Q&A: Developers

Can you tell us more about what Emmanuel Levinas, the philosopher, said about our needing each other, and how it relates to the land development and greed described in the poem?

Levinas entered my orbit from a few different angles, as did the word “alterity,” one of his key concepts. Simon Critchley’s parsing of Levinas’s thought helped me most, particularly this: “the inside of my inside is somehow outside, the core of my subjectivity is exposed to otherness.” It’s such a lofty notion though, like a gorgeous kite fluttering high above. Then at the 2009 Venice Biennale, I saw Krzysztof Wodiczko’s video installation Goście (Guests). Wodiczko used a simple trope of projecting onto the solid walls of the Polish Pavilion enormous “windows” behind which silhouettes perform a choreography of custodial jobs. In Wodiczko’s project, the shadows are immigrant workers, and the piece is a critique of European xenophobia, but it goes beyond that single reading. The whole installation drove attention to the divide between us and them: how if we didn’t turn our attention toward these ghostly “others,” we were left in complete darkness. It created an astonishing intimacy, making physical “the inside of my inside is somehow outside,” reducing our dilemma to a milky scrim of glass. It was beautiful and simple. It punched me in the gut. Levinas’s gorgeous kite came to ground. 

In a similar way, the rows of glowing doorbells, which are the only lights seen at night in the vacant housing estates of my village, made me think of all the guests who were “invited” to buy holiday homes here and who aren’t rsvp-ing. Were they really wanted, and if not, why were so many houses built? There’s a sense of complete lopsidedness to the overdevelopment, of self-obsession and inconsideration. 

Would you mind explaining a bit about the image of the elbow and arms in the second and third stanzas? Whose are they? What are the messages?

It’s a conflation of speech I’ve absorbed from people close to me here, one from Aberdeen, one from Armagh. My friend Hazel Walker, a Scottish artist, says you should use your foot to push open the door when you go visiting because you’re carrying too many nice things—say, oatcakes, honey, and cheese. By extension, you’d have to ring the doorbell with an elbow. And my husband, who’s from County Armagh, says he’s going out to the shop for “messages,” by which he means milk, the newspaper, bread, etc. When I first heard the expression, I understood it as simply “errands,” but it’s also used to refer to the actual stuff one buys, so messages become physical things of unknown character.

Some of the phrases you use, e.g., “Tayto/tumbleweeds, bin bags,” and so on, seem distinctly related to an Irish landscape. But the phenomenon of development is virtually universal. How tethered to a particular place is the poem? Are there other poets or poems that come to mind, say perhaps John Clare, when writing about enclosure?

The poem was written in and around my village in North Roscommon, which had been a sleepy settlement on a backwater of the River Shannon. Distinguishing and enchanting the village was an open, triangular field at its center, known locally as the church field or “Henry’s field.” (The Catholic church and Henry’s Pub hug one end of it.) It had once been a place where people quarried limestone. In more recent years it was empty or rented occasionally for cattle to graze. The former parish priest was a great traveler, and we used to joke that Henry’s field was our version of Piazza del Campo in Siena. During the boom, there came an onslaught of urban-style, semi-detached housing estates with aspirational, patrician names. They were intended for holiday makers and were hawked to come with a “free” speedboat and a helicopter landing pad. I even saw a real estate agent’s brochure that designated, as an amenity to the village, the police barracks where the writer John McGahern grew up, as part of the “view” one would buy. If you knew anything of McGahern’s life in that barracks, you’d understand the crassness of that marketing idea. Anyhow, the field is now home to what is called a “ghost estate”—a vacant housing development.

John Clare is apt, but he wasn’t in my mind. McGahern was. His story “Korea” is a perfect parable of greed, and it’s set in the village. The rhythms of his prose are all over this landscape. Another sort of enclosure, you could say. A pleasurable one. Also William Meredith, with whom I was fortunate to have studied. Meredith used to say that the hippies were right, the two most important things were to love one another and not lie, but what they forgot to mention was that they were also the hardest things to learn. That came to mind when considering the word “development.”

What do you mean by “authorized voice”? 

A couple of things. One, that none of us is “authorized” for development, for living, and the process of gaining any authority is provisional and untidy, at least in my case. We fly crooked as the cabbage-white butterfly, with “honest idiocy” as Robert Graves put it.

And in the sense that is specific to the locale, the phrase evokes a time not so long ago when all the notices for planning permission went up around the village, and people had a hard time speaking out against the plans as it would mean “causing ructions” with neighbors. There was a sense of locals being tongue-tied, having no “authorized” voice as had the county council’s planning officers or the real estate developers or the journalists. There was at that moment a particularly fascinating complex of language and power relations. Because I am a “blow-in” (an outsider), local people were often more candid with me since I wasn’t part of the complex of allegiances formed over the generations. Only recently a neighbor whom I hadn’t seen in a while, after the usual chat about the bad weather and local news, swept her arm toward the ghost estate and said, “Alice, we shoulda shouted louder.” 

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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