One City, Many Voices

Lucy Collins

If Ever You Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song, by Pat Boran and Gerard Smyth (eds), Dedalus Press, 398 pp, €11.99, ISBN: 978-1906614874

It is said that to be a true Dubliner, four generations of your family must have lived in the city. Those of us who can’t make this boast can nevertheless live vicariously through more than three hundred years of verse about Dublin to be found in If Ever You Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song. This anthology – which was produced for the Dublin: One City, One Book 2014 programme – is an absorbing read, familiar poems and songs mingling with long-neglected and brand new work. Each poem opens a dialogue with others, enlarging our understanding of Irish poetic traditions as well as our insights into the life of the capital. In spite of its unity of theme, this is never a self-absorbed or narrow book. Its sheer range of forms and voices ensures that not one but many different versions of Dublin emerge from its pages. The two editors, Pat Boran and Gerard Smyth, set out their aims in separate introductions, indicating the significance of individual perspectives on the material. Boran emphasises the value of such diversity in the culture as a whole “as if the proximity of voices, instead of cancelling each other out, only emphasises the importance, even the necessity, of the verbal and literary arts”.

In keeping with the idea of the map, the poems are arranged geographically. By organising the book in three parts – “Liffeyside”, “Northside” and “Southside” – the editors have taken the time-honoured way of dividing the city and altered this binary by making the river the imaginative starting point of the book. This emphasises poetry’s power to link built and natural environments, city and country, present and past in memorable ways. Each of the book’s three sections charts a movement from centre to periphery, much as the urban space itself has expanded over the centuries. This movement demonstrates to the reader the shape-changing power of the city, as well as the distinctive mood and character of particular suburban areas. Some parts of the city have their poet laureates: Thomas Kinsella is often identified with the area around Thomas Street, though his work here extends southeast as far as Baggot Street; Macdara Woods shows us how Ranelagh has evolved over time; Michael Hartnett brings Inchicore to vivid life. Though we can dip into the anthology to enjoy these individual works there is a great deal more to be added to the experience if we heed the order of the poems and consider the relationship between them. This book’s most important achievement is not the sourcing but the arrangement of the material, which allows clusters of poems to form in particular areas of the city, as well as around some of its newest landmarks: two poems about the Spire (from Pat Boran and Dave Lordan) stand side by side; Micheal O’Siadhail’s memorable “Morning on Grafton Street” is followed by Liam Reilly’s nostalgic “Summer in Dublin”, both pieces remembered and remembering in quite different ways. This organisational principle ensures that even omitted poems are brought to mind while the reader is on some imaginative excursion. Unexpected interactions also occur as disparate material is brought into contact and poets far apart in time get into conversation: Jonathan Swift with Harry Clifton, James Ward with Paula Meehan, William Butler Yeats with Vona Groarke.

In spite of the inclusion of poems from earlier centuries, the contemporary predominates here, and though this brings freshness and accessibility to the experience of reading it limits our imaginative grasp of the city. It is true, though, that the representations of Dublin multiply in range and variety with the passage of time. If the anthology were to be arranged chronologically we would see this growth clearly; instead it is experienced in more subtle and satisfying ways through the interweaving of different temporal perspectives on the same street or area. Though the power of song is celebrated explicitly here, the visual impact of the poem is not ignored: as well as traditional lyrics there are also more experimental poems from Trevor Joyce, Maurice Scully and Dave Lordan, reminding us of the ways in which urban life has challenged comfortable assumptions of theme and form in literature. Though the number of avant-garde poems is inevitably small – determined not least by the requirement that each text make reference to a specific urban location – there are many poems here that question received narratives. History is layered and increasingly ambiguous: the sense of movement captured by the anthology not only represents the city’s ever-changing character but the transformative possibilities of poetry itself.

Walking is an important dimension of the book as a whole. It links the nineteenth-century figure of the flâneur – a connoisseur of urban life – to the watchful modern poet, and in turn to the reader who paces alongside. Kinsella is important in this respect: his representation of the city space probes the intersection between intellectual and material worlds. “To the Pen Shop” reveals a city where both past and present are alive to the imagination – ungainly buses navigate a space of statesmen, intellectuals and writers, just as these men in turn pass through Kinsella’s intense body of poetic work. Brendan Kennelly is another poet who walks the city, often using this as a means to observe and connect with other city dwellers. Though Kennelly appreciates the anarchic energies of the street, there are times when he registers the need for quieter reflection. “Clearing a Space” presents the powerful experience of navigating the city at dawn: “No longer cluttered with purpose / The city turns to the mountains / And takes time to listen to the sea”. Here Kennelly, a native of Kerry, represents not an inward-looking city, consumed by the actions and energies of its people, but rather one that turns outwards towards the wider world.

In this poem Kennelly is “surprised to find a city is so like a man”, and this identification of the private individual with the public space is still more surprising for the woman writer. Yet women do engage with the streetscape in many of these poems. “In the City” by Rhoda Coghill, another poem of walking, combines a dreamlike treatment of the city space with a sense of the bleakness of its history. This preoccupation, matched by the poem’s monochrome palette, creates an evocative response to mid-twentieth-century Dublin. Endurance is a key element of the poem, both as a way of understanding the persistence of the city through time and of the poet’s role as witness. In a more recent context Paula Meehan also writes memorably about walking in the city at night:

You take Fumbally Lane
to the Blackpitts, cut back by the canal.
Hardly a sound you’ve made, creature
of night in grey jeans and desert boots,
familiar of shade.

This defiant act claims a place for the lone woman in the urban space, a natural development, perhaps, from the child in Meehan’s poem “Buying Winkles”, who also relishes the edgy freedom of the night streets. Other women poets explore the experience of moving around the city, from Winifred Letts’s charitable visitor in “Home” to Mairéad Byrne’s cycling schoolgirl “free-/wheeling on the stretch of Griffith Avenue that’s mine”. Yet the contemporary emphasis of the anthology also ensures that Dublin is a city of cars, re-creating the noise and movement that is an integral part of modern urban life: Michael O’Loughlin’s roaring lorries; Leanne Quinn’s bleating car horns; Eavan Boland’s car exhausts and sirens all fill the air. In most of these contexts the speaker of the poem is a solitary bystander, but in some cases the subject is the driver, offering a new perspective on the interaction between the individual and the urban environment. Enda Coyle-Greene’s poem “You’ve been this way before” is a deft example:

You focus on the white line,

broken where the road slopes up in shallow turns; the sky falls
 ‑ nearer as you slip the steering wheel between your fingers,

pass the metal skeleton of half-built barn.

The power of this poem lies in the newness of the perspective it offers, in the sensory impressions that the act of driving stimulates. Though the car is often seen as cutting the individual off from their environment, this poem shows the intensity with which that environment can be witnessed from a newly mobile perspective.

This dynamic approach to the city also draws attention to the differing positions of insider and outsider. In their index of authors, the editors include the birthplace of each writer, seeming to invite a distinction between native and newcomer. Some poets – most memorably, perhaps, Louis MacNeice in “Dublin” – explore the difficult dynamic of belonging and exclusion directly in their work:

This never was my town,
I was not born or bred
Nor schooled here and she will not
Have me alive or dead
But yet she holds my mind
With her seedy elegance,
With her gentle veils of rain
And all her ghosts that walk
And all that hide behind
Her Georgian façades

The imaginative power that the city exerts over MacNeice is at least in part an expression of his complex relationship with both Ireland and England. This state of being neither a permanent resident nor a visitor is not unusual, but those more recently arrived offer a perspective on Dublin that is clearly enmeshed in the processes of globalisation. Anatoly Kudryavitsky uses the form of the haiku to offer a subtle and thought-provoking perspective on the outsider within:

Amid red and green flashes
the moon enters
Dún Laoghaire harbour

Here the awareness of boundaries is subtle but acute and even for those born and bred in the city, limits may apply. Whether for reasons of class, gender or race, certain spaces can prove inhospitable or dangerous to some. Paula Meehan confronts these experiences in “Three Paintings of York Street”, a sequence that assumes the role of the visual artist attempting to represent this inner city space. In the opening poem Meehan depicts the brief period of comparative calm between the onset of night and the chaos of pub closing time. Describing this moment the poet shows how fascination can exist even in the presence of fear. By contrast, the next poem, “Woman Found Dead Behind Salvation Army Hostel”, offers a shocking scene of violence: “You will have to go outside for this one. / The night is bitter cold / but you must go out, / you could not invent this”. Compelled to move into this violent space in order to bear adequate witness to the woman’s fate, the reader and the artist become one.

Other poets too acknowledge the dark side of Dublin’s character: the reputation for drug use and crime. Keith Payne’s “Love Letter to my Henry St Dealer” creates a latter-day Sean Bhean Bhocht who issues not a call to arms, but one to oblivion: “her hand disappears into wintry layers / roots round reinforced brassieres / fumbles under corsets and slips out / magically holding my pouch”. Ireland as woman receives a more embittered twist in John McNamee’s “Dublin, You’re a Bitch” – resonant of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s provocative poem of immigrant protest “Inglan is a bitch”. McNamee’s work is unstinting in its criticism of the city’s new materialism and its tasteless attempts to beautify itself: “Your lipstick is smeared across your face, / Your rouge is untidy, / And the mascara is badly applied. /[…] /You are greedy for money / And a house on the hill”. Here is a city undone by its own affluence, its appetite for self-destruction seemingly insatiable.

A more complex treatment of the city-body dynamic can be found in Ailbhe Darcy, where she reworks the trope of the landscape as woman’s body, not in lush accommodating style but with an abusive edge:

He tells me I have a strange relationship

with my city. As though I were something divorced
from the skin I’m in, could scrap or elope with
my own tattooed scapula, pouting belly, saddle curve
of his palm’s kiss.

The sense of a split selfhood is striking here, brought on by the intimacy of the relationship between citizen and city, which is “too close to desire or despise”. Instinct is important, but so are the layers of connection that history brings – the enduring rivers, Liffey and Dodder; the “thingmote” that betrays Dublin’s Viking past.

The latter aspect of the city’s history can be traced in various parts of the anthology. A number of the poems are set in museums, including Sorley MacLean’s “The National Museum of Ireland” and Sheila Wingfield’s “In a Dublin Museum”. Wingfield’s poem explores how the past speaks to us through its everyday materials. The speaker chooses an unobtrusive object – a woman’s hair ornament – as the basis for her deceptively simple text, and this sense of personal connection to an object from the past resonates for many poets. One of four Heaney poems included here is the sequence “Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces”, in which the poet reaches into the past through its artefacts, the bone carving “that enters my longhand, / turns cursive, unscarfing / a zoomorphic wake, / a worm of thought // I follow into the mud”. Younger poets have also experienced the draw of the buried past: Peter Sirr remarks “how cleverly the dwellings / with what intricacy the wattle, the gold clasps // far from us, in sunken houses” speak today. Moya Cannon asks

Is there no end
to what can be dug up
out of the mud of a riverbank,

no end
to what can be dug up
out of the floodplains of a language?

This implicit linking of artefact and language is important for many of these poets, and, for Heaney especially, unearthed inspiration speaks to the depth of meaning in poetry itself and its capacity to engage meaningfully with the past. There are many poems in this anthology about what is buried, what is removed from sight yet not from memory or imagination. Eavan Boland’s “The Huguenot Graveyard at the Heart of the City” reflects on the fate of immigrants from an earlier time – those who fled to Dublin from mainland Europe rather than choosing to live here. Their enduring memorial near St Stephen’s Green is matched by the ways in which their names have been incorporated into our language, so that their lives are memorialised in word as well as in stone.

There are more recent historical events that loom larger in the psyche of both nation and city. The 1916 Rising had a formative effect on modern Ireland and close links to the history of Dublin in particular. The structure of the anthology allows different interpretations of the event to co-exist in challenging ways. The very first poem in the “Northside” section is WB Yeats’s “Easter, 1916”, and in a sense the subsequent poems on the subject all write back to this one, not just as a representation of the event but as part of how its meaning has been formed over generations. Two of the later poems assume a particularly interesting relationship to the Yeats text: one is Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s “Fód an Imris, Ard Oifig an Phoist 1986” (“Trouble Spot, General Post Office 1986”). Dealing with the difficult legacy of the violent past, especially for those “inheritors of the event who never knew the smell / Of gunpowder, or of terror” (neither did Yeats of course), this poem addresses the poet’s father, Seán MacEntee, who fought in the Easter Rising. On its seventieth anniversary the poet records the familial estrangement to which these political convictions gave rise, focusing on the personal implications of allegiances rather than on their imaginative and cultural possibilities. Vona Groarke’s “Imperial Measure” also has a domestic slant in its treatment of the food the rebels consumed during Easter week. The calf that is killed once the “armory” of fillet, brisket and flank has been exhausted is a mark of the sacrifices that such a rebellion exacts, often on the least resilient members of society. It is a poem that invites us to question the kind of nourishment that the narrative of history offers to the modern state.

Just as the GPO offers an iconic city space from which to ponder this legacy, other parts of Dublin’s architectural character come under scrutiny in this book, often in ways that emphasise the changing use and meaning of the city’s built spaces. Betty Thompson’s “Gérard Depardieu in Eustace Street” meditates on the origins of the Irish Film Institute as an eighteenth-century Quaker meeting house, using modulations of light and darkness to explore shared experiences across time: “We too sit in silence / looking up at the screen of light / receiving its forms and tints”. Gerard Smyth in “All That is Left” chooses the sonnet form to explore the implications of walls left standing in a city where boundaries have significant defensive meaning. If other contemporary poets, such as Thomas Kinsella and David Wheatley, cast a still more critical eye on the destruction of Dublin’s built environment (Wheatley rhymes “Civic Offices” with “faeces” in his “Sonnets to James Clarence Mangan”), earlier poets sometimes looked to a more gracious past to restore formal order. Maurice Craig’s “Merrion Square: A Descriptive Poem” uses this elegant residential square to explore ideas of cultural hierarchy and aesthetic achievement. The form and syntax of the poem mirror its exploration of beauty and order.

For other poets, too, the art of the city is an important part of its identity. Yeats’s engagement with political ideas showed how closely he linked these to artistic and cultural expression. “Municipal Gallery Revisited” sees the poet among “the images of thirty years”: representations that inextricably link his personal life with the national narrative. If Ever You Go demonstrates the many ways in which such private and public realms can be interwoven and the varieties of forms and modes by which the city can be represented. The sheer range of these texts – from the entertaining to the thought-provoking, the celebratory to the critical – testifies to Dublin’s many meanings, both for its citizens and for the world.
16/06/2014

 Dr Lucy Collins lectures in English at the UCD School of English, Drama and Film

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