David Cooke reviews Noonan’s The Fado House

The Fado House

I recently posted a couple of spring poems by Mary Noonan and in a conversation with David Cooke about her collection discovered he is a fan of her work. He kindly sent his review  (previously published in Agenda) to snuggle up against the compost in The Poetry Shed.

Mary Noonan’s The Fado House is a remarkably assured first collection. It gets off to a flying start with ‘Keep Talking, Babe’, a poem that is both disorientating and dazzling. As in the work of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, that doyenne of Irish poetry and one whom Noonan clearly admires, we are offered little in the way of back story or recognizable context:
It was his dream to see me through a screen
With words and music and a cast of dwarves
Playing card-sharps, hecklers, fire-eaters.
My only act was to jabber, but I could work it up
To a howl, and this I did for centuries.

A consummate performance in its own right, ‘performing’ is essentially what this poem is about and it takes a confident poet to carry it off: ‘The beauty of my inflection was enough to catch / The crowd, and when I had them I’d lunge / Between whisper and rant, spinning on plosives.’ The impressive poise and headlong rush of Noonan’s syntax here is replicated in other pieces early on in The Fado House. ‘I will Gabble’ again plunges us in medias res, albeit in a more easily apprehended social context. Out of the blue the protagonist gets a phone call: ‘and there you were my heart ripped / from its coat of mail and tap-dancing all over my chest’; while in ‘Night Traffic’ Noonan’s lengthy run-on lines might easily have teetered over the edge into prose or chaos were it not for the controlled flamboyance of her language:

Into the candle-flame went
talk of Mexico City and the high-wire circus of Budapest
and the German outposts of Transylvania and the lure
of pepper (chilli, paprika) and three bottles of French wine
and the touch of his hands.

In ‘Swallow’ there is a similar, if slightly more restrained, forward movement which, somewhat in the manner of Eugenio Montale’s ‘L’Anguilla’, evokes a small creature’s urge to migrate and the epic journey that lies before it:

Soon she will be darting over miles
of dust tract, past ghost shack and scrub
glancing off rock cacti that do not sink roots
but run feelers lightly over dunes, cup rain
as it slides through spines.

However, impressive as the unfettered élan of such poems may be, the reader would soon grow weary if this were Noonan’s only mode. By way of contrast, there are poems such as ‘Evening in Muscat’, in which the details are quietly noted and a scene is presented cinematically:

The muezzin’s cry rings from unseen minarets, incantatory,
unavoidable. Cushions and satellite dishes litter flat roofs,
wind chimes scatter flocks of small parrots.
Cocks crow, night falls quickly.

‘The Fado House of Argentina Santos’ is another precisely observed poem which makes a interesting contrast with ‘Keep Talking Babe’. Structurally, the two poems seem poles apart, yet both are concerned with the role of the artist and the way she expresses herself. Here, we enter the world of the Portuguese fadistas, performers par excellence, who sing songs of saudade or ‘longing’, a concept as elusive as the Andalucian duende or the gospel singer’s soul: ‘Cradling herself in a fringed shawl / she opens her throat and ululates / in broken tremolo for the old dreams.’

Stylistically varied, the fifty five poems of The Fado House are also wide-ranging in their geographical locations: from Noonan’s family roots in Ireland to the many places she has since travelled: France, Portugal, Germany, The Middle East, India. However, those set in Ireland and inspired by family memories are among the most directly effecting. ‘The Turnip’ is a beautifully rendered poem which captures haecceitas in a way that Heaney or Ponge might well have been proud of: ’big, hairy, yellow bostoons, food fit for sows and banbhs’. The vegetable then takes on a symbolic resonance as it becomes emblematic of the poet’s personal trajectory: ‘Warming to your subject, you likened the difference / between the fine French navet and the rough Irish / variety to that between a thoroughbred and a dray’. ‘Winter Clothes’ and ‘No Shoes’ point up the poverty of rural Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s, which led to mass migration. This is the subject of ‘The Rosslare Train, Fermoy, August 20, 1956’, a poem that Noonan has dedicated to her father, a keen athlete whose foot was spiked the day before he was due to leave: ‘It’s true this place / couldn’t give me a living, but it gave me running / and leaping and playing – a wild boy’s life’. Impassioned and vibrant, The Fado House is a collection that one can wholeheartedly recommend. It has depth, range, and endless resonance.

DavidDavid Cooke’s retrospective collection, In the Distance, was published in 2011 by Night Publishing. A new collection, Work Horses, was published by Ward Wood in 2012. His poems and reviews have appeared in journals such as Agenda, The Bow Wow Shop, The Interpreter’s House, The Irish Press, The London Magazine, Magma, The Morning Star, New Walk, The North, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Reader, The SHOp and Stand. He has two collections forthcoming: A Murmuration (Two Rivers Press, 2015) and After Hours (Cultured Llama Press 2017).

Mary Noonan

Mary Noonan’s spring

Picture2Photograph: E.E. Nobbs

But I Should Never Think of Spring
(After Hoagy Carmichael)

You brought a ghost with you, her prints
in the softening earth, her snowy breath
on the windowpane, on the mirrors, but mostly
clinging to the air between us, to our lips,
to the voice of Hoagy Carmichael as he sang
‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’ – you didn’t know
his music but fell when you heard that, saying
you had never heard such a song, saying you wanted
to hear all his songs, your eyes full of soft rain dripping
from leaves, your voice full of sheltering in her arms –
I lay beside you and listened, looking into the dark eyes
of the fox, the dark eyes of the owl and Hoagy singing
it’s not the pale moon that excites me that thrills
and delights me oh no it’s just the nearness
of you, the nearness, you listening for a name,
or someone’s laugh that is the same.



Saint Brigid’s Day has come and gone
and I am unbound from my tomb, adrift
in chambered earth, listening for sounds –
dull drubbing of dryads in leaves,
twitching of bone-dry twigs, dripping
of ice-water from rock.

But nothing moves in the earth above
my head. I feel the dull weight of trees,
mute prisoners on a hill, hacked back
for new growth. The sad machinery of Spring
has not yet begun its slow picking open
of cauterised hide, letting pistils weep again
feel the palsy of frost-scarred stem.

From my grave I look upon the crucified forms –
rags of sycamore against a mouse-grey sky,
stumpy limbs of butchered lime, claws of ash
frozen in their grasping at air. All is waiting,
feeding on the food of the dead. What hope
for us, rooted in Hades, unfurling,
forever opening our palms

to Demeter’s elusive touch, reaching to the mother
who cannot save us now, did not save us then,
when we set out across the field of flowers?

From ‘The Fado House’ (Dedalus Press, 2012)

Mary Noonan is an Irish poet and academic. She lives in Cork, and works as lecturer in French at University College Cork. Her poems have been published widely in print and online and poems have featured in The Alhambra Poetry Calendar (2010) and Best Irish Poetry 2010. In 2007, she was selected to take part in the Poetry Ireland Introductions series in Dublin and was invited to read at the Poetry Hearings festival in Berlin in 2009. The manuscript of The Fado House was awarded the Listowel Poetry Collection Prize in June 2010.