job than most at articulating my thoughts and anxieties. Leontia Flynn is a poet that I’ve been following for years, exploring with her the pressures of inner life through her intimate portraits of Northern Ireland. Flynn’s poetic skill lies in her astute power of observation, wit, humour, allusion, and superb mastery of form. Her fourth book of poetry, The Radio, continues where she left off in her third collection, Profit and Loss, where marriage, motherhood, and her father’s Alzheimer’s took centre stage before the backdrop of the banking crisis.  In her fourth book family life remains central to the collection, only this time it’s set against the “Age of Interruption” (“Third Dialogue” 65), a life of relentless technologies, transmissions and “mobile phones beside our plates: our shiny black talisman” (“Malone Hoard” 48).

The Radio, originally published by Cape Poetry (2017), republished by Wake Forest University Press (2018)

The first section, “The Child, the Family . . .”, focuses on Flynn’s personal life—in particular motherhood. The sonnet, “Yellow Lullaby”, captures motherhood, with the fabulous image of the poet “barrelling out like some semi-deranged / trainee barista” towards her crying baby (4). She describes herself at her child’s cot with “the limb that moved, the light that shone, / the hand that soothed her and the flesh that fed” (4). In Flynn’s hands, the act of soothing a child becomes much more, speculating through its cries that the baby communes “with the unborn and the dead” (4). This chilling description could allude to the idea that if she does not see to her child, it will be lost to the spirit-world. Alternatively, it could refer to real-world dangers that she needs to keep away from her infant. These real-world dangers are pervasive within the technological world of “updates. High alerts / the BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ of following information” (“Third Dialogue” 64).

The long, title poem, “The Radio”, begins with a radio as it “hoots and mutters, hoots and mutters / out of dark, each morning of my childhood” (11). The aural imagery brings back childhood memories of listening to the crackling radio at breakfast and yet such a line suggests a threat. While Flynn uses the radio as a portal through which “the outside world / comes streaming, like a magic lantern show, / into our bewildered solitude” the radio acts as a device for violence (11). Rural Irish life is depicted through the “Charolais cow”, “the marvellous bungalow” and “birdsong in chimneys” (12) But it is overshadowed by the “the half-ignited powder keg of Belfast” that lurks just beyond the radio (12). However, the mother of the household, who is “small, freaked out, pragmatic, vigilant;”, stands guard “like a sentential, by the sink” trying to resist the “harrowing radio” and keep her children safe from the violence that exists outside their peaceful world (11, 12).

In the second section, “…And the Outside World”, while the Troubles may be over, there are other troubles. I remain suspicious with Flynn, aware of the intrusion of the “glazed God’s-eye / of the transmitter” in Flynn’s fabulous poem, “The Mast” (51). This eye of the transmitter takes me back to the radio in the title poem that keeps watch over the poet’s mother, now this eye keeps watch over Flynn and the “glittering urban scree”, the city, “parks and back bars”, and the inhabitants that “stroke like pets / familiar devices” (50, 51).

A stand out poem for me in the third section, “Poems Conceived as Dialogues Between Two Antagonistic Voices”, is the third dialogue between “Mother of Older Child, Imploded”, with “The Awesome Voice of the Internet” (63). Here Flynn’s pressure of raising a child against the backdrop of the internet mirrors the mother who “stands, like a sentinel, by the sink” protecting her children from “the outside world” that “comes streaming in” (“The Radio” 11).

The Radio is an exceptional collection of poetry. Leontia Flynn’s powerful observations on motherhood and family life contrasted with the Troubles and technology makes for an unforgettable read. Clearly Flynn is a poet with “an ethics: which instructs” in this “Age of Interruption” (“August 30th 2013” 24, “Third Dialogue” 65) In the end I wonder what hope I have in resisting the external pressures that exist as the Internet proclaims, “I’m the Bright, White Spirit of the Age” (“Third Dialogue” 65). Flynn’s “Mother Imploded” has an answer, one which seems almost a revolutionary one, and that is to take a breather from the external pressures by “sitting down” (“Third Dialogue” 65).

Review by Taidgh Lynch, a poet from the South-West of Ireland. His chapbook, First Lift Here, is forthcoming from Jack Pine Press.

Note: all citations refer to the original print version from Cape Poetry, 2017.

Millennial Musings: On High’s Wry Critique of Individualism

Neil Surkan’s debut poetry collection, On High, grows out of his chapbook Super, Natural (Anstruther Press 2017). Surkan’s wry wit combines cutting criticism of consumer culture and a deep respect for natural environments. However, this criticism is tempered by a desire to understand and create community; Surkan memorialises the attempts of a teenage boy to impress a girl at the mall (“Opportunistic Mystic” 56) alongside the death of a spider under a hiking boot (“Decreation” 80) and in doing so, gives each moment equal weight. Divided into four parts, On High begins at a surface-level documentary of the quotidian and gets deeper into the political and the personal with each section.

Opening on a path between a house and a beach, the first poem, “Directive,” does as its title suggests, ending with the missive and reassurance to “think less/ of your destination, more on where/ you’re bound to go. Or try walking at night. You won’t see what I mean, but you’ll know” (Surkan 3). In this poem, the speaker takes us down to the beach, through the summer sun and into the snow, getting distracted by cacti and other trails, and encouraging the reader to both put aside personal worries and to allow themselves to get lost within the following poems. “Directive” invites the reader to momentarily step into the speaker’s footsteps, to test out the intense attention to mundane details, before committing to the entire book. What follows in the first section are intimate descriptions of human environments: city streets, a bar with live music, a dilapidated strip mall, a family kitchen.

The fastidious recounting of a subject is maintained throughout On High, and the speaker’s voice emerges as a Canada-traversing-earnest-but-disillusioned companion incapable of failing to note human peculiarities. In “The Branch-Breaker,” the speaker documents the lewd conversation of a group of teens as they walk by. Instead of critiquing the boys, the speaker reflects that he does not have access to their inner lives, and turns his focus away from the boys: “May the look I gave the branch-breaker,/ mostly hatred, grow every day a little more/ compassion. Tonight I’ll raise a growler/ to Angela, to skin that breaks but persists/ and to goodness—the kind that’s wordless” (5). The position of this poem as the second in the collection sets the tone for the book; though intent on observing all details, the speaker refuses to fill in gaps and insists on believing in the best of people.

Bridging the first two parts, the last poems of part one follow the speaker to spaces between the human/natural: the ferry from Vancouver to Vancouver Island, a hiking trail in Kananaskis, and on an unnamed mountain. “On High,” the first of two title poems, sets the speaker on a mountaintop as he considers the landscape as a “room” for the natural; a “room” inseparable from what it contains (21). Part two lunges into the relationships between humans and animals, focusing on how humans interact with non-humans and setting the tone with “Pelt”: “We hurl rocks/ while he’s stretched in the sun, the weasel./ He killed our entire coop/ but now has nostrils for eyes” (25). Again, the speaker avoids condemnation, but this time inserts himself into the action with “we,” acknowledging his complicity in the action that killed the weasel, regardless of whether the speaker was present (25). Instead of a harsh criticism of people who use or harm animals, the speaker shows the social and cultural milieu that results in these interactions. While the title of the book suggests a bird’s eye view—an amount of distance, or the separation of the speaker and subjects—Surkan’s speaker rejects this role by continually stating his presence and place within the subjects.

Parts three and four further the earlier themes by peopleing the spaces explored in the first half of the book: a white, suburban church goer is caught stealing funds because he feels owed (“Teardown” 54-5); a Serbian Uber driver heckles his passengers (“The Opposite” 45-7); the Penticton Reserve stands in contrast to tourists, businesses, and the celebratory First Nations statues (untitled 66-70); a mayor urges tourists to ignore the smoke from nearby wildfires (untitled 71); and, the speaker drives home to the Okanagan Valley, then leaves (“Verges, Now and Forever” 88-98). Throughout these sections, the speaker shows the failed interactions of humans with each other and nature as equal, and himself not an immune bystander, but an active participant. The poems become neither explanation nor justification, but an acknowledgement of human folly and apology. And yet, the book refuses to fall into melancholy. The metaphors and juxtapositions are fresh and playful, as in “Fawn” when the speaker notes that the hoof of a deer recently turned to roadkill is “black and sticky as bong resin” (82). This comparison is not irreverent, but the opposite, as it provides a new lens with which to view the interconnectivity of human and non-human life.

Surkan’s attention to poetics (rhythm, rhyme, line breaks, etc.) throughout On High serves to communicate these themes of human and non-human interactions and reciprocal responsibilities, while providing a tangible connection to the ‘real world’ through writing-back. A list of notes at the end of the book cites a range of sources from Keats’ canonical poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to a YouTube video from 2016 of a group of men attempting to ride/hunt a moose while on a raft (101). Surkan draws inspiration from these sources, but also allows those perspectives into his work in the form of titles.

At turns witty, sarcastic, and blunt, On High contains stark observations from a speaker who loves humanity but recognises that “shame runs deeper than love” (“Apology” 74). Surkan’s speaker desires to observe interactions truthfully, though does so with an eye toward compassion and self-improvement, and through this mindset, asks readers to reconsider their own behaviours in the context of community.

Review by Allie McFarland, editor of the RVRB. Allie is a co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project, which publishes antilang. and soundbite. Her chapbook Marianne’s Daughters, was published by Loft on EIGHTH in 2018.

No Second Breakfasts: A Review of Black Leopard, Red Wolf

“You know what? Keep your damn hobbit.” Marlon James, author of the newly released Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Penguin Random House), was “sick and tired of arguing about whether there should be a black hobbit in Lord of the Rings.” He claims, “African folklore is just as rich, and just as perverse as that shit. We have witches, we have demons, we have goblins, and mad kings.” That was 2015, and as late as 2017 he still imagined the novel-in-progress as something for 12-year-olds to read, something “more Middle Earth than say, Mogadishu.”

Ah, yes. The best laid plans of mice and Man Booker prize winners. The story must have taken over. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is decidedly not for children. There are too many faces being ripped off and too many children being violently sodomized for the book to stay on school library shelves. In most fantasy novels the violence is epic and vague. Here it is graphic and specific. When a child—alive but not whole—hangs in a tree, James describes exactly which limbs have been severed and by how much (the right leg to the thigh, the left leg to the knee, his left arm to the shoulder). The novel’s dark world—nobody loves nobody—resembles more closely the Jamaican neighbourhoods of his award-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings than, say, Lord of the Rings. Set in a mythical land, Black Leopard describes a fellowship of nine characters (some with special powers) going on a quest. See? Nothing like Tolkien. Another comparison (the tag was first teased by James himself) has been made by hyping the novel as the “African Game of Thrones.” Don’t be fooled. The game here is fought at a different level. These players hope only for escape from traumatic pasts. Or less. Perhaps only an occasional diversion: sex and violence as a respite from the trauma of sex and violence.

James grew up reading genre-defining fantasy novels, but Black Leopard is genre-busting. The Tolkien canon seems to exert on James both a push and a pull, acting as both touchstone and erratic lodestone. Speaking to Pembroke College (Oxford) at the annual Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature, he confessed that his research into African mythology led to “almost a complete inversion of everything that I knew as storytelling.” For example. the African midnight, “noon of the dead… was a joyous time when ancestors would come out.” Unlike their “wussy” counterparts, African vampires can kill you in broad daylight. “That inversion forced me to rethink everything I hold. And I still hold on to them because I’m still a Western kid.”

But in Black Leopard James has subverted the fantasy story itself. It is one thing to replace the Celtic/Nordic/Germanic monsters, and a different thing entirely to replace the worldview—that crusade premise that underpins much fantasy fiction. Heroes normally come from safe places—known, comforting, populated by good people—and venture out to battle evil that is categorically the “other.” Hobbits (read: middle-class Englishmen) are used to their six meals a day and comfortable hobbit holes. Their squabbles are few and petty. Sauron’s (read: foreign) evil approaches, but the stalwart hobbits will muster their finest hobbit hour.

Tracker, the protagonist of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, leaves a home that bears no resemblance to Hobbiton. The violent father who rapes Tracker’s mother is actually Tracker’s violent grandfather. Or he may be both. Chew on that for a bit. There are no second breakfasts or afternoon teas here. In Lord of the Rings, the travelling companions are noble and good. Boromir becomes untrustworthy only because of the corruption of the Ring—that ultimate symbol of the otherness that must be destroyed. But in Black Leopard the entire world is corrupted, with nobility and grace making anomalous appearances. When Tracker helps to save certain deformed children (the Mingi, who are usually destroyed at birth) it is Tracker himself that becomes the foreigner, becoming other. The same command of language that earned Marlon James his Booker prize is on display here. But because Tracker has preternatural olfactory powers, the author’s skills are now turned to finding different ways to describe the smell of ass sweat or a girl’s “koo.” If the world is rank and disheartening, the narrative arc is yet compelling. Tracker searches for a stolen boy, and we readers hope that—along the way—he finds what is missing, what was stolen from himself.

Review by Cameron G. Muir, a writer of contemporary and historical fiction. Previously he was employed as a lawyer, disc jockey, zoo keeper, brick worker, house painter, landman, piano mover, boiler deslagger, surveyor, radio columnist, clothier, oil tycoon, and short order chef (many of which occupations he left of his own accord, but not all).