An Fuíoll Feá – Rogha Dánta / Wood Cuttings – New and Selected Poems, by Liam Ó Muirthile, Cois Life, 555 pp, €30 with accompanying bilingual CD, ISBN: 978-1907494345
For one of the most talented writers of his generation, and arguably one of the foremost European postwar poets in any language, it is incredible how little recognition Liam Ó Muirthile has received in his own country. And you can’t ascribe this simply to the fact that he is writing in the “other” language. Ultimately, his referents are the same: he is a postmodern writer, a writer who drinks from the same wellspring as his English-language and European contemporaries and who is conversant with more languages than most.
There is something inherently wrong or “uncatholic” or (I’ll just say it, straight) “undemocratic” about the fact that Irish-language writers are ignored to the extent that they are in modern Ireland, simply because they write in a minority language, one of the oldest written vernaculars in Europe let it be said. Would this happen in any other country that would pride itself on its intellectual and cultural tradition and (irony of ironies) trumpet it to the extent that we Irish do? Ó Muirthile was at the vanguard of the Innti movement of the early 1970s, a radical literary upheaval that gave the finger to the authoritarianism and Victorian puritanism of the past but which also (along the way) produced some major poets, poets whose work has stood the course – Ó Muirthile, Davitt, Rosenstock, Ní Dhomhnaill were all at the vanguard of this poetic impulse that drew on and reflected a completely different world from that of the Irish-language writing of the early 1900s.
As urban people, the first literate generation where a majority of people probably grew up in or moved to the city, their referents were very different from the rural milieu that had nurtured previous generations. Not unnaturally, their environment moulded their sensibilities and they set about creating what was in essence a new language, a new form of expression which reflected the concerns of their day. This was a transgressive language, a language of challenge, fired up with the energies of their day. Rebellion was in the air as was the tearing down of old barriers and repressions – the burgeoning civil rights movements of Northern Ireland and the USA, the Paris upheavals, the struggles for minority rights among peoples, languages and cultures that seemed on the point of being killed off or left to peter out in the absence of any recognition.
The Innti generation went at those high and long-established walls with a sledgehammer. Everything was grist to their mill and poets such as Davitt and Ó Muirthile absorbed a range of influences as diverse as the Beat generation of poets, the new register of rock music – Cohen, Dylan, the Beatles – and even sean-nós (long before the latter became fashionable or even acknowledged as a form of “world music”. The Innti poets wanted to shake things up and write poetry about “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll”. Eager to break with conventions and established norms, both literary and philosophic, they took a delight in undercutting the establishment and providing a platform for hitherto marginalised or neglected sensibilities and viewpoints.
They wanted to use the “forgotten” language in a contemporary setting, to kick back against the status quo with that old boot that was thrown outside the door. They wanted to knock sparks off their readers; they hoped to create a new and lingering mood and leave an after-taste in the mouth – in essence, they wanted to make poetry and the Irish language relevant at a period of great social and cultural change and make people reflect anew on what it means to be human and to be questioning – what it means to be alive. Few would say that they did not succeed well in this task. As evident from Ó Muirthile’s An Fuíoll Feá / New and Selected Poems, 555 pages long, this was no easy task. Not only did they have to invent a “new” language or form of expression – one which reflected a new, urban environment that incorporated a diverse range of energies and milieus – but they had to do this in a minority language (which few people could read and even fewer write), a tongue unloosed from its rural hinges, disorientated, and indeed traumatised by the shame associated with the battering it took under colonialism. In essence this generation of Irish poets, and Ó Muirthile was in their vanguard, had to vault barriers so insurmountable (both practical and philosophic) before they got to creating their poetry at all, that the immensity of their efforts has yet to be fully realised.
Incredibly, most bilingual critics would argue that the poetic tradition in Irish, as responding to the needs of a postcolonial, postmodern and post-whatever-you’re-having-yourself culture, has flourished and developed beyond all expectations, during a half-century or so, where Irish prose and, particularly, drama has seen a sharp decline, and this in a language which we are constantly told is dead or, at best, semi-comatose.
This was something you were in, and if you were in at all you were in for the long haul. Ó Muirthile was part of the artistic flurry of Innti and then he went his own way as with all artists and craftsmen. This very comprehensive volume with astonishing new work complete with translations (mostly by Gabriel Rosenstock, and also by such hands as Greg Delanty, Peter Sirr, Ciaran Carson, Bernard O’Donoghue, Paul Muldoon and others) includes poems from collections that map his literary journey. As a poet, Ó Muirthile has a strong awareness of tradition, in addition to a singular reverence for the moment of reflection whereby the hidden beauty or “truth” behind the ordinary is revealed. His strongest trait as a poet is probably his ability to expose the intensity of human experience and shape words that seek to do it justice. Meáchan Rudaí (The Weight of Things) is an intensely moving prose poem of which we can only give a little flavour here:
The weight of me in your arms. A photo of the two of us in Fitzgerald’s Park. Three years of age I was. The weight of the pair of us. Our weight together. The weight of your hat shading your laughter. My weight as you bore me for nine months. The weight of sitting, getting up, lying down. Your weight that I never lifted from the ground – before burying you in the ground. Your living weight. Your dead weight. The weight of words rising and falling between us, the wingbeat of swans. The heavy weight of prayers …
Ó Muirthile sustains this powerful litany over a few pages. A tour de force, perhaps the best prose poem in Irish literature (by which I mean, of course, literature in Irish and in English).
In a collection as broad, as eclectic and chronologically expansive as this one, it is impossible to do justice to Ó Muirthile’s gifts. All one can do is provide snippets and gems which give a sense of how his artistic sensibility has developed and how he has moulded Irish and breathed new life into it to reflect his vision, a vision blackened by despair yet ending in defiance, as in this complete poem, Elm, dedicated to Tomás Mac Síomóin, who was also published in early editions of Innti:
The woods are down.
graceful silver birch,
hazel riven to the core.
And I am riven too
that is lopped off,
a high noble wood
brought to the ground
a withering branch
Our life has come to dust,
our daily bread
falls from our lips
in shattered crumbs.
Our story a mere tinkle,
our poem lifeless,
snatched from us
as we have always let it go.
We’ll cultivate the woods again,
dancing out of the ground.
Many of his poems are musical (they draw on the Gaelic tradition directly in this sense, since the Gaelic poets of the past prided orality and often recited their poems to musical accompaniment) and there is a bilingual CD to accompany the book, spoken by Ó Muirthile and his chief translator, Rosenstock.
Many of his poems place emphasis on the capturing of a particular “truth” – that unique moment when the imagination transcends the shell of ordinary living and finds the beauty concealed within. Not forgetting the symbolic beauty of the Irish alphabet, each letter concealing a tree, so that the following poem, “Athphlandáil” (Replanting) is almost a return to druidic tree worship, and a vision for those who believe that we shall all, shortly, be returning to our roots after the apocalyptic collapse of our capitalist civilisation:
First I’ll plant the silver birch,
my fair slender sapling.
Live secure within the oak’s reach,
the lattice of your leaves interweaving.
You have grown strong since spring,
putting down roots, decked out in full array,
I love your autumn nakedness, changing,
shading into grey.
We’ll make it through the evergreen winter
wrapped up in one another.
In summer you’ll let down your tresses,
entwined in my arms, my lover.
These are poems of love and doubt, longing and sadness and joy. Perhaps the most beautiful are those which have the tincture of a short story or anecdote about them, and which draw on Ó Muirthile’s familial roots and Cork childhood and his personal experiences as a male honing his sensibility in the Ireland of the latter decades of the twentieth century. Such poems leave a sweet aftertaste and generate a particular mood, in the same way that a great rock song or an iconic painting might do. The opening stanza of “Bearbóirí” (Barbers), for instance:
Gheofá íde na muc
ón triúr deartháir,
Bearbóirí Lána an tSeamlais …
They treated you like pigs
the three brothers,
barbers in Slaughterhouse Lane,
and the squealing of dying pigs
would pierce your own heart
as you stumbled across the threshold ...
If there is a meaning to it all, if there is a rational and purposeful act to our existence, then it is to be found in the music and the craft that imbues the nothingness and makes “flesh” of it and especially moving are the poems (as echoed in the title of this volume itself) where Ó Muirthile reminds us that poetry is a craft (a craft that is often as physical as it is metaphysical) and that he imbues his craft with the energies of more than one literary world – English and Irish. Afew stanzas from the gorgeous scything poem “Seanathair” (Grandfather):
lad and accompany me
in the harvest field,
Come walk with me
in the barley field,
and I’ll show you the ears,
Stems growing thickly
as lush as the hair
on the young fair-haired women
dancing on a stage
By the side of the road
and the light of the sun
going down over Carbery …
The raw beauty of this life, the apparent wasteland of the imagination, and the encounter that is art and writing are his themes and we, the readers, can participate in the moment of transcendence. As with the Irish language he carves and shapes, and as reflective of an Irish postmodern sensibility, Ó Muirthile is both self and “other”. As he writes in “Garsún” (Boy):
Boy with deep eyes
in his skull
leaping from the hunters’ nets,
a trout resting
quietly in his head ‑
I am he
Just as Beckett felt (in words written when Ó Muirthile had already begun his literary odyssey) he is both inside and outside at the same time:
… perhaps that’s what I feel, an outside and an inside and me in the middle, perhaps that’s what I am, the thing that divides the world in two, on the one side the outside, on the other the inside, that can be as thin as foil, I’m neither one side nor the other, I’m in the middle … perhaps that’s what I feel, myself vibrating, I’m the tympanum, on the one hand the mind, on the other the world, I don’t belong to either. (The Unnameable)
“There is no trace but the desert,” the Jewish writers Jabès and Levinas once wrote and there is no doubt that Ó Muirthile is specially attuned to the human impulse and its metaphysical traces. He is always searching. He has not given up. He is hopeful and, God knows, we need hope. This is his special gift as an artist, as we see in the closing lines of this weighty volume:
Sometimes here in the south I feel like I have only one arm,
That some part of me is lost after Kilmichael;
I straighten my pictures of Barrack Street and the curves of the River Lee.
Here too there’s work to do that must be seen through.
Dr. Mícheál Ó hAodha is a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of History, University of Limerick, Ireland. He has published more than 100 books in both Irish and English on the history of Irish migration and Irish nationalist history. In addition, his research interests include oral history, subaltern history, the history of “outsider” groups in Ireland and Irish history as recorded in the Irish language. His books have been published with Palgrave (MUP), Peter Lang, Mercier, Liffey Press, Farmar Press, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Edwin Mellen Press, Coiscéim, Rowman and Littlefield, Irish Academic Press and others. His next two books are due out shortly with Syracuse University Press and New Island. Between 2006 and 2008 he was AHRC scholar in the School of Arts, Histories and Cultures, University of Manchester. He is a regular contributor to the Irish-language columns of The Irish Times.