The epic ambition of Nick Laird's latest collection of poems reveals the poet's genuine sense of the incomprehensible scale of the cosmos
Nick Laird hails from a land of giants – literary giants, whose shadows loom large over contemporary Irish writers, noticeably so in the style and reception of Laird's earlier poetry. Go Giants, his third collection, is easily his most accomplished to date, and it is tempting, therefore, to read its title as both a nod to his literary and cultural origins, and a form of banishment (a "Get thee hence!").
The title poem is a playful cacophony of cliche, quotation and cultural catchphrase, ranging from Inspector Gadget and Monopoly to the New York Giants and the Catholic mass, in which Laird sounds like everyone and like no one else: "Go Saints. / Go fly a kite … / Go in peace to love and serve the. / Go and get help. Go directly to jail." Other giants lurk in its pages too: there is a homage to "His high-ness", Robert Pershing Wadlow, whose image the poet "Sellotaped to my wall, like an icon" ("Pershing"). And in "A Blessing for the Big Men" (after the blind 19th-century Irish poet, Raftery) we are reminded: "It is not a little story this, / It is not the trouble of one house / or the grief of one harp-string."
The book's ambition is impressive. Laird is as unafraid of the "big" subjects – religion, astronomy, war – as he is of the "little" ones – personal anecdotes, the minutiae of day-to-day life. The long poem, "Progress" (which borrows its section titles from Pilgrim's Progress), is, on one level, a tortuous pilgrimage for the poet, away from, and back to, his own past: "The problem with leaving home," he tells us, "is home follows." As we journey in and out of the poet's childhood in Cookstown ("90% cement and 10% meat"), encountering Giant Despair and Giant Grim, and into his present day, we venture into other interwoven lives and histories – Galileo's "heresy", Tycho Brahe's metal nose, Pope Urban the Eighth, the Flight of the Earls and the Troubles all make an appearance. In "Progress", the mythical land of giants becomes "land of the giant / leylandii and four-bar bitumen fences. / Of porn mags stashed in blackthorn hedges", putting paid to romanticised conceptions of Ireland from Finn McCool through to the "unfenced country" of Heaney's "Bogland". "Progress" is a counterpointing of past and present that tells something of a personal history, but it is about refiguring history too, reaching its crescendo in the intense passages on Allegri's Miserere where, "like water meeting water", the (verbal) music "forces some new channel open in / the mind …"
The collection is stitched together with great skill and complexity. Its recurrent themes, images and motifs include the blind poet Raftery, the Great Hugh O'Neill, blind at the end of his life, and Galileo, blinded, so the myth goes, by his own discoveries, and coming up against some blinkered views too – which reverberate in the poet's experience of home. Then there's the dog, who appears to have migrated into these pages, in varying guises, from Louis MacNeice's "The Taxis". Such motifs – raw materials that rub one against the other – affirm poetry, as Laird describes it in an untitled poem on the dustjacket, as "a juncture of the two kinds of real ... fingertips pressed hard against their mirrored selves ..."
There's no single transcendent "truth" for this poet, but a genuine sense of the incomprehensible scale of the cosmos, of what may be "the fundamental interconnectedness of all things", in Douglas Adams's phrase, beyond what we can see with the naked eye. There are other giants in this book: astronomical phenomena, "supergiants, red dwarfs, / the neon spiral nebulae", the "rudimentary study" of a "Black Hole (Artist's Impression)" through which he reflects on "modern death": "no light escapes. / You cannot see it only note / the wobble of the bodies / on their axes, in their orbits".
In the struggle to apprehend a vast, incommunicable whole, Laird is frequently pulled inwards to the black hole – death – at the core of human experience. If the epic scope of "Progress" is at one end of the spectrum, the intimate eight-line poem "Condolence", exemplary in terms of what Laird can do on a small canvas, is at the other. The speaker, as a boy, "half-follow[s] a story with a beginning and an end", while the mother writes letters of condolence, by hand, in "good / phrases, with such slow deliberation the slack is blanched / and collapses, and the fire consumed by its ashes". Grief is never a "little story". The concentration, the care with language (in contrast to a culture of rapid, too‑easy communication), is itself all‑consuming; the poem also says something about the inside workings of the poet's own aesthetic. Laird can seem an elusive character who gives little of himself away; the poetry he writes eschews the quick fix. But in another sense, he gives everything of himself in a poetry as expansive and thought-provoking as his considered response to an infinitely complicated universe needs it to be.