Yasmine Guiga on Sean McFall’s Garden Theology

The opening poem of Seán Mac Falls’s Garden Theology, “Sonnet of Morning” sets the gentle yet delightfully atmospheric tone for the rest of the collection, which contains a diverse mix of poetic forms, from the sonnet to the villanelle, as well as the ode and the free verse, demonstrating Mac Falls’s mastery over rhythm and structure:

“Before the wings and spring of words, Were cradle held in a cloud of sleep…We could not see the frost branching And winter never was, nor winds cold.”

The narrator is basking in the bliss of spring, oblivious to winter’s arrival. The sonnet closes with “All is mourning now – song, sings singer, / To morn, to wake, dream, dreams, dreamer.” This poem is our first foray into the paradoxes and dichotomies explored in Garden Theology.

With sensuous lyricism and great aesthetic prowess, Mac Falls seamlessly merges the highly intellectualized philosophy of the Metaphysical poets with its unexpected imagery and subtle, yet intricate thought, to the mysticism and boundless imagination of the Romantics.

Garden Theology is a center of gravity around which themes with all kinds of conflicting implications bundle and clash. Multiple dualities are held in tension throughout the poems: winter and spring; man and nature; day and night; naïveté and experience; beauty and roughness; life and death. In one poem, a crow is jealous of a rose’s beauty, in another, a dove is eaten by a cat.

The spring/winter duality is in fact a recurring one, underlined by the mirroring poems: “Song of Spring,” “Winter,” “Winter Comes,” and “In Spring Meadow a New Song Is” that establish one of the collection’s main concerns: the cyclical nature of time. The dominating imagery of the vernal poems is that of a nature alive and singing; “humming with breeze,” and writing “budding poems of leaves,” whereas in the winter poems, an impression of complete stillness cloacks the verses in “smokey clouds” and “sheets of white. This opposition points to the opening poem that begins with spring with the unshakeable awareness that winter will inevitably come and all will be “mourning.”

In the majority of the book, nature is personified, made alive by Mac Falls’s crisp and powerful language. In “Sentinels,” poppy flowers stand guard, “Fiercely alive atop the lifeless, / Gravely low, defeated soot.” In “King Lear in Conversation with the Sky,” the elements berate the wretched king whose follies led to his demise: “nothing will come from nothing...Howl and cry mad King your reapers calls beyond,” says the sky. In “Disused Field Is a Blooming Temple,” sparrows, robins, doves, and finches, kneel and pray at the altar of the “ancient tree waiting eternal.”

Garden Theology is a canvas whose images come alive with every new brush stroke. The landscapes are vibrant with exquisite colors and soft melodies of clear-toned swelling brooks, musical stones, and “bopping bees / Who buzz with jazzy pillowing waft.” There is a sacredness to the language, a reverent, almost elegiac quality to the verse that paints the entire collection. Sean Mac Falls’s poetry appeals to all our senses, more than simple words, it becomes sounds and tastes and smells; emotions and memories. It transports us into the magical world of Celtic folklore, with its enchanted woods, moonlit groves, and eternal trees.

In “Leaf,” the whole universe is contained within the anatomy of such a small piece of foliage:

“Veined structure exploding

Like a star, pale flash ignites

Turning into burnished gold”

“Body of Ocean, Milk, and Sky” is perhaps the most metaphysical poem of the collection. “Body of ocean, milk, and sky, / We are tangled in the hope of night,” the speaker says:

“All is creation. My meteors crash

Into your ruptured Earth. I flame

Upon your must and moisted furrows

And my toes are locked, rooted in your.”

Here, Mac Falls moves away from the supple lyricism of William Blake and delves into an intensity and passion of verse that was typical of John Donne.

“...The curves and waft of your sands

Seethe and sodden my barren plains...

...and now your eyes

Are the only stars I know, and you skin;

A sheet that holds the heavens shimmering.”

The merit of this poem – which is one of my favorites in the collection – goes beyond its sophistication; it lies in its reverence and worship of the universe, in the religious quality of the language in verses that celebrate the Pagan world.

Another favorite poem of mine is “Lovers in Morning,” that offers a new way of seeing the world. Once again, in true Blake-ian fashion, Mac Falls leaves the formal in favor of the lyrical. In this poem, two lovers lying in bed are startled awake by the rising sun:

“And the night was a sea of hope

For the lonely, lost, drowning.

Now the morning is a shroud

That eyes shy away from it”

Thus, an opposition as old as the universe itself is reversed; for these two lovers, Day, which is often associated with hope and new beginnings becomes a symbol of Death – invasive and unwanted – for it represents the end of their idyll. On the other hand, Night is where they come together, unperturbed by the harsh light of the sun which is something to shy away from.

Garden Theology is a multifaceted corpus of poems, a marriage of the dichotomies of nature and the human soul, an homage to the stunning landscapes of Ireland and the great poets of the Irish Literary Tradition. This book is Seán Mac Falls’s contribution to the Celtic Twilight.

The strength of his poetry, of his voice and rhythm and structure, is that it is unequivocally his own, while ascertaining itself as part of a long poetic tradition with the likes of Dylan Thomas, Yeats, and Blake. The result is a work so impeccably unique in quality and tone that simultaneously exudes pleasant familiarity for the reader. Innovative, fresh, and memorable, Garden Theology made me fall in love with poetry all over again.

Born and raised in Tunisia, North Africa, Yasmine Guiga now lives in Italy where she is a senior at the American University of Rome, earning a B.A. in English Writing, Literature, and Publishing. Yasmine is the editor of Remus, her university’s literary and art magazine, and a Prose Reader for the Adroit journal. Her own writing often revolves around the uncanny and what it means to be human.