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book image The Drowning of the Saints
Poems by Paul Perry
Salmon Poetry, April 2004
$18.95, 84 pages

Reviewed by: Steve Mueske
Book rating: 8.5 out of 10 stars

View three poems from The Drowning of the Saints here


Paul Perry's debut collection of poems, The Drowning of the Saints, is as good a book of poems as I've ever read, and certainly one of the best first books. Poet, novelist and playwright Fred D'Aguiar has called his work "a coalition of imaginative flair and formal discipline." Critic David Arnold writes "Paul Perry is certainly one of the most exciting Irish poets writing now". I agree. While it may be too early in his career to make such claims, he seems destined to join the ranks of fellow countrymen Paul Muldoon and Seamus Heaney as the Emerald Isle's Poetry ambassadors to the world.

Perry's work, like the apples in "Blessed is the fruit," is effective precisely because it amplifies several related themes simultaneously. It has a canny sense of music and balance, but not so much that it stultifies the progression of images. It begins:
Desolate apples, hold
tight in your bowl of water
red, blushing and blossoming light;

too big for the fruit bowl,
bitter pie stuff,
clean and eager

like some dowdy bouys
in a storm...
Already we can see that the applies are not just apples. They signal innocence ("clean and eager"), sexuality ("red, blushing and blossoming light"), and later they become "biblical beacons / of a lost faith", as much a symbol of temptation as they are "bitter pie stuff," ordinary in their thingness.

In poem after poem, Perry performs a kind of magic with words, each redolent with themes that build toward a sustained song. In "The Red Dogs of Wicklow" a group of boys look at a dead fox "with no benediction other than the thought / that things are passing from our lives". The speaker, prompted by the scene of death, imagines the final image in the fox's mind as those of red dogs, which I take to mean Setters, or the fox's adversaries. As they turn to walk away, however, the speaker looks back to see the fox not only springing to life, but "skulking" by a tree and then "darting every direction possible". Here we have a coming-of-age story, and a lesson on survival by deception; we have empathy and empathy turning on itself. That the animal is a fox calls to mind all sorts of legends and stories, including the Native American trickster. It was a fox, too, that visited Lucille Clifton in The Terrible Stories.

It's Perry's imagination that I find most compelling. A good example of this is "The Gate to Mulcahey's Farm," a two-page poem about an unusual gate made of a bed's brass headboard. In fourteen quatrains, he moves from description ("crooked / sinking into infirm soil like a ship") to speculation about its history ("Perhaps this is another version of heaven / imagine the bedroom it might once have graced") and its future, sold "to an antiquarian in a Dublin shop".

This is a first-rate collection of poems that invites several reads, each as satisfying as the last. I cannot recommend this book enough.

View three poems from The Drowning of the Saints here

Poet's Biography:
  Paul Perry was born in Dublin in 1972. He won the Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year Award in 1998. He received a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Brown University and has been a James Michener Fellow of Creative Writing at The University of Miami, and a C. Glenn Cambor Fellow of Poetry at The University of Houston. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Poetry Ireland Review, Cyphers, TLS and The Best American Poetry 2000. He served as Writer in Residence for Co. Longford, from 2000-2002. In 2002, he won the Listowel Prize for Poetry. Currently, he is Writer in Residence for the University of Ulster.

© 1999 - 2004, by the poets featured herein.