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?
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?
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.
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.
Many elements combined to create the rich songscape of my childhood, but seven critical sources are outlined here.
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?)
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.
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?’
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.
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).
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:
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.
Paddy Bushe in email conversation with Pat Boran about his latest collection of poems, On a Turning Wing, winner of the 2017 Irish Times Poetry Now Award
Place is of primary significance in my poems, probably the element which is most essential to them. I think this may be because I grew up in a Dublin suburb to which I felt no familial or imaginative ties, and that I have a consequent yearning to be integrated into place, to be a part of place. Of course the result is a willed, creative process rather than an organic, natural one, and this feeds into my poetry. I can place the genesis of most of my poems, a genesis or place that may disappear in the poem itself, but which is very much part of how it develops and survives – if it does. Love poems, political poems, poems about the nature of art – all of these can begin as a kind of invocation of place. For many years most of my work was ‘placed’ in Iveragh in South Kerry, my adoptive home. In more recent times my focus has widened, but usually with Iveragh not too far in the back of my mind.
I’m always full of good intentions about using notebooks, voice recorders, cameras and so forth. But I’m afraid I’m highly disorganised and unsystematic. Notebooks tend to be lost or neglected fairly quickly, and voice recorders gloriously blank when I return. I do find a camera useful as an aide-memoire, and even a stimulus for some new insight after a trip. Sometimes I get a reasonably complete draft of a poem. But my poems usually “stew” for quite a while after the spark first comes, generally in the form of a line or three which move around in my mind for weeks on end. So yes, I’m actively writing, but perhaps in a way that others wouldn’t notice. That’s my usual method – if that’s not too much of an overstatement – whether my work is placed at home or away.
Of course it’s not just in seemingly adventurous things activities like trekking or visiting formerly remote places (is anywhere really remote today?) that inspiration is to be found – galleries in Madrid or Paris, or conversations with musicians and poets in the extraordinary landscape of An tEilean Sgitheanach (The Isle of Skye) can stimulate poems. The genesis and working-out of most poems is humdrum enough, as it is, I imagine, for most poems by most poets. All of which is really to partially concur with Wordsworth’s ‘recollected in tranquillity’ formulation.
It’s the business of the poet, I think, to create rather than recreate. It’s what’s on the page that’s important, not the stimulus that gave rise to it.
I suppose the first thing to say is that English was and remains my first language. That’s a matter of fact, not necessarily a matter of choice. I speak, read and write more instinctively and more fluently in English than in Irish. When I began to write, in my late teens, I tended to write mainly in Irish, for ideological reasons. When I started to write again, in my thirties, aspects of that ideological commitment had faded, and I wrote solely in English. Both choices were limiting, and both exclusivist. I began to write again in Irish, especially when the “starter lines” I spoke about earlier suggested themselves in Irish, or in echoes of Irish. These echoes are especially strong where I live, which is residually a strong Gaeltacht area, and whose landscape, culture and history speak to me in Irish more than in English. So the subject and originating circumstances usually now determine the language in which I write, as well as any social or linguistic situation which may have given rise to the poem.
On a slightly different note, I find it puzzling, and indeed a matter of regret, that poets who are capable of writing in both languages so seldom do so. Of course I understand that poetry needs sources with cultural and linguistic depth that goes beyond competence, but I cannot help thinking that the choice is still often influenced – in both linguistic directions – by a hangover from the nationalistic and political takeover of the Gaelic Revival , which I believe has done great damage to the language. I greatly regret, for example, that Michael Hartnett bade A Farewell to English rather than simply making Irish welcome. Further back, I think it’s a great pity that Douglas Hyde – who opposed the nationalistic hijacking of Irish – did not write “The Necessity for Gaelicising Ireland” rather than “The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland”.
Let it be said, of course, that those who would dismiss our Gaelic inheritance, for either ideological or meretriciously pragmatic reasons, do no service to our cultural life. Irish life and Irish poetry should celebrate the possibility of being genuinely bilingual, and not decide to close one eye in order to favour the other.
To be honest, translating myself was a matter of necessity as much as of choice – there was no queue of translators lining up to take on the work! But really I approach the task as I do when I’m translating the poems of, say, Cathal Ó Searcaigh or Gabriel Rosenstock. That is to respect the work, to be as close as possible to the original in meaning, line structure, sound patterns and so forth, while at the same time producing a poem which works in its own right. Obviously, as far as rhyme or other sound patterns is concerned, this can mean finding equivalence rather than exact reflection. The same applies to idioms, metaphors and so on. As a rule of thumb, if I feel I can’t do that, I try to avoid translating the poem.
The island isn’t actually visible from my house, as it lies just behind Bolus Head, the northern headland of the two which enclose Ballinskelligs Bay, or Bá na Scealg, on the edge of which I live. But I suppose you could say that for a long time I have had an imaginative line of sight to Skellig, and that it has been central to my imaginative and poetic world for most of my writing life.
The value of Skellig Michael, even in a country which is increasingly post-religious, is primarily spiritual. In other words, it provides an entrance into otherness, otherness of time and place, otherness which I have seen have a profound effect on believers and atheists alike.
And of course there is the extraordinary wildlife and physical beauty of the place, which are part of that spiritual dimension, along with its role in mythology, history, folklore and the various combinations of all three which animate our perceptions of it. The commoditisation xxx of this extraordinary and place is indeed crass. One of the most shameful things I have seen in respect to Sceilg Mhichíl is a tourism promotion film, for which Fáilte Ireland actually paid €25,000 to Disney Lucas, and in which the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht spoke. Neither she nor anybody else in the film even mentioned that there was an intact Early Christian monastic site on the island. It’s only quality, the viewers are implicitly told, is how well it fits into the Star Wars narrative. It would be shocking were Donald Trump to say it. To have a government with this mentality – and this went to the highest level of government – is profoundly disturbing. Significantly J.J. Abrams expressed amazement in the film that he had been permitted to film on Skellig. He must have been amazed at the gombeen mentality that secretly gave him that permission.
I had always liked Hopkins, from schooldays on. I admire his open and absorbent sensibility, and I recognise, even though I no longer share, his fear-ridden and guilt-ridden Catholicism. He makes great poetry out of feelings and thoughts that I grew up with. I am also fascinated by his intelligence and craft. It seems to me that he combines the sensibility of a romantic poet with the intelligence and craft of a metaphysical poet. When I did an MA with the Open University after retiring from teaching in 1990, I wrote a dissertation on the influence of his feelings of exile and alienation on his Dublin poems. So I read his work fairly intensively at that time. And around the same time, on Skellig Michael, I looked into an abyss (I can be terrified of height) and Hopkins’s lines leaped into my mind:
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
That led to my long sequence “Hopkins on Skellig Michael” where my obsession with Skellig coalesced with my enforced obsession with Hopkins. I should make it clear that Hopkins never went there, but I used an imaginary overnight retreat by Hopkins to explore Hopkins’s mind and work, while physically exploring the island.
As you say, Hopkins is an overt presence in this new collection, especially in “Of Paint and Clay and Words”, a line of which gives the collection its name. As regards his general influence on my writing, I’m sure there is, in both languages. But I think that’s for others to trace. It would feel presumptuous for me to do so.
Somhairle, whom I had the privilege of meeting a few times, is certainly an influence, in both languages. I think he was by far the greatest Gaelic poet, Irish or Scottish, of his era. That’s why I took the decision, against all good sense and reason, to translate his collected poems into Irish. I was very aware that the potential readership of poetry in a threatened minority language translated into a sister threatened minority language would be of interest to a minority of a minority of a minority. But I got enormous satisfaction from it, despite it being such challenging work over a period of three years.
I have also dedicated two poems to him, one in English and another in Irish. And, although the connections is disguised rather than overt, the poem ‘The Music Master and the Poet’ in my new collection is based on a story the poet and musicologist John Purser, who lives on Skye, told me about himself and Somhairle.
I also got great satisfaction out of working with my son, Éanna de Buis, on his film Ar Lorg Shomhairle: In Sorley’s Footsteps in which we traced Somhairle’s poetry in the landscape of Skye and Raasay which stimulated so much of his poetry, even though he rarely took landscape description as a subject for his poems. But he embodied love poems, political poems and historical poems in his landscape, in works of enormous power, beauty and above all, integrity.
I think there is a great deal of truth in what you say about elegy and celebration in great poetry. I’ll pass on whether or not it applies to all great poetry, but it certainly applies to many great works of art, be they literary, dramatic, musical, visual or whatever. And I would certainly think that all elegy necessarily implies celebration.
That sequence, which I found extraordinarily difficult to write, and still find difficult to read aloud, started out as an outburst of rage and of contempt for the bureaucracy which, in an act of corporate revenge and vindictiveness, got rid of the voluntary group which for a number of years, on a completely voluntary basis, had run a high-quality, wide-ranging arts programme at a tiny cost, and at no cost to the educational committee which held legal ownership of the centre, again entirely due to local voluntary effort. At the moment, four years later, there is a minimal programme which is a shadow of what there used to be.
The detail of that deliberate destruction of an arts programme is for another day. But as I was writing the poem, I realised that merely to vent my anger and contempt might give me temporary satisfaction, but would tell a very limited story. So I decided also to celebrate what there had been, and to try to show a little of how precious it had been in the community, and how the bureaucratic bullying which lay behind the destruction of that preciousness hurt the community which the bureaucracy nominally served. I hope the poem speaks for the belief that all communities are enriched by access to the arts, and becomes a plea for that access to be universal.
Link: On A Turning Wing by Paddy Bushe
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural …
IT WAS AS IF MacNeice had predicted what was happening in front of me on the screen last night. I was sat at my desk in Vigo correcting some Galician translations, a half dozen tabs open on the desktop as I clicked back and forth between dictionaries, verb tables and the newsfeed coming from the exit polls for Spain’s general election: the two-party system was over, things had changed suddenly.
… I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various
‘Spain is Different!’ Manuel Fraga announced in the late sixties as he began to package Scandinavian and British tourists off to the Costa del Sol. Like his boss, Fraga was Galician and was Franco’s Minister for Tourism. Just forty years on and the PP, the conservative party that Fraga founded, was finally realising that things were indeed, very different, but not how they had imagined. Ada Colau, an anti-eviction activist, has become Barcelona’s first woman mayor. Manuela Carmena, a retired judge, defender of workers’ rights and of detainees during the dictatorship, is the first independent mayor of Madrid. I hummed a few bars of Old England is Dying, and listened for the Medusa howls of Spain’s elite as Podemos, Equo, Barcelona en Comú and En Marea (The Turning Tide)washed over Old Castile, and Fraga’s party were left ‘not waving, but drowning.’
Waves of emigrants have been leaving Galicia since boats were first floated. According to the Leabhar Gabhála, it was Galicians, Breogan’s sons and grandsons, who were the last to populate Ireland. You know them as the Milesians. In my partner’s family there is exactly five years each between her mother, her uncle and her aunt. A common pattern in Galicia where it took five years to make enough money for a return ticket from the Americas before going back, a son or daughter conceived just before you sailed away. Su’s family all recognized Frank O’Connor’s ‘My Oedipus Complex’ when I told them the story one Friday night at the house. Almost every house in the region has a ship’s trunk somewhere where you will still get a whiff of Brazilian coffee when you open the lid and stick your head in. For the most part it was the men who emigrated, waves of them, and the women were left behind to raise the family, mind the house and manage the land, if land there was; it’s written all over their hands. Since the Nineteenth-Century Galician Revival, the figure of the stoic, weeping Galician woman stood on the cliffs has been forged in iron in the collective memory.
But the wave is turning. A wave of young Galician poets, women mostly, have reimagined themselves as something other than that tragic figure on the cliffs weeping and wringing her hands helplessly as the ships sail away. She may still be found on the cliffs from where María Do Cebreiro writes back that ‘The wind puts across the body’s cut / in so soft a manner it is no longer / an invasion or even a sign of / ownership.’ She celebrates that ‘the joy of skin / is in its loosening.’ Blown free as it were, Do Cebreiro is joined from the cliffs and the streets, the cafes and bars, from bed and balcony, from ‘Picking apples in Tolstoy’s Garden,’ from New York’s ‘Sing-Sing Prison,’ from ‘Midtown Manhattan’, ‘The Charles Bridge’, a ‘Taxi in Lima’ and the ‘The Cotton fields of Thessaly’ by her contemporaries Yolanda Castaño, Chus Pato, Lupe Gómez, and Elvira Ribeiro among many others. Some of whom send me back and forth and back and forth again and again through the pages of Servando Pérez Barreiro’s Diccionario Completo Galego-Inglés as my finger digital clicks back to the exit polls that ticker-tape down the screen. A change is washing over Spain and as these poets write the wave, I allow myself a little drunkenness on their variorum edition.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay as we supposed.
MacNeice visited Spain in 1936 with Auden, and when asked which side he supported in the Civil War responded: ‘I support the Valencia Government in Spain. Normally I would only support a cause because I hoped to get something out of it. Here my reason is stronger […]’ To the same question, Beckett responded ‘¡UP THE REPUBLIC!’
I DON’T KNOW IF MacNeice made it up to Galicia where Laurie Lee first landed in Spain and from where he began his walk that would eventually walk him right into the Spanish Civil War. His first port after leaving England was Vigo: ‘I landed in a town submerged in wet, green sunlight and smelling of the waste of the sea […] The drowned men rose from the pavements and stretched their arms, lit cigarettes and shook the night from their clothes […] and strange, vivid girls went down the streets, with hair like coils of dripping tar and large mouths, red and savage.’ I can’t speak for their hair, but these poets from Galicia are as savage and vivid in their poems as Lee’s somewhat seasick imagination. Poets who are toppling the Royal Galician Academy’s bookshelves and emptying its Royal Members’ pockets, with Yolanda Castaño’s taunting that ‘You need to frig the alphabet / till it spurts unlikely links.’ I click back again to the exit polls as they come to a close and as the joy and horror from the talking heads staggers down the screen I think of Paddy Galvin and the story of his mother daubing UP THE REPUBLIC! in red on their gable wall and his father then washing it off as the Irish Christian Front marched down the Coal Quay in support of Franco’s Spain.
I’m just in from the bakery where the paper on the counter tells me they’ve just announced Patxi Lopez of the PSOE as the new speaker in the Spanish Congress. Rajoy’s PP stayed in their seats while the young conservative Ciudadanos voted with the old socialists PSOE to exclude Podemos in what looks to be a prelude waltz to a new government of the old ways.
Tonight, around nine hundred wolves will pack hunt through the Galician mountains. Galicia is one of the last regions in Spain still home to wolf packs. Su’s village ‘Traspielas’ contains ‘tras’ the preposition ‘across’ or ‘through,’ and the word ‘piel’ skin, and it was suggested to me that Traspielas was once a trading post for wolf pelts. Recently I was brought up the mountain to a ‘foxo dos lobos’, a wolf trap of drystone walls that opens hundreds of yards apart and graduates pincer-like down into a 12-foot pit into which the wolves were hunted. When the packs grew in number they had to abandon the mountain and come down to the villages to feed and so their numbers would be culled till a balance was struck between pack and village and they would stay once again in the mountains. Down here among the translations, María Do Cebreiro’s ‘The Blood’ reveals that ‘humans are not animals of reason / nor animals that speak. We are animals of rupture, / of the temporal breach.’ Later, in The She-Wolf, she writes ‘The she-wolf gives milk / to the brothers who kill each other. // ‘She will not claw the cobblestones. / Far from the churchyard, far from meaning / She feeds the brothers. Yes, above all else / she feeds them to death.’
Suddenly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
I have no idea what’s going to happen in the coming months and years here on the peninsula. There will be more elections, without a doubt more corruption, there will also be more hope, more citizen breaches, there will be more wolves. I click across and see that there’s an anthology of Galician poetry to be launched in Madrid this week; Punto de Ebullición, Boiling Point. So yes, there will be more poets and there will be more poems and I will be here reading and listening and feeling them all ‘on my tongue, on my eyes, on my ears and in the palms of my hand;’ incorrigibly Spain.
Vigo, January 13th, 2016
Yolanda Castaño and María do Cebreiro are two of the poets appearing in Six Galician Poets, translations by Keith Payne (Arc Publications, UK, 2016). This article, and accompanying poems, were first published in issue 1 of The Level Crossing (Dedalus Press, 2016).
And the quicksilver gone from the mirror.
From the hand feeling for the trace
I make the best of jaded pages;
the black ink shows through the flip side
and I think
this could also be writing;
scribbling new words while other
seep through the page.
Trans. Keith Payne
From: A Segunda Lingua / The second language
(Fundación Caixa Galicia, 2013)
The woman wakes in the middle of the night the moment someone says:
– Pierce yourself with a needle and tell me the colour of your blood.
– My blood is neither blue nor red – she responds.
Then it slowly dawns on her there is no way humanly possible
to watch without being watched. The following day
she dreams of eating stones that are easy enough to stomach.
That she moves by night, naked calm, like the women
in Delvaux’s painting. That someone leaves a red cloth
under their pillow and can see the face of their future lover,
and the pair condense the time of their life into a dream second,
holding over almost all the caresses and conversations.
Blood is dark and dense, it has
the integrity of a solid substance, an integrity that
– almost exclusively for their colour – certain tints
and sediments of wine take on. Unlike mothers,
she gives separate space to blood and semen. She knows
there’s no end to the power of that severing,
the absolution of keeping distance. That’s why
she is wary of the sacred powers of suckling, yet knows
the place of milk in the power of wheat. The desert
is endless and its children are not yours. And so
she is not afraid, and at night in dreams, a faceless figure
appears, not threatening (a friendly presence) and so
she never forgets humans are not animals of reason
nor animals that speak. We are animals of rupture,
of the temporal breach. Able to love anything
we want with the intensity of every given moment.
She places a magnet and a clover flower
over the trine of light the stars compose for them.
She will meet his image in the quirks,
in the drop of blood the faceless voice
bid her draw in her dream. By day, the faceless
voice returns to its body, she knows and is
happy there will be no more possession,
she doesn’t want him to remember or yearn for her,
just let him live in the heat of her skin, just as
she dreams her birth in her body’s every moment.
María Do Cebreiro
Trans. Keith Payne
From O deserto / The desert (Apiario Editora, A Coruña, 2015)
“For such a big personality, her carbon footprint was small. Her radio played Lyric FM, quietly. And for years and years she drove an ancient Triumph Herald, the back seat of which was composed almost entirely of old literary magazines and dog-eared typescripts. And yet somehow, just like language itself, it sustained her.”
Read Pat Boran’s Obituary, first published in The Irish Times, Sat. July 2, 2016, in full HERE
by Leland Bardwell
I have willed my body to the furthering of science
Although I’ll not be there
to chronicle my findings
I can imagine all the students
poring over me:
“My God, is that a liver?
And those brown caulifowers are lungs?”
“Yes, sir, a fine example of how not to live.”
“And what about the brain?”
“Alas the brain. I doubt if this poor sample
ever had one.” As with his forceps
he extracts a single rose.
In the Afterword to Waveforms, his recent collection of haiku and photographs, Pat Boran considers the attractions of keeping it small. Low-res PDF of essay and sample poems from the book, as featured in issue 1 of The Level Crossing. Click HERE to open or download the PDF.
Patrick Deeley shares his thoughts on poetry with Aoife Byrne, following the publication of Groundswell, his New and Selected Poems
(Interview first published in July 2013)
Each collection seems to tie in with a particular period of five or six years in my life. I have to live a bit, to gather fresh experiences as raw materials for poems. So for example the new work in Groundswell, recently published, has to do with my ongoing preoccupations – landscape that’s both rural and urban, stories from history and modernity, meditations on nature and folklore – but now as well there are poems that dwell on ageing, on art and music, on the sustaining of love over time and on the nourishment that comes from a long-lasting love. These themes have come more and more to the forefront.
“I write mainly at night. I enjoy the quietness. The poem often starts with an image, and I build on this and see where it goes.”
I love the physicality of being in the world. I plunge in. Images come of that sensual engagement, but then there’s narrative as well. If I’m lucky the poem gathers to some kind of earned wisdom or insight. After the rush of the initial draft I have a fair idea whether there’s something worth keeping or not. Then I edit. This job of editing is about as much fun as trying to extract a thistle thorn from your finger with a sewing needle – but crucial if the poem is to have a chance.
I spent my childhood in rural East Galway in the late 1950s and early 1960s. My father was mad about machines and timber. He had a sawmill and a carpentry workshop where he made all manner of things – hurleys, furniture, cartwheels, farm implements, even coffins at one stage. I loved watching him shaping wood. My mother as well as being a home-maker did much of the farming. Part of the farm consisted of a Callows or wetland meadow, with its own specialised flora and fauna. I skived off there just to avoid work. Both the beauty and solitude grew on me, and influenced my poems, later – I saw nature in its raw state, up close, at first hand. But the skills my father possessed, and the lives of local people who lived round about us, and their colloquial speech, also chimed with me when I began to write.
My grandmother made ballads. Seumas O’Kelly, a relation of my father’s, wrote the highly regarded novella, The Weaver’s Grave. But there were few books in our house. My parents were pragmatic. They worked hard. They loved talk, the oral tradition. I began to write only after I’d moved to Dublin to train as a teacher. The home place and the memories came back to me unsentimentally. I enjoyed the quickness and the freedom of city life, and that also has shaped my poems. I still return to County Galway every so often, to meet my family. It’s the trigger of childhood memories, but when I splice these with later experiences and events from the present the poem happens out of that.
Landscape is sometimes still the spur, but I’m more interested in how we’ve harnessed and transformed it. My own memories, as well as more general notions about the primordial, can work as a starting point, but the poem must catch and connect the old world up with the possibilities of now. That, for me, is the challenge and the excitement. Somebody remarked that you have to keep glancing around and behind you while reading my poems. I like the implication, the ghost lurking in the machine of the poem at any moment liable to jump out.
Yes. To do with nature, but not simply as nature poems, more a case of how we impact on the earth and how the earth impacts on us. Groundswell: New and Selected has five sections and these sections have themes in common as well as specific themes of their own. In the first section, ‘The Hidden Village’, I address my early life and the lives of my neighbours in Foxhall, the townland where I was born.
In ‘King of the Wood’, trees are the compulsion, for themselves and for the myths and folktales associated with them. These are frequently given a modern twist or written at a slant. My father lost his life in a tree-felling accident, and maybe it was a working out of grief at what had happened that brought me to face up to trees, their beauty and their versatility, their panoply of legends and their mystery, and the sense of loss I felt for my father, with his sawmill and workshop and the machines and implements he had put his hand to left behind as a reminder of him.
In ‘The Flowing Bones’ section I examine aspects of the earth and its creatures at ground level, to find out what makes them tick, and I focus more on city life as well as on the increasing urbanisation of rural Ireland over the past decade or so.
In the fourth section, ‘Fear Bréige’, I’m having a lash at the recent economic disasters that befell our country – using as catalyst a rudimentary scarecrow or ‘Fear Bréige’ who finds himself in Dublin, living with some builders and made to serve as an ineffectual witness of the entire boom and bust.
And in Groundswell, the substantial batch of new poems that comprise the fifth section of the book, well… I’ve talked about some of the themes there earlier.
“I think poetry – the reading and the writing of it – helps to enrich and develop our consciousness.”
In my classroom in Ballyfermot when I was a teacher I encouraged the children to write poems in their own language and out of their own experience, for precisely this sense of personal enrichment – not just in terms of vocabulary but because poetry helps expand our ‘creative space’, where alternative possibilities in the way we live our lives can occur to us.
For my own part, each poem is always a beginning, a shot in the dark. It’s a more studied undertaking now, less fun perhaps because I’m trying to ratchet it up in terms of stretching the language as fully as I can, and deepening the layers of meaning or potential meaning, and aiming for beautiful expression always, even when the world the poem confronts is distasteful or unfair or considered ugly. I hope that the ‘argument’ in my poems has caught up with the imagery, that the wonder remains, and that the payoff for the reader is in finding more pleasure, greater reward in reading the poems.
It depends on the poem, I think. Some poems are slow-burn, and need a good mulling over. Others demand the carry of the air. Others still may fit both forms of presentation. People who attend poetry readings often say that the poem read aloud by the poet enables them to appreciate it more. But then, reading poems aloud to an audience is its own knack, one that not every poet can manage effectively.
A big and happy crowd held spellbound by a poet performing at the top of his or her powers?
“There are several poets I admire, but what I tend to do is return to certain poems which I consider to be great and which I never tire of reading.”
I admire the way Hopkins mints a language to match his restless search, and the passion of John Donne expressed with tremendous technical excellence. The pure vulnerability of Theodore Roethke appeals to me, his lyricism hitting the spot, taking you there. I met him once, when I was a child. He bought drinks for my father and the other men in John Joe Broderick’s pub in Kilrickle.
I’m reading Making Way, a novel by Theo Dorgan, and Savage Solitude, a book about the nature of being alone, by Máighréad Medbh. I’m also reading current issues of The Stinging Fly, Poetry Ireland Review and The Shop – but not just because I happen to have poems in them!
Recently I took early retirement from the job of primary school principal in order to devote more time to writing. Memoir interests me. At some stage I’d like to write about my father’s life – spent, as he would have it, “following tractors and various other contraptions”. I’ve had works of fiction for young people published by O’Brien Press, and if or when the poems leave me alone I may go back to that.
I admire far too many contemporary Irish writers to even begin to mention just a few.
I don’t often meet other poets, except at the occasional book launch or festival. I never discuss my work with them – apart from with my editor, Pat Boran – nor do they discuss their work with me. I do feel that we recognise each other’s struggle, however, and the odd word of praise back or forth for work published does matter, especially from someone whose own work you admire.
The poetry reading public is small but passionate about poetry. I really don’t know what presuppositions there may be out there generally or even among poetry followers, but people who attend poetry readings seem well informed about the contemporary scene. What I would hope for are more informed anthologists, some of whom seem led by media perceptions of ‘who matters’ and ‘whose work is important’. I would in common with other poets also welcome more space for reviews and critical attention for poetry.
I go to various sites including that of The Munster Literature Festival and The Irish Literary Times. Naturally I go to the Dedalus Press website for their ‘Poem of the Month’ and to see what’s up. I often use the Internet to locate the work especially of the poets of old, when I can’t find their poems in books, but I still buy a fair amount of poetry books. I’ve a roomful of them, going back over thirty years.
Apart from the obvious things such as persevering at the craft and reading the work of proven poets, I’d say follow your own path, but with an open mind and out of an emotional imperative.
“Writing poems helps me to stay open to the world. I enjoy the pressure it puts me under, and the pleasure when the poem catches fire. It’s a solitary task and while I tend to be gregarious the solitariness of poem-making draws me in.”
As a child looking at nature, I often fell into a trance. People say of the new poems in Groundswell that the wonder is still there. The poems help me come to terms with things, in a sense preserve the experiences and the wonder. Writing poems is for me an affirmation of the world and of my place in it. And the world, for all its faults and failings, deserves to be sung – passionately, beautifully, even in the cracked voice of a poet.
3 Poems from Groundswell: New and Selected Poems
Again we find ourselves carried away by the thought
of having discovered each other. And in
your garden now this monkey-puzzle, fossil mother
of suburbia, suggests South America.
Wild, we both say, in the parlance of today
or yesterday. Except it all started ages ago – the way
we talked to beat the band, the love play
we wanted to make before the diplodocus that peeped
shyly round a tree could be taken for a common
streetlamp, the blundering brontosaurus
trembling hedge and tarmac become – in a heartbeat
or a time-slip – our last bus back, the one
we might run to catch or contrive to miss on purpose.
Perspectives through sound: a blackbird’s
oath, sworn from a chimney-stack;
the mellifluous coos of woodpigeons
conjuring sunbeams amid high ivy clusters;
a robin’s pipe, happening to approve
of cotoneaster berries. But if the tremulous,
piercing notes of the thrush
are expansions of space and time, rolling me
wide and far, I still hear the magpie’s
screeched assertion from a wall overlooking
the covered-in quarry, that all was
winter yesterday, was stone the day before.
Apollo did the dirt, slew poor old serpent god Python,
whose corpse gradually decomposed – the smell,
initially horrible, had tempered itself by the time
the Sibyl breathed it in, and was now an entrancing perfume.
Rubbish, say the experts, that Delphic whiff
was naturally occurring ethylene. But what a gas, still,
what prophecies came to shape the destinies
of peasants and kings trying to live up or down to them.
And if my wetlands will-o’-the-wisp must turn
to methane, or luminosities glissading my skin as I rise
from the turlough are to pass for algal
fluorescence, they’ve long since exerted their influence.
Here is ground and groundswell, fit matter
for a day’s dalliance or a lifetime spent deliberately looking.
Here we speak to each other because of the river –
not the fact of the river but the mood it pushes,
the clay-coloured flood so deep the heron must step
aside from it, the water-hen retreat under St. Patrick’s cabbage.
And, fresh as Hopkins saw it, ‘Kingfishers catch
fire’, their orange bellies flaring from a blue-plumed bush.