Leontia Flynn’s third collection was first published in 2011, but it’s taken a while for us to come into contact. In general, I try to avoid reviews of poetry collection before reading a book and in this case, I think it was a wise decision. Not because the reviews weren’t excellent – they were, most notably Fran Brearton’s very complimentary review in the Guardian – but because it can sometimes dim the clarity of the poet’s message for me. Brearton opens her review by talking about how this is a collection about motherhood and marriage, themes which I was scarcely aware of. Of course, this could be an error on my part, but I found the poems much more about memory and her father’s descent into Alzheimers.
The collection is divided in three, and the first few poems in the first part of the collection explore the notion of moving house and how we leave so much of ourselves behind in the objects we surround ourselves with. Since the financial crisis and the near – collapse of the property market was still relatively fresh, it makes sense that a collection entitled ‘Profit and Loss’ opens with the biggest financial concern of many at the time: home ownership. The opening poem ‘The Dream House’ recounts the detail of other peoples’ lives as the speaker recalls house viewings, Flynn capturing a sense of frailty and futility in observations like “the low beam / where someone thought to fix a rope once” and “the Stannah stairlift paused, / eternally it seems, up the narrow steps.” On a personal note, I was transported back into the grimy flats of student days and filled with a sense of nostalgia for a lifestyle long gone.
After the initial four poems which are very much centred on memories of past living arrangements, the collection’s attention turns to family, with Flynn using the Catedral Nueva in Cadiz as a springboard to examine her grandmother’s rituals. It is this ability to make interesting connections that I love about Flynn – I routinely find myself surprised when I read her work. Another example is the unexpected poem about finding someone else’s pornography in the mail – Flynn’s gift is to imbue even this random event with a wistfulness.
Many of these poems are about moving on – from previous homes, from past lives (‘The Help-Line’, the Exorcism, ‘After the Funeral’) and the objects that we leave behind, whether it’s a plant, or a discarded floppy disk with its “stunningly useless past” or even a vibrator left in a drawer somewhere – this poem is another unexpected delight as Flynn balances the crudity of the object with an overly classical style to great comic effect. It’s the attention to detail that gives weight to the memories in these poems and a much deeper, more poignant layer is added by the knowledge that her father’s own memory is disappearing in the clutches of Alzheimers.
Flynn explores childhood memories and relatives in poems like ‘Mellaril’ where she describes her uncle’s pills as things “that ease the wild eruptions in his brain” and the devastating ‘Colette’ where the memory of an aunt who died in infancy reverberates through the years and whose “name is a hiccup of grief”. As the first part of the collection draws to a close, Flynn adopts her parents’ voices as she explores her own childhood and the reader gets a sense of a newfound admiration for the difficulties of parenthood in poems like ‘Phi-Hole’ and ‘There’s Birds in my Story’. However, the lasting impression this first part of the collection left on me was made in ‘My Father’s Language,’ where her father’s “language rattles in its dearth of nouns”, the use of rattle simultaneously suggesting the end of life in a death-rattle and the beginning of life in a child’s rattle.
The second part of the collection is a 36 stanza letter to her friends, opening with the sarcastic voice of a teenager before moving more into the present as she sorts through the mementos of previous travels and adventures. There is so much energy in this part of the collection and at parts it feels like a call to arms against a life filled with social media and consumerism “These days we work flat out at our enjoyment.” The energy is sustained through a loose rhyme and iambic pentameter which drive the poem on, relentlessly. This section draws to a close with the dismissive “My heap of junk is ready for the fire; our lives stand waiting, primed for compromise.” Whether it’s the compromise of parenthood or the compromising of ideals as she’s developed into adulthood – for who of us have turned out to be the people we’ve sworn we’d become as teenagers? – is unclear, but it’s a powerful and incisive commentary.
The third and final section opens with a nod to the classical in the ‘5 Obvious Catullus Versions’, where she again balances the mundane and grandiose to bittersweetly comic effect. ‘Cyd Charisse’ addresses her ailing father, and again the beauty and power of her sentiment is in the detail “small-talk at mealtimes, thoughts shared on the move,/ a lifetime of priceless inconsequential chat.” The poem ‘Bubbles’ brings us to her role as mother as she describes herself saying “I have stood with my face pressed close / to the pane of your life.”
The overarching feeling from the collection is to pay attention to the small, seemingly inconsequential details in your life as one day they will take on huge significance. It is less the object, but the memories attached to them that will linger. Flynn seems to be aware of this in response to her new daughter and her ailing father, forcing her to address life and its essence. This is a collection that will leave an ache long after you’ve finished.