I was standing at the counter of a Belfast tourist office watching as a biro was waved over a map. ‘And then there’s the Titanic Quarter‘, the girl said. The boy in me was delighted. ‘What’s in the Titanic Quarter?’ I asked, imagining a replica of the Grand Staircase and Kate Winslet’s Empire line charms. Her face twitched in discomfort before she fetched her supervisor. Defensive comments about a proposed museum were muttered but the eyes of her junior, now in a position of deference behind her, said it all. They widened and her head gently shook: ‘Stay away!’ they said. ‘There’s nothing to see there’. Belfast’s marketing strategy was five years ahead of the city’s amenities and, somewhere behind the Falls Road, the threatening graffiti preaching death to prots had turned on the property developers pricing locals out of their city. Belfast was changing before my eyes, changing so fast that it couldn’t keep pace with its own idea of itself and, as with these things, it was hurting.
In Belfast, Leontia Flynn presents a city in which ‘The sky is a washed-out theatre backcloth / behind new façades on old baths and gasworks; / downtown, under the green sails of their scaffolding, / a dozen buildings’ tops steer over the skyline’. As the curtain rises, the set is impressive but, as you pass an hour or two staring at it, the chips and dents of the heavy touring schedule soon reveal the chipboard reality behind the spray-painted fantasy. The word façade reminds us that, fundamentally, nothing but the window dressing has changed. However, this is a balanced stanza and the next two lines inject a note of optimism, as the builders’ tarps are envisioned as sails: a seemingly effortless method of propulsion. Suddenly, the poem’s grubby industrial opening is transformed and the 180° horizon over which the buildings steer promises Belfast a clean slate and the opportunity to boldly go.
In the sonnet, Pastoral, Flynn’s octave shifts the scene indoors, presenting an affluent on-trend city enfolded in Ikea’s warm embrace like the rest of the UK: ‘CDs stacked alphabetically, / the shelves distressed artfully, the hardwood boards / which have off-set the bright white colour scheme precisely’. The -ly suffixes chime together with good taste and coordinated care. This could be any home in any city but ‘My father squints at an atlas in search of Kentucky / and whistles the opening bars of ‘Memory’ or ‘Roddy McCorley‘ / into his Fairtrade coffee, absent-mindedly’. Only in Ireland could a song recounting the execution of a participant in the 1798 rebellion rub shoulders with a Lloyd Webber number. When the Belfast mind is ‘absent’, the past bubbles over. It lurks, even in a bright white room with distressed shelving. As the sonnet closes, the speaker’s family either remain uncomfortable with their new role in the bourgeoisie, or they hardly dare hope for a brighter future: ‘And if we should stray to the subject of prices of property / we do this, strictly, in the spirit of self-parody, / or very quietly. Time passes slowly, / calmly the lights come up on this calm Sunday’. The repetition of the word ‘calm’ in the final line jars, making us, like the family, wonder how long this calm can last.
The collection’s title, Drives, reminds us of journeys and the distance between places. Perhaps it’s for this reason that the collection visits so many other cities: Casablanca, Monaco, Beausoleil, Barcelona, Rome, Paris, Berlin, Washington and New York. It feels as if Flynn is measuring her home town against them. In Rome, the first stanza presents the tawdry debasement of a world heritage site: ‘Rome! I would like this postcard of the Pantheon / (in Rome!), and also this magnet of the Colosseum’. For many, the city’s power has been lost amidst cliché and cheapo plastic knick-knacks. And when you’re looking for culture? ‘There’s too much Rome in Rome’. You can see where Flynn is going with this – Belfast might be a small city but it still feels like an authentic town. It’s small enough for people to know each other. Tourism hasn’t stripped it of its heart and soul and replaced them with a white mug and T-shirt with ‘I ♥ Belfast’ emblazoned across them in American Typewriter.
For Flynn, these distances also signify other things and her title poem, Drive, evokes Dennis Scott‘s Marrysong, Brian Friel’s Translations and Tom Paulin’s A Spruce New Colour. ‘My mother’s car is an estimable motor, // The car in which my mother, / during a morning’s work, will sometimes drive // to Dundrum, Ballykinlar, Seaford, Clough / ‘Newcastle’, ‘Castlewellan’, ‘Analomg’. / They drive along the old road and the new road – / my father, in beside her, reads the signs // as they escape him – for now they are empty signs, / now one name means as little as another; / the roads they drive along are fading roads’ and the couple become strangers in the own land and potentially strangers in their own marriage.
Flynn’s collection is accessible, yet charts Northern Ireland’s breakneck drive into modernity with fairness and a note of guarded optimism. Her writing is restrained, technically assured and rewards close reading, as does her superb Profit and Loss.