The Streets, Like Flowers, Come Alive in The Rain, (Steve Denehan, Potter’s Grove Press, 2021)
The first impression a reader may have when encountering Steve Denehan’s new collection is that the author has found his version of the good life and is unapologetically living it. There’s little poetic angst here – The Streets, Like Flowers, Come Alive in the Rain is quietly life-affirming and uplifting, but never corny or overly sentimental. Instead, it revels in the knowledge that joy arrives quietly, without fanfare, in small domestic moments. Take the poem ‘Rain’, where the author reflects that ‘happiness comes easy these days’, and that after searching for it for years, he realises ‘it was there all along/ hiding in plain sight/ in the folds of that old woollen blanket/ in the press filled with lunchboxes and Tupperware.’
That’s not to say that Denehan shies away from the difficult subjects, far from it. In The Tossed Coins of John Canning, the poet’s family meets a homeless man ‘a hard life behind him/a harder one to come’. Discovering that he is also a poet ‘of wrong turns/ and bad calls’, Denehan muses that ‘it could have been me/ could still be yet.’ This is someone who never takes his version of the good life for granted, who knows that everything can change in a heartbeat. Perhaps this is the key to the sense of quiet gratitude that permeates this collection.
Denehan is a humane, compassionate writer, but he also gives wry expression to some of the absurdities of modern life. In The High Cost of Breathing, Denehan recounts his disbelief at ‘The Oxygen Bar’, where he encounters a dozen people ‘smiling under oxygen masks/ breathing pure air/scented with flowers and butterscotch’. In Destination Restaurant, the poet can’t hide his revulsion at the ‘guffaw…of a truffle scoffing, oily-mouthed snob’. Denehan picks apart the absurdity and pretension of modern life with skilful precision, whilst reminding us of what’s really important – meaningful relationships with those we love.
It’s no surprise then that the most memorable poems are those written about Denehan’s daughter, Robin, who provides the foreword for the book. In One More Week, Robin writes a poem about her grandfather – ‘having read it/ I was quiet/ while I waited/ for the lump in my throat to subside’. In The Dance Class he muses that ‘inside her chest there are no corners/ her blood/ and some of mine/ dark fire dancing…with the only music that really matters.’
This is a collection primarily concerned with what really matters. It never sacrifices sincerity for artfulness but is nonetheless accomplished. As Robin herself says of her Dad’s writing – ‘his poems always make me think.’
Reviewer bio: Georgia Hilton is an Irish poet and fiction writer living in Winchester, England. Her poem Dark-Haired Hilda Replies to Patrick Kavanagh won the Brian Dempsey Memorial Prize in 2018, and she has a pamphlet I went up the lane quite cheerful and a collection Swing, both published by Dempsey and Windle. Her short fiction has appeared in Lunate Fiction, Fictive Dream and the Didcot Writers anthology. Georgia tweets sometimes at @GGeorgiahilton
Too frail, too timeworn, so on my wedding day I came to her overdressed in the day room, I looked in aged faces to no avail then, a chuckle, and there under a clock, she sat I kneeled before her letting soundless seconds fall between us the change in her jarring impossible to reconcile to my bedside locker photograph a stranger before her I took her hand and she let me her skin, gossamer over tiny bird bones I looked into her eyes, once fire now ash “I’m getting married today” “That’s nice” lifetimes before, she took the world by the tail and squeezed and shook to our family of land dwellers she blazed across the heavens she was the child of Icarus and Earhart she was mountainside heather she was paddle boats and big band jazz she was a wave on Mirror Lake before in the now we hold hands and do not speak I gaze into her eyes eyes that saw it all and I find her, I find her “I know you” “I’m getting married today” “You are?” “I am” “Do I know her?” “Not yet” “I was married once” “I know”
“Let yourself be happy” “I will try” “I know you”
I feel her squeeze my hand I look down and see a map liver spot countries once explored I look back up to find her leaning in conspiratorially whispering, just in case “sometimes men come to my room during the night” “do they?” “they do, they come to my window” “is that right?” “it is, I tell the staff but… …they do not believe me” “will I tell them?” “oh no, sometimes I leave the window open”
she winks and cackles and the day room silence is gone a startled flock of birds “Shut up Thrush!”, says another elderly lady “I will not shut up!” she smiles at me and I watch as the stardust falls from her eyes and her hand grows limp in mine and she is gone
Previously published in, ‘Of Thunder, Pearls and Birdsong’, by Fowlpox Press, available here
I held my daughter’s hand as we stumble-skated long circles of hearts stopping and hearts racing exchanging eyes-to-heaven glances with another father it was almost empty and the music echoed besides us, there were a group of girls slurping blue slushies and chattering in gasps then, I saw another teenage girl alone and heavy she must have weighed fifteen stone, maybe more she put on her skates clumsily with dimpled knuckles we skated on “look at her” said my daughter pointing I turned around with dread and saw her weightless gliding, easily as if pulled along by a thousand fairies we watched as she twirled like water down a sink and smiled at my daughter while skating backwards as she passed skipping from one foot to the other I saw my little girl inch taller comforted by the knowledge that impossible is just a word that life is hers and ripe for plucking she lets go of my hand time stretches and contracts in that peculiar way and we watch her heavy and light fifteen stone of song swaying and swooping and she falls corners of her landing hard marrow freezing in my bones there is a sound then vicious snorts sneering laughter the group of girls slushies gone white teeth, pointing I want to run to them to scream into their faces until my throat is raw I want to pull their tongues from their mouths and stamp them to a paste instead, we help her up she feels light still in my arms my daughter takes my hand I see the beginnings of tears as she is not too young to realise we take off our skates and put on our shoes and get the hell out of there
There was always a guy with freakish strength generally wiry happy to stay in the background an easy wallflower he avoided trouble dodged first and second glances but the strength, simmering steel was always there utterly disproportionate to his frame bigger guys bounced off him on pitches arm wrestles were won smoothly and without expression to sighs and disbelief even deep cuts and gashes never phased him I didn’t know what to put it down to this defiance of natural laws always so quiet, so placid I never knew where the strength came from until years later when I learned that the placid have more rage than anyone
Shadows in shadows I could not see his face though I could smell his breath we sat very close to each other a thin partition between us he, a middle-aged man me, a boy anxious and alone he asked if I had sinned I told him that I had listed them as I had rehearsed he wanted more wanted impure thoughts I made some up afterwards, I knelt on a pew closed my eyes said my penance quickly wondering if there would come a day when it would all make sense
A Worm in 1981
I am a worm having burrowed under the covers deep to the bottom of my bed I lie there, curled the mattress pressing up into me the blankets pressing down upon me breathing until the air is gone until the only air left is my own and I take it hot and damp back into myself in quick, shallow gulps looking around in that quiet dark I hear the door open feel my father’s hand through the blankets on the small of my back and I understand even then that it is impossible to disappear completely
Rockfield Hotel, Brittas Bay, County Wicklow
we changed our clothes as workmen walked through our room carrying floorboards on their shoulders, nodding hellos as evening fell, we arrived in the lounge I saw a cordless drill in amongst the bronze and red velvet an open tin of paint on the bar a huge, panoramic window looked over all of Wicklow but it was dark and we could see nothing a gigantic circular grill stood in the centre of the lounge but the chimney was blocked we sat spluttering and laughing in the smoke as the night swirled around us we ate charred food and shook our heads I wondered whose fingerprints were on the lip of my glass there was a comedian that laughed at his own jokes and we laughed with him there was a pianist and he could play and did, until the piano bled and my father, ten years without decided to have just one cigarette I watched him suck on it, lost in it it was the beginning of something and the end of something else
Another Poem About Time
Time stopped at least once for eight seconds or so I know I was there inside my inert body looking out looking through eyes fused slightly to the left there was no sound no heartbeat no breath taken, given I saw half of the window an autumn butterfly paused that crack in the plaster the cat on the windowsill paused my daughter our daughter the side of her cheek the corner of her mouth, a smile paused I saw the sleeve of your jacket blue veins in your wrist the blood in them paused the swirls and curls of your hair no longer alive not dead as such but paused your neck open and elegant your laughing mouth a photograph of joy when time stopped I saw your eyes I saw the way you looked at me before it was too late
Comets and Moons and Whole Worlds
A long day a long drive home I carve through towns and villages see old ladies carrying plastic bags they lean into the wind and the rain and the cold and the night as they make their way home to put the dinner on boil the kettle to call a sister on the phone to compare days and months and years and lives unaware that they are galaxies that comets and moons and whole worlds came from them move inside them still I coast to a stop on the driveway pull up the handbrake watch raindrops trickle down the windscreen taking with them all the stars
His Name Escapes Me Right Now but It Might Come Back to Me Later
They gave him everything water torture sleep deprivation they starved him removed his fingernails the fingers themselves his ears they peeled parts of his forearms and thighs dripped acid onto his feet cut words across his chest and stomach his motorcade had driven too close to enemy lines he had been captured a bounty, a piñata bulging with military secrets held for months presumed dead forgotten by most until his body what was left of his body was returned it is believed that he gave them nothing that he endured it all everything they had and gave them nothing maybe nothing was all he had to give maybe it was that simple either way his family their knees worn smooth from prayer got him back at his funeral there were flags and a twenty-one-gun salute that frightened his son his family were given a medal in lieu of his bravery it was shiny
An Interview with Steve Denehan
Please describe your latest book, what about your book will intrigue the readers the most, what is the theme or mood? Steve: My latest book was released in October by The Golden Antelope Press and is called ‘Days of Falling Flesh and Rising Moons’. I try to write each day, so a lot of the poems are about day-to-day things really. The enormity of small things is something I find interesting so a fair few are poems about that, mundane things changed by our perception of them.
What frame of mind and ideas lead to you writing your current book? Steve: A poem can come from anywhere, anywhere at all so it’s hard to be specific about a frame of mind or ideas really. A line comes along and I build on that. It all happens really quickly. Quite a lot of poems come from me mishearing song lyrics actually. I’m sure it was just the same for Shakespeare!
How old were you when you first have become serious about your writing, do you feel your work is always adapting? Steve: I can’t say that I’ve ever been serious about writing really. Writing a poem is great, the best and I love it but there’s never been any real plan. When I finish writing a poem, I immediately forget about it and don’t think about writing again until another one comes along. In terms of adapting I’m sure the poems have changed and are changing as time goes but, if they are, it’s not a conscious thing. I just write them as they come.
What authors, poets, musicians have helped shape your work, or who do you find yourself being drawn to the most? Steve: I’m sure everyone is, to a large extent, a product of what they have read or listened to. I would say that songwriters have had more of an impact on me really, though I do love reading too. In terms of actually crafting a song there are few better than Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Paul Buchanan, James Taylor and Aimee Mann. One of my favourite pieces of writing of all time is the first verse of ‘4th of July’ by Aimee Mann actually. “Today’s the fourth of July Another June has gone by And when they light up our town I just think What a waste of gunpowder and sky” How incredible is that? Writers I love to read are Paul Auster, Glen Duncan, Joe R. Lansdale, Charles Bukowski, Albert Camus, J.D. Salinger and, if I feel like a thriller, A.J. Quinnell.
What other activities do you enjoy doing creatively, or recreationally outside of being a writer, and do you find any of these outside writing activities merge into your mind and often become parts of a poem? Steve: I like to paint though I wouldn’t have much of a clue of what I am doing. I really like the feel of the paint under the knife. I also played a lot of sport over the years which I would argue is a huge creative outlet, or at least it was for me. Trying to outthink an opponent or your opposition is a thrilling thing.
Tell us a little about your process with writing. Is it more a controlled or a spontaneous/ freewriting style? Steve: I’m not sure that I have a process at all. I think about writing only when I am writing. When I am not writing my mind is on other things. I am easily distracted and enjoy so many other things besides writing. I find that the less I think of writing the more likely it will be that a poem comes along. When one does I either write a quick skeleton of it on my phone or, if possible, I sit down at the laptop and get it down. I write quickly and try not to overthink things. If a poem takes longer than a half hour, I give up on it.
Are there any other people/environments/hometowns/vacations that has helped influence your writing? Steve: As I tend to write about what’s happening around me, I’d say that people, environments, hometowns and vacations play a massively important part in the writing. I would guess that the poems are roughly 80% non-fiction and 20% fiction.
What is the most rewarding part of the writing process, and in turn the most frustrating part of the writing process? Steve: The most rewarding part is the writing, absolutely the writing. It’s an amazing feeling, really. It’s often like teasing out a puzzle until it all suddenly clicks into place. But, the best times are when a poem comes along fully formed and it is written and finished in the time it takes to type it. That is almost impossibly exhilarating. I don’t understand at all how some people agonize over every word, how the act of writing is almost torturous. If it were not a joyful thing for me, I wouldn’t do it. The most frustrating part is probably the submitting but, really, I don’t mind that. I just throw on some music and bash them out.
How has this past year impacted you emotionally, how has it impacted you creatively if it all? Steve: This year has been such a tough year for so many people of course but, personally, I didn’t mind it. I like my own company so the isolation was grand. It was tough not being able to visit people but beyond that it was good, kind of refreshing in a way. I think it forced lots of people, myself included, to find the pure and simple joy in small things again which is great. Some poems came from it all of course and, while a lot of them were quite sad, I would say that the majority were upbeat.
Please give us any promotional info for your work, social media, blogs, publishing company info, etc that you’d like to shout out. Steve: I probably wouldn’t have as gigantic a presence as a lot of people on social media but here are a few links all the same: https://denehan.wixsite.com/website, https://twitter.com/SteverinoD and https://www.facebook.com/denehan Steve’s new poetry collection, ‘Days of Falling Flesh and Rising Moons’, published by The Golden Antelope Press is available online and can be ordered in all local bookshops.
His previous collection, ‘Miles of Sky Above Us, Miles of Earth Below’, published by Cajun Mutt Press and his chapbooks, ‘Living in the Core of an Apple’, published by Analog Submission Press and, ‘Of Thunder, Pearls and Birdsong’, published by Fowlpox Press, can be purchased by going to Steve’s website listed above.
*UPDATE* Steve will have a book coming out on Potter’s Grove Press in April “The Streets, Like Flowers, Come Alive in the Rain”