Home‎ > ‎

Book Reviews

Review from The Asheville Poetry Review (20th Anniversary Issue, no. 24, vol. 21, no, 1, 2014).



This problem has been central to American poetry since Lowell: poets are caught in the 
contradictory obligations of truth-telling, the need to both keep faith with what has 
occurred and to transform or transcend it. 

Keniston and Gray, "Introduction: Saying What Happened in the 21st Century"
Maginnes, Al. Inventing Constellations. Cincinnati: Cherry Grove Collections, 2012.84 pages. n.p.
Peeler, Tim. Rough Beast. Hayesville, NC: Futurecycle Press, 2014. 76 pages. n.p.
Rice, Adrian. The Clock Flower. Winston-Salem, NC: Press 53, 2013. 114 pp. $14.95.

Adrian Rice's poems in The Clock Flower work best when we accept the narrator as a 
reliable spokesman of the events he narrates. In these poems the narrator is a truth teller. We 
believe in him because he has chosen a very serious form through which to tell us the very 
serious events he narrates. Use of traditional elements, though they rarely appear in poetry 
these days, carries the strength of their traditions especially when coupled with transmission of 
valuable cultural data of the sort Rice gives us in this book.

 A good example of traditional form as it conveys new cultural ideas occurs in the first 
section of the book, "The Moongate Sonnets." The poet expresses emotion over the loss of his 
good friend, but the tight form he uses restrains that emotion and prevents the poet from 
falling into sentimentality. These poems honor the friendship the poet had with his deceased 
friend, William "Billy" Montgomery. We are told in a paragraph-length introduction to the 
sequence that Billy was roughly fifty years older than Rice, had just buried his wife, and lived in 
a cottage beside the one Rice named "Moongate" on the Islandmagee peninsula "on the north-
eastern coast of Northern Ireland" (1). As in the other two sections of this book, "The Moongate 
Sonnets" reward their reader with a cultural education of sorts that helps us understand the 
author's emotional responses to Billy's death and saves the poems from dismissal as 
sentimental, and they fall back on the form to become transcendent. 

The first of the fifteen sonnets in this sequence situates both the author and his friend 
on the island, the "Openings and closings. Beginnings and/Endings" of their friendship. A 
window in Moongate is central to the relationship as it evolves in the poems:

...I first shook his cold hand
At our cottage window, one big wind night
When his ghostly face loomed at the pane, right
When it seemed our rural dream might perish.   (4)

The poems that follow skillfully employ the objectivity of meter and rhyme to reinforce the 
sense of loss in these poems. And we find out "That window, which saw the first hello, was/The 
window where I'd have to watch him go" (4). 

Rice portrays these events of an emotional sort while avoiding sentimentality by 
rendering his friend's experience rather than his own, albeit as these experiences were 
perceived by the "I" of his poems. After the death of Montgomery's wife, the poem's speaker 
eyes his grieving friend and does so from the same window where he shook Montgomery's 
He struggled round, put on a scary show,
But failed to stop the sorrow song
Or force the living from the grieving ground. (5)

We are required to see the narrator as the truth-teller. But in the next section of the book, the 
narrator plays another role entirely, that of the transforming presence in the poem. 
Part  II features poems less dominated by formal elements. It treats environmental 
issues by personifying nature to better understand the world around us. "Whale," for instance, 
is a lament over the fact
Blue whales can't hear each other
Sing, as they once were able
To do, freely, from ocean to ocean
Across our watery globe
'Cause we've drowned the seven seas
In an incessant babble . . .   (23)

Just as this thought rises to the narrator's consciousness, "a student cruised into class/With a 
cell shell held to her ear." She was speaking to another girl "Sitting with her back to the wall" 
(23). This event and others like it in this section draw Rice into articulating his concern for the 
environment. Other poems in this section use the personal experience to catapult Rice into an 
environmental experience that is visionary in its sweep. 

In these poems, similar strategies of personification are used to portray the limitations 
of honeybees, for example, in "Among the Lavender":
For them, perhaps, the pale purple
Of the holy herb is just
Another colour, and the beautiful
Fragrance may be only a wind-blown
Aroma-sugar aimed solely at us... (24)

"Blackout" addresses winter cold: "Everything's an icicle out-of-doors./Coated with the cold, 
clear killer" (25). The limits of personal experience people share with nature are explored and 
often transcended in these poems. We see nature as nature sees us, with shared limitations 
and misunderstandings: 

As far as the rest of the universe is concerned,
Maybe we're like the feather-fluff of the clock flower.   (33)

The goal of understanding nature as part of who we are and ourselves as part of nature is 
unabashed love. The narrator of these poems takes a middle ground between nature and those 
who live in and with nature. He observes nature with his senses and internalizes his sensual 
response to what exists around him, until his response is ready to be shared with his readers. 
He comes just short of rendering the physical self useless insofar as the senses that permit the 
outside to travel inward are our salvation. They enable us to know our place in the universe. 
Part III, "Eleventh Night," likewise places us on the planet but in relation to each other. 
Cultural events signal where we are and the language the publisher preserved "to honor United 
Kingdom grammar and punctuation" also honor the place where these poems were written and 
offer insight into working class lifestyles in Ireland. The poet says, 

My bones are pavement, and my blood cement,
I'm the Protestant half of an Irish lament.
From the Rathcoole housing estate, I'm torn,
By way of Dromara and the Mountains of Mourne.  (64) 

One might argue that part III of Rice's excellent collection, as a tale of life in the Irish 
working class, is simultaneously a Bildungsroman, the "growth of the poet's mind." What Rice's 
poems share with Maginnes's and Peeler's is a connection with readers by going deeper than 
personality and into the very forces that make those personalities what they are. They use their 
penchant for truth-telling as a mechanism brought about by contemplating life events to find a 
deeper truth. We read poetry for these insights and we find these insights in abundance in 
these three volumes.

The Irish Times
Saturday, April 22nd 2000
Books Section

Bemused dismay at plainspoken values
By Patrick Crotty

A first full collection, The Mason's Tongue sports a handsome Colin Middleton reproduction on its front cover and a spray of artfully qualified endorsements from established poets such as Seamus Heaney and Ruth Padel on its back.  The poems have an unfashionable, unabashed directness of procedure appropriate to the plainspoken values of the northern Presbyterian tradition they interrogate. Most of them are set in Islandmagee in County Antrim, in a dreamtime of religious and political dissent. Adrian Rice is fascinated and repelled by the certainties of his native tradition, whether manifested in the Witch Trials of the early 18th century or the Orange marches of his own day. In "The Musicians' Union" and "The Dummy Fluter" he bears clear-eyed, uncondescending witness to what Orangeism looks like to a thoughtful member of the community which nourishes it.  This ground has been traversed in poetry before, by Tom Paulin, but Rice's approach is both more intimate and more down-to-earth: his bemused dismay could hardly be further from Paulin's snarling academic ironies.  The most vivid poems in the book excavate local lore. Particularly memorable are the title poem and the haunting, adroitly turned "The Drowning". Perhaps what is most valuable in Rice's writing is its generosity, its openheartedness to the poet's own community and also to other, readerly communities whose value systems may be very different.  Some slippages of tone notwithstanding, this is an interesting, distinctive volume by a new, if not a young poet (Rice is 42).  

Patrick Crotty is Head of English at St Patrick's College, Drumcondra