Bad News, Good News, Bad News

Bad News, Good News, Bad News,
by Edward O’Dwyer, Salmon Poetry, 2017,
100 pages, paper, $12.00, ISBN: 978-1-910669-81-5.

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I would call Edward O’Dwyer’s Bad New, Good News, Bad news, a grand collection, except I’ve read the poem “Grand,” in which he mercilessly explores the nuances of that oft-used Irish adjective, one I heard regularly from my Irish-American grandmother and from the proprietor of a B&B in Ennis, the first Irish town where I spent a night thirty-five years ago.  O’Dwyer writes:

I imagine famished bodies
in the wasteland bogs of Ireland
back in 1845
telling one another how grand they are,

Then there’s his poem “Failte,” the Irish word for “welcome.”  Here too, O’Dwyer also has a different take, one that Irish-Americans in particular should note:

We’re Irish, the family of Yanks tell us.
Oh, we say, and leave it at that.

Although I’m a Catholic Red Sox fan with Massachusetts-born parents, I learned on my last trip to the “Auld Sod” that I’m a “Yank,” too, despite ethnic, political, and religious affinities with the natives.  Americans, O’Dwyer suggests, don’t always understand where the similarities end.

Nadine, our four-year-old daughter,
Has more Irish than any of them,
But they try out their few words on us,
And mispronounce them.

Still, I believe that Irish-Americans will find particular pleasure in O’Dwyer’s poems.  Despite being part of the diaspora, we can recognize a fundamental Irish voice.  There’s wit, irony, regret, longing, the quest for meaning, and a certain sense of humor when confronting the intrusiveness of the absurd.

His short poem “A Starling’s Death” evokes memories of Hamlet and the “special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”  In “The Fisherman,” he speaks of having “eschatological notions” when he fixates on a guy who looks like Jesus fishing at the River Shannon.  By the end, the Jesus figure has departed for other locales, “resisting taking that one step more, / the one that would spoil the gift of my faith.”

That faith is challenged in “The Whole History of Dancing,” when two friends commit suicide.  “When Mikey did it, we all went into grief,” begins the poem.  “Like grief was a classroom where we’d taken a course.”  Initially, he isn’t concerned about a second friend who eventually hangs himself, but eventually:

All the ladishness was draining out of you, we could see;
The smiling rogue, the character.  You’d still come out
for a night on the town, of course, but with each pint
we thought we might draw you back to yourself
you only seemed more unreachable.

This poem evokes memories of Irish writer Anne Enright’s Man Booker Prize winning novel The Gathering. Some might argue that an Irish writer will inevitably take up religion, whether we’re talking Beckett, Joyce, or Frank O’Connor.  The latter came to mind when I read “In today’s Geography lesson.”  In it, a wily Catholic elementary school teacher connects what one student calls “global warning” with another student’s ensuing question: “Has it something to do with God? / Is He trying to tell us something important?”

But O’Dwyer is a young man of today, and at times he sounds like another American millennial, that tiresome term, when he opens the poem “Funeral Suit” with “Today you start the job / that will slowly kill you.”  When later in that poem he writes that

The interviewer never mentioned
That the successful applicant
Will demonstrate a great ability
To die slowly

many American readers — not just millennial and not just Irish-American — will find themselves in this rueful poem, especially those of us old enough to have read Cheever and Updike, which brings up another important point about this collection: O’Dwyer is a great story-teller.

He even manages to write what could be a good country-western song (true confession; I first heard Bobby Bare sing “Dropkick Me Jesus Through the Goalposts of Life” while pumping gas in County Mayo).  “Wall” begins: “The God of Other Plans / tore up the list of things you were meant to be.”  He starts the fourth stanza with: “Now, you are a bucket of other people’s tears / that no one has thought to empty,” and concludes the fifth with “You are the beer too many, and the one after that.”  His sense of humor can also be found in “His,” which opens with the observation that “He looked for emptiness in his life / because this had become the fashionable thing.”  As a 69 year-old reading the poems of a 34 year-old, I was most impressed when O’Dwyer took a pass on being one more thirtysomething, millennial, existential, angst-ridden, self-absorbed, disaffected, depressed victim.

He’s better than that, which he demonstrates in “Texting God.”  While the title might make one expect a self-pleased contemporary riff on the God-is-dead theme, O’Dwyer delivers much more.  While he does give us the wise-guy stanza —

I add him to my contacts,
gulping with guilty
at the inner admission of how long
we’d been out of contact

— these lines are preceded by him telling us that he found God’s number “in the cubicle of a filthy pub toilet, / crudely scrawled on the inside of the door,” reminding me of the Joan Osborne song “What If God Was One Of Us?”  The narrator of this poem texts God but doesn’t hear right back, and concludes:

Tell me to fuck off if you want
Tell me you don’t care,
Just let me know you’re there
I was doing okay, God,
living in denial of you
I don’t think I can go back to that.
Are these your mysterious ways?

O’Dwyer will offer some interesting responses.  In “The Death of Sean Bean” he speaks of

a collective knowing
silently shared by everyone
filing towards the exits
that the world doesn’t make sense.

But if I were choosing an Edwin O’Dwyer aphorism to tape to my office door, it might be from “Now,” wherein he offers an older man’s perspective: “I know now that back then my life was a A fat wallet / in world of pick-pockets.”  That one, I think, is just grand — grand in the way my grandmother meant.

Kevin Sweeney