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Mystics and Villagers

Thomas Goggin

Glengower: Poems for No One in Irish and English, by Gabriel Rosenstock, Onslaught Press, 152 pp, £10 , ISBN: 978-1912111534

The poems in this volume are grouped into three sections and two appendixes, nos I and II. Appendix II’s twelve poems are in Irish and, regrettably, I am not qualified to review them.

The thirteen poems of the first section, entitled “In India and thereabouts”, are populated by saints and mystics and interspersed with metaphors and allusions that reinforce an image of timelessness and the transcendence of physical reality, many of the poems hauntingly exploring the no-man’s-land separating the known and the metaphysical world. For example, the brief but highly evocative poem “Hare Krisna” alludes to the power of the famous mantra, stating that “When the music of the flute subsides / concentrated in that silence / the future poetry of all mankind”. In “Who knows?” a maharishi enjoins some boys to stop throwing stones at a crow: “Leave him alone. / No ordinary crow that one, / but a sage on pilgrimage”, he tells them. In the poem “The Poet as Untouchable”, the poet is likened to “a cloud that appears / from nowhere / from some hill or mountain / where language still mutters / like rain / where a goddess dwells in a cave / unsung epics smouldering in her breast”. “The Poem Maker” describes the process of preparing and writing a poem on female palmyra leaves, the poet “chanting all the while in gratitude to Saraswati / from whom all poems emanate.”

The sixteen poems of the second section, “Glengower”, take the reader into the village of that name and acquaint him or her with the comical and unusual issues ‑ presaged by a dense fog that suddenly descends on the village and described in the poem “Fog” ‑ with which the villagers must contend. For example, in “Statue” we are informed of a statue coming from where and representing whom or what no one can tell that suddenly occupies an empty spot; “Seagull Attacks” describes another of these disturbing circumstances, namely, the systematic stealing of food by seagulls. The poet permits us to eavesdrop on the highly amusing and frequently ineffectual efforts of the local Development Committee to deal with these and other issues. We learn, for example, in “Overcrowded Graveyard” that the conclusion (carried unanimously) of the Development Committee in the face of this alarming fact, is that “people refrain from kicking the bucket / until this crisis has been resolved”. In the brief periods of respite between the management (or, be it said in the interests of truth, mismanagement) of local catastrophes the DC sometimes introduces matters of aesthetic importance to its agenda, but here also the ill omen presaged by the above-mentioned fog does not miss an opportunity to assert itself. Thus, in “The Poet”, a motion to personalise the mysterious statue with a plaque proclaiming it to represent a seventeenth century local poet, Seán Bán an Ghleanna, is carried unanimously, but in “Unveiling the Statue” we learn that instead of Seán Bán, the plaque honours Seán Ban, meaning Seán the womaniser.

The section entitled “Krishnamurphy” features ten poems in most which a protagonist of that name – an Irish Master – hilariously misunderstands the philosophy of his great namesake, the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986). For example, in “Krishnamurphy Smashes His Ego”, the Irish philosopher triumphantly declares “Yes, yes, yes: I have smashed it!”, making this assertion, however, with “His chest swelling with pride.”, showing that he is far from attaining the ideal state-of-mind propagated by Jiddu Krishnamurti, namely, “mindlessness”.

Nonetheless, Krishnamurphy occasionally shows that he is capable of profoundly interesting and independent views. In “Krishnamurphy and Ashtavakra”, for example, he names Ashtavakra, an important figure in Hindu religious mythology, who was born a cripple, as a model to be imitated to achieve enlightenment, adding cryptically that “To be like Ashtavakra you must be /crookeder that a corkscrew!” “Lovers in a Garden” briefly explores the relationship of art to reality, while in Tohi Bohi, he reveals his acceptance of orthodox Indian spiritual practices, when he invites his students to join him in chanting the mantra: “Tohi Mohi, Mohi Tohi/ Antar Kaisa”, (Oh Lord!! You are Me and I am you. What is the difference between us).

Though the fifteen poems in Appendix I have no overall unifying generic or thematic basis, they might, nonetheless, be loosely considered as an analysis and reflection on death and disappearance in different forms. Death as tragic accident is the theme of “To a brother drowned” and “Pearse’s Ophelia”. In the first poem the death of the poet’s brother, who drowned many years ago in a lake at Glendalough, Co Wicklow, is commemorated. In an attempt to relive the final moments of the tragedy, the author asks, “What last poems pound in your brain / bubbling up to the astonished air” and describes the anguish and grief of the survivors in a metaphor that likens their great sorrow to the act of drowning itself: “We witnessed nothing / something in us forgot to surface / lingering dumbly/in umbrous, uncharted, zones”. Death as mysterious misadventure is evoked in “Leviathan”, while a very curious contrast to the tragedy of untimely, accidental death may be found in another poem in this cycle, namely, “Comfort lady: a veteran remembers”. Here the protagonist, a Japanese WWII combatant, bemoans the fact that he did not die: “I went to die for the Emperor/and lived. I am eaten by shame ...”

Long-or short-term flight into a different imaginary or physical reality, as well as disappearance in the form of cultural loss for whatever reason are themes considered in other poems.

The poems in this book, only a few of which could be commented on in this brief review, are sure to leave an unforgettable impression and, in the case of those in the sections “In India and thereabouts” and “Krishnamurphy”, might be the beginning of a new adventure of exploration for those not familiar with the characters and concepts treated, and, for those who need no introduction to them, transmit a welcoming feeling of coming back home. Glengower is a superbly constructed cycle where underlying a gentle and very amusing satire of village life and politics is a mood of mystery and malignity that leaves one slightly unsettled and puzzled, but highly entertained. Some of the poems in Appendix I will sadden, particularly if read immediately after the comical digressions of the eminent Sri Krishnamurphy, while others will stimulate reflexion on interesting issues such as the significance of cultural change and the importance and power of the imagination.

1/12/2018

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