Undercurrents, a psychogeography of Irish rivers in haibun and haiku, by Amanda Bell, Alba Publishing, ISBN 9781910185353, €12 / £9 / $14
Haibun is a literary form of mixed prose and verse that has its origins in the travel journals of Basho, the great Japanese master haiku poet. These include his most famous work, the Oku no Hosomichi or Narrow Road to the Deep North. It’s a highly flexible form that allows the poet to blend the inner and outer paths that any journey involves, and to seamlessly incorporate memory, history and immediate sensation into the text.
It’s a form that is experiencing something of a revival, in part at least because of the rising interest in psychogeography as a crucial mode of landscape writing. In Undercurrents, Amanda Bell applies it to a very specific end; a meditation on various Irish rivers that for one reason or another have significance for her. This is not a journal of a single journey, but rather of multiple trips through both space and time, the resulting texts being both local and personal, the rivers ranging from the Liffey to the Mulcair to an un-named mountain stream.
Rivers are, of course, the most liminal of sites, and Bell’s haibun reflect this essential fact. The Liffey damned at Poulaphouca for Dublin’s water supply covers flooded farms and houses that reappear when the level falls, a drowned world momentarily, and vacantly, revived. The Clare, on the Limerick/Tipperary border, is site of a double death. The Mulcair, which flows a few hundred yards from where I’m writing this review, marks an adolescent rite of passage.
Bell’s prose is direct, unpretentious and lucid, conveying fact and impression with ease. Haiku is one of the most difficult verse forms to carry off, allowing the poet the narrowest of opportunities to fire a synapse in the reader. Often, this reaction turns on a single word. At her best, Bell manages admirably:
cutting this year’s wood
for next year’s fires –
who will feel its warmth?
Undercurrents is an interesting and rewarding little book, not least for the way it indicates something of a shift in the dynamic of Irish verse as our poetry of place moves away from the pieties of the last century and towards a more exploratory, indeterminate mode.
EchoNone, Michael McAloran, Oneiros Books, ISBN 9781326289393, €8.40. `
In Absentia, Michael McAloran, Black Editions Press, ISBN 9781326618292, €7.18.
Place, in the sense of a defined location, is entirely absent in Michael McAloran’s work, which is grounded in a nihilistic view of the void in which nothing is, or can be, known or communicated; a state in which, to quote the epigraph to EchoNone, ‘what resonates is the sound of zero cracking apart’. The texts that comprise these two books are not prose poems, but rather poetry in prose (McAloran also writes in verse), syntactically disrupted blocks of language, in which the only punctuation used is an occasional parenthesis and frequent slashes and ellipses.
Both books are an attempt to articulate the nothing, zero, the great egg of the world, and these punctuation marks are a crucial device to help the poet avoid the danger of total stasis that could all too easily ensue. In EchoNone, for example, each block of text opens with an ellipsis, pointing back to the previous text and ends similarly, pointing on to the next (or, in the case of the first and last pages of the book, to the silence the text emerges from). Slashes punctuate the constituent markers as pauses, not of the breath (these are very much texts for silent reading, not for performance) but of the mind that would comprehend the underlying, almost Socratic, maxim ‘I speak therefore I know no thing’.
The idea that life is meaningless, unknowable, unutterable presents certain challenges for the nihilist writer. The problem is that language continually asserts meaning. Put a word on the page, say ‘a’, and already a constellation of expectation asserts itself. A noun is required, a thing, indefinite but real. ‘a shred of pulse’, which is life, and what of it? What does it do?
…a shred of pulse sung some distance din breath lapse of reduced to nothing or of what matter echo/
And the reader makes sense of it, the ellipsis sends us back to what went before (‘silence silenced/…) and the slash both stops us and prepares us for a something next. Which is to say that the nothing is not everything, that endurance and continuity matter. That, to quote an obvious exemplar, ‘I’ll go on.’
There is a great deal of Beckett here, not least in the emphasis on silence and echo, a mutually contradictory complement. Or, to quote the final paragraph of In Absentia:
seals up in wound of speech echoing distance untraceable/ stillness/merely broken bones
More surprisingly, I am often reminded of Beckett’s Irish contemporary Brian Coffey, who, for all I know, is not known to McAloran. In lines like
black light vibration returns unto premise premise none yes or no/ futility bitten artery un-shine
there is a strong echo of passages from ‘Advent’ or ‘Mindful of You. Of course, Coffey leaned on religion as a stay against the void. McAloran has no such easy answers, and yet there is a sense through both these books that he is aware of something behind the nothing. Whatever that may be, he’s clear that it is neither simple nor easy.
Like so many of our most interesting and challenging poets, present and past, McAloran is published mainly by small foreign presses or his own Black Editions. Consequently, you’re unlikely to come across his books in your local bookshop or library, but they are very much worth tracking down and reading.
oranges in finland, Judy Kravis, Road Books, €5.00
Road Books is an imprint run by Judy Kravis and Peter Morgan from their home in West Cork. Her most recent publication, oranges in finland, is part of the second series of their ‘colour books (will fit in a shirt pocket) line of handsome little books. If McAloran’s writing can sometimes teeter on the edge of nightmare, Kravis inhabits a somewhat different dreamscape. As she puts it herself ‘Forty-three dreams. Forty-three mornings. Write after breakfast, before the dream disappears. Revise in the evening with the day’s weather, the day’s plot woven in.’
These poems capture the banal absurdity that characterises most of our dreams: an airport becomes a hospital; you open a knocked door but nobody’s there; journeys lose their destinations. Kravis presents these dream incidents in carefully crafted poems that refuse the temptation to interpret, hovering on the edge of sense, and not straining to impose an artificial order.
in media res
the people you have met
merge with the people you
have not – you know who
they all are but not yet
who you are nor just
how brinkish the
middle of thi-
ngs can be
Despite their obvious differences as writers, Kravis’ work sits outside the Irish mainstream as much as McAloran’s does. She eschews the expected rhetoric of self to create small poems in a minor key that are individual, honest, unpretentious, and carefully crafted. They are poems that feel like they have been written for the sake of it, and not to appeal to a putative audience. This is, indeed, a book to slip in your shirt pocket and enjoy in quiet moments.
A Childhood Unshared: The Crumlin Poems, Teri Murray and Pauline Fayne, Clothesline Press, ISBN 9780951941232, €10.00.
Teri Murray and Pauline Fayne grew up in mid-20th century Crumlin, a working class suburb of Dublin and although their experiences overlapped they didn’t meet until adulthood, brought together by a shared interest in poetry. Here they present a set of paired poems reflecting their different but similar childhoods. It’s a conversation between two distinct but complementary voices that grow out of lifetimes immersed in books. Fayne sums it up well in her opening piece ‘The Poet Dreams of Crumlin’:
The shock of recognition
in each others words –
the dream lives and perfect homes
born between the pages
of the books that sustained us,
the same envied neighbours, the one
need to belong.
Unlike most Irish poetry of place, which depends on the magic of naming and of rootedness, to the point of cliché, these urban place poems are, like most working-class urban living, a negotiation between a sense of community and a kind of rootlessness. In the 1930s, Crumlin went from being the dairy farm of Dublin to a sprawling development designed to facilitate inner-city slum clearance. As such, Fayne and Murray represent the first or second generation of children to grow up in this new environment, which is both theirs and not. The poems they collect here reflect this reality, celebrating not the shared history and myth of the place, but rather the creation of its history and myth. Phil Lynnot is a god who walks among them, as too, in a different way, are young men in uniform, whose army jobs are a kind of way out.
The resulting work has a surface simplicity, but any idea that it is simple is undercut by Murray’s first poem in the book, ‘To Me Fella, A Letter’, a well-judged parody of Pound’s ‘The River Merchant’s Wife. A Letter’:
At sixteen, you departed, went into far Drum-Con-Dra,
by way of the dark lanes across the river
of swirling eddies and you have been gone five months.
The magpies make sorrowful noises overhead.
However, the rest of the work avoids a self-conscious literariness and is Poundian only in its direct treatment of the thing; the thing being daily life. Crumlin and the poets’ experiences of it are not made to stand for something else, they are lucidly themselves. In ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, a poem about back-garden entertainments, Fayne brings this world to life in the sophisticated ordinariness of her particulars:
well watered squash,
and cornflake sandwiches.
If variety is the essence of a literary culture, these quiet poems, these poets, must be welcome as an integral part of the pattern.
Distance, by Ron Carey, Revival Press, €12.00
Distance, the first collection by Limerick poet Ron Carey was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2016 for the United Kingdom and Ireland. This is, I imagine, a pleasing achievement for the poet and for his publisher, a small Limerick-based press dedicated to the publication of local poetry.
It’s not difficult to see why Carey’s book would be popular with the judges; it’s a very self-consciously literary book in the rural Irish tradition of Kavanagh, who is the presiding spirit in the collection. Carey covers the well-worn themes of childhood wonder, eccentric relations and neighbours, fathers and mothers, rural electrification and the confessional, and the redeeming powers of art in a series of ‘well-made’ anecdotal poems, with all the strengths and dangers of the genre. It’s not a kind of poetry that I read much of, so I am, perhaps, not well-placed to judge this book.
There is, however, one thing that jumps out of these pages, which is a dependence on simile and metaphor as a central organising method. If Fayne and Murray respect their landscape in and of itself, in Carey’s poems, everything tends to be seen in terms of something else.
This is fine when it works organically in the poem and when the comparison forces the reader to see things in a new light. However, there can be a tendency to a bathetic flatness, as when a dry-stone wall is compared to a Large Particle collider, or in a poem about one of the eccentric relations:
In the evening, his head on Aunt Lilly’s lap, they lay
Among the grey-haired dunes.
At other times, comparison seems to be made simply for the sake of it, adding nothing to the poem but extra words:
My Aunt Babbie wore a shawl, black as midnight
In a country lane
There are moments when the method does work:
I find life now – much the same
As the robin does – wriggling
In my mouth
On balance, however, the poet seems to be in love with comparison, but not in control of it.
Carey now lives in Dublin and it will be interesting to see if his second collection moves away from his essentially rural vision to encompass the realities of his new urban environment or if he will develop a different vocabulary and more open method for his work as a result.