Richard Hawtree reviews ‘Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy’ by Dónall Dempsey



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This is a book of great clarity. Its poems draw strength from the twin securities of family and place before striking out boldly to engage with themes of death and loss. Dónall Dempsey’s new collection deftly shows readers how: ‘[t]he flag of self unfurls / snaps into the lost moment.’ (‘Walking from the Rising Sun to Kildare Town’). This is especially apparent in poems like ‘Follow the Leader’ where the writer’s daughter prompts this unfurling, teaching him not simply to recognise but: ‘to be / the world that she / can see / (half invention / half discovery) …’ Many of Dempsey’s poems take up this ontological challenge, asking us to consider how our being in the world is shaped by complex interaction with close relatives and friends. In short, Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy celebrates our fundamental interconnectedness, the strength of that human chain outlasting the home place or family tree. ‘Journey of a Smile’ finds just such continuity behind each smile in an old photo album:

It pays no attention
to gender

or place or place
in history.

Different people
lay claim to it.

Each generation
borrows it

This perspective ensures that the elegant poems of personal recollection, found throughout the book, work cumulatively to produce a thoroughly inclusive experience for readers.
But above all else, this is a book that revels in the mysterious power of words, in the conviction that: ‘language is lava // the mind is molten / always flowing’ (‘Hithering and Tithering Waters Of..’). And so a pyroclastic flow from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake occasionally disrupts these texts, enriching their poetic soil with a thunderword ending in ‘[…] TOOHOOHOORDENENTHURNUK!’ (‘How Not To Swear When One Is Swearing’). Indeed, thunder itself is an important unifying device in this collection, a marker of self-discovery that is frequently linked to the poet’s acknowledgment of the human. Early in the collection we read:

Oh what a thing it was
being human.

I, in due course
was an about-to-be

clumping about the evening
(‘O Words are Poor Receipts for What Time Hath Stole Away’)

Later, the poem ‘In the Mythology of Foxes’ offers the same semantic pairing in counterpointing an uncle’s shooting of a fox: ‘the fearful thunder // of his gun / had ended everything’ with his nephew’s shocked response: ‘trying to comfort her / with his human tears.’ Many of the poems in Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy seek to recover this humanitas at the heart of things. It is present in the frequent intertextual allusions to Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, and Chaucer. In ‘Till Human Voices Wake Us’ even snow takes part in the search:

the human
tears in its eyes
the snow smiles

snow now

This is a book of great humanity; in ‘Hithering and Tithering Waters Of..’ the poet reads Joyce to his daughter as a bedtime story. Her response will be shared by many readers of this fine volume:

Beside the tickling waters of.
Beside the chuckling waters of.
Beside the laughing waters of.

She loves the music of it all.


Richard Hawtree‘s poems have appeared in British and Irish literary magazines including: The Stinging Fly, Banshee, SOUTH, and The Penny Dreadful. He has taught medieval literature at University College Cork and Creative Writing at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey.


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