Oct/Nov 2009 Reviews & Interviews

The Realities that Reality Check Checks

Reality Check
Dennis O’Driscoll.
Copper Canyon Press. 2008. 80 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-280-5.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! The poet Dennis O'Driscoll has worked for over 30 years in the Irish civil service. He seems to have steadily advanced up the ladder becoming an Assistant Principal Officer (vaguely recognizable as an upper middle management position) and being entrusted as Ireland's representative to a number of E.U. "working group meetings."

It is not uncommon, of course, for a writer to support his writing by a day job. There are few, outside of journalism, who can make a living writing. In fact, if there is anything unusual in the arrangement it is not that writers and artists, such as O'Driscoll, take day jobs but that they manage the staying power to parley them into careers.

Those that do manage careers are often more successful than one might expect. Wallace Stevens rose to be Vice President of the Surety Claims Department, at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he worked for nearly 40 years. Franz Kafka worked for the German civil service, in the Workman's Accident Insurance Institute, until shortly before his early death. He, like Stevens, also managed to be exceptional both at his vocation and his avocation. By the time of his early retirement he had risen to Chief Secretary of the legal department.

J. K. Huysmans, on the other hand, seems to have been considered dependable but not particularly enthusiastic. Unlike Stevens and Kafka, he does not seem to have completed his law degree. He remained a clerk throughout his 32 years in France's Ministry of the Interior. His energies (sexual, social and literary) during his off hours, however, were prodigious.

O'Driscoll's pedigree, then, can actually be quite auspicious. The journey from clerk to Assistant Principal Officer has its compliment in his off-hours journey via various small presses to the E. M. Forster Award and the prestigious Copper Canyon list.

O'Driscoll's most recent volume, Reality Check, reveals a poet generally pleased with the life he leads. He shares the angst of our times but keeps it in perspective:

Hang on a minute, though,
How many years does
"before long" add up to?

How late is "too late"?
How up-to-date is she on
Current scientific R & D?

We carry on as bravely as we can
In these uncertain times:
4x4's at every door.

He is no more a poet of doom than he is of manic flights. The poem that follows this one is about bread and butter—an every day, ordinary joy of life remembered with special fondness by anyone who has lived long enough to eat bread that has been made by hand.

The ordinary joys and difficulties of daily life are the realities that Reality Check checks. The worst of the difficulties are recognizable to us all (or to all of us who admit to them):

Think, even now, of all the wrong
turnings you will take before
you can call death your own.
All the decisions you will mess up.
All the blunders you will perpetrate.
Future remarks you'll want to retract.
Character flaws that magnify with
every passing year. Betrayals you'll
be in no position to deny.

They are the difficulties of growing older, of learning to accept that life is not the heroic adventure that we once thought we were embarking upon but a much humbler (and much more humbling) affair.

As for the ordinary joys, they are everywhere in these poems. As O'Driscoll attends an E.U. meeting, he hears through the window:

               the glassy rumpus
of empties from a passing brewery truck.

It is a touch that humanizes such affairs in a way that a newspaper report cannot properly allow itself. In another of the better poems of the volume, we find the poet simply seated at his desk:

Late autumn light, bronze as beech leaves,
terminates at my office desk, aggrandizing
my memos, gilding the journeyman prose
of my draft chairman's speech...

Among the reasons these are among the better poems is because O'Driscoll's working life gives them an anchorage that his poems do not always find. Quite a lot of Reality Check is unusually discursive. Anchored only by the poet's love of sky- and landscapes, many of the poems amount to brief catalogues of images that add up to a more or less poetic scene. These are liberally seasoned, it should be added, with "scumbled sunlight," "mud-clobbered" yards and "the swiveling sunflower's anxious scouring of the sky."

Periodically, among these catalogues, the images find a magical relationship and the reader is treated to a poem or passage of the finest sort:

Eldritch beams slip in between the bedroom
curtains, a stalactite sliver of shivery light,
cold as the loner's shot of midnight gin
nipped from the minibar of a cheap hotel
on which the darkness confers stars.

These passages tend to juxtapose simple nature images and the complexity of our created world, the result being that, the two coming together at some strange, distant focal point, nature seems more human and humans (for all their foibles) seem more natural.

Reality Check is the work of a poet whose day job gives him the opportunity to look at and listen to the world outside the window, from time to time, and the security to feel that it is generally a friendly place filled with small pleasures. In his off-hours, Dennis O'Driscoll portrays that world in a poetry that is always genuine and often exceptional.


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