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Friday, July 31, 2009

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Irishness Now Among Leading Causes of Innumeracy

I was pondering just the other day the nature of my objections to the business of Irishness and Irish Studies when along came Stephen Watt’s Irishness and Contemporary Writing (CUP) to remind me what I mean. In a comparison of Beckett and Derek Mahon on p. 142 I see the author misspells, twice, the word ‘fouillis’ from Beckett’s mirlitonnade on Arthur Keyser as ‘foullis’, not to mention ‘coeur’ as ‘couer’ and ‘minuscule’ as ‘miniscule’, but on the following page we read this:

Then there is the burble concerning the memorial to Caroline Hay Taylor at St André’s cemetery. Mahon’s burble follows Beckett’s poem closely in most respects (...) Each depicts Taylor as remaining ‘true to her belief’ (fidèle à sa philosophie) that ‘there is hope while there is life’ (qu’espoir il y a tant qu’il y a vie), and each mentions that she escaped Ireland with this view intact. But Beckett dates this flight as occurring ‘en août mil neuf cent trente-deux’, which Mahon ‘translates’ as ‘in August nineteen-twenty-two’. Why makes this revision? Did Mahon’s considerable facility with French fail him at this moment? Probably not.


The reason, Watt goes on to suggest, for Mahon’s mistake is that he has moved her death back ten years to coincide with the Irish Civil War, thus underlining the dead woman’s ability to retain her ‘unflagging optimism at a historical moment least hospitable to the cultivation of hope’, with the ghost of a premonition of the Northern Irish Troubles thrown in too. She ‘remained forward-looking in circumstances least likely to cultivate hope or affirmation; by contrast, 1932 in Beckett’s original exercises a far more restricted connotation.’

For a start, I can’t believe that was anything other than a mistake on Mahon’s part. But if not, to suggest that the fact of the Irish Civil War in 1922, with all its opportunities for ready-to-hand poetic significance, should trump the bald fact the woman died in 1932 – this embodies perfectly, for me, my objections to the unearned exceptionalism of Irish Studies. She died in 1932, not 1922. Some pointless Irish civil war is not a good enough reason for assuming to yourself the power to alter this fact. Mahon made a mistake, and I defy anyone to convince me otherwise, or explain why that otherwise can be anything other than a species of wish-fulfilment.

Photo shows an old stomping ground of mine, Misery Hill on the south bank of the Liffey. I hadn’t been back for a decade or so. Someone had stencilled ‘I’m Nobody? Who Are You?’ on a hoarding on the other side of the street.

Then there's a pair of us - don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Laochra Gaeil

I don’t have a copy of The Best of Myles to hand, but fondly remember his rejection of the suggestion that, while the average English user had a basic vocabulary of 400 words that average Irish speaker used 4000. The real figure is in fact closer to 400,000, he declares, while in Donegal there are some Irish speakers so rich in Gaelicness that they pride themselves on never using the same word twice in their lives. I was reminded of this more than once during this last week in Donegal, as during a presentation on the 89-year old who was commended to us as the possessor of the richest Irish in the county. Irish-speakers will frequently use the patronymic system, e.g. Tom Phaidí Sheáin, but this man had no fewer than ten components in the family tree of a full name he carries around with him, tracing his lineage all the way back to the 1730s. If he isn’t in the Book of Leviticus too he obviously should be.

I’ve been to the Donegal Gaeltacht before (Gortahork, Falcarragh), but one of the things that makes Glencolumbkille distinctive is that those places, remote as they are, are at least, or can be, on the route to somewhere else. Glencolumbkille is at the end of the line and 26km from the nearest sizable town (and ATM), Killybegs. It appears to be a Garda-free zone too, with all the delightful implications this has for pub opening hours. The pubs are full of music, just about every evening. I was most disappointed to learn that the great Glen fiddler James Byrne had died last November, but I got to see his widow and daughters play in Roarty’s, several times, as well as the legendary Tommy Peoples and, down from Glenties, Peter and Jimmy Campbell. Oideas Gael, where I was taking my Irish language course, has one of the few surviving examples of the tin fiddles endemic to this part of the world, as occasionally played by the greatest of all modern Donegal fiddlers, John Doherty. Donegal fiddling, to start repeating myself from the last post, appeals to me in its relentless eschewal of vibrato and unapologetic scratchiness, its horde of eldritch eighteenth-century Scottish crossovers, and utter singularity to its own place and nowhere else.

But as for the language itself: I found the experience of speaking Irish for a week (well, parts of that week at least) entirely pleasurable. During the week our host, Liam Ó Cuinneagáin, circulated copies of a journalistic turd dropped by brain-donor reject Kevin Myers in the Irish Independent rehashing his very familiar desire for the Irish language to disappear off the face of the earth. Even if every remaining speaker of Irish was prompted by this article to jump off the cliffs of Slieve League, all 1972 feet of them, learning and speaking Irish would be just as worthwhile and admirable an endeavour. One of the things I debated up there with my fellow student Saerbhreatach was what if anything makes Ireland any different anymore from Britain, and while we had somewhat responses to that (S. has written, in response to a critique of his position by Barra Ó Seaghdha that ‘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’; I can’t link to the original article by BOS as the page appears to be currently off-line), what was I saying here? that like S. I strongly feel, and for entirely un-nationalist reasons, that to have any kind of professional involvement in Irish Studies, as that subject is studied in universities, is impossible without a working knowledge of Irish, and that what goes by the name of Irish Studies in the absence of such a knowledge is a dereliction of scholarly duty, a kind of fraud, even. But then there is that question of nationalism and the caduceus-like coils in which it has traditionally wrapped the language. Neither S. (see soundbite above) nor I is any kind of card-carrying Irish nationalist, and both find e.g. Thomas Kinsella’s fondness for seeing his involvement with the Irish language as a species of nationally mandated one-man crusade as, well, meaningless to us. But this leaves what? Is the Irish language just so much material, in the way that Icelandic or Swahili would be, a holiday destination for our anthropological field trips? Perhaps this is a question for which I should provide a snappy answer, if only to avoid ever having to dwell on it again, but while I for one don’t fancy being called some manner of neo-Unionist by Barra Ó Seaghdha, and am perfectly familiar with the parochialism of would-be post-nationalist platitudes (see Kevin Myers passim), I was happier to spend the week pondering facts about Irish such as these:

the Irish for jellyfish, smugairle róin, means ‘seal snot’.

the Irish proverb Is fad ó bhaile a labhraíonn an pilibín (‘it is far from home that the lapwing sings’) refers to the lapwing’s habit of leaving its nest to sing, to mislead predators as to the location of its eggs. This I did not know.

that the first of the list of seven times’ seven words that end in ‘óg’, birds, goes like this: druideog, fáinleog, faoileog, fuiseog, glasóg, riabhóg and spideog. The other six refer to trees, martime things, parts of the body, plants, things around the house, and women, and I will happily burn a CD of Donegal fiddle music for the first person who tells me what they are.

Photo (not by me, own pictures to follow) shows the awesomely remote abandoned village of Port, over the hill from the Glen.

And to everyone I met there, from the barmaid leaning out the window watching the Glen v. Carrick GAA match through binoculars, to the fiddlers, to everyone who spoke even one word of Irish I say: Mór sibh a laochra Gaeil!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Cat that Kittled in Jamesie's Wig

A marvellous image of fiddle-playing brothers Francie and Mickey Byrne from Kilcar in Donegal. I’ve always loved Donegal fiddle music, the scratchy, cat’s gut rasp of it (seem to be having a Seamus Heaney moment here), and was thrilled on a trip to Donegal a few years ago to put some musicians in Gortahork to the test by asking if they knew ‘The Cat That Kittled in Jamesie’s Wig’, as played on the 1987 Claddagh album The Brass Fiddle by Francie Byrne (I think Mickey had died by then), and yes indeed they did, striking up its yawping descending ninth.

This by way of saying I’m taking off to Glencolumbkille in south-west Donegal for a week to brush up on my Irish and annoy the locals with requests for obscure John Doherty reels.

Felicity Afire

An Australian poet I was most happy to rediscover down under last year is Robert Adamson, whose new Bloodaxe collection The Kingfisher’s Soul I review (in brief) in today’s TLS. But as they’ve snipped the last sentence off I’d like to log it here: ‘Like Amy Clampitt’s kingfisher, these poems are flushed with “the color /of felicity afire.”’ And since I can hardly leave it at that, here’s the end of his poem ‘Creon’s Dream’ by way of illustration.

I sleep in broken snatches and dream nothing.
Mosquitoes suck at my cheeks and empty bottles
clutter the verandah, the books are in darkness

but the sandy whimbrels finger the pages, words
dissolve, waves of the dead arrive in dreams.
Out there the black finger points to the mouth

of the river, where the dead are heading, they
move over the window glass. The extinct fins move
the fingers of my grandfather, mending nets,

the dead friends sing from invisible books. The heron
picks the blood-shot eye from my father’s terrible
work in the kilns and darkness is complete.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Gatto di Trieste

Literate Graffiti

Trieste is the Hull of Italy. Each city is a port out on an eastern limb, often overlooked by the rest of their respective countries and... there the comparison breaks down. Oh, and both cities have a disproportionate literary tradition (Stendhal was French consul in Trieste, and then there’s Svevo, Joyce, Umberto Saba and Magris, for starters). I mean, it says something about Trieste that Philip Larkin should have chosen to spend that crucial formative decade there rather than in Florence, Milan or Venice: a strangely neglected period of his life, I find. And consider that Triestine graffito, a pleasant change for me from the endless bits of Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg you see sprayed on gable-ends round the place here in East Yorkshire. Ungaretti served at the battle of Caparetto, I did not know before my latest trip to Trieste, though his later enthusiastic fascism all through the Mussolini years takes any dulce et decorum est edge off that fantastic two-liner of his, above. He shared the irredentistism of his fellow Futurists, who sent a Volunteer Bicycle Brigade to the northern front, which must have come in handy among the tanks and mountains of that savage theatre. The Italians lost 1000 men a day for two years; there is still a street in Trieste named after the walrus-faced old idiot who masterminded this hecatomb. On the subject of statues, I heard from John McCourt (author of the most excellent biographical study of the Triestine Joyce The Years of Bloom and a fine singer too, let me add) that all manner of Austrian statues are being re-erected there too, who knows why, or why now. And still on the war, Marinetti, I learned, spent his war years digging latrines, while Wittgenstein too saw action on the Italian-Austrian front, serving as a private in his war-long but ultimately quixotic attempt to get himself killed. I didn’t encounter any contemporary irredentists casting surly glances over the border at Koper (Capodistria) or Rijeka (Fiume, site of D’Annunzio’s finest inglorious hour), but given the tendency of these towns to change name under a new flag, I hope the Italians leave well enough alone in the nearby Slovene district of Arse.

Why Joyce, who used to hide from thunderstorms in the cupboard, ever agreed to live in Trieste I don’t know, given that copious thunderstorms cascaded down just about every single day I was there.

Ah Trieste, ah Trieste, ate I my liver!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Gatto di Roma, Protestant Cemetery

Gatto di Trieste

Svevo and I

Catching Up

I have returned from Italy, my thoughts on which anon (the secret ingredient for submarine paint is nun’s sweat), but first some items of note fished from the pizza menus and ads for patio salesmen cluttering up my porch.

The lapwing above is in honour of Michael Longley, knowing as I do that it is his favourite bird. Longley is seventy, an occasion marked by Enitharmon’s Love Poet, Carpenter: Michael Longley at Seventy. Contributors include his belaurelled contemporaries and several generations of juniors, including my own. Michael Longley was writer in residence in Trinity in the early 90s, a period I’m pleased to see described here, though my own account of it will have to wait for my forthcoming memoir Cappuccinos I Have Known. That fine poet Peter McDonald’s contribution, ‘Weather’, ends:

The sunshine makes red virulent
and yellows vibrant with decay;
it’s not surprise, more like assent
when they fall, when I let them fall,
to what is fated, in its way,
of which this rain-cleared light makes little,
meaning the day can gleam, can glow:
and not a bad day, as days go.

Another contributor is Ciaran Carson, whose On the Night Watch (Gallery Press) I see is also out. I wrote a long essay here about the turn in Carson’s style in Breaking News, and am pleased to see him continue to inject a belated bacillus of Objectivism into Northern Irish poetry. The leitmotivic obsessions of For All We Know are still much in evidence, as is the wrong-note line-break, sending the reader’s eye scrolling up and down as it registers a whole series of split-second semantic adjustments as the first word of the next line retrospectively adjusts what you thought the last line meant. Many poems heighten this effect by describing the passage of time. ‘If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness,’ Wittgenstein wrote, ‘then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.’ Here is Carson’s (a run-on title, this) ‘Of Yesterday’:

says St Augustine

is there to say
the past is not

as is the future
as for now

it flits from
split to split

into the next
so what

is there to fear
from time

when now
is forever

The latest issue of that fine Dublin journal The Stinging Fly features a comprehensive and provocative review of Paula Meehan’s latest, Painting Rain. One thing I like about the review is how it takes and acknowledges the whole context and background of Meehan’s work then, in the nicest possible sense, ignores it. It will not have been so important to how we read her, in the end, that Meehan spent a lot of time giving poetry workshops rather than working in life insurance, whether the ‘I’ in her work is identical with its author, resembles her closely, or even not at all, given the secret life we have now established for her a life-insurance saleswoman.

Fryatt also begins by mentioning class. Having got my feelings about Eavan Boland off my chest in a long article a few years back I feel that’s a subject I never need to revisit, but it has always puzzled me how easily gender trumps class in the grievance queue, where recent Irish poetry has been concerned. Meaning, I’ve always felt there was a mismatch between the amount of time Boland spends investigating Irish gender politics and the amount of time (none that I can see) that she devotes to class, but also how seldom she gets picked up on this issue. Fryatt concludes (to get around to quoting from the review at last): ‘Meehan, like many contemporary poets, maintains a Romantic emphasis on subjectivity while neglecting the duty that accompanies it: that of ensuring the versified soul earns her privilege through linguistic concentration. That neglect makes of social conscience mere worthiness, and of protest mere protestation of virtue.’

Speaking of fine Dublin journals, I mentioned, a long time ago now, an upcoming piece of mine on Beckett’s letters. It can be found (in the print copy only, I mean) here.

The summer conceptual/flarf issue of Poetry (that makes it sound like an annual event) features a brief note on Michael Hartnett by the ever-waggish Conor O’Callaghan, including this anecdote:

Sometime in the nineties an Irish Studies conference was hosted by the University of Limerick. The local laureate gave a plenary reading. The speaker immediately preceding had used an old-fashioned overhead projector that Hartnett, not big on technology, mistook for his lectern and microphone. He laid his pages on the magnifying glass panel and spoke his poems into the projector’s lamp. A combination of its bulk and his diminutive stature meant that not only was the plenary reader mostly inaudible, but he was mostly invisible as well. Whenever it came to lines of importance or of particular emotional intensity, he would lean into the projector’s bulb and whisper. A collective giggle began murmuring around the audience. Eventually Hartnett peered from behind the apparatus and asked rhetorically of the darkened auditorium, “What the fuck are you laughing at?”

And finally, some lyrics from the new Tinariwen album Imidiwan. From a track called ‘Tenhert’:

The doe of Azuzawa is so radiant
She was leaving Tin Ardjan before the rains
Following the Tashalghé river westwards, towards some striking camels
Who came from the Awaji family, more beautiful than nine fawns
Bolting to the top of the hill where the rock pools are green

I learn from the sleeve notes that the Touareg never use that word to refer to themselves, given its Arabic provenance, and should in fact be referred to as the ‘Inazaghen’, the people of Adagh, which is almost a town in Co. Louth but, luckily for the Touareg, isn’t quite.

I recommend this album, and the various magazines and books listed above.