Maurice Riordan’s fourth collection is one of deceptive complexity. Read in isolation, individual poems such as “The Noughties” may seem overly brief or inconsequentially anecdotal, but this is a collection which must be read as an organised whole. Clear thematic threads are formed around ideas of modernity, technology, memory and personal loss, but these strands are also non-hermetic, thus granting the entirety of The Water Stealer a certain coherence and flow.
“The Larkin Hour”, Riordan’s homage to the poet, is prefaced by “Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare”, a line taken from the elder poet’s “Aubade”, a poem which concerns the personal as well as the universal. Riordan builds upon some of that imagery in an intricately constructed piece, and in an admission which subtly echoes some of the sentiment of the earlier work:
I saw I’d held too long the shallow belief
all would be well, that friends and family
would knit a web equal to age and grief.
This line in particular evokes a similar, aged apathy directed at “the shallow belief” that Larkin connects directly to the Church in “Aubade”,
…Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die.
In “The Larkin Hour” Riordan skilfully acknowledges his respect for Larkin. He repeats this, albeit with less success, in later poems dedicated to other poets such as Gregory O’Donoghue.
Elsewhere , and particularly in “The Flight”, “The Age of Steam” and “The Cranium” (a tribute to Pablo Neruda), Riordan focuses on personal grief and loss, informed by an unconscious interweaving of dream and memory. However, these memories also serve to relate the personal to much broader issues of modernity through technologies such as steam which bridge the past and present. Furthermore, through memory, Riordan’s poetry introduces the idea of reading as a process of psychological growth. In “The Flight”, Riordan describes his past self, preserved in memory, “I was young again”, but this is of a self stripped of knowledge as well as of age, revealed by his lack of reading: “I was childless, bookless, clueless”. Riordan presents art as knowledge, a theme he returns to repeatedly in this collection, and it is at its most noticeable and laudable in his tribute to Larkin. The death of his mother, symbolised by the titular flight itself, is delicately evoked through the image of the telephone as another signifier of modernity, “I couldn’t keep our mother on the line”. In contrast, “The Age of Steam” sees Riordan retreat into the past as a coping mechanism , associating the demise of steam technology with his personal loss, assimilating “the hissing thumping piston” of steam to what is “in my chest”. By forging a link with the past (and also with his mother) through the shared image of his steam-driven, mechanised heart, Riordan effectively recasts modernity as also about the human.
These are ruminations on age and mortality, beautifully counterpointed by later poems like “The Water Spider”, a microscopic observation of the timeless elegance of that minute insect’s natural behaviour. Together with the titular poem, “The Water Spider” examines the delicacy of tiny ecosystems living in the modern urban setting of London, connecting them with a rural Irish past. Inextricably linked in the poet’s mind with the death of his father, this pastoral evocation in memory is palimpsestic, overlaying and associating the fragility of the natural world with the physical frailness of his aged father.
The Water Stealer, Riordan’s fourth collection and his second to be short listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize is poetry which is both brooding and playful, both personal and detached. It is poetry as rewarding as any reader might want. Read it as an entire collection, a memory collage, and it will undoubtedly repay your efforts.