Review of ‘Under A Mind’s Staircase’ by Robin McNamara

The debut pamphlet, Under a Mind’s Staircase, by Robin McNamara (Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2021)  is another reminder – if we needed one – of Hedgehog Poetry Editor, Mark Davidson’s impressive eye for talent. Though widely published in magazines and anthologies, this is McNamara’s first collection and readers new to his work will immediately recognise its quality.

I begin this review, however, with some trepidation, more than usual. As always, there is my concern to do justice to the fabulous poetry, but today I feel more than that, for his fine poem, Autopsy of a Writer, provides a stark reminder to the reviewer of his (or her) responsibilities. Using the visceral image of a dissection, McNamara shows the reader how much poetry is part of a poet’s identity and purpose. An Editor’s rejection is portrayed as an act of butchery: ‘You reached in/ And pulled out/ My beating heart’ and his (her) critical feedback as ‘dismemberment’. To pass a critical judgement on  poetry, McNamara suggests,  is to attack the poet himself (herself): such is the poet’s identification with his (her) work, its effects are permanent: ‘No more verses/ No more judgement/ And no more poet.’ Adverse criticism kills the desire to write and we feel that loss in those final lines.

McNamara tells us that he was comparatively late in turning to poetry, but there is no doubting both his ability and his total commitment to his craft. In Muse the desire to write is compared to a ‘thirst’ that he guesses was ‘always around’ even though it appears he didn’t initially acknowledge it. The relationship between him and his muse cannot be taken for granted; there is a tentativeness here, articulated through the need to ask for support: ‘Can you shape a melody/ That shows how I see you…Don’t you want to understand?’ He pleads for inspiration to write something of significance, beyond the personal: ‘a melody/For the world and you.’ There is also an urgency, as ‘dreams’ disappear in the morning dew,’ or as he writes in Alice in Undergrowth, there is ‘No time to waste, run rabbit run!/ The lichen and moss grows/ Slowly over my mind.’ The moment of inspiration is elusive, transitory and the moment must be grasped before it passes.

We find this issue of transience in poems on other subjects in the collection. Nothing much seems to last in the world he depicts: ‘Alas, like all things in life, it must/ Come to its ending’ (Pressed for Time).  Take for example, the ironically titled Happily Ever After, in which McNamara describes a relationship with ‘blossoming beginnings’ which starts with adoration: ‘”You’re so lovely!”/”Ah stop, I’m blushing!”’ and ends with mutual recrimination: ‘”Did you put the bloody bin out?”/”Where’s my socks?”’. Similarly in Regression, reflecting on the passing of the day he describes the descent of darkness and the onset of rain and poses the rhetorical question, ‘How long will the day’s brightness/ Remain// Before the crow’s flight?’ then supplies the answer in the verb he uses to portray the ‘Apricity of the Sun’: ‘fleeting.’

With this transience comes a sense of futility. In Soul of Dust McNamara writes about our mortality and the insignificance of our lives, asking the fundamental philosophical question: what is life all about? The images of ‘dust in the palm of another hand’ and of ‘ashes’ provide a bleak answer. Though he asks ‘What will anything matter in time?’ and ‘What will it matter in time?’ the reader knows his answer: nothing. The great institutions, the Church and education, which might have provided a more optimistic answer to his question,  have failed to deliver: the promise of redemption offered by the three Hail Mary’s in Sins of Souls proves ‘fruitless’,  and his education showed him ‘no directions, no clarity’(The School Teacher).

As a consequence, these poems are also in part about betrayal. Teachers and priests have let him down, and lovers too. We can feel the bitterness (no pun intended) and the anger in the lines: ‘Your sweetened lies,/ Weigh the same as/ A sugar cube’,  in ‘Deception lurks in the corners of your eyes/ Deep eyes of deception,/ As black as the untouched/ cold coffee’ and in the uncompromising, concluding simile, ‘Your love dissolved/ Like a three gram sugar cube.’ He has been deceived, his hopes raised and then dashed; his lover’s feelings towards him proving no more lasting or significant than three grams of sugar! Like the subject of The Frosted Eye the lover ‘promised a false tomorrow’. As a consequence the reader is left with a sense of unrealised potential, of disappointment, of a longing and a belief that there must be something more: ‘Maybe we’ll be amazing/ Together, lost in the dark/ With this something: This…appetency for something more’ (Maybe We’ll Be Amazed). 

As I stated above Robin McNamara appeals to his Muse to write something for the world and in Under a Mind’s Staircase he does just that. His beautifully written poems extend beyond the realm of the personal experience, exploring what it is for all of us to be human, and in doing so demonstrate the value of poetry and poets when education and religion are found to be wanting. This is a truly memorable debut!

Robin McNamara is an Irish poet from Waterford City. He has over 150 poems published worldwide in America, Canada, Ireland and in the UK with Beir Bua Journal, Dreich, Versification, Pink Plastic House, Daily Drunk, Full House Literary Magazine, Dream Journal, Second Chance Lit, Literary Heist, Dwelling Literary  & Impspired.  He is a regular contributor to Spillwords since 2018 where he is currently Author of the Month. Robin is also involved in the Poetry Ireland and Black Bough Poetry poetry prompts. Robin’s forthcoming debut chapbook was written during the lockdown in Ireland. To find out more about Robin and to purchase a signed copies click here.

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