By John Zheng
D. S. Maolalai is a Dublin-based Irish poet. Sad Havoc Among the Birds and Nobel Rot are his second and third books of poetry, published respectively in 2019 and 2022 by Turas Press in Ireland. Sad Havoc Among the Birds is a collection of free-verse poems, many having short lines heavily enjambed; some irregular lines moving from short to long. It is rich with visual comparisons pleasing to the eye. In “Low tide,” the poet visualizes the sea as “a visible line / like a glint / on the edge / of a coin;” in “Preparing to go out,” he compares the loose jacket flaps to “the thin arms on a scarecrow;” and in “A bottle of wine for the rockpool,” he imagines the summer sun through the working of sight, touch, taste, and smell:
it was a weekend
and the sun had sloshed over like a bowl full of soup,
making everyone smell of
Observation is characteristic of Maolalai’s poetry, showing a peculiar way of looking at things, people, and places. Many poems are imagistic. “A bowl of oranges” describes a way of using imagination against loneliness as well as for creative expression:
with you away
I sleep a lot
and not often alone.
my bedroom is a bowl of oranges;
sweet flesh, sticky
and slowly being revealed
as peeled layers
dropped on the floor,
fresh vitamins and easy sustenance,
good on the side
Like “A bowl of oranges,” Maolalai’s poems shine with the influence of imagism or are in the steps of William Carlos Williams and Frank O’Hara in the use of short lines and personal tone. They are sketches with fresh images that present a moment, a person, and a place and by avoidance of pompous adjectives or big ideas. In “Lobster,” the poet first draws two mugs that are stained tannin-black, then he adds his friend Jack who stirs tea in his lifeguard’s shack. The view quickly shifts to the sand where imagination is on wings for the comparison of the two images (waves and trucks): “waves crash / like two-tonne trucks / on a highway.” The next image—wind—creates an effect not just auditory through its whistle but visual and tactile, as described below:
and the wind
comes over the dune
with a whistle
and a hand
that would mess up your haircut.
In a way, these images with the use of synesthesia enrich the aesthetic appreciation of the poem. The second stanza of “Lobster” focuses on Jack’s suggestion when he and the first-person narrator drink tea: to get drunk in town the next day or to pick up food for the barbecue, but the narrator’s indecision or hesitation to go for a drink is like the tea sipped, “hot and brown / and thick as bricks.” Instead, he likes to stay on the beach to continue his observation: someone walking a dog and “poking the seaweed with a stick” to look for the lost treasure. Then he shifts his eyes to birds that “pick their way / over the wet sand / shiny as glass / hunting lugworms” and to the sky that “hangs low / and milky grey / and sandy.” In the end, he shifts the view back to the milk offered by his friend, which “has sand in it,” the meaning of which seems as ambiguous as the title of the poem. Maybe that’s why poetry is challenging and open to interpretation.
Moreover, the poem titled “Colette,” though an epitome of Colette’s life and writing, seems to mirror Maolalai’s attitude about poetry writing. These two lines especially reflect his attitude: ‘she was just describing people she had met / instead of bothering to make a story.” However, “My friend, the writer” is a poem carrying an ironic tone and a sense of humor. In the beginning, the first-person speaker says:
he told me
to be a writer
so he’d started smoking cigarettes again,
unfiltered American Spirits,
and he told me he was drinking a bottle of wine each night now
Maolalai’s poetry shows a way of poetry writing he has found: giving attention to plain things, common people, and daily life that can easily slip the notice, as shown in “What are you waiting for?” which tells in a boring tone about the bus and train to take to work, the short walk from the bus stop, the café, the street sounds like empty music, the dinner to cook, and the tea to make. All these routines recur every day and every week, showing boredom with life, so the speaker sighs at the end:
on a clear night you can see the whole of next week
and it’s not just bright lights
that people shut their eyes against.
It is interesting that the poem titled “The answer” in Maolalai’s third poetry collection, Noble Rot, seems to function like an answer to the boring life described in “What are you waiting for?” and we still hear the same desperate tone:
it’s the job
and the job again.
we move in crowds, flowing
like tides against shorelines.
and I am tired. I
More or less, Noble Rot continues the style of Sad Havoc Among the Birds: no capital words except the pronoun I and a few proper nouns (some place names are lower-cased), smooth narration, rich use of figurative language, and fresh images, as in “Biting a penny,” “cars crumbled like coloured / handkerchiefs” and in “He’s cut down the last of the trees,” “the city lights glistened / like an over-moist cheese.” Yet, a poem that plays with fantastic imagination is “Sunflowers,” which associates lines of sunflowers to the movements of a ballet dancer:
graceful as a dancer
in the russian
ballet, they turn
in short loops,
as a balance.
Like Sad Havoc Among the Birds, Noble Rot is also a collection of observations of daily life or plain things connected to places and people. Some poems are about traveling to other countries, and the views are impressionistic. For example, Dublin in “No skyline” offers only the horizon when seen from the coast at Kilbarrack, but in contrast, Toronto and New York leave an impression that the skylines there are like the “jagged, / key edged reliefs. then pulled sharply on the leash / and glanced downward.” In “Calgary,” the travelers “stopped at very fruit stand / in [their] wind around the mountains, / squeezing raspberries, / peeling oranges / and pausing by corners / to piss out / tomato juice.” Another poem, “Touching down in Istanbul,” has also an impressionistic touch. Maolalai paints Istanbul at sunrise:
tinting orange. the buildings waking up;
if they were flowers
the petals would be opening. we touch down,
landing for a moment, like a bee
on a hot day.
Maolalai’s Sad Havoc Among the Birds and Nobel Rot are two poetry books that increase immediacy to relate to the reader. The success of this connectedness lies in the poet’s eloquent narration, down-to-earth voice with no pretensions, and effort in using the language effectively and creatively. In short, they deserve reading.
John (Jianqing) Zheng’s publications include A Way of Looking, Conversations with Dana Gioia, and African American Haiku: Cultural Visions. He is the editor of the Journal of Ethnic American Literature. His forthcoming poetry collection is titled The Dog Years of Reeducation from Madville Publishing.