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Thursday, June 13, 2019

An Experience on the Tongue, A Review

An Experience on the Tongue

by Glen Wilson (Doire Press 2019)

Reviewed by Orla Fay

The first section of An Experience on the Tongue is titled "Wordless But All Verb" and this line is taken from the poem "Pipping", placed towards the end of this first section. The phrase refers to the latent strength it takes for a chick to break free at last from its shell, the act is "wordless but all verb". Such eye for exact and precise detail is a feature of Glen Wilson's poetry. He examines with a microscope the sometimes brute realities of life. This attention to detail is again found in "Angelshare" where the poet describes working in a whiskey distillery and finding a sense of belonging and lineage in its production through the centuries. It is from this poem that the title of the collection is taken. On savouring the taste of the alcohol Wilson writes

...That is what I am/
what we all are, an experience on the tongue,/
casting off from the world, hoping the taste/
gilt-edged, worth gifting on./

Throughout his poetry Wilson does seek the noble and the moral, despite being sometimes disappointed. His poems are all very well crafted and mature, with  humility and conscience. They never resort to being preachy, however. Wilson is a connoisseur of language and context. In "Orchard County" the aftertaste of stolen apples leaves him battling guilt, "...An aftertaste/we don't recognise loiters on our tongues." In "Gavage" the force feeding of geese troubles the poet, who, on seeing wild geese in the sky, wishes that he too could fly away. "Mouths to Feed" similarly deals with the dilemma of unwanted kittens on a farm, the quandary it poses, especially to the eyes of a watching child.

Wilson is very good at adopting personas in his poems, vividly imagining other lives, he becomes a bereaved man, or a man suffering from dementia in "The Stable" and a wolf in "Canis Lupus", a gamekeeper in "The Gamekeeper". Concern for the natural world and its scarring by mankind arises in "Opening the Gates" where tundra swans have been disturbed by litter and violence. This was a poem that left me feeling outrage.

Section (II) of the collection, The Lotus Gait discovers the wider world outside Armagh and Tyrone. The titular poem "The Lotus Gait" explores the foot binding practiced by women in China. Lots of poems in this section deal with women in history. History is explored through poems about the Holocaust and the plight of refugees from the Middle East. Wilson wants to see the world clearly, to shine a light on injustice through his poems.  In "The Spectacles" he says

I take a cloth, wipe, make the glass clear,/, 
hope that others will do likewise./

while "Shofar" chillingly reminds us that "winter beckons again tomorrow", echoing the quote "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (George Santayana-1905).

Section (III) Tipping Point opens weightily on the subject of the ruination of nature by man. The poet wonders if an egret can know regret? Still in sombre mood in "High Tide" and "The Groynes" Wilson sees the passage of time before him, realising that time and tide wait for no one. One wonders are we indeed

caught by the rotting wooden arms/
Man has thrust out into the ocean./?

In this section the poet is trying to grasp his identity and where he belongs in the world. In "Mouth of the Ford", Belfast is described as an "Oceanic, Britannic, Celtic..." city, balancing on "ever-moving currents".  In the excellent "Surface Water" the death of a homeless man is attributed to his lack of roots, flowers left by mourners are "quenching thirst with sheared roots". The very human need to belong, to be joined is found in the gorgeous "Election Night" and in "On Oresund Bridge" where the poet writes

There is a need to be joined: this body of water/
should not lie between us when we can see/
each other's coasts,/

Wilson is a voyeur on a balcony in Pamplona in "China Shop" wondering what a girl, a stranger in the streets, would think in a moment of epiphany about the running of bulls through the town.

The final part of the collection, (IV) The Founds opens with poems about a grandfather, "The Founds", and perhaps, a grandmother or elderly aunt in "Seskinore". They are followed by "View from Gullfoss" and "Traybakes" which both deal with grief. In "Brood" a beautiful pearl is described which is reclaimed, of course, by the sea. There is a lesson in this that everything we are, or have, will be washed away in death. Wilson writes

When young, I briefly held a baroque pearl,/
...before the sea made me say: Goodbye./

"The Illuminated Manuscript" portrays an enlightening encounter with a page of The Book of Kells at Trinity College. The poet feels "burdened with light" from seeing the page and believes it confirms a faith, some connection with eternity. I suppose that knowledge passed on is a thread to eternity.

"In Places with Two Names" Wilson addresses both communities that dwell in Northern Ireland, that live side by side in difference "holding a truth in each hand". The collection finishes on a poem that is a song, "The Song", to his young family where he does find belonging and connection.

An Experience on the Tongue is beautifully written. It is an impressive debut. It can be purchased from Doire Press

Glen Wilson was the winner of the inaugural Trim Poetry Competition 2019.

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