Book Review: Days of Falling Flesh and Rising Moons by Steve Denehan


​I’ve never met Steve Denehan. I need to start with that for two reasons: firstly, because he is fast becoming one of my favourite poets, and it’s important to be clear that there’s no bias or nepotism here. Secondly, just to remind myself. Because after reading a hundred of his poems, I feel like I’ve known him for years.

As with Denehan’s previous work, Days of Falling Flesh and Rising Moons (Golden Antelope Press) is observed through a close-up lens, with the focus on the small dramas of the human condition. Even small might be overstating it in some instances. Toilet Roll tells of unravelling loo paper, and a mobile phone that drops (spoiler alert!) without breaking. It is not the incident which grabs our interest, but the reaction, the reality:

I felt a lightness
and walked
into the rest of the day
on the balls of my feet
The writing resonates because life is not always ‘breathless, stomach leaping, heart fluttering,’ it is trivial victories, petty defeats. Denehan is everyman, though only if every man could turn a phrase with such Swiss-watch precision. His ability to find pathos and humour in the mundane is, paradoxically, anything but average.
On a serendipitous trip to the supermarket, we are taken along for the ride:
the shopping trolley rolled smoothly along
no wrestling, no squeaking, not today
Again, not a lot happens, only an overheard snippet of conversation, from which the poem takes its title: Why are we really here? And then the pay-off:
I could have told him
why I was there at least
half-price non-bio washing tablets.
There is more at play however, than mere universal truths. Even if you have never encountered ‘talk so small it falls between the floorboards,’ Denehan draws you in with his own experience. It is artfully done, use of ‘you’ and ‘your’ ensuring engagement. You is even a title, as is Us, which begins ‘We see the world through lenses.’ Note again how the poem includes the reader, makes the occurrence a shared one.
‘Your heart. Knock-kneed and cross-eyed’ emotes That Saturday Night, projecting impulses deep inside for us to feel. ‘You hear my thoughts,’ he writes later. We do, Steve, we do.
None of it would work, of course, without the right words. However well one might relate to poring over Christmas lists, penning cards to past acquaintances, the reminiscences would pall if not done with proper panache. Denehan’s style is a quiet one, he makes it clear he has little time for ‘poems crafted/to within half a half inch/of a merciful death,’ no time at all for those ‘theatrically laden/with bizarre inflecTIONS.’ What he does have is an eye for words, and how to make them sing.
Marking every stand-out quotation would soon thicken the book with a thicket of admiring post-its. Examples, picked almost at random, and from five different pieces, reveal wit, and wordplay: swimmers are ‘bobbing/happy apples,’ a galloping heart is calmed by a disk jockey. Then there are the deft and dextrous analogies: ‘worry hot and black as tar,’ a struggling boxer walking as if for the first time. A life that was once an ocean now ‘a glass of water in your thirsty hand.’ Too many more to recount.
Too many? Denehan himself suggests there are ‘too many poems and poets/full stop.’ Free Coffee is his critique of the craft. But does he apply it to himself?
This is a generous collection, but that in itself brings a challenge. The book brims with competing themes, it longs to bask in sunlight, bringing out ‘luminous detail,’ yet there is excess water too. Boats, wading, skies ‘damp with darkness.’ This is not necessarily a contradiction, and there is plenty of room for both. But when does a motif become repetition? Cigar smoke and mercury recur, with other refrains.
Free Coffee itself is a direct descendent of Verdant, from Denehan's previous collection, and there are further similarities. The strength of Miles of Sky Above Us, Miles of Earth Below was the depth of the relationships revealed, the duality of being a father and a son. That is repeated here too, but so successfully that it could never be labelled a weakness. The poignant glimpses of family connections remain vivid and powerful.
It would in any case be incorrect to suggest this new material is limited. The Incredible Disappearing Man and Flesh and Bone branch out from transitory moments and everyday trivia to give dreamlike glimpses into a wider world, perhaps a new direction of travel.
And yet, to me at least, the lower key moments remain highlights. From Salt and Vinegar:
The chipper would serve the chips wrapped in newspaper
headlines and stories blurred with seeping vinegar
and chip edges blackened with bleeding ink
we ate the words
the thoughts
of those brighter than ourselves
Denehan would struggle now, I think, to find words brighter than his own.
Honestly, this is not partiality. I have never met Steve Denehan… but if you pick up his book, it could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Written by: Jon Squirrell
Published: 14th October 2020