For anyone unfamiliar with the work of Alan Gillis it might be a surprise to discover that some of the most accomplished poems coming out of Ireland today have titles like ‘Bob the Builder is a Dickhead.’ Or that a poem called ‘The Lad’, which takes a Muldoon-esque pleasure in verbal inventiveness and chain-links of rhyme, could run its course through a list of over 125 synonyms for the male genitalia. On the basis of this, one might also be forgiven for thinking that Gillis’ poetry is not completely serious. But Gillis, though frequently funny, often irreverent, and even occasionally a little shocking (who would have thought poetry could be shocking?) is never less than deadly serious. With immense precision his poems describe a world often only a few miles away from Seamus Heaney’s Mossbawn and John Montague’s rough fields but which feels lightyears removed from them and yet utterly, terrifyingly, familiar. This is the world of present day Belfast with its “heads plunged deep in Blackberries/ Talk Talk, Talk & Text and Flext/plans,” a loud, chaotic world in which Gillis notes, “it seems our senses are condemned to a life sentence.”
Alan Gillis was born in Belfast in 1973 and lives in Scotland where he is Lecturer in English at The University of Edinburgh. His debut poetry collection, Somebody, Somewhere, won the Rupert and Eithne Strong Award for Best First Collection in 2004, and was shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award. His second collection Hawks and Doves was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation in 2007 and appeared on the shortlist of the T.S. Eiot prize. His most recent volume of poetry, Here Comes the Night, was published by Gallery Press in 2010. In addition, Alan Gillis has co-edited numerous volumes of criticism, including the Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Poetry (2012), The Edinburgh Introduction to Studying English Literature (2010), and Critical Ireland: New Essays in Literature and Culture (2001). He is the author of Irish Poetry of the 1930’s, published by Oxford University Press in 2005. He is also the current editor of Edinburgh Review.
In his second collection Hawks and Doves, it is construction cranes rather than birds that fill the sky, while unlimited nights and weekends are spent in bars and nightclubs, all awash with booze and drugs and heads “dancing around after rhythms without meaning.” Here the river Lagan reveals “nightmares of chains and pulleys, high school/ bullies, trolleys, satanic creepy crawlies, a Black and Decker angle grinder, outstanding/ debt reminders.” But for all the desperation and detritus to which they bear witness, the poems are littered with the traces of life at its sweetest – they pulsate with love for family, for children, for all the people who walk the streets and make those streets what they are. Even poor Bob the Builder is only derided for the ultimate benefit of a child since “we can’t have you thinking you can fix it/ everytime the fan is hit with flying horseshit.” It is just this idiosyncratic unity of critique and concern that presents itself as one of the hallmarks of Gillis’s most best work.
His most recent collection, Here Come The Night, sees Gillis, as the title indicates, continuing his interrogation of life’s twilit moments. However, the numerous long poems in the volume attest to the poet’s increasing command of form and lyrical dexterity. Of these, the opening poem, ‘Down Through Dark And Emptying Streets’, takes a Facebook friend request and turns it into a prism, bringing the solitary character in front of his computer screen back through the years to 1980’s Belfast. There as elsewhere, sex and love leave their traces, pulling the self back into its reservoirs of memory while simultaneously propelling it forward and outward toward others. As the critic Maria Johnston puts it, this is “heart-in-mouth stuff; high-impact poetry that is not for the faint-hearted.” However with his abiding concern for what is most familiar – love, sex, family and a Friday night on the town – he is always watchful for the various ways in which we comfort ourselves and comfort others; how we make a home for ourselves in the strange place that is modernity. In this way, what Gillis offers the reader is more than just the well crafted lyric, more than mere turn of phrase – he offers us, as the title of one of his poems suggests, ‘A Blueprint for Survival.’
Somebody, Somewhere, Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2004
Hawks and Doves, Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2007
Here Comes the Night, Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2010
Irish Poetry of the 1930s, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005
The Oxford Book of Modern Irish Poetry, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012 (Edited with Fran Brearton)
Interview with Alan Gillis at the Edinburgh Review
Gillis reading at the IAC Festival
Alexandra Tauvry's review of Here Comes the Night