‘Waiting for Saint Brendan’ by David McLoghlin

david mcloghlin
  • COLDFRONT RATING: three
  • PUBLISHED BY: Salmon Poetry, 2012
  • REVIEW BY: Ken L. Walker

David McLoghlin CoverDavid McLoghlin thinks the atmosphere talks to him; he is a concerned poet, one who is disquieted by birds, emigration, coastlines, blown-out terrains, and places where the surreal, or at least something magical, convenes with geologic minutiae. Those sentiments recall obvious writers like Borges, Marquez, Kimiko Hahn, and perhaps more intriguingly, W.G. Sebald. In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald posits the idea that the world is held together like a cracked-then-glued eggshell by the patterns of the seagulls. The beauty and simultaneous enchantment of that proposal is beyond measure; Sebald always makes it look easy. And it is McLoghlin’s poetry, in Waiting for Saint Brendan, that tries, and often successfully does, to approach the overarching sentiment Sebald delivers so well throughout his “novels,” delivering a strong sense of a place’s diaspora within a person. McLoghlin makes this his penultimate goal and there are plenty of strong moments that enhance his journey.

See this stanza from “Saint James the Great as a Young Man” where he writes:

I am the novice
among the old hands
tough as rope burn,
the intellectual
among fishermen
with cracked, young smiles
fortified by wild garlic and rough wine.

The end of that particular poem offers something McLoghlin frequently fairs with—the unending. In fact, the protagonist admits to not fulfilling his pilgrimage.

Later, in “Not The Nightingale,” a couple, splayed in the anti-romantic, breaks and re-adheres:

I was naked inside you.
But also afraid.
I was already in a relationship
with something
that tolerated no other loves
and breaks the future.

It is obviously that last line that rescues the more obvious turn of phrase “inside you.” And this is yet another Sebald-esque moment for McLoghlin, who seems to look toward the future through a tiny lens hole buried in a wall that leads one to the past. Inside that lens is an entirely beautiful and fully detailed landscape that will never be on this side of the wall.

That’s the brilliancy but that’s the untouchable; it’s painful, dark, misty, burnt out, not here. In fact, the section of the book that “Not The Nightingale” is in is called “Digesting a Scorpion,” a reference to Luke from the bible, but also a centrifugal point that opens McLoghlin’s book to the notion that we never get what we ask for, that our expectations are, in essence, going to process us instead of the other way around. The book’s first poem, “Lazarus,” brings it all back around: “In the second life, / he will teach me how to live.”

It should, by now then, be deftly apparent that these poems are narrative, fully. Is this the Irish tradition? Probably. Is it a hindrance to the poems? Not at all. Where McLoghlin lets his characters (be they place or person or animal) drift in their loss and simmultaneous remembrance, he is strong. When these poems become too long-windedly self-referential–and the episodic detail and wandering falls out–they fail to knot the rope he is so otherwise good at strengthening. The poems themselves span three sections, 85 pages in total, and the poet offers two full pages of explanatory notes at the end, numerous epigraphs and dedications. At times, it is a bit much, a tad hermetic, and lacking in a strong rhythmic delivery. But perhaps all that is just an affectation of a flourishing big batch of poems by an Irishman misplaced in New York and writing it out on his own terms. How long is too long for a book of poems? And who would be the one to properly respond to that question—the poet or the reader?

It is legend that Saint Brendan built a boat and sailed to a small volcanic archipelago along the coast of Iceland. Much later, according to over 100 manuscripts (basically, it seems a legend), Brendan came back home from his journeys and heard his name and died. Some leave out the hearing his name part. But, nevertheless, he dies upon returning home. It’s almost as if both Brendan and McLoghlin are bearers of the notion that leaving home changes one forever, all the while “home” is changing forever, too. Both are a constant process—home and citizen.

Their separation stops nothing within either from changing, permanently. But McLoghlin definitely wants to acknowledge those morsels of both that are simply always the same. As in “The King of Crickets,” where he writes “You must enter through the wound / you have already sustained.” And that may be the beginning of the entire thesis.

David McLoghlin is an expert of detail and description. So many details populate this collection that writing them all down would take away from their individual appearances in each poem. They really are elementally-crucial to the various micro-narratives sizing up to that overarching narrative of diaspora broken and put back together in an unforeseen future. Aside from the self-referentially-driven and occasional all-knowing voice, this collection of poems feels like the lighter side of Sebald’s mental picture of what binds the world.

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