Tracy Gaughan Reviews ‘The Loss of Yellowhammers’ by John D. Kelly

Reviewed ByTracy Gaughan

Tracy Gaughan, editor of the Abhaile column, reviews John D Kelly's collection, 'The Loss of Yellowhammers'.

The Loss of Yellowhammers’ by John D. Kelly

Published by Summer Palace Press, Donegal

ISBN: 978-0-9954529-4-7

There is a pleasure to be occasioned in the poetry of John D. Kelly which, from the first, strikes a distinctive note.  The choice of cover illustration by Northern Irish surrealist artist, Rita Duffy, invokes Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows (1890) and insinuates a particular artistry at work.  In fact, colour indwells almost all thirty-six poems of his debut collection, The Loss of Yellowhammers just published by Donegal’s Summer Palace Press. 

From the all-embracing yellow of the title, Kelly works a broader canvas of ‘summer golds’ and ‘saffron coloured‘ things ‘suspended in amber’; there is red, white and blue; green white and orange; there are ‘golden dawns’ and lights that are ’scarlet-tinged’, nights ‘not quite black.’ And yet not long after leaving the ‘warm bosom’ of Kelly’s introductory Lupins – in memory of the poet’s mother and grandmother – we are confronted with the big, black-booted spectre of violence on the Falls Road: ‘arms were soon high, palms open, body leaning, facing into the red brick wall; off balance, waiting ….. waiting.’  There is a tension and duality to the sinister undertones of Teenage Kicks which is set against the backdrop of Northern Irish religious politics and is Carsonesque in capturing the lived experience of the Troubles. 

Of course, Kelly is not writing in a vacuum, and conjures a rich tradition of other Northern Irish poets: Heaney, Longley, Muldoon and Carson included whom we hear echoes of in the subsequent poem And Snow Was Falling, a recounting of childhood trauma, of ‘witnessing my own father’s blood.’ ‘It was Halloween, Belfast 1972 – a Tuesday’ and while children ‘pretended to be ghosts and ghouls at neighbours’ front doors’ the child poet opened the door to ‘eyes in a black woollen mask hovering over’ his father. Kelly traces the long ‘haberdashery of loss’ in a selection of elegies and memories of friends and family, including his grandfather whose decline he juxtaposes with the farmland bird of the title poem.  ‘His body had been gradually wearing out’ and Kelly, occupied in an intimate episode of caregiving, turns to art as salve, art that puts us in touch with a part of ourselves that can help us to cope, and he recalls Vincent’s ‘golden wheatfield.’  The ekphrasis elaborates the poet’s emotional state and he, not for the first time, engages in enargia, depicting things so vividly they appear to be alive.  Poems like the sing-song Initiation or Counting Chickens and the hold on memory he visualizes in Rowing Backwards, for example, do the same. 

In his poetry, Kelly examines the flip-sides of things, division and conflict, conservation and abrogation.  Regrettably, the preponderance of convex imagery brings the sphere of activity down definitively on the side of the masculine: batons, ballasts, lupins, guns, Eliot rising in the erotic Beetle-juice Perfume, the ‘steely men’ of the phallic Skelligs all counterpose the quiet, waiting fallen women of Teenage Kicks, the suffering Saint Catherine in The Turnspit and the homely woman in a ’country-style pinny’ in Lupins.  Men are active, women passive. 

Reparations are ventured in Christmas Lights where ‘my big father aproned’ is situated in the domestic sphere, sewing up the turkey.  Kelly’s is a poetry of reparation and reconciliation, as in the innocuously titled Clown of the Sea set on Rathlin Island – ancient site of a catholic massacre now a special area of conservation and haven for birdwatchers – where the poet strikes a balance, negotiating the historical religious and political tensions of the North.  This concern does not eclipse the essence of the poetry, however, ‘let me stitch these sheets of vellum/into a quilt of tattooed skins./Let me link clouds in this rosy-fingered sky/to the iridescent backs/of a shoal of migrating mackerel/on their odyssey/so that I too, may follow my nose/in the wake of nebs with tails /like tiny silver fry/so that I may find mystery/ – from Under a Mackerel Sky.  

As an architect, Kelly is alive to balance, to structure and rhythm, elements that speak of a relationship between architecture and literature and poetry more specifically with the dual meaning of “stanza”: a group of lines in a poem but also a room in Italian.   In fact, it was the Italian poet, Torquato Tasso who viewed the first stanza of a poem as a place for certain artifice: ‘it should be full of grandeur like the facade of palaces’  he said, and Kelly uses his architectonics to great effect in the enjambed Fool’s Gold and In the Darkroom and Salome’s Lark,  the first couplet declaring that: ‘The tumour in the poet’s throat is not benign;/but it is operable.  He’s thankful for that minor miracle.’

Kelly is a poet of depth and flexibility who interrogates his surroundings, drawing intertextually on a variety of cultural references. Overarching are allusions to harvest-time and reaping, the hay bales and wheat fields and farmers, Cronos in the meadows of sunflowers and everywhere a poem planted like a seed in a collection that rewards the reader like a rich harvest of nature.

4 of John D. Kelly’s poems can be read here on the Abhaile column