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Time Lines

24/09/2013 Comments off

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In the Stepping Stones interviews Seamus Heaney spoke to Dennis O’Driscoll about the ‘power of a dividing line’: the line of the first ploughed furrow; the laying of a house foundation; the marking out of a football pitch; the place of sanctuary behind the altar rails; the space between graveyard and road. Lines mark out spaces that are ‘utterly empty, utterly a source’.

Lines loop around and through Jo Slade’s most recent poetry collection The Painter’s House. In the poem ‘Twine’, time is the length of twine her father used ‘to set in straight lines a run of lettuce’; now it is a line that ‘draws distance in and out’, connecting poet and father. The parent’s hand in the earth is a conductor, ‘a bridge across forbidden space’ that reaches out to the writer whose hands are weaving together another line in ‘a braid of words’. 

The Painter’s House is a memoir collection, stretching back to great-grandfather clock-maker Joseph Wangler: ‘his nimble fingers placing the pins / his musical ear timing the cogs / his eye like a moon in the  ocular.’ There is the 1963 scene recalled of the poet’s father, Peter, ‘so beautiful / skating the lake / making a figure of eight’, and that of daughter and fragile mother, ‘her old back bent over / and sometimes the drag was immense – ‘. In ‘Last Journey’, the poet is an observer at the back of a cinema watching those she has loved in life flit across the screen, realizing that she still carries them around: ‘… they weigh me in / but they are blameless as shadows’.

The boundary line that marks the crossover into the artist’s inner space is at the heart of this collection. In the section ‘The Artist’s Room’ (previously published as a chapbook) the writer follows the artist Gwen John through Paris, at the same time pursuing her own artistic impulse: turning inward, becoming ‘so still at the still point’, ‘completeness contained’. In this collection we are led steadily and gracefully across the threshold line, inward into the artist’s house, ‘which is where she sits her easel tilted / to the light and there’s the painting / she makes with a house at its centre / and the nails she feels that hold it together.’

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In the Hag of Beara’s Footsteps

17/08/2011 Comments off

I was back on the Beara Peninsula in West Cork  recently after an absence of over a decade. I had forgotten the shock of seeing the tall remnants of the nineteenth-century copper mine at Allihies astride the rocks and the Atlantic Ocean everywhere I looked.

If my words were inadequate to describe the experience of the physical landscape of Beara, then one writer had no such problems with verbal inadequacy. I had not got round to reading Leanne O’Sullivan’s collection Cailleach – The Hag of Beara, so now was my opportunity to take the collection to the poet’s own place. The subject of the collection is the Hag of Beara, the mythic figure embedded in the Beara landscape: ‘I walk through paw-prints / the frost has dug,  / among the moist grasses, / my silver hair flowing / like a cat’s deep stretch.’

Michael Longley has described these poems as ‘linguistically abundant’, ‘sensuous and religious’, ‘celebratory and erotic’ in these ‘cool cynical times’.The power of the writing comes, in part, from the breathtaking verbs and adjectives that depict the physical landscape of Beara: ‘rain-waxed fields’; ‘the night moistening the darkness’; ‘the pine trees sap the damp air’; the ‘chanting of stone’; ‘ebony in the fleshing sea’.

Ocean and stone are the dominant physical images on Beara and also in this collection where both images mirror the inner personal landscape: ‘The ocean became the beating thing within me;’ ‘layer upon layer, the stone clasps around me, and my eyes fall to where the sea and mountains meet.’

‘Rapture’ is the title of one of the poems in the collection and rapture is a sensation that courses through the writing as the poet – accompanied by the ghost of the Hag of Beara – roams the Beara rocks and seas ‘as if we were not separate’. Go to Beara and clutch Leanne O’Sullivan’s volume in your hand.

Literary Mayo and A Half-Dozen Texts

02/06/2011 Comments off

It looks like good weather for the holiday weekend in Ireland. Time for breaks and trips. I like to link text and place when travelling. As I’m heading off to County Mayo, I thought I would pull together – in a fairly random way – some of my favourite texts linked to some wonderful Mayo places. So here they are – the texts and the places:

Heinrich Boll’s Irish Journal: Head to Achill Island’s Deserted Village and read Boll’s account of how he came upon this ‘skeleton of a human habitation’ that nobody had mentioned to him and where ‘the elements have eaten away everything not made of stone’. There’s a new edition of Irish Journal out with a fine Introduction by Hugo Hamilton.

J. M. Synge Travelling Ireland: Take this book to Erris and read the essays Synge wrote when he visited there in 1905 with Jack Yeats – travelling by long car from Ballina to Belmullet. This edition of the essays – edited by Nicholas Greene, with fine illustrations – was published in 2009.

Paul Henry’s An Irish Portrait: Take a boat from Blacksod to the deserted Inishkea Islands off the Mullet Peninsula where Henry travelled while a visitor to Achill in the early nineteenth century and wrote a graphic account of the whaling station.  Paul Henry’s book is out of print but is available in many libraries and can be purchased on-line.

Michael Viney, Wild Mayo: Take a journey through Mayo’s landscape and wildlife with this wonderful account packed with great illustrations from the writer/naturalist who lives in Thallabawn.

Michael Longley, A Hundred Doors: In his latest collection the Northern Ireland poet brings a fresh perspective to the place he has long frequented – the Mayo townland of Carrigskeewaun: ‘Where sand from the white strand and the burial ground / Blows in.’

Graham Greene, The End Of The Affair: It is sixty years since this book was first published. Inspired by the affair Greene had with Catherine Walston, the cottage they occasionally shared still stands in Dooagh, Achill at the very edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

I would love to hear stories of other texts linked to favourite Mayo places.

Obama In Ireland: Words to Consider, Reconsider

25/05/2011 Comments off

Controversy has a way of revolving  around words in Ireland in a strange way. Even when Barak Obama,  President of the United States, visits we get caught up in a national debate about Enda Kenny’s welcoming speech in College Green, Dublin, and his use of Barak Obama’s very own words.

But, An Taoiseach’s gift of words to the Obamas was inspired: a copy of Padraic Colum’s Legends of Hawaii for their daughters, Malia and Sasha. In 1922, as a new independent Irish State was taking shape, the Hawaiian legislature commissioned Padraic Colum to collect myths and legends from their State and write them as children’s stories. Dr Padraic Whyte of Trinity College, remarking  during the week about the appropriateness of the gift for the Obamas, said that ‘myths not only explain where we come from, but they can also guide us to where we want to go to.’

I have my own connection with words and Barak Obama and Enda Kenny’s native County Mayo. For, on the day of President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, I made a trip to the Erris Peninsula – in the footsteps of John Millington Synge – while I listened on radio to Obama’s inauguration ceremony.

It was the inauguration verse of the Harlem-born poet, Elizabeth Alexander, that caught my imagination on the car radio in Erris that day: ‘We encounter each other in words, words / spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed, / words to consider, reconsider.’

Obama – and The Queen – have gone. We are left with the images, and the words,  and the controversy.

I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This

08/05/2011 Comments off

 

Mae Leonard’s new book of poetry makes me think of a patchwork quilt – places, family, history, tragedies and quirky events all woven into a wonderful and seamless whole. I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This has just been published by Doghouse Books and was launched at Limerick’s On the Nail Readings event where Mae read with the intensity of a sean-nos singer.

Listeners to Sunday Miscellany will be familiar with Mae’s home place of ‘The parish’, Limerick, and this collection breathlessly moves between that city and her current home ‘doing ninety, somewhere / between Limerick and Naas’ with an occasional digression into County Clare or Kerry. But it is Limerick that is in her blood as, miles away, elbows leaning on the kitchen table : ‘I cross O’Dwyer Bridge / down into Athlunkard Street / loving the damp smell / of the Abbey River.’

The book is punctuated with images of public violence  and grief: Veronica Guerin’s murder; John O’Grady’s ‘mutilated hand’ and the Curragh search for the missing woman Joyce Quinn at night with ‘a threat of snow / sharpening the breeze’. 

It is the pieces about family that made this reader have many an intake of breath: an elderly mother ‘slipping into a carelessness / in dress and cleanliness’; a man’s early morning shave ‘erasing stubble / from awkward places’; a sixteen-year old heading to a disco ‘in her best mini-dress / an outsize seater / her hair a mess’; emptying out treasures like ‘four dead ants’ from a trouser pocket on wash day.

Delightful story-poems shot through with a poet’s quirky insights.

Writing Too Much About Carrigskeewaun

09/04/2011 Comments off

Michael Longley’s new volume A Hundred Doors is slim and snug and almost weightless in the hand. He returns again, almost apologetically, to a place that changed his life: ‘I am writing too much about Carrigskeewaun.’

He is there for the millennium, at Christmas, at lambing time, and – for the first time – with his new grandson Benjamin: ‘This is your first night at Carrigskeewaun. / The Owennadornaun is so full of rain / You arrived in Paddy Morrisson’s tractor’.

And then abruptly, we are in the Berg Room at New York’s Public Library where Longley peeks at the field note-books of the war and nature poet Edward Thomas: ‘A shell blast killed Edward Thomas, a gust / That still rifles the pages in the library.’

At the end of the collection the poet loops back to Carrigskeewaun and imagines a time when ha has left the place for the last time: ‘I hope you discover something I’ve overlooked, / Greenshanks, say, two or three elegantly probing / Where sand from the white strand and the burial ground / Blows in.’

Ireland’s Largest Single Literary Event

27/03/2011 Comments off

So said Margaret Hayes, Dublin City Librarian at the opening of the DublinSwell event in the city’s gleaming, green-lit, Convention Centre last week. This, she said, was Ireland’s largest literary event ever.

It was a celebration of Dublin’s listing as a UNESCO City of Literature – one of only four cities in the world to receive this designation.  A happy audience of some 2,000, led by President Mary McAleese, gathered to listen to Dublin poets, musicians, writers and actors.

I had a few quibbles, like the half-hour delay in getting the programme underway, our seats being double-booked and the blaze of gore in the visuals of Iran that accompanied Mike Scott’s rendering of Yeats poems.

The poets were my stars of the night. Seamus Heaney read ‘Postscript’, one of my favourite Heaney poems: ‘As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways / And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.’  We had Paul Durcan’s tragic-comic verses, Dermot Bolger’s tribute to his late wife, Paula Meehan’s earthy Dublin lines, Biddy Jenkinson’s poems as Gaeilge and verse-drama excerpts from Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus.

The President spoke of ‘Brilliant’ – Roddy Doyle’s short story that was the inspiration for Dublin’s Saint Patrick’s Festival 2011 parade. The word could be applied to DublinSwell. Great to be there.

See details of full DublinSwell programme and review here.

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