If you are trying to encourage diners
to try a newly-opened restaurant which you rate very highly then there
is little point in commenting on each dish on the menu since you will
end up with one, or at the most two sentences, serving a descriptive
purpose that could have been put there by the restaurateur. With this in
mind I have decided to give an account of this remarkably fine new
anthology by concentrating upon two very different poets whose poetry
and prose appears in that 'box where sweets compacted lie'.
Joan McBreen performed a major service to Irish poetry when she brought together the work of 113 Irish women poets in her 1999 anthology, The White Page /An Bhileog Bhán: Twentieth-Century Irish Women Poets
(Salmon Poetry). That book sought to correct the imbalance in the representation of women writers in Irish poetry anthologies and proved in the process that Irish women's poetry was vibrant and diverse. As a poet included in that anthology, I turned to McBreen's latest collation with anticipation and curiosity; given the slew of anthologies of Irish poetry over the past few years (for example, Bloodaxe's The New Irish Poets), I was intrigued to see what rationale she might use for her latest choice.
The Watchful Heart
contains the work of twenty-four poets who represent, for McBreen, the new generation of Irish poetry. Each was born in the last fifty years, has published at least two collections of poetry and wasn't featured in The White Page. Each poet has also contributed three poems, along with an essay in which they explore an issue close to their hearts as poets. The editor points out that had she also drawn on the poets contained in The White Page, she would have produced a volume far larger than either she, or her publisher, intended. So here we find ten women and fourteen men, representing what McBreen terms 'some of what I felt would be the best of recent Irish poetry'. She makes no claims that her selection is either 'comprehensive' or 'all-inclusive', a statement that rather dilutes the fun for the reviewer, of course. How can one possibly rant away about the exclusion of Mr X or Ms Y in the face of such reasonableness?
Of course, the question of what makes a 'new generation' is relative. I turned to the book expecting new faces and comparatively recent publication histories; imagine my surprise, therefore, to discover editor, publisher, anthologist and teacher Pat Boran as the first poet featured. Surprised mingled with pleasure, of course; Boran's lambent poetry has delighted me for a long time and, as a poet who began writing in the 1990s, when Pat was a regular teacher of creative writing workshops throughout the country (not to mention the author of one of the best creative writing handbooks produced in Ireland), I have always seen him as a wise mentor of the earlier generation. But he's actually only a year older than me and, in terms of chronology (he was born in 1963), he fits the book's criteria. Indeed, his inclusion serves as a timely reminder of how much he has managed to achieve in a comparatively short time-period and he is, as I said, always a pleasure to read. This splendid haiku, dedicated to the poet Leland Bardwell, proves the point:
A housefly settles
on the still end of my pen:
Clearly an ageist approach isn't going to elucidate McBreen's method os suffice to say that established names, for example Peter Sirr, John O'Donnell, Leontia Flynn and David Wheatley, mingle with poets whose reputations deserve to be far more widely known. Mary Branley, whose essay coincidentally also evokes the spirit of Leland Bardwell, has three fine poems here. I particularly liked the skilful rhythm of 'Sé do bheatha a Mhuire', where the lilt of the prayer's lines is artfully captured:
lift and drop
atá lán de ghrásta
rattle and whist
of the máidÃ raimhe
It's also nice to find Patrick Chapman
here, another admirably prolific writer of poetry, short stories and screenplays. Chapman can range from mordant humour to lyric romanticism; we get both in the first poem in his selection, 'The Darwin Vampires', where the eponymous villains are shown both in 'those places in between, where microbial kingdoms, / Overthrown with a pessary, render needle-toothed / Injuries invisible', and in 'A taste-regret on someone's tongue; a sudden tinted / Droplet in the iris of a fading smile; a blush upon / a woman's rose'. Chapman's essay, in fact a series of Fortune Cookie aphorisms, kept me giggling; I particularly liked the notion that 'Your ancestors will not be proud of your work, because they are dead.'
Two Irish-language poets are featured, Louis de Paor and Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, each with poetry in the original Irish and in translation. Louis de Paor's accompanying essay is a thoughtful meditation on the advantages and limitations of translation which, he points out, is necessary. 'The original remains obstinately, shyly, out of reach, and yet the impression it leaves on the linguistic veil that both conceals and reveals confirms the marvellous diversity of languagese other than our own.' Mac Lochlainn explores the issue creatively; his poem 'AistriÃºcháin Eile', rendered as 'Translation', suggests the slippery, protean quality of the task:
Is shÃn Barra amach a lámha láidre,
is sÃos leo láithreach san fharraige sáite,
gur thóg amach bradán beo beathach,
bradán ársa na beatha.
Then Barra stooped and thrust his hands into the sea
And pulled out an ancient fish
That kicked and writhed against his grip,
And showered them both
In glitters of water.
Nuala NÃ ChonchÃºir is another poet who writes with equal fluency in Irish and English, as her most recent poetry collection, Tatoo: TatÃº (Arlen House, 2007), revealed. But here she is purely in English-language mode, and demonstrates her characteristically sharp eye for a killer image, as in the poem 'Foetal', where 'we are fastened to our bed / you curl to the curl of me / unshaped to a shape that fits'. She also demonstrates the carefully thought-out nature of her poetics in her essay on poetry as 'female self-portrait', where she claims literary descent from writers such as Eavan Boland, Sharon Olds and Edna O'Brien. Cherry Smyth is equally articular on her process. For Smyth, writers are 'designed to speak, to tell stories and when the listener and we get lost in the telling, the story becomes an art.' Her art is clearly visible in poems such as 'December Morning, 2007', where:
Dying is always happening,
holding up its dark mountain
from the depths of a lake,
questioning the summer table
on the winter deck, the unplanted earth.
Not surprisingly in this increasingly mobile age, the 'new generation' features some poets who no longer claim Ireland as their home. John McAuliffe settled in the UK some time ago, although his poetic imagination seems equally at home in his new locale and in the childhood home of memory. I particularly liked the sense in the poem 'A Midgie' of the poet making matter out of his immediate surroundings: 'The garden goes greener in the lilac time. / This will go down on the permanent record'. Mary O'Donoghue is also based abroad - she lives in Boston - but finds an entire world in her point of reference. In an extract from her 'Letters to Emily: Finding Your Voice' she writes:
a shriek to make Atlantic waves turn tail,
turn a church on tiptoe on its steeple,
a shriek so pure and true it's heard
at the bottom of an Australian well,
as if the London air raid warning
was sounded by a pipistrelle...
In his essay, Justin Quinn uses his vantage point as a resident of Prague to examine the changes that have occurred in Irish society and wonders whether 'a fundamentally new immigration pattern...can...invigorate the monoculture that has held sway since 1922.' Provocatively, he adds that 'there's a corresponding ambition that the category of "Irish Poetry" itself will go up in a puff of smoke. No decent poet would ever wish to be merely an "Irish" poet (just as he or she wouldn't want to be merely an American or Australian poet).' Interesting, then, that one of his featured poems, 'The Crease', seems to evoke that well-known poetic stance, that of the wistful emigrant, albeit with a wry tone:
What's the river doing now? Does it blaze
with stunning blue and pink? Does it amaze
next to no-one with its smart remarks
on quays for long-gone merchants and their clerks,
on lopsided buses leaning in on it,
or cranes that raise the skyline bit by bit...
I promised earlier that I wouldn't be one of those reviewers that berates an anthology for its omissions. Each editor is entitled to their choice, for poetry is a subjective business. I did rather wonder why there was no place for Leanne O'Sullivan here (perhaps her fine second collection Cailleach: The Hag of Beara, from Bloodaxe, came too late to make her eligible), but I was delighted to read other fine poets, such as Paul Perry, Kevin Higgins
, Anne Fitzgerald, Mary Montague, Alan Gillis, Joseph Woods, Damian Smyth, Eileen Sheehan and Kate Newmann. There are many others - Dave Lordan
, Ann Leahy, Ciaran Berry and Nell Regan to name a few - who have made impressive débuts over the last decade and who will surely appear in future anthologies. The Watchful Heart
may not be the last word on Irish poetry at the start of the twenty-first century, but it provides a pretty good taster.