Nostoc by Daraugh Breen

By Thomas E. Simmons
Daraugh Breen is an Irish poet who hails from Cork. Nostoc (Shearsman Books) is his fourth published collection.
In Nostoc, Breen’s poems are grouped under five headings, one on dogs, two for birds, and two untitled sections, one which grapples with Christ’s Crucifixion and the other staffed with ekphrases. The poems are also populated with additional birds of various species, a reindeer, an ox, and a wasp. Flight and fur are featured prominently. Lobsters, pigs, a hedgehog, and even a caterpillar make an appearance.
The title Nostoc refers yet another mode of life; nostoc represents a genus of cyanobacteria which grows into gelatinous colonies after a fresh rain. Breen relays an assortment of nostoc’s folk names as a sort of introduction to his folklore-peppered poems. It reads like a list of ingredients preceding a time-worn recipe or a spell:
witch’s butter, star jelly, angel’s poultice, wind-salmon spawn, pig rosettes, mist roses, 
Jesus’s blood, beggars’ pâté, pauper’s stew, and goblin hearts.
Breen’s verse has been characterized as gothic. It is. But these poems also sparkle with the transcendent, as in “Fox Donned the God-Head” in which said masked fox discloses something to the reader which is like a throng of falling stars:
the Earth inheriting the meek
as angels, in their thousands,
before re-emerging
                        from the waves
with snatches of struggling silver.
Breen shows us both a withering and a blooming; a masking and an unmasking; descents followed by upswings; downs and ups. Some movement derives from the natural world, some is bred into it. Then, there is a magical flux sneaking into forms – such as the bitch “licking and chewing witch’s butter” in the collection’s eponymous poem. And often, the various sources of stirring are indistinguishable from one another.
The repeating patterns of rising and falling seem linked to the corvids and other avifauna which flutter on nearly every page – this emphasis on the vertical; on heights; on what is above and what is below in relation to the observer.
How do birds see? With their elevated perspective, do they perceive in greater measure; what is up and down, rising or falling? In “leaving Island Crematorium, ringed with birds,” a mind is likened to a frantic “horse swimming in water, as seen from beneath.” In “A Pair of Shell Cases,” a “seagull drops the shell from a height above the promenade.” Then in “Japanese Ghost Story,” movement is likened to snow fall while an “older self struggles upright.”
Perhaps one eye of the poet’s peers from a bird’s eyepiece in order to see what birds see. In “a boat-shape of birds rows itself across the sky” – describing the death of Breen’s father in a crow-filled Cork – the poet squints out from within a sheep’s skull:
knowing that the light had gone
to weed and would soon ivy
with night. But all that I saw
was dust, kicked-up by the
ghosts of white dancing Spanish
and as it fell, it was
briefly paused …
Sheep, like us, are pegged at the level of dust, obscuring our vision. Humans cannot soar. In these poems, they consistently drag, walk, or shuffle, like Christ pulling his cross through the dirt. Here is the contrast: the gliding of feathered skeins above frames the plodding of we flightless below, colonizing a rich geography.
There is much verse here to admire and enjoy. Nostoc successfully conjures a gothic menagerie baked with wit and imagery.
You can find the book here: NOSTOC by Daraugh Breen – Shearsman Books
Thomas E. Simmons is a professor at the University of South Dakota Knudson School of Law in Vermillion, South Dakota. His scholarship deals primarily with inheritance, death, wealth, and fiduciaries. His first collection of poems, Tod Browning Loose-Leaf Encyclopedia, was published in 2020.

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