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Roots, Rhythms & Revelations – Grace Wells on her Writing Practice

Grace Wells - Dedalus Press

Passionate, courageous, incisive, inspiring – poet and fiction writer Grace Wells answers our occasional 7 Questions on Poetry, and gets to the heart of what really matters in the writing life.

1. How/when did you start to write? Did poems precede prose or vice versa?

In my study I have a very endearing black and white photograph of myself aged four, earnestly grasping a pencil as I learn the alphabet. It lets me feel that I’m meant to write and that I have always been doing this, which I haven’t. From the earliest age, I wanted to write. As a child I made up stories for my siblings from playing cards, sending the kings, queens and jacks off on rather mundane adventures. I kept secretive diaries, and in school I wrote and directed plays. At thirteen I conceived a very poor dramatisation of Cluedo, and gave myself the part of Miss Scarlet—an archetypal blonde siren in a red dress, which I wasn’t but wished to be.

Writing was always in me but it wasn’t encouraged; I was supposed to get a proper job. My writer was forced underground until she percolated up again in my early twenties, swelling a murky pool of juvenilia, both poetry and prose. The two forms coexist in me like demanding twins. Both vie for my attention, but for the most part poems come as fleeting apparitions, rather as a badger or fox will suddenly run through your headlights at night, or an owl will miraculously wing overhead. Then the actual crafting of poetry is a bit like bonsai gardening, going in with minute scissors, pruning, shaping, clipping. Prose, in contrast, is gargantuan. It’s like carving the Bamyan buddahs, or a temple in a rock face in Persia. Several times I’ve had the experience of spending years chipping away at a longer work only to stand back and see that rather than temple pillars, I’ve carved a mill-stone around my neck.

So poems with their light touch and their sense of apparition, are always blessings for me—fleeting and enlivening love affairs, while prose is the hard work of a marriage full of irritations that must be continuously transmuted into love.

Several times I’ve had the experience of spending years chipping away at a longer work only to stand back and see that rather than temple pillars, I’ve carved a mill-stone around my neck.

2. What’s your process of writing? Do you have a favourite time/place/practice?

I write by hand which fewer people do now. When we tell one another we write, our hands usually make a gesture. Most people air-type at an invisible keyboard which has me frowning. The rhythms of the keyboard are the zippy connections of the mind’s fastest neurons. They tend to show-off, to shriek, Look at me! But the rhythm of hand-writing flows through wrist, arm, chest, heart, breath. I find it more authentic, organic, ancient.

I have iron habits and quirks. Spiral-bound notebook, thick-enough paper, biro devoid of branding or slogan. I turn off the phone, become unreachable. Growl at unexpected visitors. If I’m on a residency I tend to drape scarves over the paintings I don’t like, and heft leaden furniture around until I’m satisfied that everything is just so. I like to position the desk by a window. If the desk-top is glass it becomes a camera obscura, birds drift across its screen. I like to look up, take in the outdoor world like a gulp of air, and then go back down into words.

At home its more haphazard, phrases and ideas come when they will: when I’m stepping out of the shower, or doing something domestic, or when I wake in the night, so I have pens everywhere, and my notebooks rove around like gypsies. But mostly I sit in my study at a rather blocky pitch-pine desk that my writer-friend A.S. King gave me before she left Ireland seventeen years ago. Its wood holds the memory of our young lives, and all of the stories that have happened to us since, so it’s very precious to me. It’s slightly hideous and Germanic, and might have been made by a gentle troll deep in the Black Forrest. I’ve written at it in many houses and under all kinds of duress, and its wide, solid top has been both a high-sea of adventure and a very safe space, a real shelter. At the moment it looks out into silvery-green willow trees. I watch their first buds open, their last leaves fall. I like that slow clock. And in contrast, there’s a fast-flowing stream behind my house, so I work within the sound and auspice of running water. 

I hole up in my study for hours, and then escape outside. I’ll walk off with my notebook and write from the real world. It’s much easier to work with genius loci when you can actually see the features of a place, and watch how the light moves over each small detail. The actual is more intricate than the imagined and remembered. I like that accuracy. And I simply love being in the wild. Writing from within nature resources me, I’m befriended by root and tendril, nourished by the jerky little flutters of songbirds, soothed by the uncurling spirals of ferns in spring, and chilled by winter’s dark lattice of bare branches. It’s easier to chronicle the colour and behaviours of ocean waves when they are in front of you, affecting you, and it’s easier to write about your emotions by letting them speak through seen images and metaphor.

When you bring a nature-slowed eye back into the urban world, the built environment teems, you see the antediluvian lintels and paving-stones, the Bangor blue slates quarried in Wales, the green post-box bearing the initials of a long-dead queen, the dark crow that lands on it and caws alerting you to starlings chattering within a small forest of metal spikes designed to prevent birds from roosting. Brick and plaster and the way nature co-exist with us, offer up a ripe harvest. So I note things down and bring my bag of swag back to my troll-built desk, and tip everything out, and shape something.

I believe in the innate rhythms of voice. We don’t really have a word for that besides voice, but its our jazz, our soul-sound, our gift, our pace.

Grace Wells

3. How important is the sound/music of what you’re writing? How much, if at all, are you guided by ‘received forms’?

The musicality within a poem is vital to me, but not in the conventional sense. I know my limitations. I can change a tyre, unblock a U-bend, sew curtains, but I can’t tile a bathroom any more than I can successfully work with metre. I just don’t have the ears for it. But I believe in the innate rhythms of voice. We don’t really have a word for that besides voice, but its our jazz, our soul-sound, our gift, our pace.

So I read my lyrics aloud, listen to how they sound on my tongue, sense how they feel in my body. After recording the Jeeves books, Simon Callow said that Wodehouse’s prose ‘is like singing Mozart: the perfection of his phrasing is a physical pleasure’. Wodehouse wasn’t working within a ‘received form’, he was simply putting words to his own syncopation. Reading those phrases conducted Callow into an embodied experience of Wodehouse’s innate pulse. That’s the rhythm that interests me. One of the great joys of being a poet, is that you get to spend time with a broad range of differing syncopations, from spoken-word ebullients, to restrained academics, and voice-breaking novices just finding their tempo. Helping people to find their voice has been a large part of my life.

But for my own practice, the root of poetic rhythm rises out of stillness: the white spaces between stanzas. The in-breath where we absorb and process what we’ve just read. So much of a poem’s power stems from its pauses, the timing and reveals that tug us on towards a certain visceral response. Poetry is like masterful puppetry. And much of what animates its effect, is breath and pause.

Our current lives are so fast and stressful, if we’re not alert to that, we breathe in a shallow way and operate from a sympathetic-nervous-system in over-drive—completely disconnected from our powerful natural rhythms. But when poetry is read aloud, it can soothe our nerves, lengthen our breath, lower our blood-presssure, calm our heart-rate, and bring us back into the rejuvenating territory of our own stillness. Metre achieves that, but paced breath does too, so that’s what I’m exploring on one level.

But as someone who predominantly writes and thinks about nature and our environmental crisis, there is a further layer to this for me. When we speak or recite, we speak on the out-breath having first drawn in the fine threads of this earth—our planet’s embroidered atmosphere. As writers it’s time to be very conscious of that, to be aware of how our every spoken word is dependent on our living planet. I’ve had the luck to live close to nature and to see the myriad intricate behaviours of fur and feather, bud and blossom. In her health, nature creates the most exquisite patterns and form, music and cycles, and my work is often a dim tribute to that, an attempt to stand within her rhythms and see how they resonate within my writing.

I’d like to think that the more we reconnect to earth-culture, the more likely we are to re-sacralise nature, and truly address the calamity of losing her myriad manifestations and intelligences. So my quest is to write from within that extraordinary matrix. To offer up something that is both full of grief and celebratory wonder, because that is the rhythm of now, the waltz of sorrow and praise that we are all caught up in.

Ted Hughes once said that as an imaginative writer his only capitol was his own life. Forty years on, in a fragmenting world, where all nature’s small threads are unraveling, my only capitol is my creative response to the disintegrating rhythms of the natural world. And I have to trust that staying true to that, will in turn offer something to my reader, their breath, their stillness, their somatic pleasure.

4. At what point do you start thinking in terms of writing a book rather than just writing individual poems?

There are so many ways to write a book of poems. I tend to collect up a body of about sixty poems and see what narratives and themes have constellated, and weigh up what’s good enough to go in. It’s kind of like that old children’s riddle: which is heavier, a tonne of lead or a tonne of feathers? A mathematical mind sees they weigh the same. A poet will experience the feathers as lighter. But when it comes to putting our collections together, we have to be mathematical and know the scruples of each lyric. If a poem is too light, it’s forgettable. It can’t stand up to multiple readings.

Poems can only go into a collection if they weigh enough. Unfortunately for me only three or four really good poems come along each year. So I’m very slow to think about forming a collection. But I’m okay with that. I’d rather wait. I don’t want to publish goose down. I’m looking for swan feather and peacock plume.

5. Who are a couple of your favourite poets (in terms of inspiration) and why?

I love Paula Meehan for her candour and poise, her combination of raw honesty and beguiling expression. And Pattianne Rogers for her capacity to write about nature in a way that even nature would stand in awe of. She weaves thick, intricate poems, dense with flora and fauna. And in contrast I love Mark Roper for his capacity to do the opposite, to simply open one natural detail and marry it to an unforgettable idea. I treasure Michael Coady of Carrick-on-Suir, and Thomas Lynch of Moveen for how they’ve taught me to look at place. I love the cool Northern poets, Olav Hauge and Tomas Tranströmer, for their snow light and fjord thinking. I’m indebted to Rumi and Hafiz for their poetry of devotion, and to James Harpur for keeping a spiritual flame alive within the modern word. I value Thomas McCarthy for his incredible mind, his passion for encouraging young writers, and his capacity to utilize social media as a space for fascinating contributions. I could go on. Rachel Hegarty, Sinead Morrissey, Eileen Sheehan. So many poets to praise and be grateful for.

6. How important are journals and magazines in getting a sense of how new poems are working or failing to work?

It’s live audiences who are my most useful gauge as to whether a poem is working or not. When people are moved by work they queue to tell you. If someone comes up to me with tears in their eyes, I know I’ve achieved something. If I’m really on form at a reading there’s a perceptible silence in the room, there isn’t a chair creak, or shuffle. To create that for even a moment is a privilege.

And radio is really important for me too. The postman sometimes brings me these notes from people I’ve never met, who’ve reached out to me through RTÉ or my publisher, thanking me for a poem or piece of prose they’ve heard on the radio. I’m touched that I’ve compelled someone to sit down, and write their thoughts on a card, and spend good money on a stamp, and walk to a postbox. That spidery, handwritten praise is treasure to me.

The truth is, the way I measure the ‘success’ of a poem has changed. For years I promoted the journals and maintained subscriptions to a good number of them, even through the leanest of times. I used to love ‘The Shop’, which was full of fine poems. It was a real loss when it ended. And I’ve always scolded students and mentees if they weren’t subscribing to poetry magazines. How dare they not! Journals are the life-blood of this art-form. But for too many years I had to work all the hours God sent, I was raising my kids, putting them through college, teaching and mentoring at the coal-face of the poetry world, getting swamped by other people’s output, and having less and less oxygen for my own work. I didn’t have time to even glimpse at the journals. They stacked up by my bed unread.

And then when I did have the luxury of time for a bath, and remembered to take a journal with me, I often didn’t like the poems I was reading. Either I wasn’t grabbed emotionally, or the poems weren’t reflecting the state of our world and the depth of our environmental crisis. My taste just isn’t congruous with most of the editors of the day. There have been some really good environmental journals like The Curlew, Earthlines and Dark Mountain, which I’ve been proud to be in, but I resent how for the last thirty years, the mainstream journals have ignored the earth’s crisis, and not found it necessary to place themselves in the centre of a creative response to our precarious situation.

I’ve always scolded students and mentees if they weren’t subscribing to poetry magazines. How dare they not! Journals are the life-blood of this art-form.

Poets and poetry could have been the fulcrum of all the social and environmental changes that needed to happen. But we haven’t been. We took the wrong fork in the woods and followed the commercial-travellers down a well-trodden path, only for our art-form to get lost in the glitz of festivals, and lost in the house of mirrors that is social media and self-promotion. At the first whiff of hubris, I keel over like a canary in a cage down a mine and lose all interest. I fear that in the cacophony of our own trumpet-blowing, we are making ourselves ludicrously irrelevant, and are doing a massive disservice to poetry.

So I’m very wary about what I read. It’s important that I read for pleasure and nurture. My poetic muse is delicate; I’m careful to only feed it work that enlivens me, so I take word-of-mouth recommendations from Lani O’Hanlon, Fergus Hogan and Keith Payne, poet-friends that I trust, and I dive into their suggestions happily, hungrily. I’ll review work if I’m invited, and if I find it stimulating. But I rarely risk the journals now. In these challenging days we all need to know our places of sanctuary. If I’m happier with a seed catalogue than a poetry magazine, well that’s my sorry truth. Adrienne Rich said ‘there are times when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die’. It’s important I protect my poetic impulse, don’t numb it with deadening work, and continue to seek out poetry that enlivens and restores.

7. If you had one piece of advice to give to young or beginning poets, what would it be?

Coincidentally both the youngest writer I know, Molly Twomey, and the oldest writer I know, Dervla Murphy, come from Lismore, Co Waterford. Murphy is now eighty-seven. She began writing at thirty when she cycled to India. She has the most amazing courage, tenacity, force of will, and resilience of any person I have ever met. These are the qualities that every writer needs. Murphy appears to have them innately, but the rest of us have to grow these qualities and teach ourselves endurance.

For all the previous years of my life I would have answered this question very differently. For decades I poured absolute enthusiasm over every young, or emerging writer, that I met, urging them on into this profession. But I can’t do that anymore. Asked to offer one piece of advice to Molly Twomey, and I feel frozen, tight-lipped. I still sincerely believe that every writer must write. It is necessity. Being a writer is like having a mental illness, if we’re writing, we’re ok. If we haven’t time for our work, we’ll be somewhere on a spectrum between catatonia and mania. So we have to write. But would I send another beautiful, young person into this circus? No. I have seen too many writers crash and burn, their bright trajectories shot down by the unkindness of publishing and the generally inclement conditions of the writing world. It is too harsh out there for me to actively encourage anyone into this realm.

And as right-wing and neo-liberal politics gain more ground, it is going to be harder than ever to be poor— and most artists are poor, we scrabble around like elegant, cathedral mice seeking crumbs beneath the altar-cloth of capitalism.

Grace Wells

And things are going to get harsher. These are serious times, we are in an environmental tailspin that may not be reversed. And as right-wing and neo-liberal politics gain more ground, it is going to be harder than ever to be poor— and most artists are poor, we scrabble around like elegant, cathedral mice seeking crumbs beneath the altar-cloth of capitalism.

Oscar Wilde said that when bankers get together they talk about art, and when artists get together they talk about money. We do; the lack of it, and the myriad problematical ways that lack manifests. And if we do have money, then we are likely to be time-poor without the quiet to work. All writers bear the wounds of that time-versus-money war. And though there are publishing contracts, competition wins, arts grants, and funding opportunities out there, they are usually chimeric what-ifs dangled in front of our eyes like carrots we rarely ever reach. If we do suddenly find ourselves with one of these lucky-tickets in our hand, it is likely to only avert yet another financial-crisis, and go towards paying bills that have amassed like sand-dunes around our small cove.

To write with any comfort, a young writer is going to need a trust-fund, or a patron, or a partner with a proper job, or a parent with some cash, but even with those supports, they will still be in and out of the dole-office cap in hand. And all of this will be just a little shaming, so it will be hard for them to hold their head high. All my advice now is going to sound like a dire warning: there probably won’t be holidays, or health-insurance, or a pension, and you are likely to have holes in your clothes, your shoes, your teeth and your roof, and this lack will drone on like the sound of a poignant violin, or a dirge that you won’t be able to block your ears against. Struggle and bitterness and your own sense of failure, will clack at your heels like shadows to be eternally fought against, knight-like as St George with his dragon, sword-arm perpetually raised.

And the worst part of all this is, that these material and psychological challenges will co-exist while you are grappling with the unconscious, the half-hatched, the just out of reach phrases and ideas that you are desperately trying to make concrete. Your writing will be impacted by your circumstances, and you will not quite create what you meant to, not quite fulfill your potential. But nonetheless you will offer what you can, bringing your finished poems and stories to the table like someone arriving at a pot-luck dinner with a pie whose pastry is just a little undercooked. You will offer it anyway and everyone will be very nice about it, but you’ll know in your heart your work could have been so much better.

And all of this will have ramifications and consequences for the people close to you. Your partner. Your children. And your parents—who will always be worrying for you and trying to rescue you from what they consider your folly, so you will need to be very determined, and ruthless as a card-shark, in order to bring all of these other people along with you on this uncomfortable ride. You will paradoxically need to have skin thick as elephant hide to ignore the impacts on your loved ones, and to withstand the constant arrows of rejection, and the barbs of bad reviews that keep coming, while you’ll simultaneously need to keep your pores open and gossamer-sensitive enough to write anything worthwhile.

And all of this will impact your mental health. So what one thing might I say to a bright, hopeful new writer of any age daring to enter this melodrama? For your mental health, you must write, and for your sanity you must defend yourself against the worst failings of this industry so you are not defeated by the obsessive competition and clamour for success that fuels this industry and divides writers from one another. Instead you must strengthen your writing-friendships, build peer-support, and only engage with structures that deepen your feelings of mutuality with other writers.

But having given that warning, I still have to say, write. Though your glass is always going to be half-full of money-worries, professional jealousy, insecurity and self-doubt, it will also be half-full of creativity, contemplation, observation, mystery and meaning. The prevailing wind of lack is also your updraft of freedom. However austere things become, you have to keep viewing your days as the most marvelous adventure. And your words will bring you to wonderful places and incredible people. So make it easy for yourself, buy nice notebooks, good pens, lure yourself on with enticing sugar-lumps of one sort or another. Catch your brain the minute it starts moaning and whimpering about how hard this all is, stop those thoughts, pick up your pen and push on as if you were Dervla Murphy cycling to India.

Remind yourself daily that the reason you write is not because you want success or fame, or even to earn a living from this patchwork profession, but because this is who and what you are, a writer prepared to face into the cycling alphabet of storms that are going to keep blasting our shores, while you courageously write into their gale, a silver river of words brooking your lips, and flowing on, moon-bathed through the dark.

Grace Wells has published two collections of poetry with The Dedalus Press, When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things and Fur.

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The Arts as Anchor

Chandrika Narayanan-Mohan, one of the contributors to Writing Home: The ‘New Irish’ Poets, on home, belonging and the writing life - Writing Home

Chandrika Narayanan-Mohan, one of the contributors to Writing Home: The ‘New Irish’ Poets, considers home, belonging and the writing life

I had found an aerial shot of Dublin on Google, laid out like an intricate carpet, glowing under the rise of a morning sun; the Liffey a sapphire artery, trees and parks peeking out amongst the low buildings, lush and rain-fresh, and the stretch of sea a long sigh past the Poolbeg Towers, with Howth rising sleepily from the bay in the distance. I remember my chest loosening and the rush of relief that swept across my body. I remember thinking that I could fall in love with this city; it looked like somewhere that could be a home.

I had moved to Dublin in September 2012 after Theresa May’s immigration policies forced me out of the UK, the place I had called home for 7 years. I had to leave my friends, my partner, and the life that I had built; I moved to Dublin to start an MA at UCD where I was lucky enough to be accepted at such short notice. Before arriving, I looked up local events and began booking tickets and making plans so I could dive into a new life as soon as I arrived. I didn’t allow myself to grieve for the life I had lost – Dublin somehow felt right, and to cope, I let myself get swept up in it.

Within a week, I had gotten myself a gig as a contributing writer for LeCool Dublin, after religiously following their London edition for years. Every article of mine that they published helped validate me as someone who belonged here, who knew the scene, the streets, the performers, someone with a finger on the pulse. This was the person I had been before, and this was how I would fast-track a sense of belonging – nobody would guess that I was new here if I already had this under my belt. My knowledge of arts events in the city would be my weapon, my shield, and my armour against being the outsider that I knew I was. Writing about Dublin would make me a Dubliner, I had decided. I would write about the home I didn’t have yet, and pretend it was mine.

‘Home is wherever my underwear drawer is,’ I joked to my friends, knowing that there was no teenage bedroom to return to, or attic full of memories

Chandrika Narayanan-Mohan

As the daughter of a diplomat, home has always been a temporary concept for me. ‘Home is wherever my underwear drawer is,’ I joked to my friends, knowing that there was no teenage bedroom to return to, or attic full of memories. With all my childhood belongings in a storage unit in Blanchardstown, I knew home was a state of mind. It had to be, otherwise, people like me would be adrift forever.

So over the years, I used the arts as an anchor. I absorbed Irish history and culture through theatre, poetry, exhibitions, and cabaret. Buoyed by cultural events and supportive artistic communities, I put myself in front of a microphone for the first time in my life. I discovered I had the ability to tell stories off the cuff, and years later, I realised that I could also perform my poetry, as well as write it. I had written for as long as I can remember, but Dublin had lifted my abilities up to a new level. I lovingly mapped out the Northside in poem after poem, raising her up and praising her in all her sticky glory, in all her cigarette butts, and in the sweetest of mountain-glimpses.

I made Ireland permanent on paper, because I couldn’t make her permanent in my passport.

Living in my studio flat, in a building where white mould grew out of the walls and furred into the air, I claimed the city as my own through writing, gripping tightly to her, terrified of everything that could be taken away from me with the flick of an immigration official’s pen. After almost having to leave twice, rejected permits, unhappy jobs, damaging relationships, and all of my non-EU friends leaving one by one, I became severely depressed and suffered from horrific anxiety. And so, I clung onto Dublin as my friend, my family, and the love of my life instead. I wrote poems like ‘You City, You Boyfriend’. I made Ireland permanent on paper, because I couldn’t make her permanent in my passport.

That poem, and others, are now included in Writing Home: ‘The New Irish’ Poets, published by Dedalus Press, where 50 poets who have claimed Ireland as their home, have told their stories through poetry. It’s telling that out of my 5 poems chosen for the collection, one is about Brexit, two are about traveling across the Irish border, one is about the Irish coast, and one is a love letter to Dublin. These poems have grown from Irish soil and salt, from the blood meal of isolation from close friends and family, and a life in constant limbo. They have been honed by workshops, writing programmes, spoken word nights, and evenings shared with other poets and writers in their homes, or on their stages. They’ve been shaped by voices on both sides of the border, by those who have lived here all their lives, and those who like me, are far from the place where they were born.

These poems have grown from Irish soil and salt, from the blood meal of isolation from close friends and family, and a life in constant limbo.

But more than anything, my poems come from a constant urge to define and claim a home. My words strive to describe this life in Ireland in the manner of someone who belongs here, whilst knowing that otherness echoes around me, sits on the surface of my skin, and rings awkwardly through my mongrel accent. However, my intrinsic unbelonging is no longer something to defend myself against: I have instead turned it into a beating pulse; it is now the redness that flows through the veins of this life, and Ireland is the pen that has turned it into ink.

Chandrika Narayanan-Mohan is a Dublin-based arts manager and writer from India, who has also lived in North America, Sweden, Turkey, and the UK. She has been featured on The Moth and Mortified podcasts, with work aired on NPR and Irish radio, and regularly performs her poetry at literary and cabaret events in Dublin. In 2018 she was a participant in the Irish Writers Centre’s XBorders: Accord programme. She is among the 50 contributors to the Dedalus Press anthology, Writing Home: The ‘New Irish’ Poets (2019).

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Luminous Things – A Favourite Book

Favourite book, A book of Luminous Things, cover image

Poet Enda Wyley writes about her favourite book of poems

A Book of Luminous Things, Czeslaw Milosz’s anthology of international poetry, is one of my favourite books of poems. Inspiring in content, it succeeds as a collection of short poems personally chosen by Milosz, that range across time and continents, each introduced with a short, insightful comment by this master poet.

The book begins with a brilliant introduction. Milosz quotes Roethke, who spoke of ‘that dark world where gods have lost their way.’ This line sets Milosz off wondering if poetry can find the cures that science, theology and philosophy have ultimately failed to provide. Whether or not you agree with the view posed in this question, I have always found it uplifting that the poet’s conclusion is a resounding yes.

Since poetry deals with the singular, not the general, it cannot – if it is good poetry – look at things of this earth other than as colourful, variegated, and exciting, and so, it cannot reduce life, with all its pain, horror, suffering and ecstasy, to a unified tonality of boredom or complaint. By necessity poetry is therefore on the side of being and against nothingness.

This is a life-affirming book and appropriately starts with a section titled ‘Epiphany,’ which celebrates through poetry the privilege of the moment. There are the epiphanies of landscape which Czeslaw directs us to in the Japanese haiku – the opening samples both tiny flashes of brilliance.

Kikaku
1661- 1707

Above the boat,
bellies
of wild geese

– Translated from the Japanese by Lucen Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto

Issa
1763- 1827

From the bough
floating down river,
Insect song.

– Translated from the Japanese by Lucen Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto

Translation is important in this anthology and many of the poems chosen are translated jointly by Czeslaw Milosz and his friend and co-translator of his own poetry, the poet Robert Hass. Other translators include the poets Kenneth Rexroth and Jaan Kaplinski.

There is a refreshing sense of ‘now’ to these translations. Can anything peculiar happen when a man walks down a street and kicks a can? In their translation of Jean Follain’s poem ‘Music of Spheres,’ Hass and Milosz capture a moment which is simultaneously ordinary and profound.

He kicked the cylinder
of an old can
which for a few seconds rolled its cold emptiness
wobbled for a while and stopped
under a sky studded with stars.

Who would not want to wake to a poem such as this? There is nothing I love more than to open this anthology at random first thing in the morning and to begin my day by reading whatever poem the pages open on. I feel privileged to be connected on a daily basis with such fine poems – some by poets I had actually never heard of when I first encountered this anthology over two decades ago: Wislawa Szymborska, Jaan Kaplinski, Tomas Tranströmer, Jane Hirshfield, Anna Swir, W.S. Merwin, Zbigniew Herbert, Denise Levertov. I am indebted to Czeslaw Milosz for introducing these poets to me and have also always felt safe as a reader, guided by Milosz’s choice of their poems which he has sorted into sections with compelling titles such as ‘The Secret of a Thing,’ ‘People Among People’ and ‘Woman’s Skin.’

Enda Wyley on a favourite book, A Book of Luminous Things, edited by Czeslaw Milosz

Of these choices, Milosz writes that, ‘my anthology shows that I select mostly poems that express warm feelings.’ The word ‘mostly’ hits a chord for me, as there are poems in the book that have stayed with me precisely for their forbidding nature. ‘I Go Back to May 1937,’ is a poem by Sharon Olds which is cruel in its depiction of her parents standing in the late thirties ‘at the formal gates of their colleges.’ Olds wants to go up to them and warn them about the vile future that awaits them.

You are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of …

Instead, her parents become like paper dolls, which she wants to bang together and say to them, ‘Do what you are going to do, and I will tell you about it.’ Startling for her heinous portrayal of her parents’ life, Olds’s poem is far from ‘warm’ but nonetheless is powerful, driven as it is by passion and the bitter honesty of a daughter.  

There’s a poem by Tadeusz Rozewicz too, which once encountered cannot be forgotten, filled as it is with a desperate nihilism (as a young man he fought as a soldier in a guerrilla unit against the Nazis) but one which is also driven by a deep empathy for the human condition.

A Voice

They mutilate they torment each other
with silences and words
as if they had another
life to live …

– Translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz

But the majority of poems in this anthology are joyful, celebrating what Milosz calls ‘things-moments,’ which the poets capture, preserve and have made eternal.

It is to these moments that I turn to every morning. The sun’s up, coffee bubbles on the stove and on the kitchen table, my well-thumbed copy of A Book of Luminous Things, opens to a new enchantment.

***

Enda Wyley is a poet and children’s author. She has published five books of poetry with Dedalus Press, the most recent of which is The Painter on his Bike (2019). Her favourite book, A Book of Luminous Things, edited by Czeslaw Milosz was first published in 1998 and may be difficult to find but is currently listed on Amazon here.

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Fire And Snow And Carnevale by Macdara Woods

Macdara Woods by Pat Boran. Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the world

The late Macdara Woods recalls the genesis of his poem Fire And Snow And Carnevale, perhaps best known in its musical setting by Anúna, part of the original Riverdance project

 

Steering clear of mystique and mystification I would have to say that poems must be thematically congruent, however many variables insert themselves. Which is another way of saying that anything goes, so long as it goes along with everything else. A kind of controlled chaos.

Human interaction is like a street of busy motor traffic. a fluid series of accidents and collisions and explosions, that do not quite happen. Except that in poetical terms they do indeed happen, unnoticed for most of the time, leaving all the cab-drivers, pedestrians, cyclists wondering how they got to wherever they are. The poet, with luck, can identify some of the patterns, the forever unjoined dots, along the way.

My poem starts with Cold. Shrove Tuesday in Umbria, Lenten, and — because this belongs to all time — Seasonal period of abstinence coming up. My neighbour remarks: In winter fire is beautiful. I respond, It lights the cave. Which is as basic as it can get — all human history is contained in those four words, and after that the poem flows on its own narrative terms.

My son who has earlier gone to the local Carnevale, dressed as Zorro, is now returning from the Quest, like the Archetypal hero, in triumph, through the gothic darkness and danger.

And finally he finds me, sitting by the fire, allowing me to hear and feel momentarily the outside world he has travelled through. And, even though he has come safely home on this occasion, intimations of danger and harm remain in the pictures I see in the fire.

But then, again, in winter fire is beautiful not dangerous, and generous: like the phone-in Verdi, it keeps us warm and lights the cave. All I can add is what every parent has to in time: Go, go safely, and come back safe, and welcome home.

Within these parameters anything goes.

(Written: April 2nd 2016)


Fire And Snow And Carnevale

In winter fire is beautiful
beautiful like music
it lights the cave —
outside the people going home
drive slowly up the road — the strains
of phone-in Verdi on the radio
three hours back a fall of snow
sprinkled the furthest hill
where clouds have hung all winter

The day gets dark uneasy
dark and darker still
and you little son come home
riding the tail of the wind
in triumph — tall and almost ten
with confetti in your hair
home successful from the carnevale
with your two black swords
and your gold-handled knife

I feel the chill and hear
the absent sound of snow
when you come in —
white fantastic scorpions spit
in the fiery centre of the grate
plague pictures cauterised —
In winter fire is beautiful
and generous as music — may you
always come this safely home
in fire and snow and carnevale


For a reading of the poem by Macdara Woods visit YouTube.

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My Daughter in Winter Costume by Mary O’Donoghue

Mary O'Donoghue. Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the world

US-based Irish poet Mary O’Donoghue on the background to her villanelle, My Daughter in Winter Costume, included in the 2017 Dedalus Press anthology The Deep Heart’s Core (eds. Pat Boran & Eugene O’Connell)

 

I saw the sculpture ‘My Daughter in Winter Costume’ (1922) at the Boston Athenaeum Library in 2010, in the exhibition John Storrs: Machine-Age Modernist. This daughter had a stoutness that delightedly flouted modernism’s lean, rawboned lines. This daughter was robust, and in that she seemed safe, even though she stood quite alone on a plinth in the centre of a large room.

Her endearing rotundity — the confusion of where she began and ended — led me to the villanelle. I admire this form because though it mandates nineteen lines the return of those repeated lines means you might, if so moved, outrun the nineteen lines and never come back. It makes sense that the form has its possible origins in dance: the virelai, a category of French chanson depending, like the rondeau, on the tight whirl of rhyme and reprise. (I might also suggest the villanelle’s relationship to ‘Lanigan’s Ball’, where line steps out and line steps in again.)

The poem was written before I met my stepdaughter, Niamh. But a poem can, I suppose, lie in wait for its return. I caught up with it, and it with me, one morning when zipping Niamh into a sleeveless quilted jacket. This jacket, deeply red and flocked with pink flowers, belonged to another child. Her name is written in forbidding felt tip pen inside the collar: Lily. That the jacket was so fat, and that it had looked after the child of a dear friend, seemed as heartening as that chubby sculptural form on the plinth in Boston.
That jacket was much-loved and is now outgrown. The villanelle form is perhaps a net: all those lines shuttling back and forth in repetition, still trying for the same thing as the poem — which is to say, safety.


My Daughter in Winter Costume

after John Storr’s sculpture (1922)

She is sealed like a bomb in her anorak.
Her face is flushed fruit under the hood.
She’s already moving away. I want to call her back.

At nine in the morning the sky is blue-black.
I think of hard falls, split lips, her blood.
But she’s sealed like a bomb in her anorak,

and shouting to friends on the tarmac,
a yardful of children, a tide, a flood
already moving away. I want to call her back,

I’m faint, suddenly starved with the lack
of her, and determined that she should
know, all sealed like a bomb in her anorak.

Grip the wheel. Radio on. The yakety-yak
of today’s talking heads on How to Be Good.
The morning is moving away. I want to call her back.

This is what it’s like to be left slack,
the cord frayed like I knew it would.
She is sealed like a bomb in her anorak,
already moved away, and I can’t call her back.

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Metathesis by Enda Coyle-Greene

Enda Coyle-Greene. Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the world

Enda Coyle-Greene sketches the background to her poem ‘Metathesis’, included in the anthology The Deep Heart’s Core: Irish Poets Revisit a Touchstone Poem (Dedalus Press, 2017)


‘Metathesis’ began with a word I either didn’t know or had forgotten. Words are air to writers and it’s possible I’d absorbed this word in much the same way one breathes through someone else’s perfume in a crowd, or inhales a fug of over-roasted coffee beans while walking past a café. I may have parked it somewhere.

Poems are given to their makers in many ways, and, like most poets, I find it difficult to write ‘about’ a subject when challenged to do so. A poem has to offer me a way in and early drafts usually involve me looking for a door or even a window I can prise open. Poems are never given a pre-composition intellectual work-over.

All I had was a word, ‘metathesis’, and a feeling that keeping that word as a working title would affect the making or not making of the poem. I didn’t look the word up in my dictionary, at least not until I had a grip on what I was trying to do. Images began to surface — vivid, cinematic, and so ephemeral that I was almost afraid to reach out for them. Looking back now at the first of many early drafts, I’m surprised at how many elements from those first scribbled pages in a notebook — the rushing river, the trees, the weather — have survived into the final version.

As a rule, I try to keep myself out of the act of composition as much as possible; any poem I’ve ever over-thought at the outset has ended up filed away in a drawer with a stake driven through its lifeless heart. I had no intentions for ‘Metathesis’ except to try and grab some of those images and take them to the page.

Stephen Spender wrote: “Poetry is a balancing of unconscious and conscious forces in the mind of the poet, the source of the poetry being the unconscious, the control being provided by the conscious.” Examining those drafts now, I notice that I have numbered each hand-written line down to fourteen. This then is the point at which I must have started that balancing.

Catching a poem while it’s still out of reach is always the most terrifying part of the process. Too light a touch and it’s liable to get bogged down in abstraction, too heavy and it can be smothered. Once I move everything to the white screen, away from my handwriting, from my physical presence on the page and my imposition on the words, I pick up a trail and my instinct kicks in. That trail could be determined by the line breaks, the physical shape on the page, or by a single, ‘concrete’ image. It could be what I call the ‘axle’ word, the one around which the poem turns. It could be the rhyme, if there is one, or the form, again if there is one.

The British poet, Paul Farley has said that, ‘Engaging with form — any form — means there’s at least a chance that you’ll say something you weren’t going to say. Too much freedom gives you that rabbit-in-the-headlights thing.’ This is something with which I concur (and repeat so often that I am in danger of having it inscribed on my headstone). Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich have made similar comments. I’ve found that concentrating on the mechanics, so to speak, helps to take my mind away from any intentions I might have for long enough to allow the poem to come through. But I would write in form only if the poem demanded it.

As ‘Metathesis’ developed, I put the initial draft to one side. A second part was written; this rhymed, but with the end words set far apart, and an ‘eye rhyme’ towards the start, not loudly. What became the opening section of the triptych, unrhymed apart from the final couplet, came next. The initial draft I’d put aside ended up being the final part. I decided to experiment with rhyme patterns here to see what would happen. It surprised me by confirming ‘Metathesis’ as being the correct title for a poem concerned with the randomness of life — how a decision as seemingly quick and unfreighted with intent as simply moving one letter about in a word, for instance, can dictate the way in which a life is played out.

As for knowing when a poem is finished— well, I’m with Mr Yeats when he said that, “The correction of prose, because it has no fixed laws, is endless, a poem comes right with a click like a closing box.” I tend to keep going until I hear (or at least think I can hear) that ‘click.’

Even as part of a longer sequence, every poem has its own separate life while I’m working on it. Later, if it were to be placed between covers, I would hope that it should not only ‘click’ but talk to its neighbours. Like one of those vinyl records which, in pre-download days, we listened to all the way through from first track to last — albums written to be heard that way — a poem should be able to stand alone while keeping its place in the overall flow demanded by a book. The older I get, though, and the longer I’m writing, I’m finding that poems often arrive with their own unconsciously chosen place in that narrative already waiting.

But that’s another discussion altogether.


Metathesis

i

While she’s waiting for the lights to change
at City Hall, the storm begins; the wind
speeds the river, lifts dust, yet traffic holds
her captive on the pavement. Pulsating
at the red-to-green, the seconds counted-
out, her body’s dream-stuck lag behind her
ticking heels, the rush her heart’s dictating
to the slow, too slow of other people,
she at last steps off the street. Descended
to the car park’s underworld, on her knees
she tips her bag, finds keys, her ticket,
and becomes Persephone, reversing
fast into the dark — spinning on to where
she shouldn’t go, but has to, doesn’t care.

ii

She knows the story of Iris, rainbow
sent to a goddess with a god’s request —
an order really, it occurs to her
on the platform, the station almost empty,
a gape in the bird-flecked, seascape roof now
holding those seven curved colours, the rest
of the sky pale beyond the glass. Easter
Monday passes, cold as Persephone
who craved the warmth of red, orange, yellow —
the green, blue, indigo, violet, fast-
dyed by the tears of her goddess-mother;
the ground beneath her quaking, she can’t see
the train, still miles away, the ferrous dance
as track locks into track at its advance.

iii

Beyond the window’s skin, a scattered white,
the many weathers March defines as light,
all that’s left of the storm now its surface
of flotsam on the river she can’t hear.
Up-tumbled desperately from mud, it’s dragged
back to an underworld that’s mapped and snagged
in the hollow of her cup. Silted there,
are tea-leaf letters that she tilts, re-shapes
to other orders, different words, the three
attempts to change what she, Persephone,
can only know — bare trees that never felt
the rip and snap until it was too late,
that never had the chance to turn about
in seasons she has made, can’t live without.

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The Shipping Forecast

blurred harbour photo by Pat Boran - Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the world

In this short essay, reproduced from The Deep Heart’s Core, poet JOHN O’DONNELL revisits his poem ‘The Shipping Forecast’, among those included in Sunlight: New and Selected Poems (May 2018).


LIKE PROSPECTORS, poets are always anxious to know if what they’ve unearthed this time is the real thing. We make our marks and see how they compare; and there are so many other marks already, from others who for centuries have been panning for gold in the same seam.

Some poems, we know, are no more than fool’s gold, their brassy yellow quickly losing its glister, though sadly not always before they’ve made their way into print; it’s often difficult at the time of writing to tell.

It was Touchstone himself who said “the truest poetry is the most feigning”, in As You Like It, and, as a clown, he should know, planted as he is by Shakespeare to call things as they are rather than as we might like them to be. He would make a useful editor, standing at our shoulders as we write; mostly shaking his head sadly, but occasionally — very occasionally — crying “Yes!”

I’ve chosen ‘The Shipping Forecast’ from my first collection Some Other Country as my touchstone poem because, although it was written nearly twenty years ago, it’s a poem that still makes me say “Yes”. It combines, in the sonnet form I love, many of the themes I’ve returned to often, the struggle to grow up, the father-son relationship, and the sea.

John F. Kennedy suggested we all have in our veins “the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears”. I’m sure there are scientists who disagree. But like a lot of what Kennedy said, it feels right, as I hope this poem does; and if someone years from now sifting through my poems stop at this one, I hope they’ll agree.


The Shipping Forecast

for my father

Tied up at the pier in darkened harbour
the two of us below, in cabin’s amber
light; me surly in a sleeping-bag, fifteen,
and you, past midnight, calmly tuning in
to the Shipping Forecast, Long Wave’s
crackle, hiss, until you find the voice.
What’s next for us: rain or fair? There are
warnings of gales in Rockall and Finisterre.
So near now, just this teak bulkhead
between us, and yet so apart, battened
hatches as another low approaches, the high
over Azores as distant as a man is from a boy.
I think of my own boat one day, the deep.
Beside me the sea snores, turns over in its sleep.

 


Photo © Pat Boran

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Monsoon Diary: The Cover Story

Mosoon Diary - Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the world

JOSEPH WOODS on the story behind the cover of his new book of poems, Monsoon Diary

For me, there’s a certain serendipity to the book cover of Monsoon Diary.

Last December Pat Boran was in touch about the book and ideas for the cover, as a precursor to knuckling down to the text and its arrangement. I was clear about one thing; given the book’s context, I wanted a contemporary photo, something urban, downtown Yangon and rain-drenched as befits the testing monsoon.

I was convinced I had taken the right image, but a search through my own photos didn’t quite reveal what I wanted and so we played around with a few images including one, sourced by Pat, of a rain-splattered windscreen with people obscured and crossing a road. We were getting close and agreed we wanted to avoid touristic golden temples and pagodas. But given that Myanmar, or Burma, in literature is known as ‘The Golden Land’, I did want yellow in the cover or a ‘Yellow Book’ of sorts? It’s also, simply, my favourite colour. I approached a few photographers with a request, ‘urban and in the rain’, but got no real takers, until I contacted a pal in Yangon, Shane Brady, an Irish Yangonophile who often accompanied me on bookshop searches in the city and was already a dedicatee of one of the poems, ‘Sundays in Rangoon’, in the book.

I was clear about one thing; given the book’s context, I wanted a contemporary photo, something urban, downtown Yangon and rain-drenched as befits the testing monsoon.

He bounced back immediately with an iPhone picture he’d taken of the Chin Tsong Palace with monsoon clouds heaving and swirling above it. I knew we had the image and atmosphere, especially since the building had intrigued me for virtually all my time in Yangon.

For our first year in Yangon, my family lived in a neighbourhood more densely populated than Dacca which was not ideal for rearing a toddler, but a half-crown of sonnets, Let us fly away to the famed cities of Asia, arose from that experience. In our second year, we moved to Golden Valley, a neighbourhood behind the Chin Tsong Palace, and from the back of our house we could see its tiered tower. Golden Valley was the traditional neighbourhood for colonials, and during Myanmar’s long stagnation and isolation, for retired military colonels – and now, expatriates with families.

 I tried getting into the grounds of the palace on a few occasions but was politely turned away at the entrance by a guard, until one day I brought my daughter in her stroller and no one seemed to mind. After numerous visits to the grounds, one afternoon, knowing that in Burma it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission, I left the stroller outside the palace and we walked in. I had my camera and we explored the elaborately carved teak stairs and I photographed the once fabled, now empty and sadly dilapidated interior. There were murals of Chinese scenes that are incongruously the work of imported English artists, Ernest and Dod Procter who went on to better things.

After numerous visits to the grounds, one afternoon, knowing that in Burma it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission, I left the stroller outside the palace and we walked in.

The palace was the project of its eponymous owner Lim Chin Tsong, a fabulously wealthy Chinese merchant who intended it as a lavish residence. Work began in 1917 and was only completed in 1920, so we are in the midst of its centenary. Within a year of its completion, Lim Chin Tsong’s fortune had folded and he was broke for the few years before his death in 1923. The building has had many different fortunes since, as a hotel, a broadcasting house for the occupying Japanese forces, and now houses, rather half-heartedly, a school for the Fine Arts.

And there’s a further serendipity, the great Irish chronicler of Burma, Maurice Collis (whose life I’ve been pursuing and writing), once stayed here on his return to Burma in 1937, to write a travel book, Lords of the Sunset. He recounts reaching ‘The House on the Island’ by sampan or boat and is even photographed in the ‘Island Garden’ grounds in the book. This suggests that either the nearby (to the right of the photo) Kandawgyi Lake must have once extended around the palace, or, more likely, the grounds of the palace once extended to the lake shore.

Occasionally, while living in Golden Valley, I took a 6 a.m. constitutional by that lake, and walking behind the palace I’d sometimes see the rising sun spilling through the top storey, which, while empty, must remain one of the most coveted 360-degree views over Yangon.

I was delighted, too, that Shane in his picture had captured in the foreground a game of chinlon, a kind of kickboxing version of volleyball played with bare feet and a hard rattan ball. That game and the curious colour tints added to what Pat rightly pointed out was a Hieronymus Bosch effect. As for that yellow cover? Well, the book’s title is in imperial yellow.


MONSOON DIARY by Joseph Woods is published by Dedalus Press in April 2018

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The Singing Without Ceasing

Catherine Ann Cullen - Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the world

Catherine Ann Cullen on the songscape of a Dublin childhood

This post takes its title from “Family Crest”, a tongue-in-cheek poem in my collection The Other Now (Dedalus, 2016) that uses as a central motif the coat of arms of my family. On the crest is a mermaid combing her hair and, in the poem, I imagine the siren luring men to their deaths, and reflect on how ‘singing without ceasing’ has been a feature of my own life. I’ve referenced many ballads below, and used the Child and Roud ballad numbers to identify each one; if anyone would like to look at the words of the songs, see HERE (Child) or HERE (Roud).

I recently completed a PhD in which I interrogated my own work and its sources, teasing out, in the process, the strands of folk music that created the soundscape of my childhood. I examined the influence on my poetry, children’s books and broadcasting of the work of song-collectors such as Frank Harte and my uncle Gerry Cullen, who popularised a respect for what singer and researcher Padraigín Ní Uallacháin, in her book, A Hidden Ulster: People, songs and traditions of Oriel (Four Courts Press, 2003), has called ‘the men and women who lived here the day before yesterday … who held fast to their individual and collective voice through song’.

My study located both myself and my work in the aural landscape of childhood, which informed my emerging identity as a repository for the family’s songs, stories and piseoga (superstitions) as well as my passions in literature, children’s literature, music and folklore.

The PhD was prompted by a range of coinciding circumstances. One was my growing awareness of, and research into, my immersion in folksong in childhood. Another was an increasing interest in Ireland in local versions of the ballads annotated by American collector Francis Child (1825-1896) from manuscripts and sources in England and Scotland – an increase exemplified by a recent Arts Council-funded project by researchers Michael Fortune and Aileen Lambert, which brought Irish singers together in a series of events including at the National Library of Ireland, to speak about and sing their favourite versions of ballads collected by Child. (The collector did not include Ireland in his seminal work on ballad versions, published in five volumes from 1882-1898, but many of the songs he collected had been sung in Ireland, with local variations, before, during and after his time.) A third was the return to primacy of performance poetry, which places the art back in the oral, performed and often sung tradition where its origins in largely pre-literate societies lie; and a fourth, my desire to systematise my knowledge of ballads and folksong and to critically evaluate my past practice and writings, to the benefit of future work.

 

The Singing House

I was blessed to be the first grandchild of my father’s mother, Kitty Cullen née Hand. Dad was the eldest of her sixteen children, two of whom died shortly after they were born. She was a warm and gentle woman who had left school by the time she was 12 and was conscious of her lack of learning. If we asked her anything to do with schoolwork, she would say, “Sure, I only met the scholars coming home,” or, “I only got to first book,” that last word pronounced ‘buke’ in her broad Drogheda accent.

She loved walking the country lanes around Drogheda, and my memories of walking with her are of picking blackberries and wild flowers, each of us holding a branch above our heads to keep off the flies. I liked her names for plants, ‘poor man’s bread’ (young hawthorn leaves), ‘piss-the-bed’ (dandelions) and ‘sour-belly’ (wood sorrel).

In her small house, she fed not only her own large family, but many visitors who called or stayed. Although the house was full of music as I was growing up, mainly my uncles and their friends with guitars, I rarely heard her sing anything except one of Moore’s Melodies as she worked in the kitchen, perhaps “Oft in the Stilly Night” [Roud V931], or the popular Irish dandling song, “Dilín Ó Damhas”:

Caithfimid suas is suas
Caithfimid suas an pháiste        
Caithfimid suas is suas
Is tiocfaidh sí ‘nuas amárach

(We’ll toss her up and up
We’ll toss up the baby
We’ll toss her up and up
And she’ll come down tomorrow)

I’d heard my maternal grandmother singing a similar song in English –

We’ll throw her up, up, up,
We’ll throw her up so high,
We’ll throw her up, up, up,
And she’ll come down by and by.

She didn’t dance at all,
She didn’t dance today.
She didn’t dance at all,
Today nor yesterday.

It was not so much a dandling as a bouncing song, a song for throwing the giggling child in the air as high as one dared or the child tolerated, before catching them again.

There were other, wordless tunes that were used to dandle children on the knee, and were associated with Irish dancing – when we didn’t have a musician to hand, it was common to both my paternal and maternal grandparents and their siblings to make the dance music themselves with the nonsense words ‘tralala, tralalal’ or ‘rowtilty, dowdilty, dowdility dow’. The latter tune I later identified as “The Frost is All Over”, a tune passed on orally in many families throughout the country.

The only other song I remember my grandmother singing regularly was on those country walks when we would see lambs in a field, and she would stop and break into a tune that I have tried to trace for years. There are two verses, of which this is the first. I have never heard it sung except by the Cullens:

In the meadow green, I saw a lamb
And he lay beside his ma,
When I said to the lamb, what is your name?
He only answered, ‘baa!’

So skip, skip, my lambkin, skip, skip, away,
For you have nothing to do today
But to frolic in the fields, while the birdies in the trees
Sing a sweet little song to you.

Although my memories of my grandmother’s songs are few, I remember her welcoming presence as one that encouraged a flowering of community and music in her home. That home – a small terraced house that was always full of people – is at the centre of my passion for songs.

 

Seven Sources of Song

Many elements combined to create the rich songscape of my childhood, but seven critical sources are outlined here.

  1. Songs from my mother’s home in Tralee, County Kerry, where English was liberally sprinkled with Irish words and idioms, a language I have tried to capture in a poem in The Other Now, “Inheritance”. My mother, Mary Roche, attended Coláiste Íde, the Irish-language boarding school and preparatory college in Dingle, and spoke and sang fluently in Irish. My maternal grandmother died when I was eight years old, but up until then and for several years afterwards I spent summers in Kerry, between Tralee and the Gaeltacht area around Dingle, where my mother’s sister lived. Her husband and some of my cousins were accomplished traditional musicians, playing the box accordion among other instruments, and speaking fluent Irish. This contrasted with our time in my grandmother’s home in Tralee, where she and her sisters spoke and sang in English. Their chosen songs were a combination of Moore’s Melodies such as “Believe Me, if all Those Endearing Young Charms”; popular songs like “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”, and Irish emigrant ballads such as “The Wild Colonial Boy” [Roud 677] or “The Boston Burglar” [Roud 261], and at every session, someone sang “The Rose of Tralee” [Roud 1978]. The romantic phrases in some of these songs piqued my early interest in poetry: the ending of “Believe Me…” – ‘and around the dear ruin, each wish of my heart would entwine itself verdantly still’ – I found especially beautiful, and being an occasionally wild and wayward child myself, I took satisfaction in the fact that the wild colonial boy, a Robin Hood figure who ‘was born and bred… in Castlemaine’, about ten miles from Tralee, was ‘a credit to his parents’, despite his disreputable ways. Often in the evenings, my great-aunt Maria would start several songs in her quavering voice, forget the words and break off with a ‘wait a while now, lads….’ In the end, she would begin a rummaging search for what she called ‘The Song Book’, which to my mind was an important family treasure. My father especially enjoyed and encouraged this comic ritual.
  2. Songs from my father, Jack Cullen, who grew up in Drogheda, within what my mother immediately recognised as the thoroughly anglicised ‘Pale’ when she moved there to teach in the village of Tullyallen at the age of twenty. Dad had learnt Irish at school, was passionate about the language, and encouraged my mother to sing in the tongue she had come to hold in scant regard. He was also an accomplished amateur singer and guitarist, who transcribed old and new ballads into a series of notebooks – a tradition I copied in childhood and have continued ever since. His repertoire ranged from songs in Irish to folksongs and American country blues. For most of his life he worked with chemicals in the laboratory of the Electricity Supply Board, and he developed severe contact dermatitis which curtailed his pastimes of processing his own photographs and playing the guitar. By the time I was about 12, he was no longer able to play for hours for his own enjoyment. He confined his sessions to our ‘under the tree’ Christmas carol singing (where he would hand his guitar to me when his hands got too sore), and the occasional extended Cullen family sing-song, when he would invariably sing “On Raglan Road”, Patrick Kavanagh’s romantic poem set to the Irish tune “Fáinne Geal an Lae”, literally ‘The Bright Ring of the Day’ but usually translated as “The Dawning of the Day” [Roud 370].

    My father’s music for “(On) Raglan Road” (right) and “Fáinne Geal an Lae” (top left)
  3. Kavanagh’s poem includes the line, ‘Let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day’, a line so synonymous with my father that it was the quotation we chose to put on his gravestone. The stonecutter told me that he had never been asked to carve the words before. At the end of “On Raglan Road”, my father always sang the opening verse of the original Irish song. The mouth music of its internal rhymes was pleasing to my ear for years before I understood its meaning, and the song was my introduction to the phrase ‘an chúilfhionn’, literally ‘the fair-backed one’, which would become central to a story for children, Sea Change, that I would write decades later as a commission for RTÉ Radio 1:
  4. Cé gheobhainn le m’ais ach an chúilfhionn deas,
    Le fáinne geal an lae.
    (Who found I there but the fair-haired maid
    At the bright ring of the day?)

  5. Songs collected and sung in Drogheda, which was becoming a centre of ballad-sourcing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, mainly of English-language songs. Thanks to collector and singer Seán Corcoran and to my uncle Gerry Cullen, a respected arranger and singer, many rare local songs are back in the repertoire of traditional musicians. Gerry is a member of The Voice Squad, a trio whose style is inspired by the Northern Irish tradition of unaccompanied solo singing, and by English groups who sang in harmony, such as The Copper Family from East Sussex and the Watersons from Hull in Yorkshire. On the sleeve notes for their 2014 album, Concerning of Three Young Men, Colm Tóibín wrote of the group:They approach each song… not as a way of displaying the singer’s personality but as a way of exploring and evoking and finding the actual song’s inner core, the song’s most hidden truth… For anyone working as an artist – whether musician or writer or painter – they offer a nourishing example because of their sheer attention to detail and their sonorous mastery of form.

    Death and the Lady: a page from a song notebook of Gerry Cullen’s left in our house c. 1968
  6. Gerry’s respect for songs has been a persistent influence on my interest in ballads and indeed on my writing. During the regular singing sessions at my father’s childhood home, we children were always encouraged to perform our party pieces alongside the adults. We visited the house almost every Sunday for decades, and there was a palpable interest in any new song, especially any folk song, that we brought. For years, one of my songs was “The Handsome Butcher”, a Hungarian ballad I learned at school at the age of seven. Years later, I discovered that it had been collected and translated by the English folklorist A.L. Lloyd. It was one of many songs that my siblings and I were coaxed to sing each week in Drogheda. All our relatives knew the words, although they usually allowed us to sing them on our own, perhaps joining in the chorus. Special respect was afforded to Gerry’s songs, those which were part of local tradition and occasionally those he had written himself. Though shy of performing his own work outside of the family circle, he has penned hundreds of songs, some of them for family weddings and occasions. He also writes poetry, and when I was eight years old, I was deeply impressed when he had a poem, “Triptych”, published on the front page of the Irish Press. Gerry has always been generous to me, not only in sharing his art and his knowledge of songs. Once, when I was a young teenager, I admired a zither that was leaning against the wall of his tiny bedroom in Drogheda. He insisted on giving it to me and it remains one of my treasures, a slim, harp-like instrument, painted with a gypsy rose, that featured in a radio essay I wrote for RTÉ’s Sunday Miscellany programme about music and dreams.
  7. A few songs from my paternal grandfather’s childhood home on a tiny and impoverished hill-farm in Tyrone, where the fire in the hearth (it was said) had not gone out in three hundred years. My grandfather, Joe Cullen, had a nonsense song for soothing children to sleep – ‘Eee-Aw-Bo’ – which worked its charm on his grandchildren and has continued into several generations. ‘I was singing Eee-Aw-Bo for an hour’ was often heard from an exhausted parent. It was only years later I discovered the source of the song in a late 19th century music hall song called ‘Little Annie Rooney’ [Roud 4822], whose chorus went:

She’s my sweetheart, I’m her beau,
She’s my Annie, I’m her Joe,
Soon we’ll marry, never to part,
For little Annie Rooney is my sweetheart.

Because my grandfather’s name was Joe, I suspect he enjoyed singing the song, and can only speculate that some lisping Cullen child many years ago, who did not know the words, imitated the vowel sounds of the first two lines and turned it into a nonsense, ‘lulling’ song which went into the family repertoire as

Eee-aw, eee-aw, eee-aw-bo,
Eee-aw (insert first name of child), eee-aw-i-bo,
Soon we’ll marry, never to part,
For little (insert full name of child) is my sweetheart.

Joe had a version of “The Old Woman from Wexford” [Roud 183], a comic ballad about a woman who gets a recipe from her doctor ‘to make her old man blind’. The husband tricks her into believing the recipe has worked and tells her that he would drown himself ‘if he could find the stream’. She obligingly offers to push him in – but he steps aside and she plunges in instead. It was years before I realised that Joe had a unique variant of the song – when the wife calls for help, the husband ‘took out his kibblin’ stick/And he kibbled her further in.’

There are countless versions of this ballad – over fifty are referenced in the massive collection by Coleraine man Sam Henry which was published as Sam Henry’s Songs of the People (University of Georgia Press, 1990) edited by Lani Herrmann, Gale Huntington and John Moulden. In some, the husband uses ‘a barge pole’, in some ‘a (big) long pole’, and in some ‘a churnstaff’ to push his wife, but in none of them have I found my grandfather’s ‘kibblin’ stick’. It appears as ‘kibbling, n. Also kibblin, kibling: A thick, rough stick, a cudgel’, in The Dictionary of the Scots Language, (online here: www.dsl.ac.uk) and the three examples given of the word’s usage are from the 1820s. Northern Ireland and Scotland share many dialect words, and perhaps ‘kibbling’ was once among them. It is one of the ‘lost words’ preserved only in song, a theme I write about in my poem, “In Memory of Frank Harte”. In the case of ‘kibbling’, perhaps that lost stick was preserved in our family alone, but I hold out hope that I will one evening find myself at a singing session where someone else will sing the song using my grandfather’s word.

“Rights”, a republican poem/ballad written by me, aged 10, after Bloody Sunday in 1972 – probably the least offensive of a collection I wrote into a notebook

Joe also sang ‘The Mountains of Pomeroy’, a song based in the hills near his tiny homestead in the townland of Turnabarson – a townland that features in my poems, “The Shoe-Box Coffin” and “Always Not There”. The song was one of several written by Dr George Sigerson (1836-1925), a leading light in the Irish Literary Revival, and its combination of an outlaw hiding in the mountains, and the doomed young woman who goes to meet him through a terrible storm, was thrilling to my childhood mind:

But the mist came down and the tempest roared,
And did all around destroy;
And a pale, drowned bride met Renardine,
On the mountains of Pomeroy.

That mountain tryst, and the ‘pale drowned bride’, were strong influences on one of my first attempts at ballad-writing at the age of 12, an unintentionally comic maudlin song called ‘Corinna’ about ‘a lame mountain goatherd’ and ‘a maiden so pretty and sweet’, which ended with ‘Johann’ falling in the snow and dying outside his lover’s cabin.

The way the songs of my paternal grandparents were passed to me is an example of the wonderful Irish term for oral folklore, béaloideas, literally ‘mouth knowledge’. Songs that I’ve never seen written down, and variations on songs that I have heard or read, have found their way into my consciousness orally and aurally, and I am determined to pass them on to my daughter and the wider family.

I also learned from Joe’s singing, and from that of my maternal grandmother, that local songs had an important resonance. People from Tyrone sang Tyrone songs, people from Kerry sang Kerry songs, and as a child in Dublin, I should sing Dublin songs.

5. Local songs and street games from my own city of Dublin, especially those sung by collector Frank Harte who was for some time a neighbour. I learned beloved songs from him and his daughter, Sinéad, and continued to follow Harte’s journey throughout his life. Sinéad was a classmate in my early years of school, and the first song I heard her sing, “Henry, My Son”, a Dublin version of the classic “Lord Randall” [Child 12, Roud 10], has continued to influence my writing, including a song I wrote and performed last year for Eastrogen Rising: A Rebel Cabaret. The colloquial tone of “Henry, My Son”, with its ‘make my bed, I’ve a pain in my head’, contrasts with the more formal and old-fashioned words of the English original,

….. mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m wearied with hunting, and fain would lie down.

The song’s imitation of the Dublin accent is another characteristic I have adopted. When Henry is asked ‘what will you leave your father?’ his reply is ‘a blue su-et’, drawing out the syllable of ‘suit’ into two, in the Dublin style. In the same way, I injected an extra syllable into my song, “The Rebel Sisterhood”, (The Other Now) using the extended word ‘undergarmament’ to rhyme with ‘armament’ for comic effect.

“Henry, My Son” was among the songs that caused me to have a kind of epiphany at the age of five or six. My father had copied half a dozen versions of the related “Lord Randall” into his notebooks, and a songbook we had from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival had another ballad that caught my eye, called “Snow White Shirt” [Child 13, Roud 200]. I read these song books as if they were story books, and indeed the ballads did tell stories. “Snow White Shirt” began, ‘How came the spots on your snow white shirt? Oh son, come tell to me.’ In this song, the young man is the murderer rather than the victim, but his mother draws him out with a series of questions in the same way that the mother does in “Lord Randall”. As a child, my mother had performed in a local concert with a neighbour, singing a humorous music-hall song that mimicked this question and answer format, “Where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?” [Roud 326] – and as I grouped these songs together in my mind, I heard my Dad sing Bob Dylan’s apocalyptic, “It’s a Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, which begins, ‘Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son? Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?’

“Snow White Shirt” from The Newport Folk Festival Songbook (1965)

I remember feeling highly excited about the connections between these songs. It seemed to me that, like people, songs had histories and relationships. Some strongly resembled their parents, and some had only a feature here or there that revealed their heritage. This sense of excitement at hearing a variation on a familiar song has never left me, and the way the elements of those different songs, old and more modern, rare and popular, were bound in my mind by one strong thread, is probably the reason I remain untroubled by whether or not a song is a ‘genuine’ ballad or folksong, or a modern reworking of one, a preoccupation that is identified by two of the foremost ballad scholars today, David Atkinson and Steve Roud, in their Street Ballads in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and North America (Ashgate 2014):

One can almost hear the sigh of relief when a folk song scholar finds a second or third reference to a particular song being sung in a ‘traditional’ manner or context, so that it can be stamped ‘genuine’.

Along with the Dublin songs that filled my head were the skipping, ball-bouncing and street rhymes that were still the stuff of daily play when I was a child. Games that centred on songs that told stories – “The Farmer Wants a Wife” [Roud 6306] or “We’re the Gypsies Riding” [Roud 730] – became an unconscious guide for me when I came to write verse-stories for children.

  1. Hymns from my Catholic childhood which coincided with Vatican II and a shift from Latin Mass and sung Benediction to English- and Irish-language masses and hymns. The archaic words and the religious fervour of the hymns and chants fascinated me. Their influences on my work are two-fold. Principally, they prompted me to pitch some elements of my poetry against their conservative content, in poems such as ‘The Ballad of Síle na Gig’ or ‘Queen of the May’, (The Other Now) but they also inspired me to look at unusual words, and occasionally to create my own, as I did in my children’s book, The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat.
  2. Songs from the folk revival in America and across Europe which coincided with my early childhood. Events such as the Newport Folk Festival (founded in 1959) brought Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Ewan MacColl, the Clancy brothers and many others interested in song traditions to homes all over Ireland, through song books, records and television appearances. This revival in turn inspired Irish musicians such as my uncle Gerry to look more closely at the traditional repertoire of their own areas. I still have two books from the festivals, passed on by my father, which are full of love for and history of the songs, along with their lyrics and music.

This combination of songs from four counties of Ireland, and those from the wider world, along with my direct experience of the growth of song-collecting, piqued my childhood interest in the way folksongs make present the past and ‘cut straight to the heart of life’ to quote Vincent Woods in his essay, “A World of Thirteen Acres: Folklore as Source and Inspiration”, in Folklore and Modern Irish Writing, ed. Anne Markey and Anne O’Connor (Irish Academic Press, 2014).

The Murmur of Voices

I worked for seven years as a radio producer for RTÉ Radio 1, and for four years before that as a radio researcher, and ‘talk radio’ is still a constant backdrop to my world. When I can’t sleep, I turn the radio on low and find the barely-audible voices soothing. As a small child, I loved listening to my parents and their friends singing at night after I’d gone to bed. When their voices dropped to speak, I would often get out of bed and lie on the floor to hear them better, and occasionally I tottered downstairs and sat outside the kitchen door listening until I fell asleep. Unsuspecting guests were likely to trip over my two- or three-year-old form when they opened the door to go home. That comfort of distant voices murmuring or singing was something I used in my story “Sea Change”, when after his father’s funeral, Conor is sent to sleep:

Gerry’s poem “Triptych” from the Irish Press, published February 1970

When I went to bed that night the house was still full of people, drinking and playing music and singing… The same picture came before my eyes all the time… Dad had untied the boat and was starting to drift away… I drifted with him in my mind, with the music coming up through the bedroom floor, and Mad Myles’s words echoing in my head: for everything the sea takes away, it brings something back.

While researching my PhD Context Statement last year, it became clear to me that I was alone among my siblings in experiencing and pressing my ears to much of the family music. Although there is less than a decade between my youngest sibling and myself, those years saw the crucial loss of our paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother, and a consequent weakening of tangible traditions. At some level, as the oldest child, the oldest grandchild on my father’s side and the oldest granddaughter on my mother’s, I had always been conscious of my responsibility to be an ethnographer of my own folk and their ‘mouth knowledge’, interpreting and preserving the songs and folklore of my family and environment, but I had not fully realised the extent to which I was carrying out this work in my writing across many genres, for my siblings as well as for the next generation.

In fact, all of the elements outlined above synthesised into a songscape which was to shape, at first unconsciously and later more consciously, almost everything that I would write. Such use of ballads is related to the use of folklore by other living Irish writers – as Éilís Ni Dhuibhne says in her essay, ‘“Some Hardcore Storytelling”: Uses of Folklore by Contemporary Irish Writers’, in Markey and O’Connor’s book, ‘their rich images and symbols enhance and deepen the texture of my stories of contemporary life’. That songscape fostered an interest in those ballads which Child himself said in his introduction to his song collection were ‘founded on what is permanent and universal in the heart of man’, and which continue to inform and to permeate my work.

***

(This essay is adapted from the introduction to my thesis or ‘context statement’, A City Out of Old Songs: the influence of ballads, hymns and children’s songs on an Irish writer and broadcaster, for which I was awarded a PhD in Published Works (Creative Writing) from Middlesex University earlier this year – CAC)

Catherine Ann Cullen’s The Other Now is published by Dedalus Press (October 2016) and available HERE.