This small pamphlet, published by Candlestick Press, is carefully crafted in every way. Physically it has a beautiful appearance and feel and it is accompanied by a bookmark and envelope to allow it to serve as a superior alternative to a birthday or other occasion card. The ten poems are well chosen and introduced by Paula Meehan, who is a leading figure in contemporary Irish poetry and who was Ireland Professor of Poetry from 2013-2016.
In her excellent brief introduction, Paula Meehan says that the poems were chosen with an eye to “our problematic history” and to language itself. The pain and confusion of that history, including the suppression of the Irish language, can be heard throughout the collection. Two of the poems are presented both in the original Irish and in English translation. All of the poems evoke a sense of the broader context of Irish identity, history, culture and language. It is often an uncomfortable read and at the same time a welcome gift of insight deep into not only the living tradition of Irish poetry but also the complex present of that living history.
The first poem, “Death of an Irishwoman” by Michael Hartnett” typically evokes the sense of the death of a past that is larger than, yet embodied in, one woman. The line “I loved her from the day she died” stays with me. “Safe House” by Leanne O’Sullivan begins “when they were beginning to build a country” and goes deep into the shadows of secrecy and the lasting consequences of lost history. “Tell them there was never a child”. “There was never a map that could lead back to or out of that place”. The safe place and noble intentions of the beginning lead to a desolate legacy. There is a holding on to and re-creation of myth in Eavan Boland’s “Once” where hidden in present suburbs there are “Irish wolves, A silvery man and wife”.
In my very English ignorance, I must confess that the only poem here that I had known before is Brendan Kennelly’s “Begin”. We are told that it is one of the most frequently read poems at Irish funerals. I encountered it at the end of a training course in family constellations when we were using poetry to help process the ending. One third of the course group were from Ireland, and one Irish man shared this poem. I think that it is best known for its final four lines:
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
That always seems about to give in
Something that will not acknowledge conclusion
Insists that we forever begin.
The poems take us into these human conflicts which are both universal and also specific to the problematic history of Ireland. “The Countermanding Order” by Moya Cannon tells of the relief and joy that her grandmother would have felt at the order to muster for the Easter rising being countermanded. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill in “Possession” is in conflict with the wild woman from mythology who takes her over. Gearóid MacLochlainn in “Second Tongue” speaks with the voice of silenced languages that still survive and threaten the oppressors. Paula Meehan herself, in “Two Sides of the Same Coin” asks the question of both the Irish language and of poetry, “Was it beaten into me or out of me?” Tony Curtis (the Irish poet one) in “Civil War” is seriously humorous in the tale of two brothers who died on opposite sides of the Civil War. When a boy in a writing class asks what an oxymoron is, other children respond with examples of Civil War and happy families.
The collection ends with a poem by Thomas McCarthy called “Their Going, Their Dying” on the “special sorrow” of parents dying. In the end as in the beginning, there is the sense that this special sorrow may be for past generations in a broader way.
As you may have gathered, I have loved reading and tasting these poems. I recommend them to you, whether you want to use them as an alternative to a card or simply want to own them for yourself.
John Waite is a member of Town Hall Poets. He is co-facilitator of Kindling the Soul a one day workshop combining creative writing for therapeutic purposes and family constellations on April 22nd, 10-5, at Broughton Gifford Village Hall, SN12 8PN.