The Irish poet comes into his own with this charming collection
Looking for a single image to epitomise post-independence Ireland in his study, Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature, Daniel Corkery settled on the Munster hurling final. "Who speaks for these?" he asks of the tens of thousands of fans packed into Semple stadium, in County Tipperary. That was in 1931, but how often must the question have been repeated by poets south of the border all through the Troubles and the dominance of Northern Irish poets. Eighty years later, an Ulster team has still never won the Hurling All-Ireland, but there are three Cork poets on the Faber list. In "The Cross", Maurice Riordan even imagines the sound of a GAA match being "broadcast live from Thurles or Birr" on a toy-car radio in a model village.
Nevertheless, Riordan's scenes from rural life are emphatically not located in Toytown. Like Bernard O'Donoghue, and to a lesser extent Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Riordan practises a pastoral style all too easily mistaken, not least by British readers, for escapism, conjuring a world as distant-seeming from Anglo-Irish Bank and the demise of the Celtic Tiger as a John Hinde postcard or The Quiet Man. Riordan satirised these misconceptions in "Indian Summer" from his first collection A Word from the Loki, where an Ann Summers sales assistant comments: "It must be gorgeous! Ireland, /the countryside, in this heat."
Modernity and tradition have an awkward encounter in "The Flight". Due to board a flight but minus his passport, a youthful Riordan shouts down the line at his mother: "How come you cannot use a phone?" Switching to the present, he is once again in need of assistance with a flight and imagines all will be well if "Mammy now would ring me on my mobile". In "The Age of Steam", Riordan charts decades of wanderings between Ireland, Canada and Britain before circling back to the experience of loss, and "the hissing thumping piston – 14 years on – of grief". As in O'Donoghue's elegies, the dark core of grief is skirted round for much of the poem before obtruding with sudden, and all the more poignant, force.
A further suite of elegies follows, memorialising Michael Donaghy and two other poets who died young, Michael Murphy and Gregory O'Donoghue. It was Enoch Powell who claimed that all political lives end in failure, but from the elegist's point of view, failure and incompletion are much more beguiling tropes than success. Who would want to read an elegy that listed all a dead poet's prizes? The closing image of Riordan's elegy for Donaghy, of the poet disappearing into traffic, speaks with a Virgilian authority of sorry leave-taking.
Another early poem, "Time Out", constructs a hypothetical scenario in which an accident befalls a father while his young children are sleeping. Several poems in The Water Stealer explore domestic life through the same lens of threatened or imagined loss. In the title poem, the depredations of a fox in the garden bring home to Riordan the connectedness of all he holds dear, and life more generally:
the dog that barked that scared the mare
that carried the man that reared the foal
that loved the rider that rode the mare
that flung the rider headlong into the road
More often, loss occurs on a banally everyday level, as when the poet feeds his toenail clippings to a Venus flytrap and discards his nose-pickings in the cactus. Just when we suspect Riordan has made his peace with old-fogeydom, he mouths the word "asshole" through the window at a passing youth, and the picture of abjection is complete. At one point, the poet confesses to problems remembering names, but in "The Face" he describes his difficulty recognising himself. Others have mistaken him too, for "a country singer somebody Dutch /or Danish an upstate weatherman", but looking at his reflection he sees "a canny impostor /swung around in search of some /other surely a likeness truer than this". In the wider context, these melancholy moods only underline the sensual freedom achieved in a poem such as "The Nests", where the poet fuses a lover with the landscape: "We come in due course to a river, where I lie face down /on your surface, the rain soft on my spine."
Among several charming poems from the Irish in The Water Stealer is "The New Poetry", after Eochaidh Ó hÉoghusa (1567–1617). James Carney took Ó hÉoghusa as his case study in his 1958 essay "The Irish Bard", in which he describes the bard's peculiar habit in Gaelic times of sleeping with his chieftain. Readers of Riordan's first books might be forgiven for detecting an impulse in his apprentice efforts to creep into bed with their influences, principally Seamus Heaney, but the poems of The Water Stealer make their own bed and lie on it too. This doesn't prevent feverish night thoughts in "Gone With the Wind", a beautiful meditation on memory and forgetting. This is a strong, wise and enduring work: The Water Stealer shows Riordan coming fully into his own.