The Space Between
Kate Dempsey (Doíre Press 2016, Trade Paperback) 79 pages, €12 cover price
To paraphrase the alleged and famous last words of the actor Edmund Kean, living is easy; poetry is hard. Living really just sort of happens to us no matter however many seminars or self-help lectures we absorb in the hilarious hope that this life thing can be taken control of and made to obey our wishes. If one is extremely wise, the proof of wisdom comes from the realization that you or I have all the same influence on our fates as we would if we both waded into the water off the coast of Donegal and gave Ireland a good shove as we'd like it a bit closer to the equator. Instead, well, let's just make the best of it all, appreciate the good and comfortable moments while trusting that the bad and difficult will pass soon enough.
Reading an author's book of poetry should always give a deep insight into the author's actual emotional state and world view; poets may be poor, but they usually aren't frauds. Half the interest a reader has in a poem or a collection of poems is comparing perspectives with the poet. And that is precisely half the reason why poetry is hard. If the poet in question is writing great, sweeping epic Byronesque ballads, then the scenery, the characters, the historic events themselves are draws. Any reasonably assured hand could have made the Charge of the Light Brigade at the least a bit stirring; it didn't need Tennyson. Because you or I weren't there, we have nothing really to closely compare with that terrifying battle and so we take the poet's word for how it was.
Writing about the everyday though, that is where things get tricky. Like Kate Dempsey, you and I have probably fallen in love, been charmed by a child, or been so bored at work we have allowed our minds to drift. Therefore, we compare our own experiences against those of the poet. What a poet such as Dempsey, who lives and writes about the present and the familiar, has to do then is find language and structure so that the very form of the poet becomes its own draw. Metaphorically, one can get away with writing an historical mystery novel about say an assassination or some other event where the outcome is known, and people will plow through the three or four hundred pages if the writing is interesting enough. For the poet, the task is not to make three hundred pages interesting; it is to avoid writing cliches in a dozen or two dozen lines when the experience itself is a cliche.
Kate Dempsey is a quite clever poet and so I throughly enjoyed browsing through life as she sees it in The Space Between. I mentioned three basic categories or subjects of everyday poetry above. Let's look at them individually.
The love for one's child is a standard topic, however usually the nostalgia is usually found in something the parent does for the child – here's how to ride a bicycle – which in turn increases the pace by which the child ceases to be a child; cue all the nostalgia and tears. In the very first poem, It's What You Put Into It, Dempsey reverses the wisdom-sharing. A little girl places a wrapped Christmas present under the tree for her parents. When they open it, there is 'Inside, a margarine tub, empty.' How is this explained? 'What is it sweetheart?/A box full of love, you said.' This is a completely charming verse.
More romantic is Reaching Agreement which contains this collection's title. One person on what I assume is a date – quite shrewdly Dempsey does not distract from the moment by sharing external details or even the specific sex of the two people involved – person A is transfixed by person B's voice, without the actual dialogue included. Instead, 'Your lips move but I'm hearing/the way you taste the space between your words,/phrasing so there's something more than silence, an emphasis pregnant with promise.' Pregnant of course implies permanence and a commitment beyond the likelihood of imminent hot sex.
This little thought, which I quite love, of there being more meaning in the silence between words than in the words themselves is revisited in Running Out. Here we may well imagine those lovers from Reaching Agreement having been married for somewhere between five months or five millenia and, you know, it's the little things that drive you mad. And so it is that the husband never remembers to put a new role of toilet paper on the spring-y thing in the wall, and so the wife ends her plaint with 'I meant to say/”Just change it, why can't you?”/I say/”Just change.” I suspect someone is at risk of being flushed away.
Lastly, there is my favourite poem in The Space Between, Grange Castle Haiku, in which the narrator divides yet another workday in yet another office in yet another busy Dublin building in the form of eleven haikus. Now that is a deliciously whimsical use of form. One couldn't break the boredom by working out a sonnet in iambic pentameter – not without getting fired – but mentally writing little three-line poems and then writing them down when one has the chance? Yes, not only could one actually do that, I wish to God I'd thought of it when I was stuck in soul-sucking region meetings.
Well done to Kate Dempsey. I truly think readers will enjoy how she makes the familiar seem new again.
Be seeing you.