To a Fault, Nick Laird's debut collection, won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and the Jerwood Aldeburgh First Collection Prize; On Purpose, his follow up, won a Somerset Maugham award for travel writing and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. In Go Giants, his third and most ambitious volume, Nick Laird's poetry travels yet further afield, connecting the shores of his native Northern Ireland with those of the American east coast where he spends increasing time.
The result is an almost trans-Atlantic fusion, an inventive melding of Ulster lyricism with proto-Beat rhythms and phrase. The author's gaze appears longer and more penetrative than before, casting back across the ocean to find a fresh perspective on older questions while vividly capturing the vibrancy of the new. Nick Laird writes with wit and candour, with polemic and persuasion, with no subject seemingly too large or too small: weapons of mass destruction, sectarian violence, religious faith, Jonah and the Whale, marriage, fatherhood, a daughter. A profoundly versatile collection, equally capable of public crescendo and a more personal hum, Go Giants is a daring and a thrilling endeavour by a writer described by Colm Toibin as 'an assured and brilliant voice in Irish poetry'.
Nick Laird was born in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland in 1975. He read English Literature at Cambridge University, and then worked for several years as a lawyer specializing in international litigation.
He is the author of two novels, Utterly Monkey and Glover's Mistake, and two collections of poetry, To A Fault and On Purpose. A new volume of poetry, Go Giants, is forthcoming from Faber in January 2013.
Laird has won many awards for his fiction and poetry, including the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Jerwood Aldeburgh Prize, the Betty Trask Prize, the Rupert and Eithne Strong award, a Somerset Maugham award, and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. He has published poetry and essays in many journals including the New Yorker, the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, and wrote a column on poetry for two years for the Guardian newspaper.
He has taught at Columbia University, Manchester University and Barnard College.
Laird ties together a lot of big topics in this collection, so it's difficult to do justice to the whole thing in a review, but one strand that could be usefully pulled out is the historical and political dimension. Since he's an Irish poet, one might reasonably be on the lookout for Irish republican politics, or at least a generally anti-colonial sentiment, both of which are present here, from a reference to the 16th-century Kildare rebellion to The Troubles and its contemporary heritage. What Laird does, which I find particularly new here, is unflinchingly connect his anger at specifically English colonialism with a historically even wider and more thoroughgoing criticism of power and its concentration.
"Grace and the Chilcot Inquiry" is a good example of one side of this: it's an intimate and fairly short poem in which the narrator speaks to their 2-week-year-old child, explaining (through a reference to the Aristotelian rhetorical concept of an 'enthymeme,' or a syllogism with some kind of unstated premise) the way in which the Chilcot Inquiry (the 2009 inquiry into the Iraq War called for by Gordon Brown) turned up unsatisfactory answers by its perpetrators, namely the iambic sentence "I did the thing I thought was right" (40). The poem continues: "Her slow blinks mean that in democracies / the leader's not allowed to operate / according solely to what he or she decrees / is just or necessary," where the comic dimension (the uncomprehending child, the regularly iambic metre, the rhyme of democracy and decree) makes the stunning simplicity of the political dilemma clear, a childlike simplicity, the simple fact that Tony Blair thought he could whatever he wanted. (Laird is also analysing the political dilemma through a rhetorical lens, thinking about the power that is associated with speech (and poetry), and also with its misuse, with arguments that occlude their premises).
It's in the last lines where Laird goes beyond this already interesting conceit, and the narrator notes the baby's displeasure (which is "appropriate") when they begin to sing "Amazing Grace" to the "brand new / constituent" to the tune of the Ulster unionist ballad "The Sash My Father Wore." I don't know a lot about this ballad, but Ulster unionists are people who support the retention of Northern Ireland by the United Kingdom, and the ballad celebrates the victory of the Protestant English King William III against the supporters of the deposed Catholic James II. Neither of these kings exactly had the best interests of Ireland's dispossessed populace at heart, but the success of King William effectively consolidated British and Protestant ruling-class sovereignty there, which means Ulster unionism has, for many people, a clearly reactionary or counterrevolutionary dimension. Laird links this directly to the English ruling class's continued failures to act justly in the Iraq War, and we can perhaps keep this in mind when we think about the role (unmentioned by the poem) of Tony Blair in the Good Friday Agreement.
Moving in the other historical direction, this collection also has a classicising thread, in which Laird draws on the mythology and the politics of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, usually in order to segue into a politically charged reflection on Christianity and its historical origins. So, in what seems to be the second-longest poem in the collection, "The Mark" (which sounds to me both like a joke about the Gospel of Mark as well as a heretical honorific for Jesus) starts with the founding of Rome, and invokes the difference between the Dorian and the Phrygian modes, musical formations which here are keyed to specific mythological figures. The narrator is in a museum, thinking about a sculpture of "the death of a human flautist," Marsyas, the Phrygian inventor of the flute (10). This is not just a dispute about music: "Apollo, the racist, cheated, / and the narrative's loaded by the Greeks / who'd chosen the Dorian mode. // This is just the first triumph of the state," and Marsyas' death is both a political and a painterly "template / for the crucifixion scenes." Here the narrator is angry with the gods, is concerned with justice and racial (and aesthetic) equality. However, things get more complicated, because we should not forget "of course that Christ sides with Apollo, / with all good sons of fractious gods / intent on implementing father's will." This is a contentious reading of the story of Jesus (maybe more of a Mark or Matthew kind of reading than a Luke reading, perhaps) but it's prima facie plausible, especially when we keep in mind the religious struggle in Ireland (i.e. there has definitely been an unjust deployment of the Gospel). Laird seems also to be connecting the unthinking, manipulative imposition of the father's will through the sacrificed son with the Ulster ballad, which somewhat lamely stakes its emotional impetus on straightforward patriarchal inheritance, on wearing the sashes of one's father. Obviously father-son relationships can be fine, as well as politically progressive, but I think Laird is interested here in the abasement that results from agreeing to make yourself the subject of someone with no right to rule over you and no interest in justice, whether that's Apollo, the god of the New Testament, or the English monarch.
A more explicitly heretical poem would be "Spree," which consists in a series of punning descriptions of murders of people based on their professions "The gardener mown down. The typist erased" (28). This repeats the comic quality of several of the other very funny poems in here, including the title poem, in which Laird repeats and insistently bends turns of phrase or cliches, transforming them into surprisingly affecting and charged poetry. In "Spree," however, in the second stanza, we get a capitalised "He," who has "packed everything into his holdall / and calm, alert, efficient, left not at all / discontented with how his day's looking." The murderer, in other words, seems to be God himself. We might reflect here on the way in which God has "packed everything," i.e. maybe taken not just the destructive implements but also some of his victim's belongings, all of whom are members of working-class professions; the cliches, the puns on jobs, are seen in a new light for what they are, the folk expressions of proletarian culture, debased by religious persecution. A less subtle clue about the identity of the murderer is "The farmer led out like a lamb to the slaughter / and the son, the lost one, hanged from a beam, / is gathered at last to his mothers and fathers ..." the cliche transforming pretty abruptly into a familiar tragedy with suggestions of crucifixion, at the hands of the "fractious god."
There's a powerful image in the middle of the long "Progress" poem, which deals in all these themes and more, including the story of Galileo, punished by religious authorities for speaking the truth. Galileo's invention of the telescope allows him to see the moon properly for the first time, which "is not featureless and luminous / but scarred as a clean peach stone" (52). On the one hand, the telescope is something that allows you to see the truth. It is distinctly unlike the "cracked / looking-glass" that Laird alludes to later (which we might recall from the first pages of Ulysses, when Stephen Dedalus says "It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked looking-glass of a servant" (6)) in which truth is shown with a slant in it, irrevocably marked by class and oppression (63). The titular 'progress' of Galileo's search for truth, impeded by the injustice of his society, allows him to build a looking-glass which is clearer, more transparent, for seeing nature and its forms. But on the other hand, the thing that Galileo's "novel apparatus" allows him to see is precisely the truth of the slant (62): the moon is not perfect and featureless, it is cracked, and scarred, like Ireland's history and its art. Still beautiful, though.
To some Nick Laird will only ever be Mr. Zadie Smith. I’ve read all three of his poetry collections plus both his novels and, though I’m no big fan, I think his writing has an edgy yet academic charm. He edges too close to ‘lad lit’ with the fiction and could do with upping his game à la Jonathan Franzen, though, so for an introduction to his work it’s best to stick with the poetry.
I didn’t like a lot of the Middle English and Oriental-inspired poems here. Many were rather forgettable and just washed over me. But a couple favorites were:
• “Epithalamium,” a wedding poem written for Sarah Manguso and Adam Chapman, is full of playful and surprising language describing a union of opposites: “You’re beeswax and I’m birdshit. / I’m mostly harmless. You’re irrational.” [I found this one especially interesting because I have reviewed and enjoyed both of Manguso’s medical memoirs, The Guardians and The Two Kinds of Decay.]
• Title poem “Go Giants,” a fun concatenation of phrases that begin with that particular imperative verb – “Go fish. Go first. Go forth and multiply...Go in peace to love and serve the. / Go and get help. Go directly to jail.” (I especially like the unfinished phrases, almost like what comes after the commas in an indexed list.)
Most notable is the final, multi-part poem “Progress,” whose section headings come from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. It transplants a hero’s epic journey into everyday suburban Ireland: “Home is only one depiction of reality / and there are others, yes, but this is mine.” It’s a paean to “all life’s boring secret lovely histories, / minutiae of the dying who simply go on / dying now forever, the fixed blur of a spun / thing.”
Laird is a nihilist. Or a Nietzschean. I'm sure they carry the same business cards.
According to the poetry within, gods (literary heroes) are to be crushed, shattered, perhaps even pissed on. But that's no reason not to allude or use others' work within to build new monuments that will one day just erode like the statue of Ozymandias.
Laird is a master at angry man poetry, but here his work has become less angry, more cerebral, and still just as impressive as his previous collections. The final poem ravels and unravels itself like a wonderful, monstrous fugue. He maintains status as my favourite living poet (who can really touch John Milton and TS Eliot?). I look forward to flipping through this more.
Solid collection of poetry with a nice mix of poems; some playful, some academic, some bizarre. I was lucky to see him at the West Cork Literary Festival earlier this year and he reads his poetry very well too.
Nick Laird is an Irish-born, Cambridge-educated, living in the U.S. (teaches at Princeton) poet that creates interesting layers in his work. The title of this one can be taken in many ways, but reveals his current location (where you choose between the NY Giants or the NE Patriots in American Football) and amusement with American sports and slang. The poem itself riffs hilariously on "Go..." (with everything from "Go Giants" to "Go all ironic"). Among the other layers you'll find scholarly references to classical history, Irish myth, English literature/religious debate (the final poem takes it's section headings from Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, current millennial obsessions, and then some.
"She still has some cousins in Leitrim/ the tall nurse broadcasting our secret,/ and bright eyes bright as trinkets/ when her pink nail taps the screen... We stand before the elevator's/ mirror now like any other passengers/ disembarking at the gate, late/ a silent weight of uncut gems/ stitched meticulously in the hems/ of your winter coat, my leather case."
I really want to rate this 3.5 stars, because some of these poems are so so great. The only thing holding me back is that there were a few that felt like Laird showing off how many arcane references he could make. But definitely worth a read. (I really enjoyed the title poem and the long sequence that closes the book if you want to seek those out separately.)
GO GIANTS displays a range of styles, from small and intimate ("Talking in Kitchens") to tongue-in-cheek ("History of the Sonnet") to wordplay ("Go Giants") to structural ("Special Effects" to literary epic ("Progress"). There's something for everyone, and fans of his earlier collections, TO A FAULT and ON PURPOSE, will be pleased.
Laird's skill grows with each book of poems, but I can't stop loving his first (To a fault) to the point that it obscures my appreciation for the others. This is a fine, assured collection, though I wonder if Laird's losing some of the youthful fun with each new book. Or maybe I'm just nitpicking.
I was a little surprised at this book. It had a couple poems that were mildly interesting, one of them, the title poem, a "list" that demonstrated some potential for using that form in poetry, but that was it. I probably won't read it again.