Book Review: 'The Professor of Forgetting,' Greg Delanty | Books | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Book Review: 'The Professor of Forgetting,' Greg Delanty


Published February 7, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Courtesy Of John Minihan
  • Greg Delanty

A poem called "Diagnoses" in Greg Delanty's newest book begins, "Our world's under general anaesthetic." Yet on page after page, the Burlington poet's flair for provocative, arousing lyricism asks a reader to wake up. Here are the next lines of that poem, the title of which refers to a mother's cancer:

The doctor cuts the first nick.

Takes out the covert platoon,

cauterises bleeding cells,

and not a fraction too soon.

Are those knelling bells?

Lay them out in a bloody row.

Suture with simple catgut. Sew

and pray they don't regrow.

Cancer is terrifying, an all-out invasion from within, yet the poem depicts a surgical procedure whimsically, daring to be flirtatious with its metaphors and rhymes and upbeat in rhythm.

Delanty was born in 1958 in Ireland and lived in Cork until 1986, when he came to the U.S. Now a citizen of both nations, he lives most of the time in Burlington and returns to County Kerry for summers. Since 1987, Delanty has taught literature at Saint Michael's College in Colchester, where he serves as poet-in-residence.

The author has 15 previous books of poems to his name. Compared with some of his hefty earlier volumes, such as Collected Poems: 1986-2006 (252 pages) and the 2018 Vermont Book Award finalist Selected Delanty (244 pages), The Professor of Forgetting is a diminutive offering. Which isn't to say trifling. Not only is the book modest in scale, but more to the point, these new poems are often expressions — and investigations — of modesty itself. As the title effectively conveys, Delanty has found valiant ways of looking at (and even celebrating) the confounding experience of aging, both his elders' and his own. He is aghast and fascinated by how youthful confidence diminishes as the accumulating years fray the memory and sap determination.

Who, having lived at least a few decades, hasn't learned that it can be humbling just to survive? And aren't the humble among us often the most enjoyable to spend time with?

On his Saint Michael's College English Department faculty page, Delanty says, "In the end, all learning is humility ... We can't overestimate the interconnectedness of things. Literature shows us how to see our own uniqueness, to take off the mundane goggles, to see that no matter how small we are, we're important."

Delanty's poems have a sound that is certainly not self-effacing. He is charmed by words and charming on the page, carousing in the leaps and bounds language can make.

At the same time, he suggests that small things can be a better occasion for the poet's care than the infinite universe, the description or invocation of which might require abstractions and generalities. Why not be a bard of the almost unnoticed? What vistas might be implied by a handful of dirt?

For instance, "The Dust Gatherers" begins with a mundane remembrance from childhood, a mother's rather fanatical dusting:

"Where does all the dust come from?" my mother

would ask, sweeping the house away,

vacuuming the vacuum, dusting the duster.

Over the course of five stanzas, the poem moves sinuously to an adult perspective, arriving at a realization that much of that dust consisted of particles of skin flaked off by the speaker's predecessors in the house. We're living in a world of our ancestors' minuscule remains.

In "For the Record," the poet plays on the idea of "space travel," now reduced to crossing a room to change the LP on a phonograph: "as you travel on board the vinyl / time-machine that zooms at warp speed, back and / forth. Which period and place shall we visit tonight?"

An immigrant who maintains an intimate connection with his nation of origin, Delanty considers — back and forth, with "Tricks of time and place," as he says in the poem "Birthdays" — how difficult it is to be truly part of more than one community. "To Those Who Stayed" expresses a strained fellow-feeling for those who remained in Ireland while others, including the poet, emigrated:

But where's that shop, that bar? No one greets

you any more; so many are dead, or, like us, gone.

Perhaps we were shrewder, wiser, more cunning.

Perhaps not. What's certain is that more

and more your city is abandoning you, forgetting

you, as if the city itself is crossing to another shore...

There's an abiding tension here between choosing to go or be left behind, an estrangement among compatriots that the poem makes intimate and insurmountable.

Some of the book's shortest pieces demonstrate the power of brevity, as Delanty shows how sufficient a smaller lyric can be. What might have been one stanza in another writer's longer, baggier poem can be brief and complete, as with "'One Is for Sorrow'":

A sole magpie flaps

across our path.

Old news, pal, old news.

The book's longest poem, by contrast, is also its most substantial, encompassing the love a middle-aged child feels for a dying parent and an acute awareness of our shared and inescapable predicament. The aforementioned "Diagnoses" is a contemplative sequence of observations during a mother's final hours, with her son holding vigil beside the hospital bed:

Then the suspense, the meaning of hope,

the not-a-word-time,

the learning-to-cope,

the thinking-the-best,

the worst forgotten in these

testing times, each test

showing up okay,

negative is the word they say.

How negative can positive be?

How positive can negative be?

The Professor of Forgetting is an homage to lost socks, lost teeth, lost quotations from beloved books, lost hours. "Here we are in the years" (as Neil Young sang in a now long-ago song), and Delanty's poems continually attest that we're better off here than gone.

The Dust Gatherers

"Where does all the dust come from?" my mother

would ask, sweeping the house away,

vacuuming the vacuum, dusting the duster.

War was declared on the dust day-

in, dust-out. Back then it was a mystery.

She would frantically polish a sun ray,

highlighting undercover motes in our dust-free

home; banning books, condemned dust-gatherers.

We had no notion it was our own skin mostly

and that of Catherine, John Bray, our grandmothers,

Liam Cunningham, Ethel Barry, Aunty Clare,

Moses the milkman, the metre man, the grandfathers

I never met. The dust drifts alive in the air.

The living and dead settle together everywhere.

The Professor of Forgetting by Greg Delanty, Louisiana State University Press, 70 pages. $17.95.

The original print version of this article was headlined "In the Details | Book review: The Professor of Forgetting, Greg Delanty"



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