Turn Now the Tide
Joe Neal is a manipulator of words. His poems are a mode of transport for his ideas. His repository of experiences and images is his own business, but his poetry, full of magic properties when combined with his identifiable style and music, undoubtedly belongs to the world. He makes each word count double and as a consequence all the fives senses are called into play.
Revisiting again individual poems in Turn Now The Tide, Joe’s second collection, Barbican Buffalo, (‘All the trains I’ve caught since then, bring that moment shunting back.’), Love At First Bite (‘The promise in your smile, is of something more to come.’), Shades of You (‘You see, when I paint or draw, we’re all the one, a passion marled and intricate, born on my palette.’) In The Biblical Sense (‘but disquiet came in dreams of threesome romps.’) and Too Wet To Woo (‘We shared a great hope, when we met in the rain.’) I encounter not alone a man of letters who is unhesitatingly committed to the ideal of love, but an acute and sympathetic observer of the human condition.
From the outset, I received Turn Now The Tide as a pean to beauty, to humanity, to music: what the poems share, filtered through the aperture of this poet’s vision, though more susceptible to gravity than Wordsworth’s ‘inward eye’, is an impeccable rhythm.
Though I have long admired Joe’s fishing poems in the journal Waterlog, alongside notable contributions from George Melly and Ted Hughes, he is not exclusively a poet of the natural world. He is cosmopolitan and cultured, a legacy of his time as a journalist in London, rubbing shoulders with some of the greatest scribes of his age and indulging his love of jazz in Soho, before crossing the Irish Sea and retiring to Castlebridge, to be rejuvenated as an actor and as a poet.
I have seen Joe on stage dozens of times, from A Child’s Christmas in Wales in Wexford Arts Centre and a Wexford Festival Opera production of The Threepenny Opera, to an intimate but salubrious reading from Telling It at a Slant in Enniscorthy Castle, when he enchanted with more of a performance than a reading. Joe Neal doesn’t abandon his poems when the print is dry; he cares for them lovingly, as they are the repository of cherished memories, a record of exchanges and experiences from another time and another place. That he is often haunted by voices is not wide off the mark.
Joe’s retreat from journalism in the media capital of the world to the idyllic haven of Eden Vale, where the trout in the River Sow ferry moon beams on their back, was the actor and writer exchanging one stage for another. He needed space. He needed the clock of nature. He needed, ironically for one so sociable and equable, a form of solitude. His poetic vision – coiled in dormancy – required an oblique slant on his interests, yet he continues to sate what stirs his senses: admire his play with words in this e mail to me while I was in London.
I envy you that evening of Wynton Marsalis; did he use his blocky-square-modular trumpet to blow golden bubbles from his lips? Or the more traditional horn, that makes and breaks its own mould?
And was it an audience of striking-looking punters who wanted to be seen? (The Barbican is like that these days). Or were they Ronnie Scott’s nodding people of the darkness? I used to be one of the latter, by the way, and still have my out-of-date membership card. These things are the stuff of poetry – as is Wynton when he runs free within his own prison of perfection.. Marsalis nuda veritas est.
Bestest – Joe
Returning to the poems, Please, Not Love Again, unfurls with the following stanza:
‘Oh, my Beatrice, I am
So hopelessly perplexed
By your wantonness
Of beauty which teeters
Constantly on the cusp
Of ugliness when I forget
To say your name
The Italian way.’
It is entirely in character for Joe the poet, with the DNA of Joe the classically trained actor, to appropriate one of the great literary muses of Western civilisation, and toy with the raw quintessence of beauty which so beguiled Dante.
‘I grind theses peppers of desire with the pestle of my being!’ Joe’s Beatrice, unlike Dante’s, is not merely the optimistic figment of a colourful and inventive imagination. The poet is drawn to what he intrinsically understands, empirically and sensually. When he is not being aesthetically ascetic in his cottage in the sumptuously sylvan Eden Vale, Joe is a kind-hearted and kindred spirit of the arts in Wexford and further afield where, one will observe, he exudes a demonstrable empathy for the opposite sex. Empathy is perhaps too weak a word. It lacks a pulse. It lacks the alchemy which is the livery beneath the spoken word of the poet.
To be on intimate terms with Joe’s poetry is to know that he has the potential to see a Beatrice Portinari in most women, not necessarily the incarnation of beatific love as painted by another Dante (Gabriel Rossetti), but as a depthless source of inspiration. In truth, Joe is closer to the Roman Catullus than the Florentine Dante, extolling the former’s skill in exploring the steps in a relationship and, as the raison d’etre of the poet, the reluctance to relinquish, no matter how brief, the electricity of the experience.
‘I still have her likeness, decades on,
My Com Soc comrade
– but not in arms.
Free love? Alas,
She never towed the party line’
(from Com Soc Comrade)
There is a connection between his declamatory prowess and his choice of words, an unstated fidelity, as far as I know, to the belief that no poem that is not better heard than read is a good poem. His compatriot Dylan Thomas, whose centenary is later this year, and whom Joe remembers in Worshipping The Word (‘With tribrachic stutter of his poem gun, he gave it to them – all five barrels of iambic pentagram’) – Thomas’s invocation to the actors before the first performance of Under Milk Wood in New York – was a master of sound, sense and sensibility.
I have heard Joe deliver his poems with spell binding diction on many occasions, including Tumbling Down in this collection, which caught my attention because I hear the writer perform it when I revisit it, particularly the second verse.
‘Springtime’s best when acrobatic
Lambs flounce around the roof
And daffodils stand in
For the yellow of the morning sun.’
The rhythmical phrasing is so acute: the phrasing dances, the joie de vivre is painted vividly. Tumbling Down and these lines from Getting On, where the poet wonders whether he will be dragged away in the future
‘To join old ladies
And drinking tea
With woollen rugs
Across the knee?’
serve as a reminder that poetry is either suggestive or selective, with a dynamic as instantaneous as a shooting star, and a shelf life as short. Joe handles his subject with kid gloves, sensitively and without malice, with a deftness of touch as sure and as true as a fly-fisherman unhooking his quarry. He is, I think you will find, an honest poet, a fair poet, a writer who imbues in his work a quality which defines him, what Ted Hughes referred to as a ‘healing benevolence.’
‘Until the night I saw
Lighting up my doorstep
The incandescent colours
Of a garden tiger moth –
Reminder that your beauty
Had never left this earth.’
(from Tiger On The Doorstep)
Though poets are reluctant to admit as much, the engagement between the poem and the reader has everything to do with the stab of recognition, that lightning ability to arouse, how a string of words segued by rhythm enters through the trapdoor of our imagination and engages the fearlessly protective memory.
Turn Now the Tide, to Joe Neal’s friends and to those who know him through his poems, is an affirmation of a generous spirit, a writer unafraid to be true to himself, a writer for whom the aura of connotation cannot be at the expense of finding the right word, and for whom the distance between the literary and the familiar should not be an unbridgeable chasm.
‘But soon, with dawn, the time will come
When tide begins to draw away and the swoosh
And gush of unimpeded down-stream
Flow will bring again the music
That I have learned to see and know.’
(from River Song)