Sea of Leaves is the first full volume from John McKeown, after three small but galvanic splashes in pamphlet-form. Here for the first time is the full force of his oeuvre collected in one startling book. Liverpool-born but writing in his adopted Ireland, McKeown’s crystal-sharp lyricism is
suffused with a Celtic craving, ‘an unspeakable, loaded subtlety’ (‘Tokaji’). He bravely tackles the anomie of modern male identity, a sphere where few poets dare to tread. But there is something richly ancient in these ‘aural old runes of desire’, like the banshee-bawls of gulls ‘out of the
green dark past’ (‘Gulled’). Christ is an aloof cormorant stood on the sea, ‘not even remotely/ proffering the keys/ to any kingdom’ (‘Cormorant’).
The image-rich lyrical salience of these poems ensures McKeown’s voice, scraped by chafing scepticism, only inspires as it hisses off the page. The brooding nostalgia of a lost childhood realm where ‘suns never quite set’ (‘Gronant’) and they ‘raced in the inexhaustible’ (‘Olympian’), provides a phantasmal backdrop to adulthood’s ‘rain-washed, wild, calamitous sky’ (‘Suburbia’), where ‘the stars are pitiless’ (‘Last Chances’) and our role is as ‘twisted songbirds/ here to amuse the gods’ (‘Canary’). But McKeown does not proffer lotuses: ‘embassies of ultimate forgetting’ (‘Diplomacy’) are not needed when, through a saturnine Romanticism, we are re-woken to searing beauties in light that ‘blooms’ like a ‘luminous flower/ humming with the movement/ of how all life happened long ago’ (‘Twilight’), and sky ‘all gently rustling light’ (‘Roadside Trees’).
This collection shimmers in the mind long after reading,
like a casket of dark sparkling emeralds.