Pigeon Songs

Eoghan Walls
Publication Date: 
Thursday, February 28, 2019
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'Eoghan Walls is both incredibly literal and metaphorical, often within the same lines, and serious and frivolous. This is a neatly packaged collection of formally structured poems that defy a neat or structured synopsis.' - Liam Nolan

Pigeon Songs is Derry-born Eoghan Walls’ second collection of poems from Seren after his much-praised debut, The Salt Harvest. From the first piece, ‘Angry Birds’ we have a sense of the poet’s themes and preoccupations: we have a richly metaphorical and densely allusive style, a pull towards formal metre and structures. There is also the occasional vigorous vulgarity, adding a touch of blue humour to the canvas, breaking up the formal rigour.

Family is a potent presence in poems inspired by parents, grandparents, partners, children. They often emit a sort of energy, a fierce gravitational pull of emotion around the burning heart of a poem ultimately about love, or the sorrow of losing a loved-one. There is frequently a strangeness that can be both comic, as in the ‘The Tooth Burier’, inspired by a child’s reaction to a lost tooth, and eerie as in ‘The Weight of Her’ where the child whispers that ‘she wishes to be dead’. Parenthood weighs large as alternately joyful, terrifying and essential to everyday existence. Also here is a richly imagined and mourned-for natural world as in ‘Ice Bear Dreams’; ‘The Sins of the Otter’; ‘The Beast of the Galapagos’; as well as animals in hybrid, mythological attitudes: ‘The Frog Prince’; ‘When All the Men Turned into Geese’ and the ever-present Pigeons who recur throughout the book as totems for various states of inquisition, rumination, urban living and means of temporary liberation from the mundane.

There is, as might be expected in an Irish poet, a flavour of lost religiosity as in ‘Sunday at the Reliquary’, echoing Heaney’s monks of Clonmacnoise in “Stepping back from the miraculous as we had known it.” Yet science provides its own unlikely, unearthly parables, like the scary, ‘Kepler 22B’ with a surface consisting of never-ending tusnamis. There are also riffs on ‘String Theory’, and ‘The Principals of Collision’. A socio-political awareness is never far away with poems about ‘Borders’ and particularly about a child’s drawing of refugees in ‘The Bright-Crayoned Universe’.

We are invited to stare, to mourn, to laugh, even to dance ‘The Rare Old Mountain Jig’ in this various, lively, compelling second book from the gifted Eoghan Walls.


Eoghan joined us at the Seren Stay-at-Home Series to read from his collections The Salt Harvest and Pigeon Songs. Watch it back on Youtube:



Review by Neil Leadbeater, WriteOutLoud

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The striking cover photograph by Jacob Riglin was the first thing that drew my attention to this book. For days I thought the pigeon was taking off, only later did I think that it might be landing. This curious dichotomy of reading things in more ways than one is reflected in the poems which are rich with multiple meanings.

Walls is a master at creating resonant lines that catch the eye and the ear: “kelp forests shaking with whalesong” (‘Kepler -22B’) and “a string of moles dried out on the barbed wire / like shucked gloves hung to catch their owner’s eyes” (‘Moles’) are just two such examples of many to be found in this book.

The poems that reference family members do not descend into mere domesticity but carry with them an energy all of their own. In ‘The Last Connection’ on a rain-soaked night in central Glasgow, Walls writes:

… I stormed the road
head-down, collar-up, trying to light a smoke
and nearly tripped into my mother at the station.

I hugged her, damp; there was so much to ask her
about miscarriages, our troubles buying a home,
the taste of the earth. She listened to me, tender,

but she had someplace to be. I watched her go,
zipping between the buses along Queen Street,
and I caught the nine forty-one for Aberdeen.

At set intervals pigeons make their presence known. Often they are at the centre of a scene of unimaginable atrocity (‘The Pigeon on Chelmno’), witnesses to the violence of the natural and human world. The lines in these poems, which have the word ‘pigeon’ in the title, are all justified to the right hand side of the page instead of to the left. It is as if each line is homing in on its subject matter and it makes them stand apart from all the other poems. Awareness of man’s brutality to man is never far from some of the strongest pieces where, for example, the innocence of a young daughter is pitched against the violence of a war-torn country on the other side of the globe (‘The Bright and Crayoned Universe’).

There is much to admire in this collection: the attention to poetic form in which Walls manages to contain his soaring, exuberant flights of fancy, the beautiful extended metaphor of the bee in ‘The Early Days’ and the finely controlled poem after Kenneth Koch called ‘The Principles of Collision’ are just a few examples.

‘Nettles’ is a gem of a poem, a model of compactness, and short enough to quote in full:

Cabbage whites span in their giddy orbits.
Under her vest, nettles stroked her armpits,

softly sawing her a fresh coat of blisters.
I paused by her fallen bike, to watch her

pulse like phosphorus by the copper fence,
the way a silverback in Virunga’s jungles

watches his young gnash mountain nettles
with wild pink tongues, stung by existence.

The scope of the subject matter is astonishing with poems set in locations that range from the Sperrin mountains in Northern Ireland to Al Hajar al-Aswad in southern Damascus, a popular fairground attraction in Stockholm to a mountain pass in south Tyrol. There are references to Greek mythology, ancient philosophy, medical and scientific terminology, works of art, Biblical history, astronomy and archaeology. Each poem is densely packed with allusion and moves, like the pigeons, at a swift pace.

In the last poem, the pigeons have the final say. In ‘On the Fifth Day’, the day when God let birds fly above the earth, they are released from the shelves of a van by “a man as portly as a god” – it is enough to make the poet “stop jogging” just to witness the scene. I like to think that this may have been the starting point for the whole collection, the moment that sparked off all the imaginative powers that are contained in this book. Highly recommended.  

Review by Martin Dyar, Poetry Ireland Review

Monday, October 7, 2019

In the poem ‘Uvertrauen’, in Eoghan Walls excellent new collection Pigeon Songs, a daughter has had a frightening encounter with a dog. This intrepid girl is not unfamiliar to the reader. In ‘The Tooth Burier’ she has already played an allegorical rose in a meditation on life and death. In ‘Swimming Lessons’ she has been a figure of unwitting grace, an elemental angel half-transformed into an animal. Later, in ‘Nettles', her pain will offer a dilated view of life on earth. These effects relate to key tendencies in the writing. In Pigeon Songs, the light of parental love is rarely cast without a filter of morality, just as the wonder of childhood is never viewed as being entirely distinct from the wonder of life itself.

These leanings animate a poem titled ‘The Weight of Her’, where the daughter sings out a series of innocent reflections on how death might be overcome. To get by in the underworld, she’ll need to have, naturally, ‘her own dead horse, a patchwork nag / of bones and worms to bear her past the zombie dogs, / / or if her tights get caught, she’ll only have to whistle, / and he’ll whinny over to prise her from the brambles’. A father is listening to these beautiful plans while carrying their maker on his shoulders, the weight of her increased by the irony of his being, for now, her real and trusty steed. But Walls quickly locates the limit of the game. The father struggles, recoiling from the memory of an acquaintance who lost his daughter. By being anonymous, the other man, ‘Mr S’, brings another infusion of feeling to this expertly shadowed poem.

Darkness evolved in ‘Urvertrauen’, where the contrasted destinies of a human daughter and an orphaned hare are considered. Universality is worked into the litany of things that serve to distract the daughter from her distress: ‘the fear of death-by-dog and her bloodied knee / / fade to enlightenment in the glow of talking pigs, / Coco Pops, or gestation periods of dinosaur eggs’. While the familiarity and wryness are a treat, and a fine quotidian poetry, they are a ruse too, and the poem’s second half advances unstoppably into the grimness of the leveret’s fate. The hare daughter has evaded the dogs, but she watches 'as greyhounds rough up the carcass of her mother, / / whose only shield is stillness’. There’s another view of life here. The leveret is being initiated by nature, and it seems that the instinct of fear which preserves her might entail a means for her to carry on, however vulnerably:

                                           As her blood dries,
she holds the branching horizons in her wide eyes,

learning her atheism in the thorny greys of the sun,
flat on the mud where she’ll feed and fuck and run.

There’s a more than acoustic emphasis on the her of ‘her atheism’; we go back to the poem’s opening again, and to the contrast in question, which now seems to be a matter of parallels. It’s almost as if the human daughter, by being reassured, is at the same time being disconnected from reality, from the animal basis of her humanity. The words ‘basic trust’ are suggested in the German title, but the poem might have its doubts.

‘Notes on Repin’s Easter’ is outstanding. We meet the hare again, an agent now in the recruitment of Jesus Christ for ecological purposes. The voice of the poem incorporates a subtle detachment, mimicking a gallery catalogue (‘Note the hare’s red jowls’, and ‘Repin notes …’), but the primary approach, beautifully contained, stems from a heart iconoclasm. The final line presents a kind of triumph: ‘The greys in Christ’s beard are the hare’s greys.’ We have journeyed from religiosity down a chain of being, past human concerns, and into a place of alternative and seemingly truer divinity.

There’s impressive range in Pigeon Songs. ‘Kepler-22b’ handles illness and medicines and astrophysics together, keeping lyrical and personal intentions in tune with a striding evocativeness of diction. ‘The Pale Child’ revises and enhances a theological stance with existentialist vigour, the verses clipped, and the lines clean and speech-like, with no loss of philosophic urgency. ‘Sisyphus in Laytown’ impresses for its vision of courage in isolation, its straddling of literature and happenstance. ‘The Pigeon on the Rafters of the Station of the Metro’, part of the great sequence of pigeon poems in the book (each of which sensationally pushes past the lowly status of the bird), documents yet another pursuit of that supreme environmental fiction: animal experience. Walls, it should not be doubted, has the ability to deeply conceive and map out such flights of imagination, and to offer them on the page with singular power.

Review by Liam Nolan, Gwales

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

It is easy to judge poetry as one might judge a person. When I glance at a poem, with stanzas all equal and lines clearly metric, I make similar assumptions as when I look at a person all buttoned up and prim and proper; I instinctively see them as a little square and uptight. Formal metre and structure, by definition, don’t usually signify content that can flow free and wild. This is why Eoghan Walls’s Pigeon Songs is such a refreshing read. Its content, themes, tone and free word play are not what you might expect sitting within stanzas so formal. The juxtaposition of content and form give the reader a thrill. 

‘Angry Birds’ opens the book and sets the tone: contemporary, visceral and visual, and avian in theme. Death, life, and birds are neatly presented in eleven lines - three motifs that are repeated throughout Pigeon Songs, and all to great effect. Death as part of life, life in spite of death, and birds (pigeons especially) as an all-seeing consistent presence.

‘Swimming Lessons’ is a great example of these themes coming together. The untimely death of a swallow is described alongside its burial, performed in the garden for the sake of Walls’s daughter. This poetic description is given in the context of a single moment under water during a swimming lesson later that day. Death is there and real and understood, but life goes on and Walls’s daughter continues to move on and swim in spite of all that’s been learned.

The innocence of his daughter is a recurring theme and ‘The Weight of Her’ addresses her childlike approach to death again, as she described her casual plans for the afterlife from atop his shoulders. The mix of death and a child’s nonchalance in its face are refreshing. In ‘Kraken Rising’, Walls tells her that ‘life is massive’, but it’s a message she seems to be giving him throughout.

Walls clearly has a technical knowledge of poetry to go with his skill with words. One constant throughout this collection is his reverence for form and a technical structure. There are stanzas of equal length, with rhyme schemes of all sorts throughout; an academic poet could have a field day naming the forms here in their multitude. The real skill on show though is Walls not letting the form limit the poems or restrict. Structurally formal does not mean formal content, and there are real moments of lyrical crudity and vivid descriptions that wouldn’t have the impact they do were they not presented in such metred lines. There’s ‘vomit on the asphalt’ in ‘The Pigeon on the Rollercoaster’, and ‘Sweeney’s Song’ opens with the line ‘Last night I dreamt I had a second penis’ – both poems with strong visual presence on the page due to their form.

In the publisher’s blurb on the back cover, Pigeon Songs is described as rewarding re-reading; this is a very true statement. Eoghan Walls is both incredibly literal and metaphorical, often within the same lines, and serious and frivolous. This is a neatly packaged collection of formally structured poems that defy a neat or structured synopsis.


A review from, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.

Review on Goodreads

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Eoghan Walls, with his second collection, manages to capture images in motion, as though they were films. 

His stark use of language, and fantastic use of poetic form elevate this work above many contemporaries. Experimentation with style (such as with 'The Pigeon on the Egg') keep things both interesting, and chaotic. Yet, the internal voice of the pigeon is unwavering. With this collection, Eoghan has found the voice of our most populous neighbours; and he has made it sing.

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