Snapshots of past lead to poems then paintings

Gerald Dawe introduces Revenant, a limited edition of a sequence of his poems with images by John Behan

When I was given a cache of papers from my late father’s estate I discovered he had an ‘archive’ of material relating to myself, his estranged son – newspaper clippings, photographs and the like. We had had no contact since the late 1950s when he and my mother separated and eventually divorced. He died in 2015.

The discovery was a bit of a revelation, to say the least, all these years later, and in response I wrote a poem, Only Son. And then, shortly thereafter, following diagnosis for prostate cancer, I started treatment in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin. I often took an afternoon to relax at the top of the house as both experiences merged, and the Covid-19 pandemic took root in 2020.

A cycle of poems unfolded, beginning with Revenant, as memories of childhood were recalled, often sparked off by family photographs of the 1940s and ‘50s, some of which I had displayed in that room at the top of the house for many years. Things started to cohere and poems, a handful of them, came along. When the short sequence looked complete I showed them to a good friend, the artist John Behan.

We have been collaborating on various broadsheets and books going back to 1980 when John produced a stunning image to partner a poem I had written in aid of the Galway Simon Community. Some years later in 1988, we collaborated again on a poster poem to help raise funds for the Nora Barnacle House in Bowling Green in Galway.


Now almost 35 years later there’s Revenant, a sequence of my poems matched with a beguiling series of images by John, capturing in their own way the spirit of the limited edition book, designed by Susan Waine at Ashfield Press. John responded to the poems in his own highly distinctive way; the images reproduced in the book are stark, shimmering, ethereal presences; haunting. It occurs to me that, like the brief snapshots of the past upon which the poems are mostly drawn, John captured an evocative mood, a ghostly kind of presence which I hadn’t foreseen when writing the poems.

During my treatment I was hugely impressed by the nursing staff at St Vincent’s Hospital and promised to myself that when it was all over I would have to contribute something. After some conversations, the idea to help fund a postgraduate certificate in oncology for one of the nursing staff was suggested as a practical way of support. Revenant is the result.

For those interested, John Behan’s images which grace the book are also available separately in a series of prints. After all the disruptions and delays which came our way, between lockdowns and other challenges, Revenant was launched earlier in the summer in Galway and Dún Laoghaire.

Profit from sales of the book, and the set of prints, will help fund that postgraduate certificate. Remaining copies of the book are available from Kenny’s Bookshop and Gallery online and Books Upstairs, Dublin.

As Before

The other day, in ‘recovery’,

half-awake, drifty,

the bright sky sliced in two,

I was certainly not myself.

A door opened and out of the landing

you stepped in regimental army dress,

the creaturely plume of your beret

and all I heard whispered was –

‘He’s sleeping at long last’

before you left in the slanting

light of the closing door

as unexpected as it was before.