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The Fox the Whale and the Wardrobe by Dónall Dempsey (Dempsey & Windle)

The Fox the Whale and the Wardrobe by Dónall Dempsey (Dempsey & Windle)

An intriguing title leads the reader into a kaleidoscopic and scintillating poetry collection by Dónall Dempsey. There is a great variety of wit and humour in these poems. ‘My Molecules are Revolting’ uses dialogue as a device to illustrate the repartee between the Universe and a couple of molecules that currently inhabit the narrator’s body while they wait for ‘the Big Bang/of Death’ and the chance of belonging to a more interesting formation in the future.

An amusing concept but it is always Death that hovers in the background. In the title poem there is the nightmarish texture of an aunt’s fox-fur stole which has ‘beady eyes alive with death.’ Every item of clothing in the dark wardrobe is ‘rotten now/eaten by time.’ Everything once belonging to loved ones is dead.  ‘I cry for the death of summer,’ says the narrator. ‘I cry for the death of them all.’

     Concern for the environment is a key feature throughout the collection. ‘Regeneration’ imagines the transformation of furniture back into its existence in the forest. Even the floor uproots itself while books shed their words ‘becoming/leaves on these trees.’ ‘The Tales Told by Birds’ creates a shocking impact. Humour, in the description of a world now empty of humans, is both surreal and cartoonish as ‘a dinosaur takes/the moving stairs/a pterodactyl hunts for bargains’ but the reality is that humans have nearly destroyed the earth and they themselves only survive ‘in the stories that birds tell/to frighten their little hatchlings.’

     ‘Words loved him/and would do anything/he said.’ This is Dónall Dempsey’s description of his uncle, but I think it would apply equally well to the poet himself, his love of life and living things, his sense of joy. A robin that has flown into a church is not just hopping from pew to pew but is ‘a miracle/ made real/its sheer joy of being’ as it dances on the altar and becomes the music of Hayden. Reflected ‘in the gold/of the tabernacle’ it is ‘the secret/prayer/of the moment.’ (‘The Emperor of Now’).

     The poem ‘Taking Back the Moment’ continues this sense of the here and now– its transience, its uniqueness. Memories, which are seemingly ‘lost for ever,’ trapped like sunbeams in a room, are dragged back by the narrator from a past which is sluggish as ‘a giant in a palace/made of years’ so that, as he says, he can ‘take the moment and flee/far far/into the future/where nothing can touch me.’ A haven of sorts, a sanctuary for the ‘one perfect moment’ caught in flight like ‘birds/writing themselves —unwriting themselves/across a page of sky.’

     There is much to be enjoyed in this collection – delightful, original love poems, a feast of epigraphs and literary references, poems that take a topic and turn it on its head. But I’ll end this review by mentioning two poems that particularly appeal to me.

     First is the lyrical, descriptive ‘…In Forgetful Snow’ which is inspired by a quotation from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: ‘Winter kept us warm, covering/Earth in forgetful snow.’ Here the snow falls heavily on what appears to be a graveyard with stone carved angels guarding the dead. T            his snowfall erases everything – time, memory, ‘the world’ – replacing it with ‘silence’ disturbed only by the croak of a raven ‘as land and sky become one.’  Everything, ‘even the horizon,’ says the observer, ‘is being filled in.’

     But my favourite of all the poems is ‘Nugae’ which I assume is Latin for ‘Ramblings’. Here torrential rain falls on both Catullus in 55 BC and on the narrator in AD 2020.  The humour in these lines is enchanting:

Vivamus … atque amemus!

he tells his rain.

We should live … we should love!

I tell mine.

And then the realisation:

His then and my now

almost one and the same

and the glimpse of a moment, a small epiphany: 

…in that instant

we both catch a glimpse

of the other time

falling like rain.

Mandy Pannett 2nd April 2023

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