Forever Writing from Ireland
What defines Irish poetry today? A survey of recently published Irish titles suggests the striking variety of voices, aesthetics, and anxieties emerging from the Emerald Isle. It should come as no surprise that a country that so prides itself on its literary heritage (poems still grace the pages of the Irish Examiner and The Irish Times) would inspire each generation to upkeep and further push poetic practice to new realms. And yet, we think of Joyce, Yeats, MacNeice, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and Heaney as roots in the Irish soil from which future generations have sprung, and from whose shadows poets still face the daunting task of emerging.
Many very fine contemporary Irish poets have found ways to inherit this legacy of genius while carving their own paths and reaching new international audiences. Paul Muldoon comes to mind (though he, too, gets compared to Heaney), as well as Eavan Boland. Notably, both have lived as expats in the United States while sustaining irrefutable, lasting literary ties to Ireland. Indeed, this speaks to one quality that begins to address the simplistic opening probe: inheritance must be reckoned with in Irish poetry, beyond the usual measure for poets. Whether sustained or challenged, tradition poses a question, and uncertainty is often a generative place from which to begin.
Consulting the polished preface of any book on Irish history confirms that it is full of complexities, wrought with the kind of political drama and dissent that invites TV dramatization. Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom) has long been considered the center of Irish poetry, while those hailing from the Republic (independent, and whose national language continues to be Irish Gaelic) have formed their own schools. While Irish is the main language of only three percent of households, over ten percent have some fluency. In the matrix of Irish identity, the historical and political are intimately tied to the language, yielding interesting ground for exploration in literature.
The four Irish poets under review, Cork-born and educated Billy Ramsell, Dublin-born Tara Bergin (who moved to England in 2002), Belfast-born Alan Gillis (now editor of the influential Edinburgh Review), and Galway-born Doireann Ní Ghríofa (long-settled in Cork), have received an impressive list of awards between them, including Chair of Ireland Bursaries, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, a T.S. Eliot Prize shortlisting, and other accolades. Yet, what proves equally remarkable is their relationship to Ireland and their role in transmitting Irish poetry. Ramsell, a translator of Irish poetry, served as editor of the Irish section of Poetry International from 2012–2015. Bergin has lectured on “Ireland as a State of Mind” internationally, while Gillis has edited several critical works on Irish writing, including The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Poetry (2012). Ní Ghríofa’s previous collections were in Irish, published by Coiscéim, an exclusively Irish-language publisher.
These poets confront old subjects in a renewed capacity, recasting myths of transformation and pondering both global and personal politics in a world driven by technology. They show an appreciation for tradition that, rather than creating superficial echoes, demonstrates daring, playful appropriation, and purposeful departure from their sources. And above all else, these four collections share the sense that you never really leave Ireland — it surfaces in memory, which stakes its claim on poetry.
The Architect’s Dream of Winter, by Billy Ramsell.
The Dedalus Press. €12.00.
Gilbert Ryle coined the term “ghost in the machine” in his 1949 work The Concept of Mind. In The Architect’s Dream of Winter, Ramsell explores the idea of human and technological consciousness in poems of great formal variety and tonal range. Servers offstage, wires, and machines become inextricably tangled with their human foils: memory, veins, and the heart. “We’re programmed, both of us, viral,” the speaker remarks, appropriating the term used to describe massive popularity and circulation on the internet, “I’ll infect the deepest, most secret nooks of your memory, / delete your first kiss, your first lover’s hands.”
“Lyric poems spring from moments of disequilibrium: something has happened to disturb the status quo,” writes Helen Vendler. Indeed, Ramsell’s poems are full of restless searching, pondering the actions and stakes of our technological revolution. Where one might expect a sort of anti-lyric (after all, computer jargon isn’t known for its lyric qualities), Ramsell’s exploration is highly musical, punctuated by modified traditional lyric forms. The poems feel decidedly voiced, with moments of poignant tenderness derived from the poet’s life. Reflecting on a POS reader at dinner, the speaker considers how “It knows everything about us, / every element of the meal we’ve just eaten.”
Central to the collection is an attempt to conceive of the human lifespan and its, as of yet, inevitable end after ninety or so years by way of the cutting edge, as well as through inherited systems and analogies. In “Lament for Esbjörn Svensson,” Ramsell reconciles the sacred and the scientific, wondering “if dying translates us into the condition of music; // leaves us weightless, melodious, floating bars of thought / uploaded like data into the mind of God.” Similarly, in “Lament for Christy Ring,” a decidedly Irish subject, Ramsell describes the legendary hurler, interrogating the possibility of seamless integration:
He swerves, ducks his shoulder, elegantly jerks.And what gap now between thought and act,his spirit and firmware fusing?
The poems perform a consciousness grappling with, and defining, correlations. In an over-stimulated world, Ramsell takes a moment to acknowledge the repetitiousness of the heart’s essential task: “Such monotonous heroism / all alone in that blackness.” Here, too, he contemplates the possibility of merging with machines: “And though you’re part-mechanical now I still cherish you, my brother, / for the body’s a machine like any other.”
Rather than man vs. machine, an easier dichotomy to depict (but one exhausted by dystopian books and film), Ramsell infuses the collection with a reciprocity — machines, too, dream their human counterparts: “The circuits whisper and it dreams our names.” Elsewhere, the speaker declares, “I outsourced all my memories to machines.” Even objects that predate machines are considered through this updated eye, creating a new inter-text:
This piano speaks the language of machines.Through the foyer’s raucous out-of-town rhubarbingour eardrums search for patterns in the ragtime data-streamof chords and choruses; locate them, make them beautiful.— From Jazz Weekend
The prose poem “The Silence Bar” offers a summer menu of precisely what its title promises: different types of — increasingly scarce — silence. Here, Ramsell’s playfulness and wit is on display, though the idea of having to enter and pay for silence on HD-800 headsets provokes bouts of nostalgia. He takes the reader to his native Cork on the Irish West Coast:
The people who brought you “Hagia Sophia,” one of last year’s most popular silences, now take you inside Cork’s own St Fin Barre’s Cathedral.... Let it cleanse you of sirens and background muzak, of office-gossip and radio ads.
“They dance to keep from falling,” a title adapted from a poem by Ilya Kaminsky, most explicitly confronts the screen-life with which we are accustomed. The poem’s margins provide familiar system updates in bold font: “All imaging processes normal”; “Your session has expired.” These impersonal, uninvited messages jarringly punctuate a narrative lyric, offsetting the speaker’s voice and the passage of time:
And I think that in this December lightthere’s something almost Spanish about your beauty,something piquant, out of place in this winter, ungovernable.
The collection’s concluding poem, “Ahead vast systems hunger,” recycles the form and language with slight variations: “there’s something almost Russian about your beauty, / something chilly, beyond compass, ungovernable.” The language in the margins, which speaks of updates, current session, and imaging processes, sounds almost prophetic as the couple walks off the beach.
This Is Yarrow, by Tara Bergin.
Tara Bergin’s debut is full of idiosyncratic voices, folkloric motifs, and reflections on the rhetoric and decorum of war. Her highly allusive verse is adept at a kind of conversational strangeness, a quality that offsets the violence discussed. Her speakers suffer from metaphysical illness, “I get breathless climbing, / thinking up whole men, / whole women, and I / add them to the list.” Bergin reveals the startling psychology of fairy tales populated with symbolic creatures that often meet terrible fates. These unsettling elements are riddled with nostalgia for youth idioms (indeed, brides and wives make appearances), and figurative substitutions that serve to complement the catastrophic political disputes.
Bergin, who received a PhD from Newcastle University, playfully appropriates the academic tradition, placing its formal register against the lyric confession:
In summary: water is a liquid consisting chiefly of this.Just one of these things, so the Fowlers say,is due to appetite.But I have a thirst /I have a fear of / I have a sin of —— From Water Is Difficult
The slashes are intentionally left to evoke the unpolished accumulation. The facing poem, “All Fools’ Day: An Academic Farewell,” has a tongue-in-cheek opening: “In this paper / I will make no direct reference to the above title.” But not everything in Bergin’s work is rhetorical — her speakers seem to personally engage with the reader, infusing the collection with a personality that feels very much part of the idiom. When a question is posed, an answer might indeed be granted: “Ask me: / have I fallen in love with the mechanic? Perhaps — perhaps, for a moment.” Weaving confession and fantasy, Bergin creates psychologically stirring metaphors: “He thought my clothes were my skin. / He thought these soft things, / this lace and these buttons, / were things I belonged in.” Elsewhere, her speaker’s musings function almost as an ars poetica, outlining how one thing transforms into another in the poet’s mind:
I sit and I think of the single ringletand the green star of leaves.I think of the meaning found for these things.That the leaves are the clutching hands of soldiers,that the tendrils are the whips —— From The Passion Flower
Organized violence functions as a metaphorical engine, nature changing into soldiers and whips. WWII surfaces repeatedly, with titles that summon Armistice Day and St. Patrick’s Day address. Violence is often normalized and, indeed, even ignored by the crowd: “They don’t see me but I walk / into Fitzgeralds with them the half-wounded, / I sit in there at the high table with my pint, / half-wounded, thinking, I will drag my / wounds in here.” In “Military School,” Bergin powerfully confronts violence’s seduction of language, weaving it into England and Ireland’s political history:
The voice of violence enters our mouthsand our skin, and under my own nailsI hear it seduce me. I argue with nothing it says.The voice is a swan of the estuary.It laments, it recites:Sixteen Dead Men; The Rose Tree,out of pages yellowed from 1953 —it bangs oh it bangsa bodhran.
Here, again, the metaphor is riddled with folkloric details and literary allusions. Bergin invokes Yeats’s “Sixteen Dead Men,” a poem that condemns the British execution of sixteen Irishmen after the 1916 Easter Uprising, and the gruesome English fairy tale of “The Rose-Tree,” drawing from the violence of the historic event and children’s story. The mention of the bodhran, the traditional Celtic frame drum often used in war, reminds the reader that though Bergin grew up in England, the palette of her references is as Irish as it comes.
“St. Patrick’s Day Address, 1920” further interrogates tradition, this time the widely-visited Blarney Stone in Cork: “Still we insist on bending backwards / to touch the filthy stone with our lips. / What tradition is this?” The greatest tradition of all, Bergin’s collection seems to suggest, is conflict. “Garrison Supermarket” offers one of the most haunting moments in the collection; the speaker watches a group of soldiers enter the supermarket and recognizes their almost mechanical appearance: “their hands are the same — / and their faces are the same — / and no one is afraid — .” To Bergin, that restraint and desensitization seems most troubling of all.
The collection concludes with a return to Bergin’s dreamlike atmosphere, weaving the folkloric (yarrow is an age-old remedy) and the urban: “In this country house I had a dream of the city / as if the thick yarrow heads had told me, / as if the chokered dove had told me.” This conversation with the past, nature, and the psyche makes Bergin’s a memorable, haunting debut, full of idiomatic strangeness that is fully her own mixture.
Scapegoat, by Alan Gillis.
The Gallery Press. €11.95.
The collection opens with a condemning epigraph: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved,” Jeremiah, 8:20. Well, that might be alright if the result is as rich, frenetic, visually and audibly pleasurable a landscape as Gillis provides. Scapegoat lyrically and variously interrogates memories of youth through a blend of Irish dialect and imaginative narratives. Gillis’s skillful modulation of tone and his aphoristic precision allow him to create moments that ring true to feeling and afterthought, articulating the complex emotional resonance of memory.
The opening poem, “Zeitgeist,” a series of four sonnets, introduces the reader to Gillis’s particular music; phonetically rich and conversational, his blend of irreverence and serious existential consideration is uniquely fitted for considering a wide variety of contemporary blights. Here, as elsewhere, Gillis considers the energy and excessiveness of urbanization, the poem’s diction evoking the populated environment it describes and providing a catalogue of voices for the collection:
Outside on shopped streets swarm mothers,alpha males, screenagers, old, young, lovers,the homeless, the bewildered, ill, unique,the beautiful with their self-as-boutique —so many, thronged into one body.
Like Ramsell, Gillis is interested in technology’s impact on memory, discovery, and knowledge: “Inside the machine or, at least, on the screen / I discover everything that has been, / will be, or might never be has a place.” Unlike Ramsell, however, the collection only lingers momentarily on these considerations, drawing its power from moments that feel personal to Gillis’s past, and which he captures with brevity and intelligence. In “The Hourglass,” the speaker recollects a conversation the morning after spending the night at the apartment of a beloved:
You ask: “One half empties, the otherfills. Now which half is happier?”Both ends look dead by the end.The hourglass shows how time gathersbut only lives through the movement of the sands.
Balancing a delicate narrative between the couple, this unpretentious, reflective moment in a kitchen blooms into a meditation on time. Each stanza layers the issue of compromise, closing with a lyric gesture that displays Gillis’s trademark music and skillfully-placed slant rhymes: “How the rain and wide-roamed / dead, rivers and wilds, give and take, / hollow as they accumulate.”
Gillis’s emphasis on the revelatory in ordinary actions is pleasurably offset by a baroque phonetic sensibility: “while the rinsing breeze / ripples the leaves // and sashaying twig-tips / with a shush / to the ear.” Gillis frequently plays with line length and alliteration, creating poems whose logic appears driven by sound and lush visual images. “August in Edinburgh,” a modified sestina form, recounts a moment at a festival with wit and tender precision:
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 worldis in Edinburgh, at the festival.She looks me in the eye and says pleasemove I’m trying to look at the artworks.
“No. 8,” the collection’s long and often humorous poem, recounts commuter proceedings in a sprawling, essayistic form. With charm and insight, Gillis takes us from the minutes prior to boarding the bus, to boarding, “Everyone looks like / they’re in an art installation / where the central concept is / they’re completely normal,” to the wandering stream of consciousness inspired by gazing out the window. These musings range from those that reflect on the collection’s central themes, “so much mystery between us / disguised as indifference,” to the circumstantial, light-hearted remarks of a bored commuter. He playfully acknowledges the poem’s meta-thinking: “Does one have depths? / To get to them, I’m sure, / one might board a bus.” Here, as in other poems, Gillis masterfully modulates from humor to — not quite pathos — but a sense of restlessness with urban rituals and acknowledgment of communality with strangers. “No. 8” is recalled in a later poem: “The mind is like a Wednesday morning / on a bus to work when exhaust fumes cling / the air.”
Gillis carefully conjures “real” voices, down to the Irish names and colloquialisms: “Morning, when it comes, might snigger / the way Shonagh O’Dowd raised her finger / to McCandless, then split her smackers / at the sight of me in my undercrackers.” But “The Field” most closely resembles what we associate with Irish poetry, the affinity for relaying nostalgia for a place:
This lane can’t help but leadonto that lane I followedwhen I was nine, stretched to greenfields from my aunt’s farmalong the hedgeway that gives,through a gap, to a blackthorn-guarded glade.
The poem invokes a Heaney-esque sensibility in its graceful pace, harking to a specific age in boyhood, and a catalogue of details challenging for urbanites to envision (hedgeways, blackthorn, glades). The emotional life of memory is palpable throughout the collection, suggesting that, ultimately, paths carved through memory occupy a dual place in the past and present.
Clasp, by Doireann Ní Ghríofa.
The Dedalus Press. €11.50.
“There is a fearlessness in Ní Ghríofa’s work,” writes Paula Meehan. One could just as well argue that the fear of loss — and the careful examination of kinds of human loss — is equally generative for the poet. Clasp, Ní Ghríofa’s English debut, explores absence (and possibilities of rebirth) through imaginative constructs and figurative retellings of tales. The speaker in “Museum” is employed with this consideration:
I am custodian of this exhibition of erasures, curator of loss.I watch over pages of scribbles, deletions, obliterations,in a museum that preserves not what is left, but what is lost.
Contrastingly, “Instructions to Kill a Daughter’s Minotaur” is a more gruesome exploration, while “Narcissus” explores the emptiness behind the excess of connections on social media. Narcissus “swipes, smiles: so many likes, so many / friends. His soundless words flash onto strangers’ screens // until silence no longer feels like loneliness.” Other sparse, suggestive poems draw from absence to fuel their intimated narratives (memorably, fried rashers show how absence assumes its own space).
Though Ní Ghríofa is a bilingual poet, Clasp is only occasionally speckled with Irish, infused instead with Irish flora and fauna, bogs, breweries, and skylines of Cork. The poems excel in their consideration of motherhood, particularly its paradoxical losses and gains, separation and unity. In “Inventory: Recovery Room,” the speaker considers the processes of motherhood shared with all of nature:
I think of milk, of beestings squeezed from a cow’s udders,of my fingers between a calf’s gums: the fierce suck of a new mouth,and the echo of a mother’s angry bellows from the field.
The poem facing it, “From Richmond Hill,” an area in Cork City, tenderly recalls the newborn’s first days home. As the speaker remembers, stories of breweries and pubs carefully enter and offer the long-awaited moment a sense of history, serving as the speaker’s reflection on the past, and the child’s introduction to it:
Home from hospital, you doze in my arm, milk-drunk,all eyelashes, cheeks and raw umbilical, swaddledin the heavy black smells of the brewery.Your great-grandfathers worked all their lives in that factory.Every day they were there, breathing the same air, hoistingbarrels, sweating over vats where black bubbles rose like fat.
Ní Ghríofa captures the anxiety of motherhood and of inhabiting the body. Certain poems feel ultimately celebratory of this cycle, as “Your Throat, a Thrush,” in which the speaker again contemplates the lineage to her son: “Countless layers fold between our time and theirs / and still, in each new skin, we sing.” And, like Ramsell, Ní Ghríofa celebrates the heart’s dual-nature as the figurative seat of emotions and a necessary engine. But there is violence and trespass, too, as the doctor breaks the speaker’s breastbone to access the place:
Stitch by stitch, he attachesthe heart of a stranger to the stumpand sets it moving like electricity.Under his hands, a new heart stutters and starts,filling the cavity with applause. He closes my ribcage.The machines sing.— From A History in Hearts
In Ní Ghríofa’s English debut, what seem to be long-considered obsessions are explored with tenderness and unflinching curiosity. The collection’s section titles, “Clasp,” “Cleave,” “Clench,” suggest the muscularity of attachment to the past, place, and the body that drives the poetic impulse.
“Anyone born and bred in Northern Ireland can’t be too optimistic,” said Seamus Heaney, but that paints a rather different picture than these collections offer. Indeed, though Scapegoat’s epigraph might befit this assessment, one wonders how these four poets would respond to Heaney. The verve of Irish streets, unforgettable seascapes, hurling heroes, ballads, and songs — the affluence of memorable details seems pretty optimistic. From its folkloric hills to its Tescos, its riddled, disputed language, and its busses and POS cables leading elsewhere, what is indisputable is the central place that Ireland plays in memory. And from this difficult imagination emerges a variety of voices and possibilities that draw their center from the island and stretch far beyond it.
Maya Catherine Popa’s poetry and nonfiction have appeared in the US and UK. She holds degrees from Oxford, NYU, and Barnard. She lives in New York City where she teaches English Literature.