Salmon Poetry/Dufour Editions Inc.
5″x8″, 86 pp., pbk., 2013
Reviewed by Billy Mills
In his 1986 introduction to The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, Thomas Kinsella introduced the term ‘dual tradition’ into the critical vocabulary of Irish verse, a concept he expanded upon in his 1995 book of that name. Kinsella was referring to the twin linguistic inheritance of the Irish writer, who could draw on both Gaelic literature dating back to the 6th century and English poetry from the time of the Anglo-Saxon scops.
Interesting and useful as Kinsella’s insights are, they do not exhaust the many, varied and often contradictory dualities that inhere in Irish poetry. Given the troubled history of conflict between the Catholic and Protestant traditions on the island of Ireland an outsider might imagine that one such division would be sectarian; however, our poetry seems to have avoided this particular schism. Indeed, the emergence since the 1950s of the so-called Northern poets as the dominant public face of Irish verse displays this absence of a religious rift quite neatly, with Catholic poets like Seamus Heaney being fitted into a constructed narrative that depends on Protestant forebears like Louis MacNeice and John Hewitt to lend credence to the idea of a Northern tradition. If anything, the North/South division is a far stronger duality than any religious one, and Kinsella’s own reputation has, I believe, suffered as a result of his being from the wrong side of the border and therefore not quite fitting into the accepted perception of what matters in recent Irish poetry.
Another form of the dual tradition, and one that again grows out of the unique circumstances of Irish history, is that which affects of the long and continuing stream of emigrants and the consequent growth of the Irish diaspora. There have always been writers who left Ireland for one reason or another and continued their careers abroad, Joyce, Beckett and Yeats being among the more noticeable examples. More recently there has been a growth of the number of writers who are returned emigrant or emigrants’ descendants; among the poets of this diaspora two of the most notable are Thomas Lynch and Michael Begnal.
Begnal was born in the States, has dual citizenship, lived in Ireland for a number of years, and has now returned ‘home’. During his time in Ireland he was deeply engaged in the literary life of the island, both through his work as a poet and as editor of The Burning Bush, one of the more adventurous of Ireland’s little magazines. His poetry, and especially the work collected in Future Blues, is infused with this particular version of the dual Irish tradition, both of whom are published by Salmon, Ireland’s most westerly dedicated poetry press.
There are three main groups of poems in the book. The first set comprises poems that celebrate popular culture, invariably American popular culture, through examinations of rock music, pinup girls and cinema. The most ambitious of these is the longish sequence called Homage to Allen Kirkpatrick. In this poem, Begnal captures the tone of 1970s art-house film and of the world it grew out of immaculately in passages like
rabbit eats TV-set close up on screen,
Pepsi Generation broken bottle knife fight
Black Panther molotov cocktails
glass dildo suicide pills commercial
the cavalcade of official limousines,
dignitaries at the inauguration
In For Ron Asheton, Begnal plays with language and with white space on the page to, on the one hand, mimic the simplicity and repetitive nature of The Stooges’ music and, on the other, to draw the reader gently into the mythologised world of popular culture, a myth without roots, one pole of the emigrant duality. In these poems Begnal produces some of the most technically interesting verse that you will read in any book published by any established Irish press in recent times.
volume volume volume volume volume the volume volume volume volume, no way, chord chord chord chord chord chord chord chord chord
The second sub-set of poems in the book deal explicitly with Irish history and legend. The poem Kells, for instance, celebrates those monks who created the illuminated manuscripts that helped preserve so much of Kinsella’s Gaelic strand of Irish literature. Another, Samhain, the Irish name for the harvest festival which, like Halloween, marked the line between autumn and winter, is dedicated to a semi-pagan 7th century chieftain Mongán. It opens:
for all the dead who have spoke before
me spoke for all the dead who have before
spoke for all the dead who have before
dead for all who have before spoke
I trust language always
These ‘Irish’ poems are, on the whole, less technically adventurous than the American ones and this declaration of trust in language is somewhat at odds with the nervous exploration of the medium’s limitations in the Asheton poem quoted above. Begnal’s Gaelic trust even extends to publishing four poems in his adopted tongue, the last of which, Ollamh, ends with the line
agus mise i m’ollamh
On one level a straightforward claim, ‘I am a poet’, the specific weight of the Irish word brings other layers to the claim; an ollamh was more than a poet, he (and they were all men) was a master-poet, a learned man, one of the wise ones. Given Begnal’s claim to trust language, the reader is left with no option than to accept this claim at face value; it is one I cannot imagine his American self making.
At times, he writes with an awareness of this duality, as when in Dead Rabbits he weaves in the phrase ‘plastic paddy’ and a house where the 4th of July is celebrated and which contains one book, Kinsella’s translation of the Irish epic The Tain. Even the Kirkpatrick poem contains an image of ‘druidical Irish faces with sideburns’ as for a moment the world of Celtic myth intrudes on the world of American popular culture. Some of the other American poems also contain phrases that are clearly and self-consciously Hiberno-English. For the most part, though, it is as if Ireland had no popular culture, no Phil Lynott, and America no Coyote.
The third main strand running through the collection consists of poems that resolve this duality by simply ignoring it. These are primarily nature poems of one kind or another, with many of them being either being named for or featuring animals. Begnal displays both a respect for our animal neighbours and more than a little anger at the frequently appalling lack of neighbourliness in our treatment of them. This anger is often based in a sense of identification with the suffering animal; in Thylacine, for example, an image of the caged cat on film melds into one of the narrator in an unwanted relationship:
I am forced into this room,
through the door, her insoluble angers
In Primate, the anger is more straightforwardly political and aimed both at the hunters whose actions threaten the very existence of our closest relatives and the poet/speaker’s well-intentioned but futile determination to ‘kill the poachers’, a resolution that is deferred until ‘tomorrow’. This anger finds fuller expression in the final poem in the book, Manifesto and extended piece of political didacticism that is, for this reader at least, the one bum note in the collection.
This one cavil aside, Future Blues is a fascinating book that foregrounds one of the main questions to confront younger Irish poets; what does it mean to self-identify as Irish in an increasingly globalised world and in a time when many of those poets will not live, or will only partly live, in Ireland itself? Begnal’s work exemplifies the duality that lies behind that question and also points towards some ways in which it might be resolved. Just as the resolution to Kinsella’s problem is that both language traditions are equally available, there is no reason why diaspora poets cannot be both Irish and not Irish and create identities for themselves out of both their ancestral and new traditions. If the work that results from the effort is all as interesting as Future Blues, then the journey will be worth following.
Billy Mills was born Dublin in 1954. After some years spent in Spain and the UK, he currently lives in Limerick. He is co-editor (with Catherine Walsh) of hardpressed Poetry. His Lares/Manes: Collected Poems was published by Shearsman in 2009. His work since then includes Imaginary Gardens (hardPressed poetry 2012), Loop Walks, a work for choir in nine parts (hardPressed poetry 2013) and the free e-book from Pensato (Smithereens Press 2013).