Poetry Ireland

Poetry Ireland

Poetry Ireland is one of those increasingly rare things, a magazine with a distinctive local voice, where the richness of language and an exuberant delight in literary echoes could have hardly come from anywhere else.  With that identity comes limitations, of course. So similar are the poems by the 16 contributors to Issue 30 – discursive, depicting with almost eidetic precision what the eye takes in of the contemporary Irish scene – that they could all emanate from the same pen.

Poetry Ireland is dedicated to serving poetry throughout Ireland, and sponsors publications, readings, education and poetry. The poems published on the website today tend to be somewhat discursive, but not prosy: the lines have individual shape and employ a diction rich with literary echoes. When poems fail, the common reasons are language whose exuberance serves no end beyond itself, endings with an unearned portentousness, and description that illustrates rather than explores what might be worth saying. Most are clearly written for the Irish voice, however, and should come over splendidly in performance.

In summary: Poetry Ireland provides generous selections from established and up and coming Irish poets, adds perceptive essays and reviews, and ensures variety by changing its editors regularly. Webpage typesetting is currently a problem: typos, many sections set out in continuous fashion what were probably individual lines (I’ve had to guess at some of these in the snippets below), and a Gaelic my browsers did not render  correctly. The usual notes on contributors seem to be missing.
First the Irish scene: Differential Calculus by Robert Greacen, which can be read at: http://www.poetryireland.ie/publications/pir-archive/index.php?area=item&id=4253

It’s a mischievous and accomplished piece, which uses much of the short-story teller’s techniques, opening with an arresting proposition:

‘A genius’, Miss Gill said of her brother Theodore,
‘His great love is the Differential Calculus.’

Then comes the setting:

Miss Gill lived in a house two doors from us.
Plaster flakes snowed down on the cats

Miss Gill’s social position, so important in small town Ireland:

People said she had means, was almost ‘quality’
Acres in County Down, shares in Imperial Tobacco.

But not all agree:

A caulker who had met Theodore was not impressed:
‘Chalk-faced, weak-chinned, half-daft’, he said.

Who is put in his place.

Mother thought it mere envy of a gentleman.

But the brilliant Theodore unfortunately sets fire to the cottage and kills himself. With gentlewoman forebearance, Miss Gill leaves for unknown destinations with cats and stock:

Some said she had gone to cousins in New Zealand,
Others to a mental home, her slate of memory wiped clean.

No doubt that comes from having ideas above one’s station:

For weeks I pondered the words ‘Differential Calculus’,

And the new owner is much more sensible:

A fruiterer took over, fumigated the house,
Kept pigeons in the back yard.

Now some of the richness of language: The Adventures of a Tom Cat by Mick Doyle at: http://www.poetryireland.ie/publications/pir-archive/index.php?area=item&id=4145

Oh my shiftless, corner Tom cat, born of virtue, stretching and scratching, ginger in the midday sun.

Hard scrap-scarred and blaze of eyes already dimming, you tell tall tales to idle corner bums of secrets sought and learned, of giant deeds seen and done.

And so it continues, an affectionate tribute to the redoutable warror carried by an easy rhythm:

Of lands where dishwashers drink champagne and glasiers at hotel tables chew and swallow glass, where mountain caps are lost in clouds and emerald vines slope steeply down to famous rivers, where you carried guns for conquering armies of men with oak and ochre skin.

A cat about which the poet has few illusions, however. The poem ends:

Or the pain, when you think of your green eyed mermaid, you bed warm woman.
Oh, be honest, Tom cat, be honest, if only to yourself.

Politics is a dangerous subject in Ireland (as indeed here in Chile) and in Credo Mary O’Malley has stopped short of exploring the reasons for the egregious human rights abuses in El Salvador (i.e. the US funding and training) and simply identified with the victims as a woman and a mother. The poem is here:

Few want political rant in poetry, and one can argue the poem gains by simply concentrating on the gross inhumanity of these abuses. But the poem in fact sets out to do more. It forges a bond from the opening lines:

There is a risk
That every consideration of silk,
Each velvet hush between lovers
Is stolen from other women.

And makes that specific:

That consenting acts of love
Are only enjoyed
Over the staked thighs
Of the unsaved women of EI Salvador.

And horrific:

That I have no right
To claim kinship with war women,
Their ripe bellies slit like melons

What’s to be done with such barbarity? Nurture humanity in her children, suggests the narrator:

But while I am yet free
To observe the rights of womanhood
I will relish and preserve
The sigh, the sway, the night caress
Yes, and the dignity of my children.

And in husband/ lover:

I will anoint my wrists with scent,
Fold fine sheets, hoard
Sheer stockings and grow a red rose.

Indeed in everyone:

   for I believe
In the resurrection of the damned.

But is it enough? Will womanly beauty counter the male lust for power?

To meet you rising to your power
Like a crocus in the snow.

There the poem ends: a brave statement but not wholly convincing, I’d suggest.

From those vexing questions we turn to something much more conventional, a sonnet entitled The Test of the Bow by Thomas B. O’Grady at:

Or almost sonnet: the rhyme scheme is a b c d a d b (c) e a f  e f a. There are problems with lines 7-8:

The walls skirts quivered for the first strong cut,
The larksome thrill of severed air.

But the cadences show the old forms are not entirely dead in contemporary poetry. The opening and concluding lines:

Before he faced the suitors in the hall
He proved himself by plucking high-strung gut
Until it hummed a single note.

Brash bodies moved, then shoved to fill the floor.
He proved himself the master of them all.

And since we are in the classical world, we should note that not all poems are set in Ireland. Here’s John Millet’s The Alcoholic in a Bar Room Mirror (http://www.poetryireland.ie/publications/pir-archive/index.php?area=item&id=4348 )

The poem is not simply an unsentimental look at life’s flotsam, as the opening section may suggest:

Clyde Bauer draws the picture of a bar room at 10 PM, almost deserted, at the wrong end of downtown Sydney.
An old man sits on a stool.

But is telling a story:

There are two people – 1953 –
One, a female migrant from a camp Dachau, Buchenwald, Niedenhagen, Gusen.
She is thin from tortures she witnessed, still feels them in small capillaries
at the end of medical experiments. A brother. A father she will not remember again.

There are more hints of those harrowing years:

She died a long time ago,
took with her Auschwitz, smells of fear, oven smoke.

When the numbers on her arm were added up they came to two and half million.

But the poem – unlike Credo above – is how we cope with the experience, from the opening:

A barman with a German accent
polishes the empty world in a whiskey glass, measures the amnesia left in a gin bottle, counts silver coins as if they were time. shines the mirror that reflects life as it is.

To the closing section, with its magnificent last line:

It is closing time. The lights on the mirror switch off. The old man
follows the memories of bomber squadrons into the streets.
Later he shuts the door to a small apartment,
draws blinds on a window
to stop the nightsky straying into the bedroom.
The barman turns the key on his own life softly, so that no one will hear.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *