David Butler Reviews Maurice Devitt’s, Growing Up in Colour

Reviewed ByDavid Butler

MAURICE DEVITT completed the MA in Poetry Studies at Mater Dei, won the Trocaire/Poetry Ireland Competition and was placed or shortlisted in many other competitions including The Patrick Kavanagh Award, The Listowel Collection Competition and Cúirt New Writing Award. Selected for Poetry Ireland Introductions in 2016, he was a featured poet at the Poets in Transylvania Festival in 2015 and a guest speaker at the John Berryman Centenary Conference in both Dublin and Minneapolis. His poems have been nominated for Pushcart, Forward and Best of the Net prizes. He is curator of the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies site.

Maurice Devitt Growing Up in Colour

Doire Press
2018 / 80 pages / €12
ISBN: 978-1-907682-63-6

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Pronouns are tricky customers. Much ink has been spilt on the degree to which the ‘lyric I’ in poetry can be read as corresponding (or not) to the ‘real life’ poet, if it be allowed such an entity exists. But as those of us of the Soundings generation whose schooldays were spent wandering the half-deserted streets of J. Alfred Prufrock are aware, the pronoun ‘you’ is, if anything, more slippery. Is ‘you’ intended to mean the reader, real or ideal? Is ‘you’ the absent addressee of a so-called ‘apostrophe’? Or an addressee of a private communication the reader is allowed to overhear? Is ‘you’, as one suspects in Prufrock’s opening invocation, somehow the obverse of the lyric I, a sort of second-self? And what of a poem sequence – is ‘you’ consistent, or is it variable?

The question is worth considering in relation to Maurice Devitt’s Growing Up in Colour. Of the fifty-nine poems, no fewer than thirty-three address ‘you’, while a further five contain that eternally ambivalent pronoun, ‘we’ – (Does ‘we’ include ‘you’, as in ‘hurry, we’re late,’ or exclude it, as in ‘we miss you’?) Indeed ‘you’ might be said to frame the collection, in that the opening and closing groups of seven poems all revolve around the pronoun. In a poem like The Consolations of Wool the ‘you’ is unproblematic – it is a chunky knit in red and green that has been the poet’s companion for thirty years, and which now causes quasi-parental concern: I worry / who will look after you when I’m gone. If the tone here is whimsical – and there is much whimsy and fantasy throughout the collection – that shouldn’t mislead us. This is a book haunted by absence and loss, and in the majority of cases, the ‘you’ is best understood as the absent addressee.

Growing Up in Colour is dedicated to the memories of the poet’s parents, Brian Devitt (1920-1971) and Pauline Devitt (née Kennan) (1927-2014). The dedication allows us to decode the Miss Kennan addressed in the opening poem, whose first job was sales assistant in Arnott’s, 1945; and also to guess at the owner of the eponymous watch that closes the collection, which stopped one day / at two-fifteen / and held its breath / for thirty years. The dates further help us to identify the bedbound ‘you’ of the second poem A Football Dynasty as the poet’s ailing father, particularly given the shared memory of watching Geoff Hurst score in Mexico, 1970 while I’m curled / like a dormouse / in the lea of the bed and hearing the accompanying cough / replayed / for forty years. Likewise, the ‘you’ of the poems in memory of Greg Leddy and Br Terence Hilary Devitt are unproblematic.

But who is the ‘you’ of the collection’s title poem, whose first tattoo is a small red heart / waiting for a name? Is this the same ‘you’ who disappeared for hours At the Beach, and is presumably the ‘Anne’ of its dedication? Or the you of the disturbing Truth or Dare who slipped through a hedge during a game of hide-and-seek which takes a nightmarish turn? Or of Missing, which begins You disappeared on one of those bright, / geometric days when everything is visible; or the ‘you’ found hiding in a well in the sinister Incident at Fallow Water? This can hardly be the you of Letters from Australia who had met someone and would not be coming back. Nor the ‘you’ who left the eponymous radio on a chair two years ago while tidying, a radio which has, since then, filled the gaps / in my crocheted life…pin-pricked my memory / with the song // that was playing / as you left. Is this addressee also the absent you of Noises Off, which opens Troubled by the silence / when you left, the heating coughed politely? Which of all these addressees is the owner of the old cardigan of Cornflower Blue that the poet leaves casually / on a chair, as though expecting / you to walk in anytime and put it on? At one level of course none of this matters – we have no entitlement qua reader for the matter of a poem to be made explicit. But how differently the words you left resonate in a poem about a deceased parent, an absent or abandoned lover, or a person who has disappeared or been abducted; how differently resonates that phrase as though expecting / you to walk in anytime…

If Growing Up in Colour is haunted by absences and the melancholy of abandoned objects, Devitt’s impish imagination never allows the collection to become mawkish. The fantastic has free-rein, here. In Hanging the Mirror, the ‘you’ who arrives to help, perfectly-equipped – inflated hammer and rubber nails –, steps into the mirror as though it were a lake and disappears. I have never seen a swan / smoking after sex, begins Forbidden Swan, but suspect they do; while (in a nod perhaps to the Monty Python sketch), another is titled The Lion Tamer Dreams of Office Work’ In some, a surrealism akin to Angela Carter’s nudges the imagery in the direction of the dark fairy tale. Lost finishes:

Could we trust a man
who stepped into our path –
eyes the colour of hedging,
haberdasher’s hands –
and spooled the road like a ribbon,
deft fingers smoothing every crease,
scissors leaving just enough
to get us home?

Debut collections have, very often, a ‘greatest hits’ quality – Maurice Devitt admits to two hundred poems composed over the eight years since he retired from the world of finance – and in addition to memories of parents, poems responding to artworks tend to feature liberally in them. In Devitt’s case, it is perhaps unsurprising that two of the tutelary artists are Magritte and De Chirico. If the you who paints while we swam in The Melancholy of Departure, which ends knowing that when you left, the sky / would never be the same may or may not be understood as de Chirico, in The Human Condition, the addressee of  so you set up a canvas / and begin to paint the past arguably conflates Magritte with the poet himself in their concern to re-present (in this case) a tree that is no longer there.

Unlike oil-paintings, poems are constructs made of words, and it is in his imaginative lexical choices that Devitt excels. Of the tree of  The Human Condition …a hectoring / but indecisive wind swags it this way / and that, until the roots, giant guy-ropes, / snap. The Single Twin’ lies in the jailed shadow of your cot, while the oystercatcher of the poem of the same name scurries across the mudflats    like potassium on water’. A Slow News Day gives us a sky that is still undecided. A placeholder / of pesky grey; in Noises Off, a fridge hummed the grace notes / of a tune I vaguely knew; A Caravan in Kilkee has survived / the delinquency / of winter; while in Incident at Fallow Water we read of the freight of time experienced by the ‘you’ found inside the well. For this reviewer at least, it is the surprise and richness of image and imagination throughout that makes Growing Up in Colour stand out from so many other debut collections.