Elizabeth Shane: Irish Woman Poet

Elizabeth Shane was the pseudonym of Gertrude Elizabeth Heron Hind (1877 – 1951). Born in Belfast, she was a musician, dramatist and poet. Her three collections were Tales of the Donegal Coast and Islands (1921); By Bog and Sea in Donegal (1923); and Piper’s Tunes (from Down and Antrim) (1927). A Collected Poems in two volumes appeared in in 1945.
 

Wee Hughie
 
He’s gone to school, wee Hughie,
An’ him not four,
Sure I saw the fright was in him
When he left the door.
 
But he took a hand o’ Denny,
An’ a hand o’ Dan,
Wi’ Joe’s owld coat upon him –
Och the poor wee man!
 
He cut the quarest figure,
More stout not thin:
An’ trotting right and steady
Wi’ his toes turned in.
 
I watched him to the corner
O’ the big turf stack,
An’ the more his feet went forrit,
Still his head turned back.
 
I followed to the turnin’
When they passed it by,
God help him he was cryin’,
An’, maybe, so was I.

Ellen Downing (Mary of the Nation): Irish Woman Poet

Ellen Downing (1818-69) was born in Cork, and was a regular contributor to the Nationalist papers The Nation and United Irishman. Supposedly as a result of a disappointment in love with a Young Irelander she entered a convent, then left, and finally became a non-resident member of the Third Order of St Dominic. She died in the Mercy Hospital, Cork, after a long illness.

A DREAM OF OTHER YEARS.

 

True love, remembered yet through all that mist of years,

Clung to with such vain, vain love — wept with such vain tears —

On the turf I sat last night, where we two sat of yore,

And thought of thee till memory could bear to think no more.

 

The twilight of the young year was fading soft and dim;

The branches of the budding trees fell o’er the water’s brim;

And the stars came forth in lonely light through all the silent skies;

I scarce could see them long ago with looking in thine eyes.

 

For thou wert my starlight, my refuge, and my home;

My spirit found its rest in thee, and never sought to roam;

All thoughts and all sensations that burn and thrill me through,

In those first days of happy love were calmed and soothed by you.

 

How wise thou wert — how tender — ah, but it seemed to be

Some glorious guardian angel that walked this earth with me;

And now though hope be over, and love too much in vain,

What marvel if my weary heart finds naught like thee again.

 

Beloved, when thou wert near me, the happy and the right

Were mingled in our gentle dream of ever fresh delight;

But now the path of duty seems cold and dark to tread,

Without one radiant guiding-star to light me overhead.

 

If there were aught my faith in thee to darken or remove,

One memory of unkindness — one chilling want of love; —

But no— thy heart still clings to me as fondly, warmly true,

As mine, through chance and change and time, must ever cling to you.

 

If there were aught to shrink from — to blush with sudden shame —

That he who won the beating heart the lips must fear to name;

But O before the whole wide world how proudly would I say:

“He reigned my king long years ago — he reigns my king to-day.”

 

And so I turn to seek thee through all the mist of years,

And love with vain devotion, and weep with vainer tears;

And on the turf I sit alone, where we two sat of yore,

And think of thee till memory can bear to think no more!

 

The Book of the Green Man, by Ronald Johnson A Review

bgmcoverThe Book of the Green Man, by Ronald Johnson, 2015, ISBN 978 1 910010 04 4, £9.50.

In the autumn of 1962, two American poets arrived in the UK to begin an extended visit. They spent that winter in the Lake District, in the footsteps of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Their spring included a trip up the Wye valley, again retracing one made by the journal writer and her poet brother. Later they spent some considerable time in Blake’s London, getting to know many of the capital’s younger artists and writers in the process. They also met many of the country’s surviving Modernist writers, including Basil Bunting, Hugh MacDiarmid, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Geoffrey Grigson, whose writings were to be a strong influence on Johnson. The visit also included trips to Samuel Palmer’s Shoreham and to Southwell Minster to view the Green Man carvings.

The poets were Ronald Johnson and Jonathan Williams, and The Book of the Green Man was the fruit of their travels. The poem, Johnson’s attempt ‘to make new the traditional British long seasonal poem’, follows the solar year, beginning in winter and ending in autumn, and circles around themes of fertility and renewal, both natural and cultural. Johnson balances tradition, as represented in a quote from Thoreau in his notes to the effect that ‘[d]ecayed literature makes the richest of all soils’ with a distinctly Poundian approach to making it new.

In an interesting Afterward to this edition, Ross Hair points up parallels with two other 20th century long poems, Eliot’s The Waste Land and Bunting’s Briggflatts. Like Eliot, Johnson is concerned with fertility, but his is a more optimistic vision than the older poet’s. Like Bunting, Johnson builds his poem around the yearly cycle, but where Bunting is concerned with an individual life, with the passing of the year representing his own youth and age, Johnson’s annual passage is less personal, more universal, an eternal recurrence.

The winter section opens to the song of the river Rothay, just as Briggflatts begins with that of the Rawthey, a remarkable if probably fortuitous echo. Johnson borrows William Wordsworth’s image of the hills around Grassmere as a wheel, seeding his poem in ‘this soil, once/Wordsworth’. And despite the season, the soil, but actual and literary, is not dead but latent with life, vivid words:

I entered the architecture of

bees – the gold of

their mossed bodies

linked in warmth.

I followed

the patterns of waters

within earth,

& saw the whorls of buried

shells.

I followed the mottled lizard into

scrolls of leaves

& traced the plover to its

nest.

Johnson talks of two ways of seeing, William’s visionary mode:

who could not see

daffodils

only

And Dorothy’s particular eye for the detail of:

lichens & cushions of

moss,

who saw

 

these lakes

in all their weathers—

As the poem unfolds, it is clear that Johnson’s own eye is closer to Dorothy’s than her brother’s.

Spring opens with an evocation of the Green Man himself, with Johnson weaving fragments from or allusions to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Robert Herrick’s Corinna’s going a-Maying, Harlein MSS 5900 and various other texts in an exemplary instance of Johnson’s use of the Poundian ideographic method.

`Rise, and put on your foliage’.

 

Come, as the Green Knight to Gawain at the beginning
of the new year. . .

 

out of his oaken crevice:
lhude sing cuccu!

 

Move with a spring & vegetable swiftness,
seed-case & burr & tremulous grasses, a grove. . .vocal in the wind. . .

 

(`the rustling of the leaves and
the songs of birds denoting his presence there’)

 

cuckoo!

 

(`at thes day we in ye
sign call them Green Men, covered with green bones’)

 

cuckoo!

 

(`I have listened to the cuckoo in the ivy-tree,
I have listened to the note of the birds

 

in the crest of the rustling oak,
loud cuckoo’)

 

cuckoo!
cuckoo!

 

Rise as the sun: antlered. . .
bearded with greenery. . .the leaf-vein pulsing

 

in your throat. Budded all over with small flame, & motley
with birds in your hair & arms. Rise,

 

& put on your foliage!

The Green Man is an image of fertility and the natural cycle of unknown origins, whose iconographic representation is typically a disembodied head from whose mouth flows foliage and verbiage. Johnson, correctly in my view, traces him back to the Gawain poem, and it is likely that he is older still, with roots in the myths that lie behind the head of Bran in the Mabinogion and the beheading ritual in the Irish Fled Bricrenn. On one level, The Book of the Green Man is an early example of the ecological British counter-culture of the late 60s and early 70s rediscovery of ‘green’ folklore and myth. The Incredible String Band’s 1971 film and album Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending is one example. Another, later, instance is The Book of Herne by Eric Mottram, one of the younger British writers that Johnson got to know on his trip.

pgreenmanThe remainder of the spring section, describing the poets’ trip up the Wye, is rich in imagery of fertility, with even the river itself being predominantly green. As well as evoking William Wordsworth’s visit to Tintern, Johnson draws on a range of other writers: Kilvert, Whitman, Gerald of Wales and Edith Sitwell amongst others.With the summer section, the narrative thrust of the previous seasons gives way to a more meditative mode, a sequence of moments of attention to the green world in all its summer glory. At its heart are the Green Man carvings at Southwell:

a kind of greening speech comes from those mouths

 

all but winged – each leaf
cleft & articulate.

Autumn sees the poem move to Shoreham and the pictorial world of Samuel Palmer, with more than a passing nod to Blake and Kit Smart. Found text extracts on William Stukeley’s living ‘Stonehenge’ and Pope’s topiary become concrete poems, a reminder of Guy Davenport’s remark that ‘[i]f a poem has ever occurred to Mr. Johnson, he has never written it’. Johnson made poetry out of language wherever he found it, with no concern for the niceties of the lyric ‘I’.

Fittingly, the poem turns full circle. Palmer’s visionary paintings reflect William’s way of seeing, but his eye for detail, for moss on a cottage roof, for instance, is Dorothy’s. As the poem draws to a close, birdsong echoes the Rothay and Johnson’s extemporising on A WHITE CLOUD, a Palmer painting, recalls the winter daffodils and a poem that was, in effect, a collaboration between the Wordsworth siblings.

The Book of the Green Man is an important poem, a major long poem of the 1960s that has been out of print for far too long. Colin Sackett’s Uniformbooks are to be commended for bringing it back into circulation in a format that is both handsome and serviceable. It’s impossible to do justice to a work of such richness in a short review. Really, there’s only one thing to say. Read it.

Steps, by Mark Goodwin: A Review

steps-coverSteps, by Mark Goodwin, Longbarrow Press, 2014, ISBN: 978-1906175245, £12:99 (UK).

In his masterly book Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage, Tim Robinson talks of ‘the good step’, a concept whose definition he circles around, mainly in terms of what it isn’t, until near the end of the book he posits that ‘[t]he step, so mobile, so labile, so nimbly coupling place and person, mood and matter, place and purpose, begins to emerge as a metaphor for a certain way of living on this earth.’ I was reminded of this tentative position as I read Mark Goodwin’s Steps, a book that in its own very different way echoes many of Robinson’s preoccupations.

As befits its title, Steps is a book of walking, climbing, moving on foot over the earth’s many and varied surfaces. Goodwin records steps taken in Wales, Scotland, Spain, Ethiopia, and, above all, Cornwall. At the core of the book is the long poem ‘From a St Juliot to Beyond a Beeny’, which, at seventy-odd pages, makes up about half of the book’s contents.

As I wrote when reviewing the anthology The Footing, which contained a long extract from this poem, it is a sequence that maps a walk in the north of Cornwall. The mapping is almost literal, given that Goodwin provides OS map references for each of the nine sections of the poem, each one marking a kilometre of the walk itself in the margins of the text, which also contain potted summaries of the text. St Juliot is the parish where Thomas Hardy met Emma Lavinia Gifford, his future wife, in 1870 and I sense something of this in the background of what is as much a love poem; the walk is shared by Goodwin’s partner whose photograph of a moment in the poem is the cover image on the book.

In this poem, Goodwin uses a short, one, two or occasionally three stress line which gives a sense of a walk that is more pushed than leisurely:

and we pass on

towards a mass

of metallic glints

& jangling colours

we can see

a Bosc Astle’s

car-park where

a Minister Woods

ends to relinquish

a world of leaf

-crisp wild & leaf

-blurred histories

myths

 

now

she photographs

a flat dead shrew

& pale green

sycamore key

framed together

on bare earth-dust

feet have scuffed

There is a sense of an Anglo-Saxon metric at work here, with Goodwin’s short lines echoing the half line of Old English verse. This is, as I mentioned in that earlier review, reminiscent of some of the work of Bill Griffiths; reading the full poem I am also reminded of Chris Torrance, especially his Magic Door sequence. Goodwin shares Torrance’s sharp eye for the small particulars of a place as experienced by a mind open to such nuance and, to a degree at least, an interest in placing such detail in a greater context of what, for want of a better term, one might think of as a sacred landscape.

The extract above also illustrates Goodwin’s idiosyncratic use of the indefinite article before proper nouns and personal pronouns, together with a penchant for reconfiguring place names (Bocastle => Bosc Astle). These techniques can serve to interestingly defamiliarise the ordinary places and people that feature in the poem, reminding us that there is no one definitive view of what a place, a poet or even a reader might be, but rather a multiplicity of provisional, context bound readings. The indefinite article usage is discussed in a note at the end of the book, where the poet notes that it ‘can jar for some reader-listeners’. If I’m to be honest, I feel it is over-used in the St. Juliot sequence to the point where it becomes a minor irritant in an otherwise interesting and achieved long poem.

In many of the shorter poems in the book, Goodwin uses a longer, more reflective line:

Irresistible. Sweat erodes my face, shines

on my mask. I climb. I’m gleefully frightened –

night is not far off, and without light

the molars & fangs I clamber round will be closed

in a dark mouth. And I will have to curl

up cold amongst a god’s teeth. In my fortieth

year – stay with stone; my delicate lime frame,

I hang my meat on, dried amongst compressed

& eroded remains of ancient tiny beasts. I struggle.

(from ‘Forced Moment at El Torcal, Andalucía’)

The twists and turns of rhythm and syntax here formally              enact one of Goodwin’s recurrent themes; the conflict between a temptation to lose oneself in the natural world, to integrate with the landscape, and the need to resist, to remain human and so a little apart, observing, a poet.

As you might expect from Longbarrow Press, Steps is a handsomely produced hardback, nice to hold in the hand and pleasing to the eye. Of particular interest is the use of ‘faded’ grey ink for some of the marginal materials and, most effectively, in the poem ‘Particular Winter, Trossachs, January 2010’, where the text slowly fades into the dim winter light. It’s a pleasing instance of poem and book working in quiet, effective harmony.

 

 

 

 

Charlotte Grace O’Brien: Irish Woman Poet

Charlotte Grace O’Brien (1845-1909) was born in Cahirmoyle, County Limerick, the daughter of MP and Fenian William Smith O’Brien. She wrote novels and a verse play, A Tale of Venice. This was published with a selection of her lyric poems, in 1880. The poem ‘France was included in this volume.

FRANCE
(13th December, 1877.)
 
The French crisis— when the Marshal and the Republican party were standing face to face, their hands on their swords. The next day the Marshal surrendered — a noble surrender.
 
Again thou comest to thine hour ! Again,
Oh fairest France! thou strugglest in thy pain.
We stand, and watch, and ask if this, too, be in vain?
 
In vain the labour of these weary years?
In vain the blood, the treasure, and the tears?
In vain thy travail sore — thy sacrifice — thy fears?
 
Fair country, though within thy bounds apart
I stand a stranger, yet with thee this heart
Pulses in love and griefs knowing thee as thou art.
 
Thy sunny, scented hills, thy vineyards dight
With crimson webs and gold, springs of delight.
Thine olives stretching far, in clouded silvery light.
 
I see them all — the toilers of thy leas.
Beating with reedy staves the burdened trees.
Young maids and children bending in groups about their knees.
 
Brave, kindly people! Bright of ready cheer.
The sun looks down on you in love, yet here
Ye stand with lifted brows, the shadows sweeping near.
 
War! Is it war? Nay; can it be that those
Whose banners bear her name, can be her foes?
Oh crime! oh grief! oh shame! what worse could death disclose ?
 
Peace! Is it peace? Nay; we surrender not.
The birth of time, by agony begot,
Unshaped till extreme woe the great deliverance wrought.
 
“Oh, countrymen! oh, patriots! oh, friends!”
Ye cry to one another. Echo lends
Her voice — but answering time as yet no answer sends.