Narrative lyric traditions like the Irish ballads and folksongs traverse all cultures and languages and peoples, often engaging subjects like mortality, a life lived and reflected upon or death and the afterlife to come. Echoing Walt Whitman, Jack Foley uses song as a tool and a teacher in When Sleep Comes: Shillelagh Songs, for both readers and, seemingly, the character of his own self. In order to accomplish this singular mission, many voices, perspectives, and styles of poetic expression are employed. Eschewing mere imitation, Foley employs the practices of the balladeer and poets of his homeland past and present to pay homage to his Irish roots. Suffused throughout this collection are the pleasures and perils of existence as one gets closer to the great unknown, the inevitable nothingness of death, these voices repeatedly addressing the many seeds society has planted and tended, the various ways they’ve blossomed, borne fruit, and decayed.
In “The Wings, River, The Wind” section, “Angelos” immediately transports us to an afterlife, the narrator addressing spiritual beliefs, the purpose of angels, and “good demons”: “How lovely to have an invisible friend / Who looks after you and moves you / just an inch / When the brick directly heading for your head / Is about to fall.” The narrator speculates that perhaps “[t]he man who asked me for money / Yesterday / But looked at me with such searching intensity / As if we shared a secret / Was perhaps my ‘good demon.’” Many of the evocative pieces that follow are tributes, devotions, or elegies for persons living and dead.
Music is the subject of “Elegy: Goodbye, Beat Thing,” the Beat poets’ singular language, if not their implied presence, mirrored throughout: “Blaze against cement / Geeks cling to // Claghorn’s the name / Down the block from Bebop / “Ornithology” / Evaporate mouth tongue ocean fun.” Knowing ventriloquist, Foley nails the brash style and improvisational flair of Corso, Ginsberg, and Kaufman. Through phrasal repetition, “Fire Bricks” addresses tumultuous incidents in the history of the United States: “They are speech—their misshapen, crude / They are speech—their misshapen, crude / Violent bodies are mouths.” The repetition here is both visceral and cerebral and not simply a literary device to draw us in. The section ends how it begins: with a Whitman-esque song of the self in “Duet with Myself”:
I was born
to create the illusion of a self
though it is also memory
on the east coast
the fear of death
in a city near the roaring sea.
The section “The Santa Crows in Santa Cruz” finds Foley continuing his play with form and autobiography, mortality always lurking, impinging, threatening. In “Turning 73 (2013),” we are transported to the sights and smells spiritually inhabiting the body and the mind:
My heart climbs,
into the wind and the vast
and the dreaming, disorderly
The narrator, finding nourishment, in “Whatever god,” revels in “a life / of language and music / so that Love may inhabit / the ecstatic evidence.” In contrast to this visionary experience, “Spanking” finds the narrator conflates the spanking of his youth to terrorism and his mother. In “June,” Foley describes his experience singing with his high school choir on The Ed Sullivan Show as well as other events that took place in the eponymic month during his lifetime. Like other poems in this versatile collection, this poem begins in prose and ends in poetry, the narrator comparing himself to a bug upon the death of his wife: “I am a June Bug / I crawl into the month / and receive joy and sorrow.” In “The Gloaming / Meachan Rudai,” biblical mantras/prayers are recited and repeated and juxtaposed against aphorisms / adages such as “No cigarette burns / Properly / No pipe can be smoked / So as to confer advantage.” Such truths wake us from our slumber and light our way as we too continue on our mortal journeys.
In this life-encompassing book, Foley enfolds us, within his life, his death, his influences, and his imagination. The title poem, “Shillelagh Songs,” pays tribute to the Ireland of his “imagination:” “a place I never / visited …” Furthermore, tributes are paid to authors, musicians, and more, like Cole Porter, Bach, John Ashbery and Thelonious Monk. In “The Birthdays” tribute is paid to James Joyce and Koon Woon in prose: “And which of us great geniuses has NOT a dirty mind? Not a lot of them I’d say. Is not dirt where spirit comes from, though it aspires (to breathe upon, to blow upon, to breathe) the mind goes upward, blown away and blown.”
When Sleep Comes: Shillelagh Songs is a chorus of voices celebrating death, grief, life, and the euphoria inherent in all mortal moments, its songs asserting that when final sleep finally arrives there very well may be more to come: more knowledge and observations and sentiments to absorb, make, and recognize. “Dark One” highlights religious faith and spirituality in all their ambiguous glory: “Thank the lord for the word eternity / For the word death / For the word love / These may be wordlings only / This may be a mode of the fabulous untruth/underlying everything.” In the collection’s title poem, all this searching belief compels the narrator, compels us to come grips with all we have learned and still have yet to learn: “How do become / Most blessed / How are we / Sanctified / In this scramble / Is renunciation the answer.”
Foley’s When Sleep Comes: Shillelagh Songs is a collection that speaks multitudes, gives voice and voices to the human condition in all its tragic and celebratory facets, compels us to keep singing until the last song is sung.
When Sleep Comes: Shillelagh Songs, by Jack Foley. Montclair, New Jersey: Sagging Meniscus Press, March 2020. 200 pages. $25.00, paper.
Micah Zevin is a librarian poet living in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York, with his wife, a playwright. He has recently published articles and poems at The Otter, Newtown Literary Journal and Blog, Poetry and Politics, Reality Beach, Jokes Review, Post (Blank), American Journal of Poetry, and The Tower Journal. He created/curates an open mic/poetry prompt workshop called The Risk of Discovery Reading Series now at Blue Cups.