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.’
I recently sat mesmerised while viewing the art film Yellow by performance artist Amanda Coogan and film maker Paddy Cahill at the recently refurbished Limerick City Gallery of Art.
Melville House included Heinrich Boll’s Irish Journal in their book bundle for Saint Patrick’s Day. Boll’s book includes a wonderful sentence about Irish rain: ‘The rain here is absolute, magnificent, and frightening. To call this rain bad weather is as inappropriate as to call scorching sunshine fine weather.’
Irish Journal covers many places, including my current home place in Limerick where Boll described the Shannon rushing along under old bridges: ‘this river was too big, too wide, too wild for this gloomy little town’. Along with the river Shannon, the image of the ‘snow white milk bottle’ throughout the city lingered with Boll after he left Limerick.
But it was in Achill that Heinrich Boll would make his Irish home in 1950s Ireland, in a cottage not far from the Deserted Village where he once visited for five hours and where ‘in ossified hedges fuchsia hung blood-red blossoms’. He was mesmerised by the ‘skeleton of a village’ that seemed to him like a body without hair, eyes, or flesh or blood.
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.
Jo Slade’s biography poem The Artist’s Room traces the artist Gwen John (1876-1939) through Paris at the start of the twentieth-century: ‘I looked for her in Paris…/ walked from place to place, lived the smells, the sounds, / followed a plan I’d drawn.’
A painter-poet, Jo Slade uses her artist’s eye to distill the essence of Gwen John’s biography in a precise poetic structure where the artist’s decade-long relationship with Auguste Rodin is central. ‘Look, she’s holding out a hand to him / something like torture has begun.’
I envy those who, like Jo Slade, can write with a painter’s eye and express themselves with tone and precision in paint or ink: ‘Learning the habit of colour / raw umber, yellow ochre, burnt sienna.’
Sean O’Faolain provocatively wrote in an Introduction to Paul Henry‘s autobiography An Irish Portrait (1951): ‘Very few painters have written books and few of these are satisfying.’ Henry himself had a fascination with writing and finding the exact word to convey his emotions.
Jo Slade’s slim volume portraying Gwen John’s ‘passionate melancholy’ contrasts with the efforts of Mary Taubman – another writer and painter – whose work on the life of Gwen John became a life commitment. When she did publish a book in 1985 it was not the expected comprehensive biography but a succinct monograph covering the events of Gwen John’s life.
Jo Slade says of Gwen John’s artistic impulse: ‘She felt changes of colour, subtleties of tone / each of the other everything seeping together / making the world seamless, complete.’
I recently came on this video with a Halloween flavour. The Banshee lives in the Handball Alley was recorded five years ago by artists Micheal Fortune and Aileen Lambert in three Limerick schools as part of Limerick’s CUISLE Poetry and EV+A Festivals in 2004 and 2005.
Sit back and enjoy the ghostly tales of banshees, headless coachmen, fairy trees, devils and green ladies as the children weave their own distinctive versions of old tales handed down through the generations.
Have you a Banshee story to share?