An independent small press poetry review

NHI independent review
Six Gallery Press
PO Box 90145
PA 15224
ISBN 0 9726301 4 7
$9 [€9]
[in Europe, available from the author at
3 Newcastle Road

Six Gallery Press
ISBN 0 9746033 7 6

Salmon Poetry
Cliffs of Moher
ISBN 1 903392 54 3

email Six Gallery Press
visit the website of Six Gallery Press
email the author
visit the author's blog email Salmon Poetry
visit the website of Salmon Poetry

NHI review home page
FAQ page
Notes for Publishers

book reviews
other media

Web design by Gerald England
This page last updated: 10th December 2007.

There is something youthful, almost raw about the energy which flows through this poetry collection — apparently the first one by Begnal, born in the US but now resident in Ireland. As a poet he writes in English; as a journalist, however, he has used Irish. Begnal says in an introductory note that he thinks of THE LAKES OF COMA as his "American" collection, so that it's possible that an "Irish" one will follow.

Most of the poems are set in modern cityscapes, often not too attractive, and offering a jungle or jumble of sense impressions. These metropolises are not always realistically described. Rather, the big city in Begnal tends to become a state of mind, a little like Updike's suburb, with its mixture of sadness, sensuality, and despair.

Begnal's poetry could be seen as an equivalent of pop, punk, rap, rock — But I'm not thinking of the lyrics as much as the music and mood.

So what we have here is a nice guy, a kind of flâneur, mostly on his own in a tough, urban, alienating environment. Some scenes are brutal or ugly, with glimpses of racist violence. A dreary office is remembered by an ex-employee the way an ex-convict may think about jail.

Surrounded by aggression and vulgarity, the speaker is sensitive enough to preserve his humanity. He experiences feelings of menace, doom and decay:

	American cities
	inhabited by the beast and grotesques
	of drooping flesh
	who ogle me from doorways, 
	their guns are trained on me
	as I walk by rotten wooden archways
There are gentler moments, as in TAKING SORROW FOR A WALK, a title that suggests Robert Frost and perhaps Bob Dylan. In Begnal's poem, sorrow is a dog expecting to accompany the persona on any walk, and tripping him up with the leash.

Though Begnal couldn't be regarded as a "literary" or academic poet, also Dante puts in an appearance. A modern basement becomes a version of his Inferno. But a fairly harmless one, or so it seems, with its washing machines and copper pipes.

The bleakness of this updated, slightly trivialized waste land is relieved only by music

	you listen in appalled expectation,
	for the beauty

	and it comes,
and by love for women and animals. The tenderness of WE ARE MAMMALS celebrates this world and this flesh:
	we are mammals,
	wrestling our bodies together in sleep
	lying in soft beds,
	your mammal words,
	without you I am cold
When an Afro-American man's body, the victim of racists, has been found on the pavement, Begnal characteristically considers the sad possibility that there may be
	a cat at home waiting to be fed.
Occasionally there are reflections on poetry and language:
	defying my medium,
	I state: I am sincere
because words may be employed in lying as well as truth-telling. Critics and publishers sometimes like this attitude — the poet's solemn awareness of what it means to be a poet — but almost at once, Begnal switches over to an ironic grimace:
	This will get published for sure.
And elsewhere he boasts with the same self-irony:
	I can write a poem about any subject.
Begnal is good at these distancing devices, and he presents some effective images for what seems to be our whole civilization:
	A speeding car, out of control, loose on dark city streets
Certain sensuous and subtle observations startle:
	the air smells like wax,
	like it's November
Basically, however, the style is direct, unadorned, almost plain, and colloquial. And if I hesitate to recommend THE LAKES OF COMA, it's because I find the simplicity often carried too far without anything exciting happening between words, between lines. But as I have pointed out, the book appears to be Begnal's first poetry collection, and that much-handled tag "promising" looks more suitable than usual in his case.

reviewer: Susanna Roxman.

MERCURY, THE DIME is a long narrative poem, originally written in 1992/93 and published in 2005 and reads as a recorded inner and outer poetic travelogue. The poem has seven divisions, and as the reader moves through the first part, the overall impression comes together as a seeing eye that looks down on North America, as far south as Mexico and north towards the Canadian borders, from above, moving closer to earth as the narrator moves towards the end of part two.

The main thrust of the first two parts gives a sense of history to the reader of a country that is regarded by some as having relatively little history, only in comparison with the Eurocentric view of past histories. It is as though the narrative voice is regarding a physical map of North America, tracing out the lost tribes and ancestors, giving back a sense of cultural inheritance, long before the immigrant invasions. The language used, nods towards a shamanistic type of overview using vivid colours and reflecting older traditions, by using their languages: for example, The Shorn Ones, (cuahchiqeh), and by imagining their:

	causeways over Lake Texcoco
			multitudinous deities,
				feathered priests,
					racks of skulls,
						blood pouring down
In this case Begnal uses the physical form of the printed lines to suggest the ziggurat steps of the ruined Aztec pyramids.

The first two parts of the poem blend these elements together. As the focus is pulled closer to the continent, nominal details further the history of names. Borrowed from the cultures predating the present, these names are the sometime remnants, their origins forgotten or passed over as folklore or emblems, as the title of the poem implies.

The third section sharpens the spotlight as the detail of an area code alerts the reader about the area being dialled. A pan-American phone call brings the reader right into the narrative voice's inner thoughts. In this section the detail concentrates on the minutiae associated with actual travel, through imagined and real territories, and this is where Begnal's real strength lies, in conveying the run down "city of projects" that make up Memphis, combining this with the air of the incidental tourist. This section records the inner blues of the narrative voice, together with a roll-call of blues legends. This can be related by the reader to the previous sections, through the changes in attitude portrayed by lines like:

Before Elvis, it was "race music"

	before Elvis,
	it was the young Elvis
	the kid
	who sang at hops
Elvis is used here as a period marker for the reader, a comparative point to move forward and backwards from.

The fourth section brings the reader closer in focus again to the cities of the west coast of the US and to the side story of the nomadic narrative: the working out of a relationship that is too short to work out. The mystery muse comes into view, in passing almost, behind all the place names, allusions and images evoked. The bus journey from LA to San Francisco suggests the beginning of the closing movement as the poem moves forward.

Section five moves between the inner voice of the narrator and the outward motion of movement through a city that is known well. The brief snapshots of the outer eye are mixed with the inner musings to paint an overall vision bringing San Francisco to life in all its rich mixed cultural guises, whilst still retaining the backing idea of anonymity amongst the backdrop. The wry remarks in parentheses alert the reader to the inner considerations and connections being made as the section shifts into the sixth one:

	The building is pale
		(the hotel?)
	yellow green
		(what do they call that?)
	with dark green trim
		(maybe only dark in contrast)
Amusement is caused here by the inner voice answering the question.

The last section is a perambulatory crescendo of images as the narrator plays with focus: first the streetscape of 17th St. hill as the view stretches away towards the Bay and the view:

	replaced by the scene
	behind the eyelids —
The poem ends with the image of heat, dust and dirt; the detritus of the neighbourhood blowing around. And yet despite all this grit, there is a sense of satisfaction conveyed as this long poem finally comes to rest.

Overall, there is a very strong filmic quality to the narrative, strong use of imagery, colour and juxtaposition of ephemeral versus temporal places through the inner voice, all combining to create a strong literal landscape: the hyperreal montage of the later part supports the creative imagined earlier part. The narrative voice of relative youth carries the poem through the more abstract areas through the exploration of one view of a continent of the mind. The poem combines elements of the aural, oral, physical poetic form and the working out of the inner landscape, all through the metaphor of movement.

reviewer: Barbara Smith.

Man's best friend may be his dog but in Michael S. Begnal's case it's his ancestor.

The Irish-American Mike Begnal, as his blogspot calls him, has been rummaging around in his ancestry in various places including naturally in Ireland. Half a dozen of the poems in this publication are in the old tongue. And intriguingly the book's cover shows an ancient document listing the death of an abbot of Kells in the year 1128.

The place to start then would appear to be with the 14th poem in the book, the title poem, ANCESTOR WORSHIP. This one might provide an insight into what it's all about, this book of 70 or so pages containing "some of the poems" published in publications such as Poetry Scotland, Poetry Wales, Poetry Cornwall, Poetry Ireland Review, Electric Acorn, The Blue Canary and many more; some 3 dozen publications in all.

ANCESTOR WORSHIP is the basic starting point for it is, whatever your point of view:

	the only religion
	truly compatible
	with the fact
	of evolution.
It's a brutal acceptance of the then and now:
		the faces look the same
	in rain 
Begnal asks, demands to know:
	who burrows into your eye
	and says, "Who're you?"
Other variations on the theme can be found in poems like IRISH CITIES. In his Derry hotel room Begnal is in a reflective mood. On the face of it a simple matter of nostalgic pondering:
	like Waterbury, Connecticut,
	where not I'm from
	but my father
	and all his fathers
	since famine time .
Note how Begnal suddenly slips in his justification there. The stay-at-home slouch must plainly starve or eat humble pie. Begnal's ancestors are nothing if not adventurers. No further justification for upping sticks is required. But it comes anyway. And with a star and stripes flourish:
	like wave-battered Brendans
	and populated,
	planted the system within

	the Go Nation
I could now go to some poetic place like Prague with its 4 poems but I settle for Paris and MONTPARNASSE CEMETERY. Begnal invites me as his reader to:
	think of all the bridges on the Seine
	that melancholy snake,
	men and women have jumped off,
	insignificants splash
	in the green murk,
and having considered this and other Parisian matters I'm eventually taken along to the cemetery to discover the final furious truth:
	cemetery toilets smell
	like fermenting forest piss,
	and flies congregate in gangs,
	waiting to eat your shit 
It matters in the end not one jot that in the first line of the first poem in the book that:
	blue sky envelopes Galway
for like the old abbot from Kells we're all going to the same place as our departed relatives.

This is an intriguing collection to discover, unearth, and to contemplate. The poems can safely be read in any order and it's probably a good idea to do so. I tried jumping about at random from one to the other building and demolishing connections. It was great fun if fun is the right word.

Like a favourite bone I suspect it's something that can be constantly returned to and chewed on with familial contemplation.

The only disappointment I felt was that Bagnall couldn't see his way to translating those half dozen Irish poems of his:

	agus Joyce bainte den tenner

reviewer: Gwilym Williams.