[Review] “The Love Songs of Dino Mahoney” by Kate Rogers

{Written by Kate Rogers, this review is part of Issue 43 (April 2019) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Konstandinos Mahoney, Tutti Frutti, SPM Publications, 2018. 78 pgs.

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Tutti Frutti is a wonderful collection of condensed, original, witty poems. It both celebrates and exposes family members, former lovers and chance encounters. Intimates and strangers alike are observed with passion, tender insight, sadness and despair. It would be fair to describe Dino Mahoney’s Tutti Frutti as a collection of love poems to all those people, as well as to his younger self.

His biography describes Konstandinos (Dino) Mahoney as “a Greek-Irish-English Londoner” who “has lived abroad as long as he has lived at home.” Dino’s connection to Hong Kong is linked to his many years teaching Creative Writing at The University of Hong Kong. He met his partner Simon in Hong Kong. He blogs for the Asia Literary Review. His plays have been staged in Hong Kong (as well as London).

The Hong Kong poems in Tutti Frutti brim with empathy. In “Songbird Rides the MTR,” the narrator observes an old man with his bird in a bamboo cage on the subway. The bird is “Nerve on a perch,” its “red bill glued shut, seed heart bursting.” In a park, this “tiny troubadour twitches into life, // its pent up silvery song trilling through bars, /scaling up past banks of grumbling air-conditioners / to where raptors soar on towering updrafts.” The portrait of the bird could be a portrait of so many people who inhabit the steel and glass canyons of Hong Kong.

In his sensuous, sensual and empathic portrait of a Hong Kong merchant seaman, “Aberdeen Street,” Mahoney’s poet’s eye follows the seaman up “the steep gradient of his street,” past “stalls loaded / with pomelo, pak choi, bitter melon; / shops stocked with jars of fungi, penis / horn; the spiky salt tang of dried fish / following him like the call of the sea / till finally, up creaking flights of stairs / he rises to the curtained space of home.” The seaman, “[o]n his bunk bed, face to the wall,” “hears his father make those noises, /mother creeping off to wash herself. / He pings the plane’s propellers, / rubs the metal key, the stiffness / in his shorts.”

Among the many compelling love poems which both celebrate and criticise are those about Dino Mahoney’s mother. In the title poem, “Tutti Frutti,” the narrator plays “her records, / big brittle discs slid out with a hiss / Tutti frutti, oh rutti.” His mother and her workmate-friend “jive by the cooker, / dad reading the paper, // mum spinning like a top.” Later the young narrator comes home from school to find, “on their afternoon off, / in bed, sun shining in stripes // on naked duplicated breasts. / And when they come down,” his mother “spins a Little Richard, jives with little me.”

In “Riri,” the boy and his mother pass a man on the street, dressed in, “silk scarf, blue-rinse, cream trousers.” The boy’s mother gives his hand “a secret squeeze, / ‘Riri’ she sneers, a name they call them / back home, where it all began.” The “Riri” is caught watching tennis players, “looking at their legs,” the mother hisses and the narrator boils “with shame.” The mother’s contradictions are exposed.

Mahoney recalls his aunts and his father with more humour and tenderness. In “Aunt Aphrodite,” the narrator recalls that during his aunt’s visit, “Mum’s silver spoons start disappearing. / ‘She’s stuffing them down her drawers,’ dad says; /… I say, ‘She doesn’t wear any.'”

In “The Consolation of Art,” the narrator pushes his father in a wheelchair through a gallery, “up the royal road of art, … / On either side, crucified Christs / twist this way and that, / in postures of serene agony. // We pause, Mid-Victorian, … / rivers of volcanic lava, cascading boulders, / seismic chasm, bishops, courtiers, kings // plunging headlong into hell; he stares up at the cinematic cataclysm.”

Finally, grateful to have finished the gallery, the narrator wheels his father into the gift shop where he buys him “a print of a dissolving sunrise” and takes him home. Many of the poems in this collection express such powerful emotions with similar understatement.

It is fitting that Mahoney, who has travelled widely and resided in several countries has written a tribute to gay Egyptian poet, C.P. Cavafy, who is famous for his poem about exile, “The City,” which asserts “You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore. / This city will always pursue you. / You’ll walk the same streets, grow old/ in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses. / You’ll always end up in this city.”

In his tribute to Cavafy, “The Alexandrian,” Mahoney praises the poet and his humility and courage:

Careless of fame and publication,
ducking censure and tradition,
without fuss, shame inhibition,
abandons English, convention, rhyme,
writes free iambic, classic, demotic,
Hellenic, syllabic, homoerotic,
passes to a few discerning friends,
hand-written poems fastened with a pin,
history made flesh, memory revived,
a marble korus opens living eyes.

There are several poems in the collection which could be seen as Mahoney’s love poems to a younger self. In one of these, “Curfew,” a young man returns to the family home, “Head spinning with hormones and booze, / snogged mouth tingling, // cheeks glowing with beard-burn, / late home, he creeps up unlit stairs. // A floorboard groans—geese of Rome. / Freezes. // Heart pounds … A flash of striped pyjamas, / knuckles crack his face. // As the boy wreaks his room, / IT’S HIS FATHER’S FACE HE’S SMASHING IN!”

Tutti Frutti includes seven love poems to Mahoney’s daughter. “After Access” and “His Values” are moving accounts of the narrator’s loss of his daughter following divorce from her mother. However, “Swing” is the most poignant and evocative of this group of poems. Written in short lines of between one and three words, the rhythm of a swing and a father’s heart pumping with love for his little girl build until the startling, tragic ending: “In a garden / on a hill / metal frame / creaking chains / wide-eyed / stiff-legged / a little girl / swinging / daddy pushing / singing / a swing-song / in grandma’s / native sing-song … she flies from him/soaring over / roof tops / palm trees / … slicing back /… hair flying / toes rising / higher / faster / harder / chains kink /set twists / smashes back / empty, hard / into his face.”

Mahoney’s command of satire is clear in his award winning poem, “Dr. Mirabilis and the Brass Wall That Will Save England,” which won the 2017 British Poetry Society Stanza Competition.

In it, a fool is tasked by his female leader to find Roger Bacon, known as “Dr. Mirabilis” to “Save England” from foreigners: “Forth he bumbles, north to distant shires, / home to freckled Vikings / and offspring of the Commonwealth.”  Whether the poem has a happy ending or not depends on a reader’s opinion of Brexit.

The last poem of the collection is also a love poem. Like several in this collection in which the poet responds to a stranger with compassion—”African Icarus” is a portrait of a young man who falls to his death from a plane: “‘Male, black, early twenties, hoody, jeans / trainers, mobile phone, tissue in both ears.'” The narrator and his partner, “were still in bed as his Boeing / tumbled overhead, heard a terrific bang / and when [they] looked out, /there he was face down, blind drunk / is what we first thought till we saw / the blood pumping out from under him. // Young, fit, he might have survived / the starved air in the wheel-well / the bone-biting cold, been awake / as the undercarriage yawned open / over the broad looping Thames … // Looking for a better life, they said / and he might have found one / had he landed on his feet, / we would have welcomed him,/ given him something to eat.”

Tutti Frutti is very worth reading, for the concentrated brevity of its beautifully lyrical poems and for their author’s passionate and compassionate response to life.

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Kate Rogers‘ poetry is forthcoming in Elsewhere: a Journal of Place and Catherines, the Great (Oolichan). She was shortlisted for the 2017 Montreal International Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Twin Cities: An Anthology of Twin Cinema from Singapore and Hong KongJuniperOfZoosThe GuardianAsia Literary ReviewMorelThe Goose: A journal of ArtsEnvironment and CultureKyoto Journal and ASIATIC: International Islamic University of Malaysia. Kate’s poetry collection, Out of Place (Aeolus House –Quattro Books) debuted in Toronto, Hong Kong and at the Singapore Writers Festival between July and November 2017. 

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