Q&A: Reverse Emigration
Tell us what you mean in your description of your fellow passengers as “Uncle Tom.” From what “tribe” is he, and are you?
A particular gene pool. The poem describes the “type”: a florid complexion, glossy, bright eyes, unruly hair: clones of my Uncle Tom who owned a candy store in Hawthorne, New Jersey. Somewhere I came across a reference for Quigley—my paternal grandmother’s name—as a clan of people with wild hair, which my sister saw as vindication. This way of thinking is totally reductive, totally unfaithful to what is true to the Ireland of today. That’s the gene pool mindset: tribal and small. But that flash of genetic recognition is also the ignition of kinship, which might not only be tribal and small or small-minded. Kinship is stretchier, contains potential for extension, for outward travel.
Where is the “interior” to which you are all driving?
It’s the last line of my favorite Bishop poem, “Arrival at Santos.” She placed it first in Questions of Travel:
the unassertive colors of soap, or postage stamps—
wasting away like the former, slipping the way the latter
do when we mail the letters we wrote on the boat,
either because the glue here is very inferior
or because of the heat. We leave Santos at once;
we are driving to the interior.
The psychic freight of travel. The frivolity of ports (and aircraft), what today would be called “liminal” or “placeless” places but we put up with them. Door frames. The poem is interested in where the plane is headed, reversing the emigrant journey. All the first-generation immigrants of our suburb of Paterson, New Jersey, seemed to lean forward into a prosperous future. The (mostly) European past was poor, hard, and sepia. The “interior” also has colonial overtones. But simply and most especially it refers to travel of the inward direction. Where poems head.
The poem mentions the great Irish poets W.B.Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh, and Seamus Heaney in the context of their handwriting as reproduced on the upholstery of seats on an Aer Lingus aircraft. What do these poets mean to you as an Irish poet writing today? Is it shocking to see their words used to market Irish culture?
Yes, you’re right: Aer Lingus is using Irish culture not only to put bums on seats but also to cushion them. I have flown quite a few air miles deciphering that upholstery and wondering where it was manufactured and who chose the particular specimens, how Aer Lingus subcontracted out that job, how many bolts of that cloth were printed, etc.
The marketing of Irish culture is more a source of fascination than shock. The Poles are at it too; the handwriting motif has become a visual cliche for a nation’s literary prowess. But the fact that Ireland has a vibrant culture is still something to embrace, upholstery notwithstanding.
Of the three poets that the poem mentions, Seamus Heaney has meant much especially. Living in the Border counties, I had to work a bit to pry Yeats and Kavanagh away from a certain mythologizing in order to truly hear them in their humanity. The region’s tourist boards have “enclosed” areas of the landscape for certain writers. It creates a strange complexity of associations in the locality. A brown fingerboard depicting a quill in an inkwell alerts you to the high literary content of a certain spot. Ben Bulben is poised on that slippery slope. It’s this strange, brooding hulk on the horizon, something that never fails to wow when it first comes into view. From the sea it can look like an enormous green brioche. In the act of looking at it, you hear the jingle for “Discover Sligo” or whatever the current ad campaign is and you hear “Horseman pass by!” all fizzing in your head. Complexity and contradiction in the landscape are not just urban phenomena.
More than anything, though, this island is a language picnic. The Irish still relish good conversation and debate, the way Italians relish a good meal. You find the most skillful employment of language, such timing, wit, and flourish, and all in the normal course of daily life. I find speech to be more variegated, less processed here than in some other countries, where spoken English can sound emptied, like a husk. The shifts in accent fifty miles in any direction are wonderful. Speech is an erotic force here, a live culture. It’s sustaining.
What do you mean by “the maw”?
The jaws of the beast, the belly of the whale. A family history with some links missing in the chain and the sense that there was deprivation and terror. In my particular story also, turning toward poetry after having turned away from it for a time. Moving all those books down from the higher shelves to eye level. Sensing one’s life beckoning and, finally, turning toward that life, facing whatever pain or uncertainty or sacrifice it requires. Holy shit.
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This poem originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Poetry magazine