BOOK REVIEW: A Herring Famine by Adam O’Riordan

For his debut collection, In the Flesh, Adam O’Riordan demonstrated a leaning towards the past and a fluidity of form, both of which bent naturally to his rich, allusive style. As Andrew Motion writes in the blurb for this new volume, here is a poet with ‘tremendous delicacy of feeling and expression’, and so he proves, sometimes obscure, at others striking us right between the ribs.

In the meanwhile, O’Riordan has published a lauded volume of short stories which offered lyrical, broken snapshots of an outsider’s America and, with this second volume of poems, returns in agile and elastic voice, fusing the narrative strengths of his prose to a range of sequences and individual poems, some gesturing towards personal history, others delving deeper into a collective past.

The Dark Star’, a particular stand-out, offers a fractured account of the Strangeways Riot, blurring voices and perspectives to powerful effect. ‘Apples’ and the ‘The Beekeeper’ are two shorter poems forged from peculiar news items, one an account of death by misadventure, the other a truly Fortean clipping concerning a narrow escape from premature burial. In each case, the poet writes with sympathy and restraint, never letting his stylistic quirks bury the material. His is a muscular voice, alert to the effects of prosody and the music of rhyme, but never sufficiently showy to distract. As he writes in ‘Apples’, ‘I do not know which myth this fits’. Sometimes only an echo is required.

At the same time, O’Riordan is no ironist and never shies away from a more intimate, confessional tone. The two poems bookending this collection, ‘Crossing the Meadow’ and ‘The Boundary Line’, explore memories and lost innocence in a touching and melancholic series of short, clear verses. The former hints at an awkward return home. The latter is a long, elegiac sequence, seemingly in mourning of a lost friend. Both leave lingering impressions.

This is an impressive collection, personal and political and as in love with language as with meaningful connection. A triumphant return.

A Herring Famine is published by Chatto & Windus and is available here.

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We also reviewed The Burning Ground Adam O’Riordan’s short story collection here.

Adam O’Riordan

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Adam O’Riordan was born in Manchester in 1982, where he currently lives. In 2008 he became the youngest Poet-in-Residence at The Wordsworth Trust, the Centre for British Romanticism. His first collection In the Flesh (2010) win a Somerset Maugham Award. He is the Academic Director of the Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Reviewed by Nick Garrard

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