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Reading List: September 2015
At the moment I’m in the middle of three books. The first is a huge, stylish-looking book of photographs called Portrait of the Writer, which contains a wide range of pictures of famous authors, arranged in alphabetical order. There is a photograph of Apollinaire, taken by Picasso in his studio in 1910, and one of Proust on his deathbed, taken by Man Ray in 1922. It’s the little details which are intriguing: Mayakovsky, sitting on a stool wearing a suit, holding his hat and a cigarette, with a shaved head and lace-up army-style boots. Look closely and you can see that his breast-pocket is crammed with pens.
The second is a new poetry collection, Steep Tea, by New York-based Singapore poet Jee Leong Koh. Particularly striking about this book is the way that every poem has an epigraph; brief quotations chosen from a diverse set of sources. The impression is of a writer for whom reading represents a vital part of the creative process. One of my favorites, “Found Poem” makes direct and skillful use of a book about Anna Wickham. Here, Koh arranges his extracts to build a poem that is strange, beautiful, and tragic: “It was a troublesome idea that you were not so different. Your son, the baby, denied it, who found you in the dark.”
The third is About Love, Chekhov’s short stories translated by Rosamund Bartlett. I once went to a lecture by Bartlett about her translations of Chekhov in which she discussed her desire to retain all of the “impressionistic rows of dots” with which Chekhov’s sentences end. Now I can compare “The Lady with the Little Dog” (trans. Bartlett) with “Lady with Lapdog” (trans. Magarshack), and decide if “Let’s go to your room” means something different to “Let’s go to your place.”
For me reading is too often a juggling act, but at the moment I’m mainly in Robert Fagles’s translation of The Iliad. I’d read his Odyssey already, and earlier this summer his Aeneid, so I more or less knew what to expect with his loosely blank-verse, more idiomatic approach. If I remember correctly it took Fagles almost a decade to translate each of Homer’s epics, suitably echoing the length of the Trojan War, and the length of Odysseus’s voyage home to Ithaca. You can see why: hundreds of decisions are made by the page, not just in faithfully translating Greek to English, but in also choosing the right modern English words/locutions against Homer’s original. That requires real judgment. It’s a marvelous piece of work. Especially for readers, like me, without any formal education in the Classics. And Bernard Knox’s introduction is one of the finest on Homer we possess. “War – I know it well,” Hector says in Book 7. Knox could have said the same, given his own experience serving in the Spanish Civil War and WWII, which subtly informs his reading. Mighty stuff.
Aside from this I’ve found myself rereading—MacNeice, Yeats, Graves, Lowell… Older poets, I suppose, with a strong formal bent I can learn a thing or two from. I was made a present of MacNeice’s Collected Poems last Christmas, and at odd moments I’ve been reading by the Canto his—OK long, but still underappreciated—Autumn Sequel. Autumn Journal fell into my hands at just the right moment a good while back—my first real brush with the poet—and left me breathless. Autumn Sequel is underrun by different more settled tragedies than Journal, I think, but then it’s another beast altogether: a man facing the “middle stretch” as he calls it, his friends dying around him, elegiac yet determined, tenacious, insistent on its verbal pyrotechnics. It was a really ambitious yet freewheeling project.
And she can stare for hours at a polished stone
And see all heaven in the grain of a table;
At times she is monolingual, monotone,
At others mistress of the Tower of Babel;
She prefers the halt and the blind, the fanatical ones
And the simple-minded to the merely able…
I am writing this high in the mountains of eastern Switzerland at a time of uncertainty and sadness in my partner’s family. For years I had neglected to read Matsuo Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but I picked up a copy of Nobuyuki Yuasa’s translation before leaving Belfast. The beauty and serenity of my surroundings—tall pines, rivers sounding in the middle distance—plays off an anticipatory grief and I find a deep resonance in Bashō’s outlook:
Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there.
This requisite self-forgetfulness brings Heaney’s “St Kevin and the Blackbird” to mind (a poem I hold as a talisman of sorts) and I see something of this in the two books of poetry that have had the greatest effect on me in the last year: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Ciarán Carson’s From Elsewhere. The importance of Rankine’s book is widely asserted and I will simply add that I believe its lexical simplicity—or dearth of affectation—matched with a precision of observation are crucial to this work of personal and civic complexity. From Elsewhere consists of 81 translations from the French poems of Jean Follain (1903–1971) and an accompanying “spin” on each poem. It seems to me now that there is something of Bashō’s linked verse in Carson’s approach. The destruction of Follain’s native Saint-Lô finds a distorted mirror in Carson’s Belfast; Carson’s pared-back register makes way for a spectrality, an elsewhere-ishness, that foregrounds the fragility of existence. These are books through which one can learn or re-learn how to live. I am reminded, through the observation of these poets, of the famous and much-quoted line from the Fenian Cycle:
“The music of what happens,” said great Fionn, “that is the finest music in the world.”
Everywhere I go comes a haversack of books. If my workday allows I’ll sneak away to a cafe for an hour to write. If I’m blocked I will turn to three pocket-sized photographic monographs—I have a collection of about forty such books. This week I’m carrying André Kertész, Martin Parr, and Boris Mikhailov. I’ll open each at random, stare at the photograph until I can write about it. If I can devise a narrative or argument which links all three I have the first draft of a poem replete with turns of phrase and connected ideas which wouldn’t have emerged otherwise. I also carry several poetry collections to act as tuning forks before I write. This week it is the Faber selection of Szymborska, Kim Moore’s If We Could Speak Like Wolves, Lo Kwa Mei-en’s The Yearling, and Gerald Stern’s This Time. What I write ends up sounding little like my tuning forks but avoids too prosaic a tone. Thomas McCarthy recently steered me in the direction of Levertov’s The Poet in The World and I am enjoying the essays therein, even if I don’t find myself always in agreement. I’m contemplating a trip to Madagascar and was delighted to discover Coleen J. McElroy’s Over the Lip of the World—Among the Storytellers of Madagascar. McElroy is a poet herself, so poetry occupies a central dimension here.
I have had a couple of Mark Strand books on my shelves for years and am now catching up on the entire oeuvre with his recently released Collected Poems; savoring his crisp, brief, ironic narratives. Also new on my shelf is Jack Underwood’s Happiness, a work which I believe has successfully absorbed the poetic strategies of the likes of Strand, Simic, Sweeney, and the Polish poets of the last century. A couple of years ago I discovered Paisley Rekdal on this website and ordered her Animal Eye—an impressively accomplished work where the compulsion to narrate seems to vie with the compulsion to argue and philosophize. Rekdal is coming to www.corkpoetryfest.net next February so I’m working my way through the back catalogue and currently enjoying The Invention of the Kaleidoscope; marveling at her unabashed mining of biography for poems bristling with uncomfortable truths. Never off my bedside stand these days is Juene Poésie d’Irlande—Poètes du Munster 1960-2015—a bilingual anthology.
For the last few months, I’ve been writing in collaboration with the English poet S.J. Fowler. I dip frequently into Fowler’s exuberant and bewildering book, The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner. Our project, which is prompted and overshadowed by the atomic bomb, has led me to all sorts of interesting reading. In Daniel Swift’s Bomber County, Swift tries to comprehend his grandfather’s involvement in the World War II bombing of Germany, in part by a thoughtful (and at times heart-stopping) reading of the era’s poetry. I’ve also found myself re-reading Inger Christensen’s incredible long poem Alphabet, translated by Susanna Nied.
At the start of the summer, I was privileged to share a poetry reading at the University of Liverpool with Eoghan Walls. Walls’s alarmingly good first collection, The Salt Harvest, has been a companion to me ever since. I can’t wait to read his second.
I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane. I picked it up in the Secret Book and Record Store in Dublin this summer. It’s pure genius. It’s wild. It made me grin like a mad thing. At the time I was on my way to give a reading alongside Sara Baume, whose debut novel spill simmer falter wither has been the talk of the town. I found the book mixed, but certainly full of promise. Baume is one to watch.
The next book I’ll crack open is Prague poet Justin Quinn’s latest collection Early House. I’m very happy indeed about that.
Stephen Sexton’s Oils is a short pamphlet that seamlessly manages to shift between personal lyrics, ventriloquist acts, and meditations on art and electricity meters. Sexton is a technically accomplished young poet who refreshingly doesn’t shy away from a bit of dark humor, and dare I suggest Beckettian mischief as he writes “my first poem rhymed nothing with nothing.” Another relatively recent Irish debut worth pursuing is Jessica Traynor’s Liffey Swim. What sets this book apart is its ability to somehow infuse a monumental understanding of place and history with a deeply felt emotional intelligence, and a keen ear for poetic measure. Lines such as “there are no holdings in this country, / only forests that stake eternity’s claim, / […] through knotted fingers and knotted fists” just knock me out. Jessica Traynor’s poetry will be read for a long time to come.
James Cummins is, for my money, one of the most engaging and gifted poets working at the moment and two of his pamphlets, Flash / Bang and origins of process, are on my required, and recommended, reading list (if anyone has ever cared to ask me). I’ll let Jimmy’s work speak for itself and quote from origins:
take one glass box
lined with paper
and insert the word “contents”
identities are formed
inherent in memory
the inclusion of reference
on some levels it all looks the same
David Toms’s long poem “The Crackling,” a poem that I’ve read any number of times over the last two years, has made a very welcome arrival into print in the fourth installment of the Viersomes anthology series published by Veer. The poem is a sustained psychogeographical and psychohistorical meditation on Cork’s North Main Street, one which expertly conflates (and at times transgresses) space, time, class, voice, and the author’s own circulatory network. It’s astonishing.
The last twelve months has also seen quite a few Trevor Joyce books into the world. His Selected Poems, Rome’s Wreck, and Niamh O’Mahony’s Essays on the Poetry of Trevor Joyce all stand testament to Ireland’s greatest living poet: essential reading all.
My recent happy discoveries and re-readings have included the following:
The collection Thanks for Nothing, Hippies by Sarah Clancy. A lasting book by an Irish poet who marries slam energy and experience with a more formal, page-centered giftedness.
The collection Blues if You Want by William Matthews. A deeply resonant book, which contains the poem “The Scalpel,” a medical education touchstone.
Dermot Healy’s A Fool’s Errand. Poetry as afflicted oneness.
The collection I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say by Anthony Madrid was a more than brilliant 2012 debut from Chicago-based a writer with the air of a hardened and all-seeing veteran. I’ve gone back to this again and again.
I was very impressed by a new critical study by the American scholar Andrew Augie. A Chastened Communion: Modern Irish Poetry and Catholicism is beautifully written and stands as a major illumination of its subject.
Joseph Carroll’s Wallace Stevens’ Supreme Fiction: A New Romanticism is, for my money, the best critical study of Wallace Stevens. It’s an unconventionally stylish and uncommonly complete account of Stevens’s transcendentalism. Certain chapters could be Blake raving about Yeats.
The album Electric Ursa by Joan Shelley is the best new album I’ve heard in recent years. Only Bill Callahan’s Dream River, though very different, comes close. Shelley is a Kentucky-based songwriter with a golden voice and profound language gifts.
Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a wonderful and truly poetic novel by Sara Baume, an Irish writer currently resident at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
The short story collection Clemency Browne Dreams of Gin by Orfhlaith Foyle, published last year, reads a little like Carson McCullers and tastes like one of the richest and most darkly dreamt things in recent Irish writing.
The absolute love of my recent poetry life is Birds, Beasts and Flowers by D.H. Lawrence. It’s such a multi-faceted book that it’s hard to summarize, but amongst its distinguishing features are rumbustious energy and a nuanced sensitivity towards the natural world and human relations with the natural world. Many of the poems are long, loose, and have an odd habit of peaking midway. And, to a contemporary ear, Lawrence’s swagger is astounding: it’s almost inconceivable that someone now would open a book of poems with the lines: “You tell me I am wrong. / Who are you, who is anybody to tell me I am wrong? / I am not wrong.” But he pulls it all off: what might repel as posturing instead convinces with urgent authority, what should sag seems an ever-cresting wave to be blissfully surfed. Here are scope; nerve; cohesiveness; humor; utter seriousness of mind and spirit; an audaciously realized imaginative world in which to get lost, and found.
Two recent collections I’ve enjoyed are Kei Miller’s The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion and Jen Hadfield’s Byssus. Miller is the best live reader I’ve ever heard; on the page, too, a purposeful, impassioned cadence and intelligence ignite his work which, like Lawrence’s, abjures irony, “that most favoured mode of Western (and particularly British) writers,” in favor of lush prophetic gusto. Hadfield, an uncommonly good nature poet, is an adept of the kingdoms of flora and fauna. Her pig poems are particularly fine, especially “Gloriana,” and she’s fantastic at warping the scale of miniatures. Her language is electric, her angle of vision sui generis, and while here and there she doffs her hat to predecessors, in the choicest poems from this and her previous collection, Nigh-No-Place, she carves her own glitteringly distinctive niche.
Last week, my partner staged an intervention. Due to my denials and justifications, this resulted in our going around the house together, room by room, collecting the books I’m halfway through, which amounted to a worrying stack of evidence. But the books I’m reading or have just finished that have brought me the most joy in the past fortnight include Amelia Gray’s short story collection, Gutshot. It really does what it says on the tin: gets you by the guts with its strange, disturbing, surreal, vibrant, memorable, brilliantly sickly, singular stories. All the adjectives. And one noun. Jealousy. I came across her story “House Proud” in the The White Review and I couldn’t believe how good it was (to me, it’s the best in the collection). I read it over and over, and I rarely read anything twice because there are so many books to read I can barely cope with the excitement of the next one. On that note, Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper. I started reading this online in preview mode, which I sometimes do to see if I’m going to like the prose before I buy a book (as a poet, I’m picky about sentences) and I got sucked in to her funny, surprising, exact writing so that I read the whole 20% or whatever it is they allow you to read before I realized what I was doing and spent the next few days by my post box awaiting the beautiful hard copy, published by Fourth Estate. Zink knows how to write a scene. You know from the first one that you’re in able hands. To complete the novel, short-story, poetry arpeggio, I’ll mention a poetry collection I’m currently reading: Nick Laird’s Go Giants. I loved his earlier book, On Purpose. Tonally, it reminds me of Leontia Flynn, and I find the poems refreshing, linguistically satisfying, and of-the-moment. The word supercalifragilistic appears in the first stanza. Expialidocious.
I like to read poetry in the morning—I’ve read quite a number of debut poetry collections this summer in the hope that the sun will rise too and streak brazenly across their pages. No such luck, but happily the books themselves are rays of light, especially because I’m in the process of preparing my own first collection (and it’s always a thrill to read a poet’s first book). I’ve been enjoying poems from Tara Bergin’s This is Yarrow, Liz Berry’s Black Country, and Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade in particular. I also love Emily Berry’s debut Dear Boy. I picked it off the shelf in a bookshop in Glasgow in 2013 and read the entire volume standing beside the poetry section. I was completely hooked and return to it on a regular basis.
In anticipation of her third collection, Four-Legged Girl, I’ve been reading Diane Seuss’s Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open. Her poems resonate so much with me; she is fearless in her exploration of the body, beauty and relationships. Gregory Pardlo’s Digest and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s The Boys of Bluehill have also been favorite companions in the past few months.
I read fiction in bed. I loved Miranda July’s The First Bad Man. It’s weird in the best possible way. I often found myself laughing out loud into the night, the oddness almost catching. I’ve almost finished reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I had been warned beforehand that it’s grueling and disturbing, but it also so gripping. A challenging read in many respects, I am both curious and terrified to see how it will end.
Recent Irish Literature has many treasures for the exploratory reader willing to stray beyond the small few books lauded half-to-death by our sheepwalking critical establishment /PR Industry. Take Joseph Horgan’s The Song At My Back Door, a classic of pyschogeography. But also psychoarchaelogy, psychogeology, pyscho-ornthitology… think Teju Cole in Clonakilty. A must read for anyone interested in the evolution of the Irish landscape and how historical traumas shape perceptual interaction with natural spaces. Then try Melissa Dieme’s Changeling, a memorably under-the-skin novel about pregnancy, lonesome parenthood, dislocation and derangement – narrative taken to the point of madness and well beyond it. As it nearly always was by near-but-not forgotten Liam O Flaherty, wildwestman of Irish fiction and great novelistic chronicler of the defeat of the 1916-23 revolution and its shattering consequences. Patrick Sheeran’s rare but vital The Novel’s of Liam O Flaherty sets you up for a lifetime’s enjoyment. To experience The Troubles from an under-acknowledged Protestant Left-Liberal point-of-view, check out the recently reissued The Bloody City by versatile, and again almost forgotten, novelist Stephen Gilbert.
Bloom-scholar Graham Allen’s ongoing Lifepoem Holes is the most significant Irish literary experiment of the last decade – one of the few worthy of the much-abused epithet“innovative.” Overall our period will be remembered for completing the vernacular/experimental populist turn set in motion by raving pioneers like Paul Durcan, Rita Ann Higgins, Michael O Loughlin, and Maighread Medbh – away from the mythological, Anglo-hygienic, and formally conservative, towards the political, linguistically open, and inventive. This turn encompasses the youthful performance poetry movement but also distinctive recent collections – often overlooked in favour of markedly less interesting work – by Dylan Brennan, Kimberley Campanello, Kevin Higgins, Chris Makris, Karl Parkinson, Elaine Feeney, Angela Carr…
Aifric Mac Aodha
It’s strange to live and write one language inside another—sometimes—not always—it feels important to try. An Gúm, the Irish language publisher I work for, was founded in 1926. Many of the house’s early publications were translations of famous and contemporary English language books, titles such as Dracula and Wuthering Heights. Every second Monday, I borrow one of those novels. I read them for pleasure, but also with intent. On average, these books take me fourteen lunch hours. Because it’s so long since I’ve written anything I can stand over, this is a desperate, self-serving type of engagement: Will something here bring on a poem?
Outside the storeroom, reading comes more easily. At the moment, I’m focusing on presents. I’ve just finished Danielle McLaughlin’s Dinosaurs on Other Planets and I’m certain it will stay with me. In different ways, Tender by Belinda McKeon and Green Glowing Skull by Gavin Corbett hit a nerve. I’ve only just begun The Little Town Where Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal (a gift from the Czech scholar, Daniela Furthnerova) and, so far, I love it. Susan Tomaselli, the editor of the Irish journal gorse, has passed a number of great books my way, including The Notebook by Ágota Kristóf and Black Vodka by Deborah Levy. This month, my brother Máirtín (who also writes) sent me Eudora Welty and V.S. Pritchett, along with Muriel Spark’s autobiography, Curriculum Vitae.
As for poetry, I’ve been leaving a lot of the work to others (again)—this time, to the writer Harry Clifton. For the past few years, I’ve been attending his invaluable reading course in the Irish Writers Centre. Next term, the emphasis will be on modern poetry in translation. Irish language literature is “more myself than I am,” but sometimes—not always—it’s necessary (and delightful) to be led somewhere else.
I’ve just come back to work from a summer where I re-read and enjoyed, among other things, Peter Sirr’s The Rooms and Jenny Bornholdt’s The Rocky Shore. I enjoyed catching up with Ben Lerner’s fiction and with Evan Jones and Amanda Jernigan’s Earth and Heaven: An Anthology of Myth Poetry. In the summer build-up of post, among pension and union updates, I found Justin Quinn’s Early House, Don Paterson’s 40 Sonnets, and a stack of new journals.
In The Dark Horse 20th anniversary double issue, edited by Gerry Cambridge in Lanarkshire, the essays were an education. Carmine Starnino expertly marshals “conversation” between poet-critics, including the present writer, on the states of various national poetries; two brilliant introductions: Miriam Gamble on the poetry of New Zealand writer Janet Frame and Grevel Lindop on a poet who lived on the industrial edge of the Lake District and was one of Ted Hughes’s first mentors, Norman Nicholson.
In the newly redesigned PN Review editor Michael Schmidt hankers after a time when more poetry journals had defined (if not embattled) aesthetics. The Dark Horse is tilted towards form-based poems; PN Review is itself more difficult to pin down. The redesigned issue’s first poem is by evergreen John Ashbery. But PN Review, as ever, is committed to new work, and I like the look of Oli Hazzard’s “Blotter,” calendar cut-up (if that is what it is). And Peter Riley offers a review of David Wheatley’s Contemporary British Poetry that is as judicious as its subject.
The Edinburgh Review, edited by Alan Gillis and in its final print issue, includes brilliant new poems by Tara Bergin and an elegy by Leontia Flynn, entitled “31.8.13,” in memory of Seamus Heaney. Heaney’s genius coupled with his gift for friendship means that his death has been marked by many, many elegies, efforts of affection in which the poets seem to be enabled by Heaney’s example to feel free to write an almost exaggerated version of their own style. When that style is as remarkable and flexible as Flynn’s, it makes for impressive, thought-provoking work.
OK, time to put down my Irish whiskey-sour and look at beautiful Italians. I just adore Colori e altri colori by Fabrizio Dall’ Aglio, the new poet of Florence, and the aristocratic Antonia Pozzi, the Emily Dickinson of Milan, the first poet in Catherine O’Brien’s anthology, Italian Women Poets of the Twentieth Century. Italy, too, sends me to Osbert Sitwell’s writings. His Winters of Content contains the best descriptions of Venice in winter. All of which sends me to an arresting, perfect poem in Jim Moore’s Lightning at Dinner. I dare you to read Moore’s “On the Train to Venice” and not be shaken. From the same land of the gray wolf you’ll find Leslie Adrienne Miller’s Y, a measured, disturbing work. Then there’s the maestro himself, John Montague, and his sublime The Pear is Ripe and Speech Lessons. But, to be honest, I’ve been reading a lot of strong women, all speaking in the authoritative voice of Ibsen’s Nora, reminding me that freedom is difficult: there’s Caoilinn Hughes in Gathering Evidence, Martina Evans in Burnfort, Las Vegas, Leanne O’Sullivan in Cailleach: The Hag of Beare, Doireann Ní Ghríofa in Clasp, Alice Oswald with Memorial, Helene Cardona with Dreaming My Animal Selves, Mary Dalton with Red Ledger, Judith Barrington with The Conversation, and Mary O’Donnell with Those April Fevers. My book of the decade is The Hotel Oneira by August Kleinzahler. Close on his heels is the exquisite Marilyn Chin with Hard – Love – Province. And, for regressive reading, try Sir John Betjeman’s “The Irish Unionists’ Farewell to Gretta Hellstrom in 1922,” which reminds me that Peter McDonald’s perfect Torchlight opens with another poem about actors. Then there’s Jody Allen Randolph’s Eavan Boland, Derek Mahon’s Red Sails, Matthew Hollis’s astonishing Now All Roads Lead to France, a book about the last years of Edward Thomas. I haven’t even told you about Theo Dorgan’s prize-winning Nine Bright Shiners or Maurice Riordan’s Floods, or Gerry Murphy’s Muse: ah, this glass has run dry; soon it will be half full again and never half empty.
Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh
An unlikely experience in a hipster-staffed bookshop in Soho, NYC, gave me a flash of elation recently: the Selected Poems of Seán Ó Ríordáin. To see the work of such a major figure in Irish language literature now available to the English-speaking world is not only uplifting, but somehow redemptive for those of us who write in a minority language. Edited by Frank Sewell, translators include Paul Muldoon and Ciaran Carson, among many others. The book also contains a translation of Ó Ríordáin’s own introduction to Eireaball Spideoige [A Robin’s Tail], an honest and profound exploration of his poetic philosophy.
Scapegoat is the most recent collection by Alan Gillis and his carefully wrought poems are gritty and reflective and humorous and terrifying all at the same time. In “August in Edinburgh”:
Not a cloud in the sky and it’s raining.
It’s the brusqueness of things,
and the drag of things, that hurts.
The most beautiful woman in the world looks him in the eye and says “please/move I’m trying to look at the artworks.” Other poems explore his experience of growing up in Northern Ireland and Gillis adapts the Belfast vernacular to his own inimitable poetic style.
Biddy Jenkinson, who usually writes in the Irish language, has published an ebook, Full-Bodied Wine, which is available for free through Smashwords. It’s a light-hearted mystery and a really enjoyable romp of a story set in the diplomatic world. Free entertainment!
Doireann Ní Ghríofa
My fourth child was born prematurely earlier this summer and I spent weeks by her incubator in the NICU. In one of the quiet, terrible moments when I was asked to wait in the corridor during yet another horrific procedure, my phone beeped with the daily poem email from poets.org—Idra Novey’s “Still Life with Invisible Canoe.” This poem became a well to which I returned again and again. I still can’t read the text without crying, it brings back all of the anxiety of the NICU and my loneliness for my other children. “Levinas asked if we have the right / To be the way I ask my sons / If they’d like to be trees” The second poem that sustained me through our time in hospital was “Train Ride” by Ruth Stone—“Release, release; / between cold death and a fever, / send what you will, I will listen. / All things come to an end. / No, they go on forever.” All summer, these two poems nourished me through joy and fear.
Now that our daughter is home, I’ve been revisiting my favorite collections. I choose a book a week and dip in and out as I feed the baby. So far I’ve been re-reading work by Natalie Diaz, Sarah Howe, Brenda Shaughnessy, Biddy Jenkinson, Mary Szybist, and Katharine Kilalea. This autumn, I’m very much looking forward to Fur by Grace Wells and Tost agus Allagar by Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh. I’m late to Dorianne Laux, but I ordered Facts about the Moon today and I’m very excited to read that.
I’ve been working on translating the poems of Caitlín Maude for the past year and this week I returned to her. My copy of her collected poems is beginning to fall apart but it feels like coming home to an old friend.
Like many poets to whom the epithet “great” could be attached, Les Murray is a writer one can only tussle with, while his New Collected Poems is a book, like Ulysses, that can perhaps only ever be re-read. I have been doing so for several weeks this summer. Negotiating this monster volume feels a bit like riding into battle: one had better have one’s wits about one. It represents, for one thing, an enormous, complex, and not yet complete body of work. Murray’s self-assessment of his aesthetic is that it embodies “the quality of sprawl” (“sprawl is full-gloss murals on a council-house wall. / Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind”), but this is only one aspect of his multi-faceted genius, and, some might say, not the best one (Murray is nothing if not contrary). In particular, I have been re-reading with awe the poems from his 1992 volume Translations from the Natural World. Here Murray ventriloquizes all manner of living creatures, with the majority of the poems couched in the first person voice or some version of it. “Shoal,” for instance has: “Eye-and-eye eye an eye / each. What blinks is I, / unison of the whole shoal,” while the heartbreaking “The Cows on Killing Day” states: “All me are standing on feed. The sky is shining. // All me have just been milked.” These poems trouble me, infuriate me, render me tearstained, strike me with frenzied admiration, all in the space of about five minutes. I am wonder-struck by the generosity of Murray’s imagination, his capacity for imaginative empathy, his ability to get under the skin (or pelt, or hide) of life. I am troubled when this occasionally veers towards anthropomorphism, the Original Sin of nature writing. I am moved by the immense Joycean copiousness of his linguistic facility, and by the sense that, like Joyce, this gift is not used in the manner of a dry intellectual or verbal exercise, however witty, but is wedded to witness and to profound feeling. Somewhere in The Necessary Angel, Wallace Stevens remarks that the great poems of Heaven and Hell have been written, but that the great poem of the Earth remains to be written. It strikes me that this is what Les Murray has been doing all his life; the New Collected Poems is ample testament to it.
At the moment I am engrossed in The History of Christianity by Diarmuid MacCulloch. At over 1,000 pages, it initially seemed a rather daunting reading project in the midst of other reading and writing interests and obligations. Perhaps provocatively, Professor MacCulloch begins his narrative a thousand years before the birth of Christ. He establishes brilliantly the context in which the figure of Christ could make such an impact. And possibly more impressively, his work does not in any way argue for the divine, supernatural narratives; nor does he deny their possibility. His interest is in the powerful act of faith, belief, and argument – whether justifiably motivated or falsely founded – and is a striking and brave demonstration of his own scholarship.
I have also spent the last year reading The Collected Poems of W.S. Merwin, which was an accidental and exciting juxtaposition to MacCulloch’s study. One word that appears over and over again in Merwin’s poetry is “story,” and where The History of Christianity provides an overview of staunchly held and opposed opinions about the story of one man’s life and message—the bickering, the power, the retreats, the wildernesses—Merwin’s poems find beauty and simplicity in the story as it stands. His work gives a sense of a man who deserves deep admiration. In his poem “Place,” he writes “on the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree,” which for me, as a young writer, and worried inhabitant of this endangered earth, is a promise that something of the great story will always survive and inspire all of us to live our lives with understanding and right aspiration.
In the last few months there’s been an effort to do a bit of tidy-up-and-clear-out with regard my jenga-like house of books. I seem to land somewhere between ardor and arduous when it comes to latter. And more often than not, I get caught up in the ardor—the result: not much of a tidy-up is achieved. Highlights of the last while: In writing something about the work of Louise Bogan, I returned again to her letters, prose, and poems: What the Woman Lived (Selected Letters of Louise Bogan 1920-1970), A Poet’s Alphabet, and The Blue Estuaries. With so much to be rewarded with, her in-shadows-existence has bemused me for quite some time. On random occasions, the letters highlight her efforts to give shape to a poem she might not have been pleased with, and other times they discern what she tactfully concealed in the prose. On her mother dying, she writes to Rolfe Humphries:
What we suffer, what we endure, what we muff, what we kill, what we miss, what we are guilty of, is done by us, as individuals, in private … to hell with the crowd. To hell with the meetings, and the public speeches. Life and death occur, as they must, but they are all bound up with love and hatred, in the individual bosom, and it is a sin and shame to try to organize or dictate them.
Finding and keeping, I find Bogan a hard one to let go of.
Dan Beachy-Quick’s Keats’s at Work is a book, though only recently acquired, I’ve already begun to re-read. A tribute to life and work, it is a tender inquiry into the imagination that made Keats’s writing what it was, and “Through words one gains a world. That world is mythic, eternal, of time but not in time. One does not live in it, not exactly. Nothing here is exact.” A stunning book, not to put on a bookshelf just yet.
In the same vein of re-reading, I’ve also returned to Alice Notley’s Coming After and Marianne Boruch’s In the Blue Pharmacy. Though both are collections of essays namely on poetry, they are much more than that. With Boruch, I wanted to return to a piece called “Poetry’s Over and Over”—an essay that reflects on musicology and poetry. And with Notley—I was going to send it on to a friend who I thought might enjoy it, more for the latter essays. I haven’t sent it yet. (I will, soon…)
Only halfway through Katherine Norbury’s The Fish Ladder, I mention it because I suppose there is a link with other books above. There’s a quietness that runs through it, a quietness laced with grief and love and landscape. “The landscape can’t love you back,” a line that haunts from Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk and a line I’m still contemplating. Norbury, in her own way, is doing the same. A lovely delight when the postman delivers slight parcels containing new books of poetry, and though he diverts me from my task of tidying, new space will been made for Niall Campbell’s Moontide, Moya Cannon’s Keats Lives, and Eamon Grennan’s newest There Now. A couple of weeks ago, I read a few of Campbell’s to my son. We were out on the front step. It was that 9 o’clock kind of evening quiet. They’re music, he said. And then added, like those really good unaccompanied songs. Given he’s sixteen, it was a well-summed thought.
Most of what I read is suggested by what I have read previous to it and what I am writing. Together with those basic premises is my summer reading, a catch-up with novels, mostly, that I have wanted to read for a while, and am only now getting around to. So here’s what’s been in my bag, by my bedside, and on my desk: Damun Galgut’s In A Strange Room’s prose is clean, meditative and seductive. Followed by Hisham Matar’s poignant and graceful In A Country of Men. Then Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, Peter Sirr’s elegiac and moving The Rooms, and the equally so Per Petterson’s In the Wake, together with two constants this year: Maura “Soshin” O’Halloran’s Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind, and like a prayer each day I read, Akhmatova’s “I taught myself to live simply and wisely / to look at the sky and pray.” C’est tout.
I’ve been rationing the deeply companionable Mick Imlah Selected Prose, in order to prolong the enjoyment. It’s just been published in a handsome volume from Peter Lang. Medals should be dished out to all involved. Michael Hofmann’s Where Have You Been? and Colm Toibin’s On Elizabeth Bishop have also been close to hand for a while. Poetry-wise I’ve been enjoying Sarah Maguire’s selected, Almost The Equinox, Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade, and I’m working through Karen Solie’s majestic The Living Option. I still haven’t quite recovered from Frances Leviston’s Disinformation, published earlier this year. I’m reading as much Danez Smith as I can get hold of. Most days have a little Robert Lowell in them, and recently early Les Murray and Tom Paulin.
Two fiction debuts, Thomas Morris’s short stories We Don’t Know What We’re Doing and Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers have been a recent treat. May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break from the almost unreasonably brilliant CB Editions is a short story collection I came to a little later than I might have, so I’m trying to make up for lost time. I’ve been reading a fair bit of boxing writing too; some highlights include Ben Dirs’s The Hate Game and the posthumously published Scream: The Tyson Tapes by Jonathan Rendall, as well as a novel called Boxer Handsome by Anna Whitwham, which reads to me a bit like the film Drive if it was set in East London and had fewer hammers in. I’m looking forward to Andrew Motion’s new collection, Peace Talks, out in November, and 2016’s whispered promises of a Julian Stannard collection as well as a debut pamphlet from Malene Engelund. I live in hope of a new book by Eduardo C. Corral.
The title of Nyla Matuk’s Sumptuary Laws refers to mediaeval laws regulating dress and diet, but if they extended to poetry-reading, too, these laws could do worse than make the work of this witty and metaphysically inventive Canadian poet obligatory, as well.
I recently reread, for anthological purposes, Aidan Mathews’s According to the Small Hour, and was reminded afresh that this is one of the great poetry books of the 1990s. Mathews is a poet unlike any other—a poetic Thomas Aquinas trapped in the body of a modern-day Irishman—and I’m aware of a new volume, but maddeningly there appears no publication date in sight.
“June 1958 /To Cecily & Molly /with love /from Charles,” reads my inscribed copy of Seeing in Believing by Charles Tomlinson, who has just died. I hope they enjoyed it as much I’ve done. Humane, cosmopolitan, sensual, and civilized, Tomlinson represented all that was good in post-war British poetry.
Tomlinson’s junior by eleven years, R.F. Langley is one of the secret treasures of modern British poetry, a poet to compare to W.S. Graham before him or Helen Macdonald today. His Collected Poems, lovingly edited by Jeremy Noel-Tod, is surely a book for the ages.
And finally, some collections from student contemporaries of mine from “twenty golden years ago”: Justin Quinn’s Early House, Caitríona O’Reilly’s Geis, and Sinéad Morrissey’s Parallax and Other Poems; not to mention Quinn’s critical study Between Two Fires: Transnationalism and Cold War Poetry. I commend all four titles warmly.
Tags: Aifric Mac Aodha, Ailbhe Darcy, Ailbhe Ni Ghearbhuigh, Caitriona O'Reilly, Cal Doyle, Caoilinn Hughes, Dave Lordan, David Wheatley, Dean Browne, Declan Ryan, Doireann Ni Ghriofa, John McAuliffe, Leanne O'Sullivan, Martin Dyar, Michelle O'Sullivan, Miriam Gamble, Patrick Cotter, Paul Perry, Reading List, Stephen Connolly, Thomas McCarthy, Victoria Kennefick
Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Thursday, September 10th, 2015 by Lindsay Garbutt.