Following an open call which drew hundreds of submissions, this major new anthology of ‘writing from Ireland’ reflects the changing nature of Irish society, with contributors hailing from all over the world. Selected by Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi and Pat Boran, with an introduction by Pat Boran, the book was launched on 15 October 2019 at Poetry Ireland.
Poets from the ‘new Irish communities’, the ‘hyphenated Irish’, the Irish of mixed cultural, linguistic or ethnic origins, are all represented … The book pays special attention to poems that record the changing nature of Irish society and explore some of the differences between, as well as the similarities among, those who now call Ireland home.
Identity, belonging, ownership, loss, culture and, of course, the complex subject of ‘home’ itself … These are just some of the broad subjects our contributors consider in an anthology that seeks to reassert the importance of poetry in the ongoing discussion about who we are and what we are capable of becoming.
We would like to thank all those who contribute to this important and timely new book, and also the many who submitted work but were not included, on this occasion.
THE FULL LIST OF POETS INCLUDED IN WRITING HOME IS AS FOLLOWS: Sana Al Buraiky, Ali Bracken Ziad, Lynn Caldwell, Polina Cosgrave, Jonathan C. Creasy, Curt Curtin, Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi, Agnieszka Filipek, Viviana Fiorentino, Eilish Fisher, Ewa Fornal, Nicola Geddes, Charleen Hurtubise, Chris Jones, Kayssie Kandiwa, Nithy Kasa, Benjamin Keatinge, Shannon Kuta Kelly, Sven Kretzschmar, Suzzanna Matthews, Jaki McCarrick, Raquel McKee , Victoria Melkovska, Rafael Mendes, Juliana Menezes, Shaiyon Merkel, Nita Mishra, Yameema Mitha, Bruno Morando, Elizabeth Murtough, Emma Must, Chandrika Narayanan-Mohan, Giuliano Nistri, Lianne O’Hara, Art Ó Súilleabháin, Viorel Ploesteanu, Theia Presadă, Michael Ray, Natasha Remoundou, Milena Rytelewska, Simone Sav, Eduard Schmidt-Zorner, Evgeny Shtorn, Dorina Sisu, Csilia Toldy, Eriko Tsugawa-Madden, Bogusia Wardein, Christian Wethered, Landa Wo and Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ofLuminous 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Patrick Kehoe, poet and arts journalist, answers 7 Questions on Poetry. His most recent collections of poems are Places to Sleep (Salmon Poetry, 2018) and The Cask of Moonlight (Dedalus Press, 2014).
Do you remember How, or When, or even Why you started writing poems (as opposed to songs, say, or fiction)?
I recall writing poems that were like company or friends to me, at St Peter’s College around 1972 in a blue notebook. I recall pleasure in particular from a poem I wrote about the evening sky changing in the month of October outside the study room windows into night. A great passage through dusk, twilight.
The poem was, I could see, close in its imagery to what I wanted, which engendered a peculiar satisfaction. Such versifying was predicated on the fact that I was conscious of being in boarding school for a five-year sentence and that my freedom was compromised. The view from the study room window was akin to Oscar Wilde’s ‘tent of blue’ as seen from the confines of Reading Gaol.
Five years is a huge block of time in the middle of your early adolescence. It was not relevant that you got home for holidays, you could not be philosophical about time passing quickly, as one ruefully is when one is much older.
So poetry was an imaginative liberation. It is strange that when you endure – or enjoy, as I sometimes did – those days, that one day they will seem so long ago, so much an afterthought.
Rather than doing my study, I loved watching the light fade and the way bits of cloud turned red and then lost the red, or yellow faded somewhere else. I put these visual elements into a poem called ‘Seasons at Saint Peters’ in my book The Cask of Moonlight.
Do you have a favourite poet, or even a favourite poem? A poem you think everyone should read, even know by heart?
I recall in 1973/1974 my friend Eamonn Wall had a few of those Modern European Poets selections from Penguin which I wish they would reissue in exactly the same livery now 40 years on. Jiménez shared a volume with Machado, there was a selection of Mallarmé.
I have only two or three of such volumes but I am very fond of the first half of my Selected Eugenio Montale, the earlier poems, from Ossi di Seppia (Bones of the Cuttlefish) and other early to mid-period work. It’s a peuce-covered slim volume purchased in Copenhagen in 1977.
In general, would you say that you write to expand on an image or idea or to compress and focus it?
How much do you edit? How much do you know where you’re going and how much do you blindly feel your way?
It’s like a sprint to the finish and I know it will be a short sprint, i.e. a short poem, so there is no real pressure. Once done and let rest for a day or so, I realise I must go back to the start again and forget the sprinting. Rather, crawl on my hands and feet around the words as though they were obstacles, but also turnstiles letting me in when I select the right one.
What’s your relationship with ‘received forms’ (the sonnet, ballad, villanelle etc)? Are there other non-traditional form restrictions you place on your work?
All I know is my apprenticeship as a songwriter served me usefully for writing poems that generally try to sing in free verse. Reading some of my poems back, I note only odd corners and bits of them seem to sing, other parts are avowedly technical, as it were. Yet I suppose the pieces seem to fit in the end, the unmusical usages and the musical, it’s an oddly functioning alloy.
*** Have you ever been a part of a writing workshop and, if so, what do you think you gained from it. If not, is there any reason why not?
I went to a songwriting workshop once that Sonny Condell gave in Dun Laoghaire and cannot recall much, bar his explanation of how putting his guitar into different tunings prompted new songs.
John Martyn used to avoid standard tuning and it yielded similar results. I do not know how that applies to poetry, I think it doesn’t for myself, but it may be a paradigm for someone who experiments with different metrical forms.
As to any kind of workshop, I am sure they have proved very valuable to many a writer. The best workshop though might be the talented English teacher.
A great deal of your poetry is concerned with / based in, Barcelona in the 1970s. Is there something about that place and period that has a special ‘hold’ on you? Is the distance from it (in time and space) a help or a hindrance?
Is the distance from Barcelona a help or a hindrance? I love that question, it is a fundamental question with regard to poetry which involves any decent poet’s recall of childhood or youth. The distance is almost axiomatic, if that is the phrase, to the writing and the imaginative invention, so I suppose distance helps. Then again, I return to Barcelona every few years or so and it is like hauling in another net of fresh fish and the poems then don’t need to refer to some notional long ago at all. In my most recent book, Places to Sleep there is a poem called ‘Sant Martí’. Three years ago or so, on a short break in the city, I could walk around the district of that name, unfamiliar to me, around noon, say. I made the streets my own in writing by what I think is a reasonably commendable attempt to describe the colour of the light in March as it fell on those nondescript pale walls in a district, some distance away from the tourist end. The hotel was there, hence the poem, a pleasing serendipity to me. I find new inspirations each time. The hold is very peculiar to me, and yet I only lived there for two years. There was a definable trajectory though and it is important that I do not spell it out. There is in fact already sufficient narrative in quite a few poems. That trajectory began with trying to carve out a living in a city where you could not ask people a question about directions in English on the street, or ask for a meal in English in a restaurant. You had no choice but to take on the mask that speaking a foreign language involves. The mask makes you a different entity and I hope somehow that it is part of whatever I do in verse.
7 Questions on Poetry were answered by Patrick Kehoe.
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.
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.
Elaine Cosgrove, author of the much-admired debut Transmissions (Dedalus Press, 2017) takes part in our occasional series and answers 7 Questions on Poetry
Do you remember the first poem you wrote or what prompted it?
The first poem I remember writing was in my early teens about the wildflowers that grew around my house and a want to be like the wildflowers. I then lost myself for a few years writing terrible ‘woe-is-me’ Smashing Pumpkins-inspired lyrics. Lal!
How do you get started on a new poem? Is it a conscious effort or something you find yourself doing without plan or premeditation?
I usually start from an idea or an image or an impression or sometimes the skeleton of a poem jotted down in a notebook (or on my phone if I’m feeling self-conscious about whipping out a notebook in public). The poem will develop (or go nowhere) from these and usually for me takes about 3-4 dedicated sittings to get it going. So, for me, it is quite premeditated in that when work and life commitments are dealt with first, then I set my dedicated time to write, read, think, explore, develop, finish maybe 2-3 evenings a week, a weekend here or there, if I’m lucky. At the moment, routine is a bit wayward, but I know I’ll find it again. I adore being on buses or planes or trains because it is always a time I can give myself to develop work further – and let the mind wander.
How important is music / the sound of the poem to you? Does it play any part in your writing process?
For me, music is a huge influence and the sound of a poem is very important. If I’m stuck in a line for the words I haven’t found yet, I’ll mark out the syllables I want, the rhythm I’m hoping for, and make a note of the tone I’m trying to find or leave a note to myself to listen to a certain song or read a certain poem for its musicality so when I come back to it I hope I have a better ear tuned in towards what I’m working towards.
Do you share your poems with anyone before you decide they’re completely finished? (Are you a part of a writing workshop?)
I have a clutch of trusted readers I share new work with and vice versa. They give constructive criticism that is usually spot on!
How important to you is taking part in poetry readings and other ‘live’ events?
It’s important to take part I feel, and despite myself—the stage fright I have gotten to a much better place with—I am determined to enjoy them, and I do enjoy sharing poems with people, and I do get a rush of adrenalin the more I get past myself. I love going to readings and hearing writers, artists, musicians, scientists, historians etc. read and discuss their work or the work of others.
Do you have favourite poets or favourite poems?
What would you say your immediate friends/family thinks of you as a writer of poetry?
Hmmm I’m not too sure but I’d say, in my humble opinion,… Overall, they’re usually pretty sound about it! Some care, some don’t care which is cool with me. Some think it’s interesting and others a bit daft; some delighted to let me get on with it. Some find it wildly mysterious and ask lots of questions which I don’t mind answering at all. Nothing is too silly to ask. Some want to read more poetry but don’t know ‘how to read poetry’ (even though we’re all experts in words in some way or another) so I might send on poems by other poets I think they might enjoy.
7 questions on poetry were answered by Elaine Cosgrove.