Sounding from the Page
John Kelly has presented some of the most acclaimed music and arts programmes on the Irish airwaves over the last two decades. Today, he is perhaps best known for fronting The Works Presents, a weekly RTÉ One arts magazine programme, and for presenting Mystery Train on RTÉ Lyric FM, a reincarnation of the groundbreaking music programme of the same name that ran from 2000 to 2006. As an author, Kelly has published three novels, his most recent being 2014’s From Out of the City, which was shortlisted for Novel of the Year at the Bord Gáis Book Awards. Notions is his first poetry collection.
Clarification, expression and preservation
Kelly recently gave reason as to why he felt compelled to write this collection, stating that ‘certain life experiences, good and bad, were beginning to insist on clarification, expression and preservation’. In keeping with this, Notions is a collection of poems that immediately strike the reader as having existed in the most intimate spaces of the writer’s mind long before they were committed to the page. These are snapshots of memories and stories that have matured and been coloured by time, and Kelly forms connections between different moments in his life in the most unusual of ways.
As one might expect, the book is brimming with references to culture and music – a snippet of conversation with Frank Sinatra in a New York bar, a brief history of the song ‘Love me Tender’, and thoughtful, affectionate encounters with paintings and their creators. Elsewhere, it is in poems involving Kelly’s children and loved ones where affection shines through.
‘The Small Things’ is the first poem in the collection and the narrative presented here sets the tone for the rest of the book. Kelly describes the somewhat ordinary activity of working out an injury in the gym, when he senses ‘the cranky silver arm of a slot machine’. Suddenly, by way of this striking association, we are transported back to the Bundoran of his youth where he is in an amusement arcade with his mother who has ‘holiday drizzle… still on her cheek’. The poems that follow are filled with simple yet powerful moments such as this one, where human connections and their importance are highlighted amidst the clamour of everyday life.
Sounding from the page
The overwhelming possibilities that this life can offer are explored in poems such as ‘The Gaeltacht’, where Kelly writes of the awe felt by Nadia, ‘a wondrous blonde from Iúr Cinn Tra’, when she reaches the top of Errigal mountain. Amongst such moments, there are surprising, humorous ones, and it is the memory of Nadia’s ‘Lemon Fanta tongue’ that stayed with me when the poem had ended. Kelly’s words find beauty in the small things just as they do in the profound.
This beauty remains apparent in the more melancholic moments of the book. ‘Winter’s Blessing’ expertly intersperses descriptions of nature with subtle evocations of grief and Kelly creates a still, warm atmosphere to allow the music of birds to sound from the page. Here, the soloing thrush is ‘lit like an old friend’s soul in the bones of a silver birch’. This is yet another example of the strange workings of the mind and memory and the links that they make. Along with the rest of the poems in the collection, it is fundamentally about living, and acts as an affirmation that light can find its way to us in many unexpected ways.
Notions is available from Dedalus Press at www.dedaluspress.com.
Published on 15 November 2018
Laura Sheary is a writer and musician based in Belfast. In 2018 she took part part in the Journal of Music/Arts Council of Northern Ireland Music Writer Mentoring Scheme. Laura was a member of indie pop band Staring at Lakes and now performs with Kyoto Love Hotel.