”Santiago Sketches” by David McLoughlin

We have a new Poet!

Born in Dublin in 1972, David McLoughlin is the author of Waiting for Saint Brendan and Other Poems (Salmon Poetry, 2012) and Sign Tongue, translations from the work of Chilean poet Enrique Winter). He received first-class honours from UCD for his research MA in modern Spanish Literature. He holds an MFA in Poetry from New York University, where he was a Teaching Fellow. His work has been published in journals such as Poetry Ireland Review, Barrow Street, The Stinging Fly, Cimarron Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review and Poetry International.

 —-

Santiago Sketches” by David McLoughlinA friend of mine, very knowledgeable in wine, likes to introduce vintages to less—informed friends with the observation ”this is a little cracker”. That particular exchange came to mind upon being introduced to David McLoughlin’s “Santiago Sketches” for this book of poems is, indeed, a little cracker.

The Author’s Note tells us that the book itself is the product of what one suspects were ten glorious months spent between October 1993 and June 1994 in Santiago De Compostela, the capital of Galicia.

Although the book ostensibly structures itself on a calendar basis, i.e. from month to month, it is only occasionally seasonal. Yes, we have ósos de Santo on All Saints Day, and we celebrate Carnaval in February, but this book does not flow by reason of the unities of time, place or action, but rather through the constant pungency of the writer’s observations.

A number of forms are deployed. David McLoughlin is fascinated by the Haiku which so entranced the Imagists. Those influences are apparent here. The language is precise. Ornamentation is eschewed.

              ”Two elderly women in buffalo fur coats —

              – Like the campaign coats of Centurions —

              Stand at the zinc counter

              of the male-dominated bar, talking at

              each other: small, gesticulating upwards.

              Old men frown, slapping down dominos”.

The language here is intense and concentrated. It is also economical. Yet, within that economy abounds plenty.

The poems engage all our senses. We are invited to smell re-used olive oil, tobacco, booze and dope. We hear angry voices, happy voices, old voices and young voices. We are invited to look at pilgrims, barmen, policemen, young ladies, old ladies, hippies, and punks.

The book is driven by observation. This is occasionally political – such as the wonderful sulphuric exchange between an Anarchist and a Falangist in “Civil Disagreement”. However, the observer does not intrude or offer a position: the ambition is to identify the essence of what is being observed.

In general, David McLoughlin uses what we might loosely call ’free verse’. However, he does also seek to adopt the discipline of the Haiku in his poem, ‘Praza Do Toural’:

              “Early morning.

              At the fountain, the junkies

              washing their needles.”

 What concentrated power. The freshness of the morning juxtaposed to the challenges of drug addiction; all immersed in the normally refreshing experience of cleansing. 

David McLoughlin smells, feels and sees the contradictions and complexities of metropolitan life in this northern Spanish city. If one were to plot his poetic co-ordinates, one would be tempted to say that he meets at a junction between John Betjeman and either Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen. An eye for urban particular can travel into a city’s louche shadows.

              ”Walking out of the city along Rúa Do Pombal

              in the late afternoon, prostitutes lean in doorways.

              They don ’t call to me, even tiredly. I glimpse

              empty beer crates in shebeen bars,

              beds behind bead curtains at the back of them”

The city comes to life with its sounds, flavours, and textures. We are offered the “sad apron eyes” of Pepé’s wife or the girl with “West Clare / in her cheekbones.”

Ultimately, it is neither fair nor possible to reduce the images, observations, and emotions captured in this book to a mundane list. However, what one can say is that there is a precision of observation which passes a very significant test – it repays re-reading.

Dictionaries inform us that the noun ”sketch” may have two meanings:-

(a) It may be a rough or unfinished drawing made to assist in making a more finished picture, and/or;

(b) It may be a short humorous play or performance, consisting typically of one scene in a revue or comedy.

The short works herein could not be considered either rough or unfinished. To that extent, “sketch” does not accurately describe what we find. However, there are lengthier, essentially prose pieces which certainly meet the second definition:-   

      “Daily Quintana.

      Couples in gold rimmed sunglasses and English shooting jackets with collies and

      huskies, proud parents of exotics, take over the lower square. Kids on BMXs with

      raining wheels pass me, perched on a rattly orbit. Quarter past five in the afternoon

      with a hangover can be pleasant. Frail perceptions. lam alive in the sun. Someone is

      asleep on the bench along the convent wall. Two Policia Municipal in blue-black

      come down the Via Sacre. The beggar who has been shouting, sits down. A hippie

      woman whistles to her white wolf dog, and goes. The cops stand a while then stroll

       on towards the Obradoiro, the public face. A man in a beret swigs from a carton of

       red wine, scowls at the little girl skipping past in a school uniform and Paddington

       Bear toggle coat. The punk boy beside him yawns, a knee drawn to his chest. He has

      a high shouldered, consumptive look. Tight jeans and red Doc Martens; the West

     German Army surplus coat hangs off him, back cricked from squat living, a face like

      someone coming down”.

Upon reading this, one is reminded of the oft-expressed observation that our best Poets write our best prose. If I might return to my knowledgeable wine-loving friend. Apropos “Santiago Sketches”, you may not know this vintage, but you should get to know it. It is a little cracker.

Santiago Sketches is published by Salmon Poetry, July 2017, ISBN: 978-1-910669-75-4.

 Written by Rufusin