Instead of a Review a Tribute to Mark Whelan
by John Liddy
The Sear of Wounds by Mark Whelan (Doghouse, 2012)
In my copy of Mark’s last published book, The Sear of Wounds, he wrote a dedicatory note: “For you John, great meeting up and having the chat. Will see you soon in October should you make it here. Hope you find something you like in this slim volume. Best wishes and God Bless, Mark.” There was also a scribbled note between the pages, discovered sometime later. It simply said: “PS: You might be able to review critically.”
That was in 2018 and we never did get to see each other again because of Covid and lockdowns in Limerick and Madrid. But I had his ‘slim volume’ and finished reading it just a few months ago.
The book is far from slim in depth of content. As I read through the poems, I took notes but never got around to that review. The title intrigued me. That verb “Sear” and the word “Wounds” revealed themselves in my reading. I was aware of Mark’s physical struggles, his soul-searching and spiritual suffering, laid bare as I moved from layer to deeper layer of the human condition regarding matters of love and God, to the ignorance of not knowing the mystery.
The Sear of Wounds has four parts and if the title is revealing, the organization of the book is no less so. This is Mark’s testament to his deepest beliefs and thoughts and due homage is paid to Samuel Beckett, one of his literary and human heroes, in lines such as:
Begin with beginnings once again
out of what face out of what voice
Begin with breath (Prelude)
The words “parable,” “sabbath,” “holy,” “synagogue,” “missal,” “God,” “incense,” “blessing,” “sacred” and “prayer,” words repeated throughout the book, added to by “multiple” and “multiply,” with that Beckettian note in: “As it is it be-comes.” The poems eulogize women and, amongst other concerns such as his search for the face of God, the trade the poet once plied is beautifully evinced in the lines: “no scent entices longing/more than the scent of bread.” He talks about his dear father (earthly or heavenly) and his own emptiness, the poet’s love-loss and a warning note:
I would eventually collapse
under a scented weight
of skinny actors on a shiny road.
This line speaks for itself: “I can no longer return home.”
Everything about this book is a puzzle trying to be solved. In order to get close to a solution the reader must pay attention to details because everything is intrinsic in this carefully crafted and patterned book. Nothing should be taken for granted. Interwoven linkage through language is everywhere. Mark has given of himself and the fruits of his labor. The book ends with the poet’s voice intact. He seems to be cured by the search, but not fully.
This, therefore, is the review as tribute he never saw but asked me for. It is not critical in the sense of being impartial because I found the book to be his legacy. A book deserving of a wider readership and wide acclaim. A mirror into the poet’s soul.
I wrote this on the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration. There was a young poet, Amanda Gorman, reading her poem and I know Mark would have approved, just as he had with Richard Blanco, who read for Obama, and whom Mark helped to bring to Limerick. Many of their sentiments echo in Mark’s own work. A longing to reach pastures green and peaceful, a better world for all.
Mark was a tireless worker on the Limerick arts scene. He edited broadsheets with my brother Liam and Anthony O’Brien. They too are feeling his loss. He coedited anthologies and kept The Stony Thursday Book going with the help of Limerick Arts when it looked like permanently folding. He was a leading light in the Cuisle Festival and worked with film makers and artists in Limerick and Dublin.
We kept in touch through intermittent emails and last October 2020, The Hong Kong Review (Vol. II, No. 2), which I guest edited, included a poem by Mark called “My Death.” I believe it was his last published poem.
Dia dhaoibh, Mark, agus dean suaimhneas.
So much to be left behind
when you leave
No more remembering toward what is past
No more promise of tomorrow
My death waits stunned
by the cobwebbed tears
in the mingling of unknown sorrows flowing
in the pipes of my veins
Bare and naked I no longer matter
to footprints left in the echo
of crunching snow
There is a song to be sung
to break the windows of light
and to have nothing more
to do with time
It rests at the bottom
of a river where above
the lowest walk across bridges
their shadows blocking out the light
of the sun