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The Long Note

Brendan Lowe

On a Turning Wing, by Paddy Bushe, Dedalus Press, 76 pp, €11.50, ISBN: 978-1910251140

Only when the others had left for the village
To drink and sing and dance in the New Year,
And the empty house had begun to answer

The wind in the birches that gave the valley
Its name and shaped its oldest stories,
Only then did he take down the fiddle and play.

In the strange, strong atmosphere of “The Rolling Wave”, the opening poem of On a Turning Wave, that “shap[ing]” wind gives a sense of an art emerging from a relationship with the natural processes occurring constantly in a particular place. These processes transcend time, and the man’s playing becomes a very different phenomenon from the songs ringing in the New Year down in the village. 

He tried all the variations he had picked up
Here, there and everywhere, stylish ornaments
That hung like baubles on the tune

and “Despair // Practised its scales on him” – perhaps at the failure of those gathered “ornaments” to make or let the tune take off. But then “He heard the sea flexing under the wind”, and his playing begins to counterpoint a movement in nature:

Not the water rolling forward in the wave
But the wave rolling through the unmoving
Water, pitching its perfect notes to the sky.

So he played, not the tune itself but the tune
Being itself. And the house played with him,
Its timbers resonating like tightened strings,

Until he stood, his bow still drawn across
The still quivering air, in the new stillness
Inside his music, unmoving, transformed.

Many poems in the collection seem to valorise an artistic act that is an undiluted engagement with the nature, in every sense, of a place. Take this, from “Woman Painting on an Icy Morning”:

In the clearing
A fox’s pawmarks on the whitened grass

Had written out a score she tried to hum
While she worked.

And from “The Music Master and the Poet”:

All day the music master trudged through the mountains,
Trying to note the true sequence of the high summits 

– the primary meaning of that verb “to note” is echoed by the sense of musical notation.

In “The Blackbird and the Worm”, the first of a set of “Two Poems of Piping”, a motion in the natural world provides the metaphor for how a piper, in the air “The Blackbird”, is to play “the long note to turn the tune / And keep it whole enough to let it flow”:

Feel the turn the way a blackbird draws
A worm from earth, taking the strain
Steadily until the worm yields, and earth
Yields the worm for the blackbird’s young.

The advice is given by father to son, the two of them framed by the poem’s opening and closing lines, “The piper and the piper’s son” and “[…] the piper and the piper’s father”. Here and with “That piper” and “his piper brother” in the sister poem “A Dream of Music”, there is a sense that these family relationships stand for a broader sense of fellowship across the arts.

The appeal of “The Cailleach Speaks” to the tradition of that figure’s identification with geographical features seems an extension of Bushe’s interest in what nature and place can tell

To hearts that would recognise crags and moors
Or strange music pouring through gaps of wind.

There are translations from Bushe’s own Irish language poems and from mediaeval Irish. Of the former, a fine evocation of an artistic life well lived is “Aonghas at 70”, for the Scots Gaelic poet Aonghas Dubh MacNeacail. That life is seen in terms of a metaphor, again from nature:

Aonghas Dubh. Aonghas Geal. Green-reflecting wellspring:
Don’t ever stop bubbling over the brim of all the boundaries,

Or ever let orthodoxy overtake you, or let yourself endure
The self-importance of the capital, the pedantry of the full stop.

The themes of the book’s long opening section pass from the artist’s need for solitude to the need for fraternity and synergy between artists, to considerations of the artist’s role. After elegies for Pearse Hutchinson and Seamus Heaney comes a sequence, “A Suite on the Suppression of the Performing Arts in Tech Amergin”, about the removal of a linchpin that allowed artists to carry out that role on the ground in Waterville: the ending of arts performances at the community education and arts centre Tech Amergin by what Bushe sees as a patronising and short-sighted administration. The vision is of “community art […] dead and gone / Buried in a bureaucratic hole”. “The Wounded Ones” includes the summative line, “I hear the concert piano in the store-room, weeping.”

The book’s middle section has as its connecting thread the landscape of a trek through the High Atlas mountains in Morocco: escapism after the dark Tech Amergin sequence it isn’t, however. Bushe’s humane eye seeks and finds, among the ironies of difference (“the wide-eyed / Berber child with the tangle of henna’d hair” asks “why do old, rich / People like these choose to walk?”), fundamental equivalences with home:

Although they wore djellahs and golden keffiyehs
I had seen the pure cut of them in Uíbh Ráthach –
Rangy, mountainy men with soft, faraway eyes
They could read the clouds, and a loping stride
They could tell the passage of a frightened sheep.
They were a dying breed, people said, but those
Still living would likely survive to a great age.

(from “The Question of Trekking”)

The unfamiliar terrain into which the opening poem of the section, “Navigator”, plunges the reader is held in mind by this figure with a tenacity that equals that of the figures of the Irish landscape that the book’s first section celebrates.

In the third and last section, the poem “Our Lady of Cúm a’ Chiste” comically and delightedly affirms religious equivalences:

“Buddha! Buddha!” the two-year-old
Whooped from his car seat, beside himself
With discovery as we slowed past

The mountain gap Marian Year statue
At Cúm a’ Chiste.

Anger at “the twisted tongue” of the political operator sounds out again in the sequence “Party Bullies”. But overall a positivity no less clear-eyed for its buoyancy seems to salve Bushe’s worldview through this book, and it ends on a joyful note with “A Trip to Skellig on St Michael’s Day”, whose final image shows the boat’s departure from Skellig Michael:

The island raised a shimmer of blue pinnacles
Edged with exuberant light against the lowering sun,
And danced a valediction on our tumbling wake.

1/9/2016

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is Barra Ó Seaghdha’s essay from 2009 on Seamus Heaney, “The Harvest In”. Here is a short extract:

This sense of unproblematic voice, which goes from the speaking voice of the man who reads to (though here some qualification must be in order) the implicit authorial voice, may be something that certain schools of criticism would see as inherently problematic; for Heaney and his listeners, it is more a mode of validation and perhaps also of respect. It is possible to dismiss this position as conservative, but can critics really insist that poets write according to a set philosophical agenda? And can the ways in which language and identity are to be doubted be prescribed dogmatically? How radical, in any case, is the radical dissolution of all positions (except tenured positions in Critical Theory departments)? In poetry, and probably in music or philosophy too, it is the fullness of engagement, the fullness with which a world is brought into being or tested, that matters – after which, readers and critics can have their say.

As a writer, Heaney’s voice has been troubled by doubt or has wobbled towards uncertainty at various points, but there is an underlying faith in the possibility of giving untroubled voice. The wobbles, we might say, are eventually assimilated to the texture of the voice or are overcome; the poet’s voice changes with the years – and Heaney will, within limits, try out new voices – but, typically, a continuity is maintained. His failure to dissolve or fragment his voice in correct modernist-into-postmodernist style lies behind some of the exasperation which is directed at him.

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