Graham Allen reviews The Unicycle Paradox

Allen hickey LE P&W Oct 2022

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The Unicycle Paradox by Kenneth Hickey – Review by Graham Allen. 
Limerick: Revival, 2021. LINK

Cover The Unicycle ParadoxKenneth Hickey’s The Unicycle Paradox (Limerick: Revival, 2021) is an impressive first poetry collection. Hickey’s past experience as a member of the Irish Naval Service and his education, especially in Classics, are major influences on his poetry. Hickey’s themes include politics and power, modern love, and urban life, but all these themes are mediated through a classical filter, so that the experience of reading the work is to be constantly challenged with shifts in focus, from the contemporary world of Ireland and beyond, on to classical analogues, and back to the contemporary. The effect is one which is both unsettling and deeply rewarding.

What allows for this multi-temporal focus is Hickey’s developed art of allusion. Indeed, the book would be an extremely rewarding object-text for anyone seriously studying the often-overlooked art of allusion. Allusions here go from direct quotation (italicized): “Death in the afternoon,” “Turning and turning in the widening gyre,” to more playful loosely covert reappropriations (no italics):

Crystal dew burning the corn,
Winter robins fight in song,
Christmas creeps to be born.

But most importantly of all is the manner in which, in a fashion that is outside of anything we might call neo-classical, Hickey flits in and out of focus between Homeric and other classical perspectives and contemporary situations of personal experience and modern life. In a poem about his childhood sporting experience, “Memoirs of a Minor Athlete,” for example, the autobiographical content rests on an extended allusion to the myth of Dedalus and Icarus, here with a significant nod to W. H. Auden’s rendition of the climax of that myth:

He implored Icarus to jump,
A soul in tension that’s learning to fly.
While demonstrating the knotty knack of flight,
Fiercely flapping his own feathers,
Searching for his son in the rear-view mirror.
A fisherman catching flounder with a taut pole,
A herder resting on his rod,
Or farmer leaning on the shaft of his hoe,
Maybe spied the first aviators,
And paused, transfixed,
Sure they were witnessing divinity,
Angels traversing the heavens.
Virgin Atlantic, more experience than our name suggests.

The last line is a real slogan used by Virgin Atlantic.

This dual vision, between the poet’s contemporary world and classical myths or canonical literature is the major technique and meaning of these poems. In “At Swim with One Bird,” for example, The Waste Land constantly comes into focus, only then to fade into the background: “Winter is the time of dying,” “Hope is the cruellest thing”. In “Der Fisher,” the object of the poet’s love (“The Girl”) transforms into a series of classical and canonical women:

And still the beloved holds me
Bright Beatrice
Time collapses
A memory sitting at the loom
Weaving a wedding dress
For another wandering warrior
Penelope searches the sea
For signs of ships
Tuning to the shipping forecast ….

In “Three Ages of Isolation,” that collection of interrelated diachronic allusions Harold Bloom calls transumption occurs (Homer – Virgil – Dante – Milton – Wordsworth – Shelley – Eliot – et al) over the image of city commuters:

Early morning commuters’ breath
Crackling the air
Of the cold suburban carriage ….

In a section entitled “Shock and Awe,” in his poem “Thus Spake Hector,” clearly, amongst other subjects, dealing with the second Gulf War, the image of the Cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey is deployed in a manner that adds weight to the contemporary scene:

CNN weren’t available
To cover the village girl’s story.
Broadcast priorities, the executives say.
Cyclops Benny watches from his bed.
Somewhere the defence secretary
Is showing videos of precision carpet bombings,
Flanked by his favourite beribboned general.
“Look at ‘em go Norman”.
Cue applause.
Israel grabs more desert ….

That last passage conveys something of the ethics of this book, in that it uses mythology not to belittle contemporary life, nor to aggrandize it. The ultimate vision created by Hickey’s allusive voice is to present a world constantly in danger of repeating itself if it does not see itself through such a meta-historical lens. This is a vision captured well in one of the more straightforward poems in the collection, “This Love”:

My love is not that of mythical motorbike trips
To flagrant Florence
At the age of eighteen ….

Nor that which Bronte bore on the moors.
Nor that of doomed Paris
Watching his brother die ….

Mine is a small love
Of ham sandwiches, Dinners made and cups of tea.
The kind you never find in odes and elegies.
Of children playing.
When I am old
I’ll look into your eyes then
And show you all.
This is the love I have for you.
Take it,
If it is enough.

If that last question can be redirected to the poetry that is asking it, then the only response is an overwhelming YES.

© Graham Allen

Graham Allen is a Professor in the School of English, University College Cork. Professor Allen is an award-winning poet. His poetry collections The One That Got Away and The Madhouse System are published with New Binary Press, as is his ongoing epoem Holes

Kenneth Hickey was born in 1975 in Cobh, Co. Cork Ireland. He served in the Irish Naval Service between 1993 and 2000. His poetry and prose has been published in various literary journals in Ireland, the UK and the United States including Southword, Crannoig, THE SHOp, A New Ulster, Aesthetica Magazine and The Great American Poetry show. His writing for theatre has been performed in Ireland, the UK, New York and Paris. He has won the Eamon Keane Full Length Play

Award as well as being shortlisted for The PJ O’Connor Award and the Tony Doyle Bursary. He was shortlisted for the Bournmouth Poetry Prize in 2022. His work in film has been screened at the Cork and Foyle Film Festivals. He holds a BA and MA in English Literature both from University College Cork. His debut collection ‘The Unicycle Paradox’ was published by Revival Press in November 2021. He still resides in Cork.

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