Tom Paulin is that awkward phenomenon, a fine poet with a wider reputation for his thinking about poetry. But it would be foolish to ignore his deep-seated commitment to political writing, especially from the Irish tradition. Love's Bonfire, his first collection for eight years, is an absolutely characteristic volume.
Its predecessor, The Road to Inver, was a collection of translations; and translations make their mark here too. The new book makes a set of 15 "poems After Walid Khazendar" its symbolically estranged centrepiece. These versions are no longer concerned with Irish-ness as some touchstone of authenticity. "Letter of the Law''s "ploughshare on a mountain", "saltpans" and "épines" might appear European but could equally be Palestinian. Partly concerned with written language itself, this poem is key in both cycle and book. "Letter" is a strange, speedy yet inward, exploration of destiny and choice.
The verse of Love's Bonfire appear to lollop down the page, paused only by the dashes that tack to the left margin. This distinctive appearance does indeed mark an unusual way of going on; but not a lack of control. Looping thought deftly catches itself up through reflexive side-swipes. "Donegal Näif" honours the painter James Dixon, but Paulin doesn't footnote the reference, allowing the poem to earn its keep through lyric transformation: " – if you think the paint his brush applies/ to tacked canvas on this island/ looks slightly wonky/ then your taste's rotten/ it's completely awry".
Everything in this poem is on the turn, and such turning is Paulin's gift. Things slip away; but they don't slip from the poem's grasp. Instead, the poem portrays that slippage. Perception is unreliable; chaos theory has taught us that concrete reality is too: "the ever so slight chaos of matter".
Only three poems in the book use full-stops; the dashes unusually placed at the start of lines suggest something vital and triggered. The resulting flexibility and musicality is well-suited to a characteristic stream of consciousness, and related to Irish modernism's serious play.
Recognising the political allusions of "honest... Tom" creates a sensation of political engagement in the reader. Political alertness underpins both a poem of long marriage, the ironically-named "San Souci Park", and the social lament "Marked Already". This is writing which, far from pressing knowledge on an outsider, asks the (British, Irish) reader to accept an insider's responsibility. To read any of these poems as innocent of their political context would be an act of elective deafness, and would miss the importance of Paulin's contribution to the continuing tradition of political verse in these islands.
Fiona Sampson's 'Beyond the Lyric: a map of contemporary British verse' appears from Chatto & Windus in SeptemberReuse content