m.emoire, by Augustus Young, The Duras Press 2014, ISBN 9780956837936, €15.00
The publication in 1972 of On Loaning Hill, Augustus Young’s first full-length collection, marked the appearance of a serious new voice in Irish poetry. The ninety plus poems in the book show an acute sensibility and an interest in formal experimentation that was not untypical of the younger poets published by the New Writers’ Press (NWP) who eschewed what Young has referred to as the ‘reach for the shovel’ tendency. In some ways, Young’s work was more fully formed, more sure of itself, than that of many of his peers.
These early poems show an interest in the Modernism of Pound and Eliot that linked his work with those earlier Irish Modernists, including Denis Devlin and Brian Coffey, that NWP championed. By the time the book was published, Young was living the Bohemian life in London, where he became close, personally and artistically, to Coffey. At this point, Young seemed marked out to be a certain kind of outsider with respect to Irish poetry: urban, experimental, ‘difficult’.
Young’s next two books pointed in a somewhat different direction, however. The first, Dánta Grádha. Love Poems from the Irish (AD 1350-1750) saw him become more engaged with syllabic verse structures, while Rosemaries. A Verse Sequence, published by Coffey’s Advent Books, combined autobiographical themes with an increasing facility for rhyme. These strands came together in The Credit. A Comedy of Empeiria, published in 1980, a fictional bildungsroman in syllabic ottava rima.
When The Credit. Book Two / Book Three appeared six years later it consisted of a mix of that same verse structure and a type of rhymed open field composition in the form of a kind of Brechtian epic drama. It was now clear that Young was doubly outside, associated with the Irish avant garde but unwilling to conform to narrow notions of the experimental. Young is very much a one-off writer and The Credit remains an unrecognised landmark text.
Young has continued to write poetry, to translate, especially Brecht and Mayakovsky and cordels in his combined study/translation/original verse work Lampion and His Bandits. Literature of the Cordel in Brazil. He has also produced a series of entertaining prose memoirs which relate his adventures in the world of 1970s literary London and his fraught relationship with his native country.
Around the time that On Loaning Hill was published, Young met Margaret McKinnon Morrison, AKA m. They married and eventually moved to the South of France early in this century. In 2012, m died after what seems to have been a prolonged illness. In m.emoire, Young depicts their life together, m’s illness and death, and his reaction to it, in both verse and prose.
The book is in two parts, the first consists of three sets of poems, thirty one in total, the second of eighteen prose passages, in English with French translations. These texts are wrapped in one of the most handsomely produced books from an Irish publisher for quite some time. The 17 x 20 cm page size together with a neat san serif typeface in a smallish font size means that the text is set off against a pleasing amount of white space, consisting of heavy, good quality paper. The colour reproductions of two paintings, one on the cover by Belgian artist Huib Fens and another just before the poems begin by David Caldwell, a Scottish painter, are of art-book quality and relate interestingly to the writing.
The poems follow a rough narrative arc, with the first set of ten being memories of life with m before her illness took hold. The landscape is of the French Mediterranean, and against this ground Young creates a dynamic portrait of a strong, though self-effacing woman. Tellingly, these poems are predominantly written in the past tense; the poet is remembering the living m, but from her present absence:
You had a perfume with no smell
not to be traced. But I could tell
where you had been from its absence
for I’ve acquired a seventh sense
for cloaked fragrances.
(from ‘A Perfume Called Crime’)
This set of poems ends with a poignant recognition of present mourning in a poem that remembers m’s habit of humming quietly:
I hum now by the ocean.
It’s more breathless than before
The eleven poems in the second set deal with m’s illness and death and pivot on the fifth of them, ‘Returning Home’, which deals with the night before m’s death, the narrator at home having left her in hospital has a phone call that presages her passing. The poignant ending of this poem captures the everydayness of mourning, of realising that life goes on and not really wanting it to:
‘You’ll get used to it,’ say those who don’t know
I’m still putting on clothes that you ironed.
I don’t want to go to sleep ever again.
The final group of poems are concerned with this life after death, a life of making adjustments that can’t be made. The final poem, ‘The Cartesian Accord’, captures the survivor’s paradox in its closing lines:
‘I am because you think.’ Therefore it’s true
that in the stillness of what is let be,
space has been made to house a time-share.
Which means that I am here when you’re not there.
The prose sequence, also called ‘m.emoire’, is more conventionally a narrative of the relationship between m and Young and follows their story from first meeting through marriage, their lives together, the move to France, illness and death. It is a story saturated in love, not through the language of grand passion but rather that of close observation, the telling details we cling to against the darkness:
Five months after your death, every evening I have been heating enough hot water in the boiler for two. Still I like to copy you. You often chided me for drinking bottled water. Now I only drink from the tap.
When I met you it was not a coup de foudre. It was as if someone turned on the light. It’s still on.
These memories, told tenderly, are not so much Young’s way of holding on to his wife as of holding on to himself. The final prose section reads, in its entirety:
I don’t dream of you ever, except
when I wake up.
That Young has managed to share these waking dreams lovingly, while avoiding sentimentality, is testimony to his artistry and to his humanity.