Poems ‘for something instead of nothing’
In an article published in last Christmas Eve’s edition of the Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole selected work by a diverse group of artists to illustrate the ways in which 2011 may be described as a "year of haunting and ghosts in Irish art". In relation to visual art, Anthony Haughey’s Settlement project was presented by O’Toole as one of the most potent works to engage with what he calls "the liminal spaces at the edges of towns and cities" to be produced in the year. Patricia Burns’s Hinterland: the Glen Paintings was also signalled for attention. Turning to poetry, O’Toole’s article concluded with a note on Derek Mahon’s New Collected Poems. Of particular interest to O’Toole was what he called the "prescience" of certain lines in Mahon’s poem ‘America Deserta’, from section 16 of his long poem Decadence (previously published in 1997 as The Yellow Book). Here Mahon describes the "long decline" of "the great money scam" that lead "to pot-holed roads and unfinished construction sites", an image that seems analogous to the depictions of post-Celtic Tiger social decay represented so poignantly in the work of Burns and Haughey. Mahon’s poem, however, begins with an epigraph from the writings of Zelda Fitzgerald, which suggests that it has an earlier twentieth-century context very much in its sights. ‘America Deserta’ also reflects on "the death of the boom", to use a phrase the American poet John Berryman coined when writing about another economic catastrophe, the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which brought about the end of the Jazz Age and heralded the beginning of the Great Depression. What O’Toole discerned as a prescient image, in other words, has less to do with the gift of prophecy than it has with Mahon’s acute historical consciousness and his awareness of the inevitability of economic catastrophe for any society where the accumulation of wealth is celebrated above all else, whether one considers the United States of the 1920s or Ireland in the first decade of the millennium.
The "year of haunting and ghosts" might then be considered in terms of a much longer time-span, even further back than the 1920s, to the time including what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously termed "the history of all hitherto existing society" in the first chapter of their Communist Manifesto; that is, "the history of class struggles". While it is difficult to say where some poets stand in relation to certain kinds of political questions, William Wall is a poet whose work speaks clearly to the particularity of his ideological outlook. As he puts it in a piece entitled ‘Poem on the anniversary of Gramsci’s birth’:
Here and throughout the poems of Ghost Estate Wall declares an interest not just in Gramsci – described by Richard Kearney as "one of the first critical thinkers of [the twentieth] century to reread Marx in the light of changing circumstances of industrial capitalism" – but also in the broad contexts of Marxist and neo-Marxist thought. The book includes pointed references to figures such as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht and Marx, and the collection’s epigraph (from Brecht’s Svendborg Poems) answers the question "In the dark times, will there also be singing?" with the reply "Yes, there will be singing / About the dark times." This then is a substantial collection of poems – seventy-nine in total, many of which are themselves divided into several sections – where Wall engages not just with current Irish economic and political crises but Ghost Estate is also a book that explores the larger, darker contexts of our contemporary historical climate. In this regard the ‘note on the title’ included in the volume is somewhat misleading. There the poet states "the ghost estate is a fitting metaphor for our failed republic" – referring specifically to Ireland – but the book’s cartography of failure is far greater than the immediately Irish cry of its occasion and the range of reference signalled above confirms this.
In an online interview on www.upstart.ie in March 2011, Wall described the Upstart project as a way "to get people to reframe the way they think about politics and society. So they encounter a simple phrase or image and it jolts their imagination. They get on their bus thinking. It may or may not affect them". In the same interview he said that "One of the highest functions of art is to make people reconsider the reality of their lives. [...] Language has, indeed, the power to make and remake worlds. I’d argue that we can only understand the world through language, so the people who control how we understand language, or what terms we use to describe something, can partially control the way we think." Ghost Estate begins with a poem in which these ideas about language are teased out, but it does so by drawing particular attention to the nature of poetry by quoting Theodor Adorno’s famous claim that "To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric":
for others it was Auschwitz
art is in the unimaginable
two sweet bodies lying down
A Beckettian inflection here and throughout the collection (most explicitly in ‘On a line of Beckett’s misheard’) augments not just Wall’s concern with language (and its limits) but it also goes some way towards explaining the often ominous atmospherics of his lyrics. This is as one would expect in a volume of poems concerned in a very central way with ideas of haunting and the ghostly, but the "miserable souls who made the mistake of buying their new homes on the cusp of the housing bubble" are not in fact the central figures of dispossession in Ghost Estate. While the refrain of the volume’s title poem ("if you lived here / you’d be home by now") may on one level be read as an intractable reminder of the delusion that fed the Celtic Tiger, it is also resonant with ideas of displacement and homelessness that pertain in a more profound sense to larger historical crises such as the Holocaust and the so-called War on Terror.
This is not to underestimate the impact the economic crisis is having on so many lives in Ireland and elsewhere, but Wall’s Ghost Estate does serve to offer a larger perspective within which it can be understood. In this respect, then, he seems to exemplify the figure Antonio Gramsci described as the "organic intellectual", as opposed to the "traditional intellectual" who often appears to be "divorced from the immediate social struggles of history" (as Kearney puts it). Even in Wall’s most ostensibly personal poems – the book contains many moving elegies as well as love lyrics – there is always a keen sense of the interrelationship between private and public spheres. The imagery and symbolism of domesticity and familial relationships are shot through with ideas of broader significance, as in ‘Clearing my aunt’s house after the funeral’, ‘What will become of our children’, or ‘Flying towards a funeral’. Flight, in fact, and travel, are recurring motifs in Ghost Estate, but they cohere in a way that reinforces the general sense of displacement in the collection, as if to say that the poet’s restless spirit cannot find peace at home no matter how closely he identifies with his homeland. Wall’s closeness to Ireland is in evidence in a number of poems here, but so too is a generous internationalism that accounts for a large proportion of the book’s poems written after, to, or for various non-Irish, often Italian, figures, including Carlo Levi, Eugenio Montale, Giovanni Nadiani, Salvatore Quasimodo, Daniele Serafini, Maria Luisa Spaziani, and William Stabile. In this regard, Ghost Estate might have been structured as a book in a slightly different way, with the translations and ‘Italian poems’ in a separate section, but one can see too that Wall’s arrangement of Ghost Estate reflects his commitment to a world without borders. Indeed, the mania for bordering, monitoring, and securing people as they move around the world is the subject of one of the longest pieces in Ghost Estate, ‘Job in Heathrow’, in which Wall describes in often darkly comic terms "the guards [who] wear spectacles / a society of spectacles as the man said / like the dark ground of a cameo / except in reverse". As in the writing of Brecht, however, the "comedy" never lasts for long, and ‘Job in Heathrow’ also contains images of shocking brutality:
& everyone said how well she looked
jammed against the partition
her pants still around her knees
Here and throughout Ghost Estate Wall is uncompromising in his depiction of different kinds of violence and loss, and in poems such as ‘Behind a hospital somewhere in Italy’ he shows that such acts of barbarism are often closer to "home" – wherever that is – than we might like to believe.
Ghost Estate is a deeply political book, but it also articulates a profound interest in and engagement with questions of aesthetics and poetics. Its opening poem, as mentioned already, addresses the propriety of poetry in the face of terrible acts, and several others challenge us to think about the idea of artistic responsibility—the extent to which, if at all, the artist should or can respond to events of public concern. Having said that, it is important to highlight the ways in which Ghost Estate is also concerned with the art of poetry itself, and to the many Italian artists referenced in the collection another list can be compiled which includes some of the most significant Anglophone writers of the last two centuries, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge (in ‘The frost performs its secret ministry’) and Edgar Allan Poe (see ‘In memoriam David Marcus’) to Robert Frost (in ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’), and Ezra Pound. The allusions to Pound are particularly interesting, given the complicated and at times abhorrent politics of the American poet compared with the presiding intellectual spirits of Ghost Estate. But on two occasions in the collection, in section viii of ‘Job in Heathrow’ and again towards the end of the book in ‘Meeting at evening’, references to the figure of "friend Elpenor" (the same phrase is used each time), seem taken directly from Pound’s first Canto:
Dark blood flowed in the fosse,
Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides
Of youths and of the old who had borne much;
I sat to keep off the impetuous dead,
Till I should hear Tiresias.
But first Elpenor came, our friend Elpenor,
Unburied, cast on the wide earth,
Limbs that we left in the house of Circe,
Unwept, unwrapped in sepulchre, since toils urged other.
Of course Wall may not have taken the story of Elpenor from Pound at all, but from Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey, where Pound got it, but what matters, in any case, is not the source of the sailor’s story but its meaning. The figure of Elpenor in The Odyssey is not missed by his comrades when he falls to his death while climbing drunkenly down a ladder from ‘Circe’s ingle’ until he appears as a ghost to Odysseus. ‘Friend Elpenor’, then, in terms of his positioning in Ghost Estate at either end of this long collection, may be said to illustrate both the complexity of Wall’s poetic vision and his engagement with tradition, but he (Elpenor) is also a casualty of war who was almost forgotten. His presence is just as important to Ghost Estate as the ‘miserable souls’ mentioned in the note on the collection’s title because he reminds us that the spectres that trouble our world are not only local but global and we ignore them at our peril.
In terms of his poetic methods a word should also be said here about the way in which Wall appears to have stripped back his poems so that they read, at times, almost like Beckett’s later poems in their pared down fragmentariness. Largely unpunctuated, except for ampersands and an occasional full-stop, the lines of Wall’s poems do not contain initial capitals and at times may also remind readers of the poems of W.S. Merwin in their formal open-endedness and syntactic fluidity. This strategy presents certain difficulties for the reader – how and where to place pauses, how to gauge rhythm – but Wall’s poems are not as lacking in metrical or sonic exactitude as they might appear. Consider, for example, the music of the following lines from ‘The house of the customs men’ (‘after the Italian of Eugenio Montale’):
a southwesterly beats the old walls
& your smile has lost its lightness
the compass swings wildly
& the dice fall against us
Or attend to the play of rhythm, assonance, and half-rhyme in ‘Nice’:
Here and elsewhere throughout Ghost Estate Wall’s lines and verses turn and turn in on themselves with carefully crafted mastery, but for all of the obvious interest in the mechanics of writing he is also a poet who takes his political responsibilities seriously. As he puts it in ‘Spiders’, a poem no more about cobwebs than Frost’s ‘Design’ is about arachnids:
these tiny cantilevered stanzas
for something instead of nothing
Elsewhere, in ‘The time I spend’ he echoes W.B. Yeats’s ‘Adam’s Curse’ in his description of "the time I spend / making something / feel unmade" but in the best poems of Ghost Estate Wall’s "making" serves the dual demands of engaged art truly and well.
Ghost Estate is a long collection, Wall’s third, and some of the poems in it might have been excluded. The closing group of prose poems (flash fictions?) ‘Travels in an Italy of the mind’ might have formed the basis for a separate book, while certain shorter pieces seem oddly misplaced (‘The sexuality of women in cinemas’, in particular). In several ways, however, Wall’s work is informed by a belief in what Antonio Gramsci described as "the greatest danger"—the danger of "ossified thinking". Formally adventurous, politically engaged, historically and culturally alert and open-minded, the poems of Ghost Estate attest to the mind of a poet for whom the possibilities of poetry as a way of responding to and describing the world are excitingly alive and poised for action. His poems ultimately posit what in ‘Something there is that does not love a wall’ he calls "a version / of the future / that is not the past":
a wishbone in the ash proves
©2012 Philip Coleman.
Originally from Cahir, in Tipperary, Philip Coleman graduated from UCC with a First in English and Philosophy in 1995. He is a Lecturer in English in Trinity College Dublin. His reviews on contemporary poetry have appeared in The Edinburgh Review, Poetry Ireland Review, The Irish Left Review, and The Irish Times.
Review: Ghost Estate reviewed by Borbála Faragó, The Irish Times, Saturday 28th May 2011
William Wall’s Ghost Estate
takes its title from the vast number of unfinished estates that remain
uninhabited since Ireland’s economic breakdown. The title poem’s eerie
refrain “if you lived here / you’d be home by now” reverberates in the
emptiness of the unlived environment, culminating with the painful
recognition that “it’s all over now”. Wall’s poems oscillate between
depicting total devastation and hope that is found in humanity’s empathy
towards the other. The poems look for points of uncertainty, the
in-between and transient expressions of what it means to be human. On
Stones, a witty sequence about the multiple interpretations of stone as
object of home, eternity, weapon or meaning, claims that “things are
classified / by their mutability”. On a societal level Wall’s poems
mourn the present state of Ireland but also berate the human greed and
selfishness that caused the country’s downfall. On a personal level
poems explore the sites of fear, anxiety and hope, constantly searching
for meaning within the uncertain. Letter to a Doctor metaphorically
interprets a medical camera’s search for illness within the body as
humanity’s futile attempt to find its locus of meaning within life:
“you & I are transiting / the
great digestive tract / that is the world,” the speaker says, then
concludes that there is “no way out / the world is everything”.
Anxiety is also manifest in Wall’s poems about the environment. His
apocalyptic vision of the ecological demise of our planet is suffused
with humility and resignation where the global catastrophe is
transformed “into a universal truth / the days are shorter / today than
yesterday”. Death, whether environmental or personal, takes central
stage in the collection. In Flying Towards a Funeral he recounts with
great sadness and empathy the inevitable passing of time as “this
cumulus of grief / this near miss in time” where “we feel temporary /
One of the best poems in the volume is Eight Observations About Hope , a
witty and cinematic snapshot of images that does not express hope but
observes it. Although hope remains hidden and inaccessible, it
materialises in the very act of looking for it.
William Wall has a masterful capacity to depict ambiguity. The striking
lack of punctuation throughout the volume and the hidden motifs of
thresholds vividly capture transience and doubt as the essence of frail
Liam Murphy, "Between the Lines" column, The Munster Express, 27 May 2011
William Wall the Cork-based novelist and short story writer, has just brought out his third collection of poetry Ghost Estate
with Salmon Poetry. It is contemporary and topical as its title suggests a metaphor of unfinished housing estates and the feeling that Ireland is becoming a place of disappointments, broken dreams, sold old premises an vague aspirations for bail-outs of the heart and soul.
Some of the poems, especially the shorter ones are oblique enough to be notes for a poem, perhaps abandoned like the unfinished houses, then you read poem like "I Have A Mad Tongue" with its - "I have cancer of the bowel...six months at best, they haven't the heart to tell me...you have a heart of gold".
There is satire and sex in "In The Museums" - the skeleton of a fund manager...and Wall S...street was Disneyland... these lovelies horny and waiting... the cure usually contains the disease.
The title poem has a ring of Roger McGough - "The heart is open plan, wired for alarm, but we never thought, we'd end up like this, the whole country like a builder's tip."
Then you turn a page and books are wonderfully like that, turn a page to "The Easy Way", where a drift of emotions hit you like a banker in freefall "without as much as a by your leave."
I particularly liked "In Memoriam" David Marcus, a tribute to an editor who encouraged Wall and many others to a life in words.