Maurice Riordan (born in Lisgoold, Co. Cork in 1953) was educated at University College Cork under the tutelage of Sean Lucey and John Montague. He later emigrated, and continues to live in the United Kingdom, where he is Professor of poetry at Sheffield Hallam University. In addition to writing poetry and teaching creative writing, he is well known for his translations and his work as an editor.
Riordan’s work is influenced in equal measures by a scientific sensibility and a concern for “the home place”, lending to his unique voice which is at once objective and accessible. As a craftsman, he writes tidy, observant lines. There is also something of a hallmark to the ends of poems such as ‘Fish’ and ‘The Dun Cow’ which frequently twist into a soft surprise, leaving the reader with something unexpected to chew on.
Evoking a sense of place in a strength of Riordan’s work, and indeed he has been compared to Frost and Kavanagh for his rural poems, particularly the idylls sequence in 2007’s The Holy Land. When considering the entirety of his work, however, his palette has produced more than landscapes of a rural childhood (as beautiful as they are). There is also a father ditching his family in the Elephant & Castle station in London, there is a dirty weekend with a lover in Wales, there is a visit to a fishmonger in Spain:
And that night on the way from Tarragona
when, our gums watering for the turmeric
and garlic, we bolted a roadside paella.
The light changed to lemon across the bay . . .
He is as urban as he is rural, being contained by neither.
Within Riordan’s settings are objects charged with emotional intensity. His simply-named poems are often the most evocative, including ‘The Table’, ‘Chair’, ‘The Wineglass’ and ‘The Statue’. In ‘The Table’, a couple covets a piece of furniture which they imagine will be the centrepiece of a growing life together, an image which doesn’t lose its power even after they part. “I’ve kept an eye out for it,/ scanning from habit the small ads and auction lists.” Despite the line’s easy, conversational tone, there is an aching depth as well. Habit and hope are vestigial, somehow existing after the relationship has ended. The presence of small ads and auctions put the reader in the mind of the things left behind after moving house, or after someone has passed away.
This simplicity is expertly crafted, and a gift to his readers who are not denied meaning or artistry. Combined with his dry humour, there is a sort of warmth to even the darkest of pieces. This clarity lends itself well to the work influenced overtly by science. Take, for example, his ambitious long poem, ‘Floods’, which uses the intersection of ecology, biology, history, literature, philosophy, sociology as a way to understand the element that has the most massive impact on ourselves and our environment:
That our bodies keep their love of fluids
we know – and our health testifies,
since it requires a balance of the humours.
Even our thoughts and moods seem
to come up in spurts, to dissipate, dry up;
and when, in the stress of joy and grief,
words fail, the body expresses water.
In a 2007 interview with New Scientist magazine, Riordan posits “[poetry] increases, as I remember a critic saying once, our stock of available reality. So, it enlarges our capacity to understand and take in things. Perhaps in relation to science it’s one of the ways the impact of science can be registered.”
The impact of science in Riordan’s work is often ‘registered’ through the experience of loss of relationships. There are pieces like ‘Southpaw’ which play with time and perception, mirroring how our minds cope with intense or difficult moments:
. . . it’s either a split second or several months
since, on the splintering boards of your flat,
you were feeding me half pint mickeys
of aquavit in ice-cold sips from your mouth.
We live as much in the past and future as we do in the present, and Riordan’s work captures this. In ‘The Comet’, this shift is expanded to encompass both real time to alternative realities:
. . . I expected you to die,
I expect I wanted you to die, that night.
Time stopped, it slid or swerved. Yet it must have kept
as well the comet’s stately pace. Some things
happened in my life, yet they didn’t happen.
As in science fiction, the imagined or wished can be truer than what happens in linear, factual time.
Examining endings has been a preoccupation in much of his work, whether in divorce or death. Although there is an honest census of dark elements in life, there is never a heaviness to his work – more of a wry acceptance. Life is a fragile thing here, defined as a partially realised death. A man salutes a graveyard where his severed hand is buried in ‘The Native’. A young father is killed while slipping away from his sleeping children to buy cigarettes. In ‘Anniversary’, his deceased father visits him, “shyly lifts the counterpane from the dream,/ lifts the light cloth and fits himself to my side”. The dead and the living absolutely occupy the same world.
In fact, his The Holy Land seems to be a conversation with his deceased father, to whom the collection is dedicated. It contains a series of prose-poem ‘idylls’ which read like anecdotes about the characters on the farm of his childhood. Dialogue and narrative feature strongly, but retain their ‘poemness’ by their restraint and distilled intensity. His authorial eye directs us to the changing rural landscape in Ireland, lingering on everyday rituals such as fence repair and hunting. History, myth and local legends are weighed in equal seriousness by the narrators. And, throughout, runs the inevitable change that comes to all farm land – wildlife dying off, government inspectors encroaching, new technology moving in and aging workers passing away.
Perhaps the best summation of his work comes from Simon Armitage’s 2004 article in the Guardian, naming Maurice Riordan as one of the ‘Next Generation’ poets who are striving to “keep poetry relevant”. As Armitage says, Riordan and the Next Generation are poets “who don’t ignore or patronise the public, and who are able to practise their art without dumbing down or squandering poetry’s aptitude for tackling complex subjects in challenging ways”. Considering the awards and critical acclaim Riordan has achieved, readers have appreciated his effort.
Riordan’s poetry collections include A Word from the Loki (Faber, 1995), which was a Poetry Book Society choice; Floods (Faber, 2000), which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize, and The Holy Land (Faber, 2007), winner of the Michael Hartnett Award. His translations of other authors include Confidential Reports, from the Maltese of Immanuel Mifsud (Southword Editions, 2005) and The Moon Has Written You a Poem, adapted from the Portuguese of José Letria (Winged Chariot, 2005). Anthologies of poems he has edited or co-edited include A Quark for Mister Mark: 101 Poems About Science (Faber, 2000), an anthology of ecological poems, Wild Reckoning (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2004), Best of Irish Poetry 2007 (Southword Editions, 2006) and Dark Matter (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2008), on which he collaborated with astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell.
A Word from the Loki, Faber, London, 1995 ISBN 978-0571173648
Floods, Faber, London, 2000 ISBN 978-0571204625
The Holy Land, Faber, London, 2007 ISBN 978-0571234646
Confidential Reports (from the Maltese of Immanuel Mifsud), Southword Editions, Cork, 2005 ISBN 978-1905002085
The Moon Has Written You a Poem (adapted from the Portuguese of José Letria), Winged Chariot, 2005 ISBN 978-1905341009
As editor or co-editor
A Quark for Mister Mark: 101 Poems About Science, Faber, London, 2000 ISBN 978-0571205424
Wild Reckoning: An Anthology Provoked by Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2004 ISBN 978-1903080009
Best of Irish Poetry 2007, Southword Editions, Cork, 2006 ISBN 978-1905002238
Dark Matter, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2008 ISBN 978-1903080108
Hart Crane (Poet to Poet), Faber, London, 2010 ISBN 978-0571238033
Riordan on the Faber & Faber website
Maurice Riordan on the British Council website
Poetcasting: audio recording of Riordan reading
Video interview with New Scientist magazine