A A major Irish writer of the post-war generation, Patrick McCabe is best known for his early novels The Butcher Boy (1992) and Breakfast on Pluto (1998), both nominated for the Booker Prize and filmed by Neil Jordan. His career since has shown a willingness to experiment in a wide range of forms and styles, culminating in this verse novel, Poguemahone, from crowdfunding publisher Unbound.
Basically, Poguemahone is a story of possession – of hates, obsessions and souls – and what can’t be owned, like friends, lovers, children, even a home. Her story is primarily told by Dan Fogarty, who cares for his 70-year-old sister, Una, who suffers from dementia and is in a care home in Margate. Through fractured prismatic memories, we learn that their family was driven out of Ireland in the 1950s at the instigation of local priest Monsignor Padna, victim of a humiliating supernatural incident. Padna arrives with a crowd one night at the Fogartys’ “inbred” cabin, stating, “A curse has come upon this land” and saying that the nuns will come for Dan and Una’s mother, Dots, unless they leave. .
The family flees to starving London, where Dots becomes a sex worker in Soho under the wing of Aunt Nano, another exile from their beloved Currabawn. In time, the crumbling Dots abandon Dan and Una, who, once adults and homeless, end up in a squatter township in Kilburn. There, Una meets her “blue-eyed boy,” poetry debtor Troy McClory, her love for him the book’s heartbreak. It’s the London of the 70s of “Clockwork Orangeies kicking Irish tramps to death…and bombs without warning killing children”.
Dark powers also occupy the commune’s Temple of Peace and Love, possibly linked to Dan and Una (he at one point speaks of the “ancient Fogarty magic” that hypnotizes Troy). Iris, another poetess, is pushed away by a gargoyle-like entity (one of many evil versions of children, such as in the movie Don’t Look Now, a reference point for the book). Even a cop raiding the squat feels possessed by a demon from The Exorcist, another touchstone of the book. Although the action of Poguemahone takes us from the Second World War to the era of Putin, this “madman with the steel eyes”, the violent death of larger and invisible forces is always a constant.
McCabe’s work has been repeatedly compared to Ulysses. Similarities include the importance of music: the more than 600 pages of Poguemahone deploy white space with a musical function as well as a structuring function (there are no chapters). In the text, the music provides cultural cues ranging from traditional Irish songs to those of progressive rock bands popular with members of the Kilburn township.
As with Ulysses, Poguemahone’s symbolic architecture is complex, but the title provides a beacon, derived from the Irish for “kiss my ass” and also the initial name of the Irish band the Pogues (which appear in its pages). This leads us, through kisses linking love and death, to the ritual greeting of the Devil by his minions – the kiss of his anus, which completes the journey from jokey to macabre. Bird imagery is present everywhere, from Dan’s folkloric power to copy their voices, which he uses to frighten commune members when high, to the stolen children in the The Children of Lir myth, which are transformed into swans, and even into pebbles. described as looking like eggs on the beach at Margate, but who are as infertile as Una.
McCabe has always written poetry, and poetry is at the heart of Poguemahone: EE Cummings’ Mr Death stalks its pages, Eliot’s The Waste Land is prominent throughout, and Yeats’ Stolen Child sings in the chilling passages of the kidnapping when Una takes little Bobbie and Ann, abandoned by their junkie mother in a park. Una’s motivations may stem from worry or from trying to start a family, but you fear for them, as you fear for the last two children she meets on a train getaway, the child abuse women and children being a major theme.
Kilburn is referred to as “Killiburn” at the beginning of the book, and Killiburn Brae is constantly quoted. This traditional Irish song, with its presence of the devil and his attendants, underlines the key supernatural dimension of Poguemahone. Many of the book’s richly painted characters are cursed or haunted, either by the squat demons or their own, dying early by their own hands or through abuse. At the center of it all is the stormy relationship between Dan and Una. She sometimes rages against him as the demonic author of his misfortunes; his feelings towards her range from mockery, to protectiveness, to possible incestuous attraction, to something possibly spiritually dangerous in the book’s fiendishly ambiguous ending.
Poguemahone is described by McCabe as part ballad and part psychedelic jig, but modern audiences are used to hybrid forms: Les Murray’s Fredy Neptune, Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate and Alice Jolly’s Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile were all novels in bestselling verse, while lyrical essayist Claudia Rankine’s Citizen won the 2015 Forward Prize for Poetry, showing how fertile the ground is at the frontiers of prose and poetry. Although not to all fans of his early work, McCabe may be right when he calls Poguemahone his best book: it’s surprisingly original, moving, funny, scary, and beautiful.
Poguemahone by Patrick McCabe is published by Unbound (£20). Ian Duhig’s latest book is New and Selected Poems (Picador). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.