Tuesday, November 03, 2009
On the Trembling Margin
Hereunder the text of a talk I gave at Aberdeen at the weekend, titled ‘On the “trembling margin”: Irish-Language Trace Elements in Contemporary Irish Poetry in English’. Yes, it is woefully incomplete. I don’t discuss Heaney or Montague, the first of whom has every bit as deep a scholarly knowledge of Irish as Thomas Kinsella, but without the Gaelic Atlas with the weight of the world on his shoulders complex, and the latter of whom is every bit as much of an old-style culural nationalist as Kinsella, but whose engagement with Irish partakes more noticeably of a private drama (the stuttering speech of his ‘grafted tongue’). I also don’t engage with Vivian Mercier or Declan Kiberd, as alternatives to the merely catastrophist view of the fate of Irish taken, again, by Kinsella. And since I was speaking in Scotland you’d imagine I might have had something to say about Rody Gorman, who triangulates his work between English, Irish and (Scottish) Gaelic, but no. I did, however (thanks Kit), receive some suggestions for who that Irish poet might be who lives and writes in apparent total indifference to the Irish language (your suggestions please...). Seo agaibh anois:
In a short film of 2003, Yu Ming is Ainm Dom, a Chinese man decides to move to Ireland, and having established in an atlas that the official language of that country is Gaelic, sets about learning it. On arrival in Dublin he enters a pub and asks for a job, only to be met with incomprehension. Finally, one man sitting in the corner intervenes and explains as Gaeilge how Yu Ming has been sadly misinformed. English is the language of Ireland, not Irish. At this point, his use of the famous mirror sequence from Taxi Driver while practising the language in China (‘An bhfuil tusa ag labhairt liomsa?’, ‘You talkin’ to me?’) seems all the more appropriate, since also in the words of that celebrated soundbite ‘I’m the only one here’. It gets worse: the bemused barman exclaims to another drinker that he wasn’t aware Paddy spoke Chinese. But all is not lost: the closing sequence of the film features some tourists arriving at a pub in the Gaeltacht and encountering Yu Ming behind the bar, who greets them with a hearty ‘Fáilte go Conamara!’, ‘Welcome to Connemara’.
A post-Celtic Tiger Irish-resident version of Christopher Reid’s Katerina Brac can easily be imagined, a Latvian, Angolan or Chinese poet commenting with affectionate irony on the Irish and their foibles. But as Yu Ming’s example reminds us, there is already a resident linguistic alien among the Irish, and that is the Irish language itself. A taxonomy of Irish writers and their relationship to the Irish language today might go something like this. At one end of the scale are poets who not only write in Irish, but refuse to have their work translated into English. I’m thinking here of Biddy Jenkinson, whose gran rifiuto was, oddly enough, made in precisely that language: ‘I would prefer not to be translated into English in Ireland. It is a small rude gesture to those who think that everything can be harvested and stored without loss in an English-speaking Ireland. If I were a corncrake I would feel no obligation to have my skin cured, my [torso] injected with formalin so that I could fill a museum shelf in a world that saw no heed for my kind’.
Next along would be the great majority of writers in Irish who, I presume, would have no objection to being translated into English or any other language, but whose books are read and received by an Irish-language readership with little acknowledgement of their existence outside this small community. Liam Ó Muirthile, for instance, is a fine contemporary Irish poet, but where is the engagement with his work among critics of Irish poetry who write predominantly on poetry in English? It is practically non-existent. A different case again is that of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Ní Dhomhnaill has done more than any writer in recent memory to raise the profile of the Irish language, but the manner in which she has done lays bare not a few of the morbid aspects of the relationship between Irish and English. Ní Dhomhnaill’s translators include some of the most distinguished contemporary Irish poets some of whom can, and some of whom cannot, speak Irish. Moreover, it is entirely within the bounds of possibility that one of the latter, working from Ní Dhomhnaill’s cribs, might produce a more readable version than one of the former, as indeed has happened. Where Irish is concerned, the postcolonial linguistic condition admits of not just hybridisation but immaculate conceptions.
Another category again, possibly a one-man category in recent times, is that of the writer whose sense of grief and guilt over writing in English leads him to abandon it for Irish. I am thinking here of Michael Hartnett, who dramatised his great about-turn in A Farewell to English in 1975. A central problem throughout that book, however, is its re-energizing of the link between the Irish language and a brand of national and even racial consciousness that almost guarantees the tragic impasse of the project, and which finds more profitable expression in the series of translations from Ó Bruadair, Ó Rathaille and Haicéad that occupied the last years of his life.
My next category would be that of the committed but Anglophone cultural nationalist, actively translating from Irish and fully aware of the postcolonial ironies of his every step in English. Here I might name Thomas Kinsella, whose translation of the Táin and whose New Oxford Book of Irish Verse and (with Seán Ó Tuama) Duanaire: Poems of the Dispossessed are landmarks, dolmens even, in modern Irish poetry, but products of an unabashed belief in the mutilation of the Irish psyche by the colonial experience. In his Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry, Justin Quinn takes a very brisk view of Kinsella’s position: his theory of a ‘dual tradition’ is ‘plainly wrong’. To Kinsella’s example of Jonathan Swift and Aodhagán Ó Rathaille’s ignorance of each other’s existence, Quinn replies: ‘the distance between the two languages and their worlds is greater than Kinsella will admit: you can only have a “dual tradition” if there are enough readers who are bilingual.’ For Kinsella, even when ignoring each other, the two traditions remain locked together in time-honoured antagonism, whereas for Quinn, lacking Kinsella’s nationalist template, it is simply delusional to describe contemporary Irish writing in these terms. This leads him to combine a hard line on what, if anything, is still distinctive about Irish poetry (his answer being: the Irish language) with a total absence of the emotional reasons that might underpin the argument if it were being advanced by Kinsella. How apparently close but in fact utterly removed we are from Kinsella’s position when, in a debate with Barra Ó Séaghdha, Quinn declares: ‘I wished to inquire whether a work can be Irish yet not be in that language. I ultimately don’t think that it meaningfully can be, and that it forms a kind of sub-section of Anglophone poetry, which is not identical to English or British poetry.’
How far we are, too, from the practice of most contemporary Irish poets should also become apparent in what follows: here my taxonomy begins to fragment, as writers unwilling to follow the logic of Quinn’s demanding position put the Irish language to more private or meta-poetic uses instead. A good example of this would be Eavan Boland. To the best of my knowledge, Boland is not an Irish speaker: the Irish language in her work seems to me to fall into the category of fetishised identity exhibit, to be touted in the abstract rather than examined, spoken or read in the living particular. I have written about this before, so will restrict myself to one example, the bardic poet whose dispossession she sketches in ‘My Country in Darkness’:
The Gaelic world stretches out under a hawthorn tree
and burns in the rain. This is its home,
its last frail shelter. All of it –
Limerick, the Wild Geese and what went before –
falters into cadence before he sleeps.
He shuts his eyes. Darkness falls on it.
Whatever else Boland’s aims, adding to the store of our knowledge of the Gaelic world is hardly among them. The reality of Gaelic culture is snuffed out and replaced by Celtic Twilight cliché. Why is our bard voiceless and unnamed? Boland could tell us a lot more about him if she wanted. When other people do this to us it is cultural imperialism. When we Irish do it to ourselves it is laziness.
A different example of this combination of distance from the Irish language and re-engagement with it across that very distance occurs in the work of Medbh McGuckian. When The Southern Review devoted a special issue to Irish poetry in 1995, it featured a remarkable conversation or comhrá between McGuckian and Ní Dhomhnaill. When the conversation turns to the Irish language, McGuckian describes her linguistic self-image as an Irish-haunted speaker of English in frankly remarkable terms. She frets in the shadow of the colonial language, so that:
even the words ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Wordsworth’ – at some level I’m rejecting them, at some level I’m saying get out of my country, or get out of my...
[Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill]: ... soul.
MMcG: Get out of me. [...] I do feel that there’s a psychic hunger [...] and I’m lying like a corpse under it all.
She aspires to write ‘an English that would be so purified of English that it would be Irish’, but it is a revealing commentary on the Irish purity aspired to by McGuckian, surely, that both the medium of pursuit and the eventual goal are the English language. The further postcolonial experience appears to take us from the Irish language, the greater the temptation to reinvest in it as a cultural fantasy, a mirage of otherness from the Anglo-culture we flatter ourselves we reject, but that in fact governs every aspect of our daily lives. Are Irish poets in denial about this fact and using the Irish language, or a meta-version of it, as a shield against this unpleasant reality?
One immediate come-back to that might be to wonder what is wrong with cultural fantasies, when they take the rich and compelling form McGuckian’s poems frequently do and, also frequently, with some Gaelic element very strongly in the mix. In ‘Elegy for an Irish Speaker’ McGuckian invokes the ‘Roaming root of multiple meanings’ before announcing ‘I cannot live without /your trans-sense language /the living furrow of your spoken words /that plough up time.’ Shane Murphy has done invaluable work identifying the wholesale borrowings and rewritings going on under the surface in McGuckian’s work, but even the non-specialist reader might recognize the quotation here from Mandelstam’s ‘The Word and Culture’ (‘poetry is the plough that turns up time’), not to mention the reference to the Futurist movement of ‘zaum’ or trans-sense. Once again though, it is revealing that, for all McGuckian’s talk of returning to a decontaminated Irish essence, her work takes the route of centrifugal dispersal across other languages and traditions. Perhaps Irish sleeps somewhere at the heart of all this in the same way that, as she writes in ‘The Dream Language of Fergus’, ‘Latin sleeps, they say, in Russian speech.’ But no matter where it resides, it does so as an enabling myth, a projection, a glorious fantasy, as well as a mere language to write in or speak.
Derek Mahon too has translated Ní Dhomhnaill from English cribs, but it is notable in the wake of the politically greener noises Mahon makes in The Yellow Book, with its jibes about Northern Ireland, how its sequel, Harbour Lights, strikes overtly bardic postures, unpicking the etymologies of Irish place-names and translating a seventeenth-century poem of Tadhg Ó Ruairc’s. Mahon displays his characteristic Francophilia when the girl addressed in the poem is praised for her ‘gold chevelure’, while it is also doubtful the original card games played included bezique (invented in the nineteenth century). Reading the poem again in his collected translations, Adaptations, it is striking how tonally consonant it is with Mahon’s versions of poems from French, German, Italian and other languages: not for Mahon the willed (or at any rate I’m guessing it was willed) awkwardness of Kinsella’s translations, underlining the implicit resistance of the Irish poem to Anglicisation. This may be a late variant on the old redskins and palefaces divide, but even as Mahon becomes (apparently) more racy of the Munster soil, he insists all the more on how racy of the Baudelairean intertext his Irish versions are. Mahon is no neo-Corkeryan, but the most pragmatic of born-again bards.
A fellow Ní Dhomhnaill translator of Mahon’s, Michael Longley, is worth reeling in on our súgán rope at this point. Of his fine poem ‘On Hearing Irish Spoken’, Justin Quinn has commented: ‘Yet Longley, it is clear, is not going to go so far as to learn [Irish]’, which brings our argument to a sensitive crux: should he? Poetry is not community service, so Longley no more ‘should’ learn Irish than he should learn Icelandic, Latvian or any other minority language that took his fancy. But do we hereby establish that this attitude to the Irish language (the commonest among Irish poets writing in English today, I would suggest), means that while we dip into language as a theme or source of Celtic otherness, in practical terms owe the language nothing, nothing at all? I am very reluctant to think this is the case.
And finally there is the poet who does not speak Irish, whose imaginative world does not include the Irish language, and in no way registers its absence. Can anyone suggest such a contemporary Irish poet? We have long established that the game of ‘Irish, Irisher, Irishest’ is demeaning to discussions of Irish poetry, and using one’s interest in Irish as a badge of privileged identity should impress no one. But taking that as read, we find ourselves at my previously announced crux all over again. On what grounds could one reprove, if one wished to do so, this hypothetical writer whose world simply excludes the Irish language? Do we wish to reprove this writer?
In pursuing this Linnaean survey, I am aware of following an arc away from the Irish language as medium to the Irish language as message, as in Boland’s auto-exoticising appropriations of it. But even in Irish this strategy is all too tempting. When Quinn notes that for Gearóid MacLochlainn, as for Ní Dhomhnaill, ‘the Irish language itself is also the main theme’, are we at risk of aping the ludicrous feis of Myles na gCopaleen’s An Béal Bocht, whose fanatical Gaelgeoir insists that speaking Irish is not enough, we must only use it to speak about the Irish language, the better to be ‘fíor-Ghaeil fíor-Ghaelacha a bhíonn ag caint fíor-Ghaeilge Gaelaí i dtaobh na Gaeilge fíor-Ghaelaí’ (somehow I think that translates itself). But Mylesian absurdity aside, it must be possible to write both intelligently in and on the language without succumbing to morbid self-referentiality. I will now conclude with two examples from recent poets that, I believe, make use of Irish-language themes in just such a way.
My first is the sequence ‘Edge Songs’ from Peter Sirr’s 2004 collection Nonetheless. A note describes the poems as ‘a series of workings, adaptations, versions, “skeleton” translations of poems in Old Irish, Middle Irish and Latin, as they might be remembered or misremembered by an imagined Irish poet’, though original poems of Sirr’s are added to the mix too. Sources given include the Aisling Mhic Chonglinne, The Life of Brigid the Virgin and the poems of Sedulius Scottus. We meet a ‘solitary blackbird’ in the first section and think, of course, of the ninth-century blackbird of Belfast Lough:
the quick impulse of it, slantwise
scribbled on the edge of the moment
this hasty space, trembling margin
this at last a place to live in
The poems are full of transformations, performed with the fiat of Amergin’s ur-text of Gaeldom, familiar to generations of readers of Graves’s The White Goddess:
she hangs her cloak on a sunbeam
turns water to beer
she causes a foetus to disappear
makes salt from rock
her mantle is not stained by raw meat
a river rises up against cattle thieves
wolves are her swineherds
There is a cottage, or even bothy industry today in Celtic spirituality and nature mysticism, which operates almost entirely on the meta-level of self-conscious Celticness (I’m thinking here of the works of John O’Donoghue and John Moriarty), but here is the real thing, whatever that may be, precisely in its abstention from self-applied identity markers. Consider section x, a response to the eleventh-century lyric ‘Ná luig, ná luig’:
What else should we swear on, if not the earth
how should we walk, if not so lightly
we hardly touched it
where else can the world go
but away from us, like an ebbing tide
and what should we do
‘Edge Songs’ are among the finest achievements of recent Irish poetry and a paradigm of what a linguistically curious writer, with no apparent cultural-nationalist baggage whatever, can do with this rich and challenging material.
My second and final example is the poem ‘Gloss/Clós/Glas’ from Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s The Girl Who Married the Reindeer. This must count among the most intensely coded, some might say overdetermined, reckonings with the Irish language through the medium of English in recent Irish poetry. Its scholar has been ‘raking the dictionaries’, ‘hunting for keys’, working on a puzzle whose solution is ‘the price of his release’, though his release from what remains opaque. Where most poets troping the Irish language in English are concerned to emphasize its distance from the language in which they are writing, Ní Chuilleanáin instead drives the two almost together, but subject to a tantalizing yet insuperable divide, in which I for one hear echoes of MacNeice’s ‘Dublin’, with its similarly painful degrees of closeness:
Two words as opposite as his and hers
Which yet must be as close
As the word clós to its meaning in a Scots courtyard
Close to the spailpín ships, or as close as the note
On the uilleann pipe to the same note on the fiddle
Caitríona O’Reilly has praised the poem as a ‘visionary examination of what it means to reach out, to step beyond personal limitation and prejudice in all areas of life’, and in its final stanza it achieves a condition of, simultaneously, doubleness, in-betweenness, and neitherness, if that is a word:
The rags of language are streaming like weathervanes,
Like weeds in water they turn with the tide, as he turns
Back and forth the looking-glass pages, the words
Pouring and slippery like the silk thighs of the tomcat
Pouring through the slit in the fence, lightly,
Until he reaches the language that has no word for his,
No word for hers, and is brought up sudden
Like a boy in a story faced with a small locked door.
Who is that he can hear panting on the other side?
The steam of her breath is turning the locked lock green.
The solving language is recognized, paradoxically, through its poverty – it has ‘no word for his’, just as the Irish language has no word for ‘No’ (or ‘Yes’). The final image is of togetherness across, or do I mean in division. The unreachable girl turns the ‘locked lock green’ with her breath: the door is faoi ghlas, locked, and glas also means ‘green’ (it also means ‘death-knell’ in French, I might add). However, on the Gaelic colour chart it’s important to note that glas can also be glossed as ‘grey’: they are the same word, just as Irish has the same word for ‘hand’ and ‘arm’ and ‘leg’ and ‘foot’, and other very obviously different things, one would have thought. I am reminded of George Steiner’s discussions in After Babel of the different cultural resonances of the same word in different languages: Brot is not bread is not pain, or arán. Ní Chuilleanáin exults in this small act of ‘insisting so on difference’, as Larkin called it in ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’, an act of tricky ambiguity that may appear to complicate the plain sense of things, while in fact reminding us there never was an innocent plain sense of things in the first place, just as that concluding locked bilingual door is more liberating than any amount of monoglot open sesames. Despite my earlier worry about the ‘overdetermined’ nature of this poem, it is surely among the outstanding Irish poems of our times.
At this point it only remains to say that it is a cause of real regret to me that I am not talking here, today, in as well as about the Irish language. It is, let us not forget, vastly more important to speak and write the Irish language than to speak and write about it in English. The Yu Mings of this world, from Connemara to China, have had enough time now to practise their Travis Bickle lines in the mirror, but the next time an Irish-language poet finds him or herself asking ‘An bhfuil tusa ag labhairt liomsa?’, there has to be a better riposte than – I switch back to English to underline the gloominess of the answer – ‘I’m the only one here’.