The poetry of teaching
In my first reading of this collection of some 56 poems (150 pages long!) by the Longford poet, dramatist, and former teacher, I found several poems taking me into imagination, back my own era of ‘chalk dust’.
The first poem, ‘Still-Life Study’, a poem based on the cover illustration for the collection by artist Pádraig Lynch, is a mere seven lines, but spaced into thirteen reflective moments. Utterly beautiful.
Another, called ‘Altar Boys’ (there were no altar girls those days), is a sonnet on this world of Catholic childhoods everywhere. From its priestly invocation Introibo ad altare Dei…(I go up to the altar of God) to the altar-boy’s latin answer…Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam (To God who gives joy to my youth), the poem embraces the pride, the focus, and sense of significance that little children proudly wore under the surplice through the serving at Mass and other devotions.
The participants and conviction believers live within the rituals of their religions. Ritual, that powerful and living action, was a practice learned by the altar boy early on.
But review space sends me on to the key piece that spoke so powerfully, the title poem, ‘Chalk Dust’. Do not be put off by its length — 55 pages! After the first two pages, I could not put it down and read it through in one sitting. And when I reached the opening lines of its final section called ‘And all shall not be forgotten’, there was the poet himself saying much of what I want to say about it:
‘Chalk dust became a force of nature. It put names on faces. It lived and grew inside me in some mysterious way. It drew its nourishment from me. I tiptoed across chalk-dust bridges. It swept me along. I shaped images, all the countless joys and sorrows appeared in a chalk-dust fog one night. All the voices resounded in the drifting clouds of chalk-dust. I hear them still in a state of hope and innocence.
That opening paragraph of the section is a poet’s voice, a poet’s manifesto, a telling of the process of creativity and of the making of poems. It is also a tribute to how childhoods were lived in his time, and indeed a decade earlier in mine.
And Monahan in this fine ‘dramatic prose poem’ faces the darkness of experiences, the cruelties (of boys, teachers and religious) with extraordinary perceptions and accuracy. And importantly, the poem acknowledges and illustrates vigorously the unbounded joys and mischiefs that thrived and survived inside the cages of those times.
We might be a more enlightened people now, but it would be beyond foolishness to not acknowledge the realities, positive and negative, of earlier times.
Noel Monahan had written that acknowledgment of ‘…a time / of many questions / and few answers’. But he has written for us its laughter and pain, its ironies and pleasures, its ignorance and its learnings. ‘Chalk Dust’ is an integrated narrative mix of dramatic prose and poetry about a schoolboy’s college times as lived, felt and stirred by the boys themselves. A reading joy.