Review: Half-Open Door by James Finnegan

James Finnegan, Half-Open Door, Eyewear Publishing, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-912477-17-3. £10.99

Words are more than signifiers of meaning for poets. They also serve as passwords that open doors within and without the psyche adding resonance and layered nuance, altering perception, and often if we are lucky enough, reinvigorating original meaning. In the hands of a gifted craftsman their parsing can allow, what Frost called,  a  ‘gathering of metaphors’ , by which the universe can be understood. James Finnegan is the craftsman of a new type of metaphor: the metaphor of active transformation.

The collection’s title is taken from the Tomas Tranströmer poem ‘The Half-Finished Heaven’, and the couplet-

“….  Every person is a half-open door

leading to a room for everyone….”

Like Tranströmer , the wide open spaces that open up an inner landscape after reading any of the seventy six poems that make up this collection stem in the main from the widely separated sources of imagery. ‘OTHERS DANCE OUT’ is the opening poem, and its first line also speaks of openings.

“when winds batter me fully open

to brilliant white light…”

There is mystery here. What or whom is the brilliant white light the poet needs to shelter in the shade from? The second stanza meets the poet later on. He is able to let hope in, but only because:

“…I push the door to a narrow cut…”

In the final verse change has been necessary and has occurred:

“when I’m a half-open door”

It is now that the title of the poem realises itself. All his multiple selves can now respond to this opening and the result is:

“others dance out and in”

This poem sets the tone for an interweaving of influence and identity from these others, in all their plurality.The forms that the Other takes and that the poet accrues as part of his multiple selves stem from his responses to the fulcrum of disparate moments from moments in time; An encounter with Art or Place in a personal history, or History as a personal place.  ‘I WAS IN LANESBOROUGH TODAY’ is the name of the poem, which best demonstrates the latter. Presented as a block of text with Finnegan’s signature spacing we enter this elegy by entering the specific;

“up Delvin park cul-de-sac   last pebble-dashed semi

on the left…”

Concrete images and descriptions are softened by inserts of emotion like …’or I’m in some daydream state of waiting..’, and …’my heart lifts in welcome…’ We learn that the title of the poem is a type of sobriquet that lets his family know he has travelled a long distance that day. There is a different type of communication here, a kind of holding back, which makes the poignancy of the loss of this ‘other’ all the more poignant, but just as powerful a presence in the identity of the poet. Its closing lines speak for themselves:

….” even when I was older he would lay his hand on my forehead

no words    a Connemara man wishing me a silent good night.”

Outside of the poems which look at and enter into the loss of light which the death of loved ones insist upon transmuting, there is the predominant ‘other’ of Poetry itself. The gap in these half-open doors are opened by an eclectic mix of the best of Irish and  International poets. Muses like Czeslaw Milosz, Charles Wright,Tranströmer , Larkin, Mary Oliver, Frank O’Hara, Billy Collins, Kavanagh, Armitage,Raymond Carver,Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, Longley and O’Driscoll.


They are the others that are dancing out and in of many of the poems, causing an all encompassing accretion of influence, and their lines reach beyond an anxiety of influence. We are reminded of the purpose of poetry itself.

As I read this collection the eighth verse of  Czeslaw Milosz’ ‘ Ars Poetica ‘ came to mind;

“…The purpose of poetry is to remind us

how difficult it is to remain just one person,

for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,

and invisible guests come in and out at will….”

Anxiety of influence is transmuted into that something other that affirms how each self grows in understanding through the pursuit of the understanding of others. Life is a phenomenological text acting almost as the looking glass through which Finnegan enters and re-emerges changed. And we the readers are also changed. Doorways are the traditional entrances to dwelling places that are roofed. ‘ROOFS’ is written in four tercets, introduced and separated from one another with Roman numerals. In the first, the poet recalls a game from his Dundalk childhood;parachuting off a roof with a curtain. In the second, the roof in Gorey is made from what became the scare, namely asbestos. In the third, Kavanagh’s flight ‘through Reason’s roof’ is one that is propelled by a man with

“…his feet grounded in hobnailed boots.”

And finally the poet is lowered through a roof, and there is a biblical echo here, ‘onto crowded ground’, from which he is able to, despite the absence of the two colossi of Irish poetry, Heaney and O’Driscoll, make his mark. The poem ends:

“…………..I rise, make my sound.”

And what a sound that is. Time is non-linear in many of the poems in this book., and most of these poetic lines reflect that with a signature broken line. These gaps allow what is entering the poet as ‘other’ from outside to meet and create not just new meaning but a new reality. They allow for a reinvention of poetic cliché and trope.The poem ‘ROAMING’ upturns and subverts one of these with delightful humour. After reading Charles Lamb’s ‘The Superannuated Man’, Finnegan wanders the city of  Derry seemingly without purpose. The peace bridge is uniquely described and admired for its  ‘..sinusoidal wave curvature and slanted masts’. The  shopping centre billboard  asks the question ‘ Having Problems Roaming?’ adding to the final humorous punchline of not being able to ring Livinia, because he cannot get a signal. This playfulness conceals the poet who enjoys playing with the  inner and outer resources of language, in this case, the present participle of a verb.

Opening and closing lines are the handles that poets use to enter and to leave a poem. Finnegan is a master of both. Many of his poems are framed in such a way that the interconnections between the opening and closing lines open new passageways into the identity of the nebulous ‘I’. One aspect of the poet’s identity lies in the animal kingdom. Take the opening lines of ‘ELSIE’;

“ after the loss of our cat Elsie”

and the closing lines:

“already    I can’t see me   as clearly

as I did   when Elsie was here”

In the gap in between the poet has metamorphosed into his beloved cat buried in the garden, and back again. Like a character from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’.

Different truths approach one another in Finnegan’s poetry, and in their meeting another truth is found. In the sublime poem, ‘THE MATHEMATICIAN IN ME’, our eye and ear are drawn towards the distinguishing features of a wren and a goldcrest. A new universal arises from an observed original particular.

“ after a six-mile run I’m sixty-five kilograms

thirteen thousand goldcrests”

The poet has a keen sense of historical injustice, particularly towards women. The elegy for Edith Stein is heartbreaking. Her decision to reject an escape plan, to share in the fate of her people is haunting. Notwithstanding her death in Auschwitz, Finnegan remembers to mention the glass ceiling through which she was refused entry;

“…. Edith Stein    side-lined by Husserl

and Heidegger    blocked from being

professor of philosophy…”

Take the poem ‘ EMMA MORANO’: Emma Morano died when she was 117 years and 137 days old. Finnegan’s elegy to her humours and fascinates. His eclectic choice of subject rejuvenates what again can be wearingly repetitive in much poetry. ‘ Emma Morano’ emerges from this poem as proof positive that age only enhances. Rosalind Franklin, his wife Livinia, her mother ,and his own all feature. Finnegan is careful not to appropriate the historical oppression of the female other as part of his accretion of Other.What he does do is acknowledge and address it. It is only when he encounters the paintings of  Helene Schjerbeck in the poem ‘ PHILOSOPHY OF THE FACE’ that he throws caution to the winds, and allows the other of her strokes, their melancholy to enter into him and to soften him. The passage of time in ‘ from Helene young to Helene old/ to a sketched skull in ‘ 45/ like a Scandinavian scream’ answer to a verisimilitude in the poet. I particularly loved his contemplation of the 1939 self portrait;

“…. you look to my right

I read you better than

if you were looking straight at me….”

It is this mysterious oblique in other that Finnegan manages to embrace in poems that are often echoes of recognisable poetic forms, it is his marrying of disparate moments in time and his rooting of the more difficult theories of the empirical in the everyday that lift these poems out of the ordinariness of the particular into the universality of classic. Published by Eyewear, this is a poet whose puckish humour we have long been missing, and whose arrival in the halls of Parnassus will be greeted with pleasure by all of us.


Deirdre Hines


You can buy Half-Open Door here.

Deirdre Hines is an award winning poet and playwright. Her first book of poems The Language of Coats was published by New Island Books. It includes the poems which won The Listowel Collection in 2011. She was shortlisted for The Patrick Kavanagh Prize in 2010. Other awards include The Stewart Parker Award for Best New Play and Arts Council Grants. She reviews regularly for Sabotage. She is the Judge for the Annual Children’s Writing Competition, organised by North West Words, Letterkenny. New poems have appeared in The Bombay Review, Abridged, The Lake, Boyne Berries, Three Drops from a Cauldron to name a few.


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