First Book of Frags by Dave Lordan
Wurm Press, 2013
As a boy Dave Lordan would almost certainly have watched Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock (1983-87) on Irish national television. Like most children’s verse, the show’s theme song has a serious message at its heart. It has to do with the nature of work and responsibility, and it is tempting to suggest that it lodged somewhere in the young Lordan’s brain because these themes are explored in his work from the beginning of his career. “Let the music play….”
But Lordan’s music has many sources. As a student of English literature in University College Cork in the 1990s he would have encountered the work of Pat Cotter, Diarmuid Ó Dálaigh, and others, poets whose sense of the public function of writing would have mattered a great deal to him. In UCC he might also have studied developments in the contemporary Anglo-American poetic avant-garde with teachers such as Ron Callan, Alex Davis and Lee Jenkins. Along the way he may even have read Canadian poet bpNichol—one of the original writers for Henson’s Fraggle Rock.
If the surreal world of Fraggle Rock can be proposed as a distant source for Lordan’s Book of Frags, then, Nichol’s work also yields an interesting intertext in a poem called “Not What the Siren Sang / But What the Frag Ment.” To read Lordan is to engage with a rich and varied tapestry of possible sources, from popular culture to avant-garde poetics, from Cork to Canada. This intertextual range was evident in his first two collections of poems, The Boy in the Ring (2007) and Invitation to a Sacrifice (2010), but it is also crucial to both the aesthetic and the ideological aims and motivations of First Book of Frags, recently published by Wurm Press.
Adrian Reid’s smart cover flags Lordan’s global concerns immediately: a globe is mapped onto the form of a circular hand grenade, pin unpulled, but already frag-mented along lines approximating to those of longitude and latitude. The book, then, is presented as a kind of time bomb, one whose targets are signalled on every page of this incendiary work and include a range of related political and social concerns, from the problem of suicide in Ireland (and elsewhere) to global capitalism, alcoholism and drug addiction. Containing sixteen pieces—it is too limiting to describe them as “short stories”—Lordan seeks to explode the myths that continue to define success in the contemporary world, whether in terms of the celebration of materialistic excess or the idea that history should be told only from the point of view of victors and survivors. On the contrary, in these frags Lordan tears open the surfaces of things, revealing the bleak violence of the Christmas season for a cocaine addict in “Christmas Cracker,” for example, while tuning into the ghostly voices of “non-survivors” in “The Fucking Titanic.”
To describe them in this way is to do an injustice to the powerful force of language and imagination that is at play in almost all of these pieces. Some of them—including “A Wall” and the book’s closing piece, “At Slane McLowan’s Funeral”—rely on formal and post-Joycean linguistic tricks that fail to cohere on the page in the way that “Christmas Cracker,” “Dr Essler’s Cocaine,” or “The Fucking Titanic” do so well. At the same time, coherence is not in itself the aim of these pieces, and some of them probably come to life in performance in ways they cannot in print. Nonetheless, throughout the book Lordan deploys narrative form and language in ways that are intended to unsettle, provoke, sicken, and torment. It is hard to read “Christmas Cracker” and not be affected by its grotesque vision of an addict’s birth, for instance, while the radical re-appropriation of the allegorical figure of Kathleen Ní Houlihan in “Kathleen is just a word we’ll never settle” provides an important statement on the materialistic transmutation of modern Ireland over the last few decades. Lordan’s description of Kathleen “staring in an oily puddle in a bog, comparing herself to money” provides a bitter riposte to a national mythology of self that has been propagated for too long in Ireland. Lordan has no time for “Romantic Ireland”; rather, his Ireland is a rotten state, “a province of the Reich,” as he puts it in “Dr Essler’s Cocaine,” where citizens take up residence in Ikea and housing estates are entered at one’s peril.
Lordan’s use of the grotesque is key here. It must be understood, however, as a mode that affords not so much a flight from reality but as a device that forces the reader to get really and truly stuck into the real. In an essay on “The Fiction Writer and His Country” (1957) Flannery O’Connor wrote that:
Writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable. […] To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.
Although his work does not give voice to a “Christian” or other form of recognisable religious faith—and certainly not one that can be identified with reference to an institutional framework—Lordan is nonetheless a writer of great spirituality insofar as he believes in the power of the imagination to affect change in the world. In First Book of Frags, consequently, he exercises an eye and an ear “for the grotesque” that is reminiscent of O’Connor, but which also relates to a rich inheritance in literary satire that comes down to him from Petronius through Jonathan Swift to George Saunders. In the same way that O’Connor sought to provoke her readers, Lordan’s “frags” are designed to force the smug cubs of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland to wake up to the realities of recession and social disintegration. The excessively wealthy are presented as participants in a violent pornocracy that is reminiscent of the world conjured in the dark fictions of William S. Burroughs, while the poor are given voices that allow them to speak with intense bitterness not just about the experience of dispossession but the possibility of revenge that will attend their inevitable revolution.
In The Lonely Voice (1963) Frank O’Connor wrote that “the short story has never had a hero”:
What it has instead is a submerged population group […] It may be Gogol’s officials, Turgenev’s serfs, Maupassant’s prostitutes, Chekov’s doctors and teachers, Sherwood Anderson’s provincials, always dreaming of escape.
Pervaded by images of water, the sea, immersion, and death by drowning, Lordan’s “frags” also deal with “submerged” people. For Lordan, however, everyone is implicated in the experience of submergence, whether one is the son of a cocaine addict—
…having a fucking ball of a time […] telling all the twisted skags I meet at parties and bridewells and prison cells just how it is I got born…
—or a poet whose mode of address ultimately fails to meet the demands of experience. As the figure of Roro puts it in “A Message to the Dead,” a story in which the limitations of literary response to the crises of history are explored:
…it is the poets among us who most crave and uphowl the questionable nontion of posterity and it is also they whom agitate polyvalence to the nth degree and thus and do their own memory and everyone else’s besides.
At first the Finnegans Wake -inflected manipulation of language here is irritating, but it works in a way that it does not in the book’s final “frag.” Here, the figure of Roro “speaks” in a way that gives voice to the very difficulty of articulation itself in a world where language is so often reduced to a function of economic value and the sound of breaking glass has become a form of radical poetry: ‘The song of the broken. Crying out in grief and rage for restitution. A feudsound.’
Lordan’s First Book of Frags is finally a book of “feudsounds” but it is also a fugal work of fragments “shored,” as T.S. Eliot put it in The Waste Land, “against [the] ruins,” Unlike Eliot, however, and this is Roro’s point in “A Message to the Dead,” those ruins are not some remnants of the cultural past (“the deadtones then we are”) but they may be seen in the vast exurbian landscapes of the austerity era. Lordan’s “frags” speak out of and for the selves who persist in these spaces—spaces that cannot, in themselves, be “defined” or demarcated, no more than these texts can be defined in straightforward generic or critical terms. bpNichol used the term “borderblur” to describe the way that his works moved restlessly among formal and structural possibilities, and Lordan is also a writer who has shown great flexibility in terms of his approach to the problem of precisely how one should articulate one’s sense of the world in language. In “Dr Essler’s Cocaine” this is referred to as “the continuous undulating poem of reality.” First Book of Frags addresses many aspects of our present reality with a combination of narrative urgency and poetic intensity that one might expect from only the most intransigently indefinable, and indispensable, of contemporary writers.