Martin Dyar, History, and the Names of Things

Maiden Names (2013) by Martin Dyar
review by Marina Buckler, Reference Librarian

So, you know how some poets write nature poems, and some poets write political poems, and some poets write almost uncomfortably personal poems (I’m looking at you, Duhamel)? Well, Martin Dyar writes–and I am not sure how else to say this–town poems, poems about people going about their lives, doubting, gossiping, grieving, half-remembering. They are universal in that way–the cattiness and the loneliness and the suspicion bleed through and make the people in them feel like people we might encounter going about their business, grocery shopping. In other ways, they embody very particular, honed depictions of specific lives. Almost all of the poems in Maiden Names are first person, but make no mistake–these aren’t confessional poems. In fact, they’re more like portraits, and compiled, they read almost as the beginning of an epic novel–the sort of poems you can imagine George Eliot writing to suss out ideas for Middlemarch, or David Foster Wallace scribbling in the margins in drafts of Infinite Jest.

Before I get into the meat of this review, I want to talk a little bit about names and the named. Philosophically, the debate about names is as old, presumably, as language, and that is obvious in many of our most well-known stories, including that one you probably know about Adam in the garden. In Plato’s Cratylus, Socrates debates the whether names have intrinsic meaning, or are a system of learned and arbitrary symbols. Naming things is also crucial to Confucius, who believed that improperly naming things (leading to the inablity to address and communicate about those things) was at the core of social disorder. In Judeo-Christian religions, the third commandment instructs followers to pronounce the lord’s name only in praise, and never in vain. In folklore, the true names of things can be invoked to defeat magical beings–remember Rumpelstiltskin? And now, think of the way you stopped in your tracks when, as a child, a parent said your full name. Names have undeniable power, and they help us to define the world around us. Presumably, then, maiden names have the power of (at least personal) history, an idea which Dyar plays with throughout this volume, as he weaves characters through their own and a wider history, referring to recognizable characters and events in the titles of his poems.

One thing that stands out about the poems in Dyar’s inaugural collection, Maiden Names, is that many of the characters contained within the volume are impassioned–creatures for whom it might be said that they have found their calling. These people (and animals) veer toward purposeful and contented lives, and the poet watches them with a wonder and near-suspicion. The cast of characters you will encounter includes: a veterinarian elbow-deep in mare, a cow grazing on a hill, a rooster watching over his brood, an elderly cardshark, a bevy of witches, and for a literary twist, modern incarnations of Casablanca and Cyrano de Bergerac. In “Independence,” one of the darker moments in the book, the reader witnesses the will of a lifelong bachelor wavering at the edges when Dyar writes,

Lately though, at night, his blood gathers itself
against that will. It ladles across his mind
an early vanity: memories of being wanted,
memories, some fictive, of being silver-tongued.
While his heart, a kind of fox, climbs down to the lake
and begs the dark to strike or bless the cottage.

But even here, one doesn’t get the sense that the bachelor had ever wanted anything else: he had lived exactly how he had intended. That the time came that his choices led him to this edge, where his memory–alive with the choices he did not make–rewrites things so that they might provide more comfort, can be true without being inevitable. There’s doubt in the narrator’s voice, and the knowledge that it is too late to undo what is done, but also the knowledge that the life he has lived was lived on purpose: he had his suitors, and made his choices. To yearn does not discount the choices made, Dyar seems to say, though perhaps none of us are immune to the ache of the life unlived.

The second thing that stands out about the collection is that the deeper you read, the more sinking the suspicion that you are not quite getting the whole story. Martin Dyar clearly respects his reader; he drops them into the middle of a conversation, immerses them in cultural references that are at once urgent and vague, presses on with images unsettled, leaving the reader jarred and Googling furiously.

Don’t believe me? Take, for instance, the last third of “The Timoney Bell,”

I’m half
committee member, and half starry conduit of ocean

voices. Slowly, but without inhibition, I work the bell,
convinced the sound is a mounting of better nature
fit to meet what is not life in life, as the April darkness
upholds the thought that the lost are listening now.

Here you see Dyar hinting at cultural context (a quick search reveals that the ringing of the Timoney Bell, the poem’s namesake, is a yearly commemoration of the 14 Addergoole residents on board the Titanic when it sank: 11 lost and 3 rescued) but never condescending to explain it. Dyar’s focus is, as always, on the experience of the speaker–in this case recalling a recurring dream and thus illuminating the particular work of memorializing.

Maiden Names is thoroughly peppered with these sorts of poems–“Turlough O’Carolan at Brabazon House” is one of the only poems in the volume written in third person, and describes a sort of enchantment. Turlough O’Carolan, a blind Irish harpist from the 17th-18th centuries, is wooed by the gentle voice of his host’s daughter, and Dyar, imagining O’Carolan’s death, has her

approaching him across the field, like the field’s
picking the tether of his mind from the earth,
standing over him;
rousing with her laughter the voles in their nettle
and prompting the near-dead harper to answer
the darkness.

Though presented with obvious themes, the poems in Maiden Names range in style and form, and a reader with patience will surely find something here worth their time. It should be said that some understanding of niche Irish history will serve the reader well, but failing that, an internet-ready device nearby will aid in deeper appreciation.

Overall, Maiden Names feels like a vision realized. Even the poems that I didn’t expecially enjoy had a such a purposeful air that I’d struggle to find a moment that felt like a misstep. Does this sound like it’d be up your alley? Check it out!

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