Herne the Hunter is the sixth collection from one of Ireland’s most accomplished lyric poets. In this new body of work, Peter McDonald deepens his interest in myth and storytelling through the legend of Herne, a phantom huntsman of English folklore. In McDonald’s poetic treatment of the legend, opposing forces are held in tension: body and soul, present and past, possession and desire, death and life.
The collection’s two-part structure causes the poems to reflect and distort in a version of what Yeats called ‘a troubled mirror’: a sequence of Petrarchan sonnets is set against a Shakespearean sonnet sequence; stanzaic poems, shorter pieces, and longer compositions also meet their own images across the book, resulting in a complex symmetry of forms. Subjects in these poems stretch from game animals to Japanese swords, and from tree-catalogues to the constellations. The volume draws energy from struggles between irreconcilable imperatives, especially the need for pursuit and the desperation for escape, and the intimacy between the hunter and the hunted. McDonald’s Herne – not quite man, nor spirit, nor beast – opens up a world in which time is felt ‘passing through blood’, in which one might listen to ‘the cries of stones’, where ‘the weather is the news, and like the news / it has no meaning’.