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New Poetry from Ireland: Paddy Bushe, Vona Groarke & Róisín Kelly

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Paddy Bushe’s Second Sight reviewed by David Cooke

Second Sight by Paddy Bushe. £11. Dedalus Press. ISBN: 978-1910251676

Paddy Bushe’s To Ring in Silence, New and Selected Poems, published by Dedalus Press in 2008, was a welcome opportunity to catch up with the work of an Irish poet of wide-ranging interests and meditative depth. Since then, he has published two more collections of his poetry in English, the latest of which, Peripheral Vision, is published simultaneously with Second Sight, his selected poems in Irish. This consists of forty-nine Irish-language poems which Bushe has translated himself or, in effect, reworked into his own English poems. Most Irish poets make a decision to write either in English or Irish. One thinks of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill or Cathal Ó Searcaigh, for example, who write exclusively in Irish. Famously, of course, there was the case of Michael Hartnett who agonised over his ‘farewell to English’ and then ten years later returned to it. Bushe, however, who has published three collections of poetry in Irish seems more relaxed and, like Beckett who wrote in French and English, has found a way of accommodating two languages. So, whether or not one has any competence in Irish, Second Sight is a useful and substantial addition to Bushe’s published works.

The book is divided into four sections which seem to be organised thematically rather than in any strict chronological order. In the opening section there are poems dedicated to fellow poets in Irish and its sister language, Scots Gaelic. However, this should not be seen as an indication that Bushe’s concerns are parochial, far from it. In ‘A Postcard from the Himalaya’, we see him engaging with the Buddhist culture of Kathmandu. In ‘Fairytale’, he hints at similarities between Celtic and Eastern mysticism, when a change in the weather suggests the foul mist of a sly witch, a darkness that has to be dissipated by the forces of good:

The truth will loosen, and dark will turn
Towards the light once more in Kathmandu.

In ‘A raucous note to Cathal’ he notes the similarity between ‘cág’ and ‘kaag’, the words for ‘crow’ in Irish and Nepalese. Already in this opening section we see the first of several poems informed by ecological cocerns. In ‘The Green Goddess of Orsay’, the subject of the poem is a tutelary deity of the natural world:

See, poet, she comes towards you,
xxxxYour own woodland deity, moist
xxxxxxxxWith the wood’s mossy greenness.

In ‘Homage to Sorley MacLean’, he emphasises that poet’s close connection with landscape and the history associated with it:

Nettles and briars felt a stirring
In the ruins their roots encircled,
As bardic utterance awakened
The spark in dormant embers.

In ‘A Quick Trip into Screapadal’ he acknowledges the historic reality of the Highland Clearances and then touches upon more recent waves of materialism: ‘The swagger of wealth and the pillage of the markets.’ In ‘Stranded’, his bleak vision reminds one of the  Derek Mahon, as he warns us that one day we may ‘subsist again / On dogfish, scrapings from shells.’

The second section opens with a delightful narrative about a Buddhist Monk who guides a flock of ducks back to water, after they have lost their way. Again, there seems an affinity between Buddhism and the traditions of early Irish monasticism with its hermit poets who celebrated nature and expressed their love for all God’s creatures. In the next poem, however, this idyll is set against the nightmare of Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, when the voices of individuals, like ‘Thousands of giddy bamboo flutes’, were drowned out by  ‘One enormous brass trumpet’. ‘At the Bridge Made in Heaven’ is a poem underpinned by the Buddhist’s search for wisdom and the importance of transcending artificial barriers: ‘There will be no severance. In spite of borders, / Travellers, you have arrived in the realm of bridges.’ ‘Translating Buddha in der Glorie’ is about Bushe’s attempts to recreate Rilke’s poem in both Irish and in English, the results of which can be found in To Ring in Silence. This is followed by some engaing evocations of the natural world: ‘White Egrets’, ‘A Tale of Horses’ and the marvellous ‘Actic Hare’ until, in ‘Out of the Blue’, Bushe strikes a more admonitory note:

The new flood will surge, godless, out of the blue
From the northwest, a all our own.
Our treachery will turn on us, late or soon.

The third section opens with ‘Easter Proclamation’. As it was for Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, it would seem that history is a nightmare from which our poet, also, is trying to escape: ‘In the name of God and the deadly / Dead generations, / Enough is enough;’ while ‘Badger’ is a remarkable anthropomorphic poem which describes a certain kind of self-defensive mentality that cuts itself off from everything that makes life worth living:

Badger likes not those who like wine or poetry
xxxxFor fear an unauthorised torch might illuminate his tunnel.

Subsequently, however, this is balanced by the positive energy and optimistic vision of the poems that follow it. In ‘Surprised by Joy on the Isle of Barra, the poet comes up with a lovely Wordsworthian equivalent for ‘geit athais’ in the title of the original. Evoking a flock of oystercatchers, the poem’s conclusion is exhilarating:

I stayed awhile watching them,
Sifting for a word to encompass
The serendipity that infused the air
And land and water. All at once,
My heart piped up, and away it flew.

‘Night Prayer’ with its tone of unassuming domesticity is a wise and heartening celebration of everyday life: ‘I offer up thanks for the miraculous day I have just passed.’

In the final section Bushe returns to Celtic myth and, in particular, the early Irish Book of Invasions. Having adapted the famous litany of Amergin he moves on, in ‘Éarannán Speaks’, to assume the voice of his brother, who first glimpsed the island of Ireland but was turned into a rock before he made it ashore. The poem is a tour de force in which a mythological figure is brought to life with passion and energy, yet reminding us, notheless, that that natural world will persist long after all trace of us has vanished:

I go back farther than race memories,
Barely here on Carraig Eanna. But listen:
There is mettle in the rock, day after day,
Not found in the longest of long-lasting words.

Equally memorable are his evocations of female presences in the landscape, such as the ‘Wailing Woman, Skellig Michael’, a grieving women who, like an Irish counterpart of the Greek Niobe, was transformed into a rock. And yet, for all her sorrows, the conclusion, as so often in Bushe’s work, is serene and optimistic: ‘I value the innocence of morning light / More than the dearly bought knowledge of evening darkness.’ In a review directed primarily at the monoglot English reader, there is no space to explore some of the ways in which Bushe has found ways of recreating in English the music of his originals. Nonetheless, Second Sight contains a substantial selection of Bushe’s work in English and is a welcome introduction to one of the finest poets writing in Ireland. It is well worth the attention of English readers.

David Cooke’s most recent collection of poetry is Staring at a Hoopoe published this year by Dempsey and Windle.  He is the editor of The High Window.

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Vona Groarke’s Double Negative reviewed by Neil Elder

Double Negative by Vona Groarke. £10.50. The Gallery Press. ISBN 978-191133760711

A double negative, intended or not, will produce a positive, and Vona Groarke’s collection ‘Double Negative’ demonstrates this by exploring some bleak parts of life, particularly the feeling of ageing, but somehow finding there is often a softening of the hardships faced if one learns to notice things that can give comfort.

Time is ebbing away in these poems, and Groarke is conscious of the battle against being pushed out of one’s own story. Hence, I assume, the number of poems whose title is ‘Against …’. Rather than raging against the dying of the light, Vona Goroarke hits out at a spectrum of mindsets and emotional states, from ‘Against Anxiety’ to ‘Against Vanity’, via ‘Against Darkness’.

The poems meet the notion of growing older with a certain stoicism and defiant humour. A number of the poems seem haunted by thoughts of the past, in particular a mother figure who Groarke seems resigned to almost becoming in old age:

Then I stop coughing
And hearing my heartbeat whooshing
In my right ear,
Stop thinking I’m me
Before I was born
And I am in my mother now
And that’s the end of that.
(Poem with My Mother and Frank O’Hara)

It is in the details that the poems work most pleasingly, the way something small becomes the object, and it is this detail that one must cling to. In ‘Against Despair’, a poem where the past “sets you down” and impinges on the present, as with several others in the collection, there is the realisation that:

The best you can hope for
Is a warm day,
Good news of this or that
(Against Despair)

In a number of the poems days seem fuzzy with the movement between memory and present, but the cumulative effect of the work is a tone of quiet defiance; defiance against whatever age brings, so that the collection is curiously uplifting at points, and perhaps this note is best exemplified in the short poem ‘The Lash’ in which a grey eyelash becomes emblematic of age and ‘this little fucker is the future now / and it knows all about you.’

There are some lovely vignettes in here, and I particularly enjoyed the tale of moving house, putting items into storage, as told in ‘Self-Storage’. Opening with ‘I send my past to the lock-up’ the poem becomes a prompt for us to wonder how we allow ourselves to be defined by belongings so that once the house is empty Groarke is left looking into a room, empty but for a mirror, and ‘the mirror / has me in it, or what’s left of me.’ An interesting train of thought runs through ‘Stone Trees’ whereby objects that hold memory and meaning are seen to less certain than the absolute certainty that ‘Death, for all its pretty names and intricate patterns, holds us to a promise.’

The collection, and it is a densely packed collection, one that might have benefited from being shorter so that the good work is not undermined by a sense of having been in this poem before, ends with ‘Aftermath Epigrams’ a series of thoughts that are a mix of the whimsical and the weighty. Many, such as ‘I inhale the fumes of cars on the bridge. / Who says I live alone?’ feel relevant and nearly all feel like neat bows with which to tie together the strands that run through this collection whose opacity is shot through with some lovely observations.

Neil Elder’s The Space Between Us won the Cinnamon Press debut prize 2018. Other publications include Codes of Conduct (Cinnamon Press 2015), and Being Present (Black Light Engine Room 2017). His latest work, And The House Watches On has just been published.

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Róisín Kelly’s Mercy reviewed by Sheila Hamilton

Mercy by Róisín Kelly. £9.95. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 978-1780375007

It is always a pleasure to be introduced to a new poet and the advance blurb for this collection in particular had whetted my appetite, what with its mention of the poet reaching through her Catholic background to (implicitly deeper) pagan roots. The opening poem, which gives the book its title, sets this tone from the first stanza:

On the beach, I undress in the dark.
Naked and blind before the gods, below too many stars.

Here is my body, which I was told to never touch.
An Orthodox shrine glows red by the closed coffee truck.

But as the Aegean comes to my hips, rises within me,
my movements stir luminous plankton or algae:

bright opal specks in the water
that drift from my wrists, around my cold breasts.

They glow and swirl and die like shooting stars,
turned on by my nakedness. They are kind.

So, immediately, we have: sensuality and sexuality, the Mediterranean ( locus of several more poems), a first-person voice and, crucially, a collision of life-denying, puritanical, Catholicism with a softer, kinder paganism in the broad sense of that word: .not a specific god but gods, not a constrained set of codified-by-a-hierarchy experiences but a series of experiences personal to the poet as an individual. Straight after the first poem ‘Mercy’, we find ourselves in Ireland, the poet’s home (‘June comes to the sky above Leitrim’) but then, soon enough, are transported to several locales that are clearly elsewhere. Some are distinctly Mediterranean. ‘Pine needles make quiet the old Roman road’ we read in ‘Dominio Vale do Montego’ while in ‘Guarda”’there are wrinked plums, church bells, ‘a black-shawled widow.’ Ireland peeps through again but then we are back to the Mediterranean. There is a longing for gods in ‘The Cave of Melassini’:

Miniature temple with twenty white pillars,
what can I worship here?

And at least equally important as the longing for gods, there is the love of a specific human beloved who is rooted in such landscapes. In ‘Ithaca’, surely leaping off Cavafy’s poem, Kelly looks toward the future, wherever it may be, with the beloved:

Think of the cast-iron kettle, the small
painted jug filled with flowers;

the tabby cat unlike any other cat
because she will belong to us.

The Irish-ness of the poet and the European-ness of the poet are two strong threads running through the collection. Of course, such identities can never be disparate, with each hermetically sealed off from the other, and so it is here: each identity interweaves with the other. This interweaving is most clearly seen in the poem ‘Tropical Ravine House in Belfast Botanic Gardens, a gorgeous poem that works on several levels. It is a love poem to the beloved (‘You are as rare as any shrub/or plant here, in which strange land did you grow?’) and also a love poem to the Botanic Gardens themselves with their “crystal house”and abundance of rare plants. The lovers themselves become as one with the glasshouse (‘We are as rich as the ferns’ and ‘shining/within our glass home’), become more than the sum of their parts, their everyday selves:

We have left behind the flags of two countries,
the cafes where each couple shares

a pot of tea and a bun, a wee bun.
I am feeding you such sweet crumbs

between the damp plants.

The first-person pronoun is used throughout the book and in a way which is clearly autobiographical: there are no personas here, no dramatic monologues. The poet sometimes speaks directly and without pretension to the reader, and sometimes to us via the beloved , and it is often an intimate voice, yet there is no trace of narcissism in the poems, none of the navel-gazing and self-absorption which characterizes so much English-language poetry at the present time and which is, to my mind at least, very limiting and unsatisfying once you go beyond the superficial tricks. Though many of these poems concern intimate life (the family, the lover, the home), they do not close themselves off from the wider world and the experiences of others.

In the poem ‘Tuam’ the poet, in Cambodia, is visiting Choeung Ek, one of the notorious ‘Killing Fields’ in which more than a million people were murdered by the Kymer Rouge during the 1970s. And in the poem, this infamous place, place of almost unimaginable horror (‘our guide points out/the sugar palm’s serrated leaves-/good for cutting throats.. .’) suggests and, up to a point, merges with another infamous place, the mass grave in County Galway which has yielded a large number of as-yet not-identified human remains which almost certainly are those of babies and small children sent to the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home as part of Irish government policy up until very recent times. In times of rain, the Cambodian guide points out, bones and teeth and pathetic scraps of clothing sometimes appear in the mud; much as they might do in Tuam, we infer. There are even coloured bracelets attached to some of the Choeung Ek trees, much like the ones familiar to anyone who has travelled in rural Ireland and other Celtic places. “Our guide/says look, but I do not want to look.” Such subject-matter in the wrong hands could feel exploitative, even crass, but the poet here acts as (reluctant) observer and offers (modestly, without fanfare) an elegy for the faceless and the nameless.

This is a fine collection.

Sheila Hamilton graduated from the University of East Anglia in 1989 with a degree in French and German, lived and worked in Hungary for two years, then in Scotland for several more years and currently lives in the North West of England. Her poems have been widely published. Her most recent full collection, The Spirit Vaults, came out from Green Bottle Press in 2017. Her most recent pamphlet, Lotus Moon With Blossom, was published by 4Word in 2019.

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