Outsiders on the inside

 

ANTHOLOGY: Landing Places: Immigrant Poets in Ireland Eds. Eva Bourke and Borbála Faragó Dedalus Press, 240pp, €24.99hkb, €14.99pbk

WHAT DOES an alien see? Perhaps one of the reasons for the success of Hugo Hamilton’s memoir of his childhood, The Speckled People(2003), was that it showed Ireland through an alien’s eyes. Hamilton was raised speaking Irish and German in South Dublin, and either language would have been enough to alienate any family in most parts of Ireland at the time. Just as we occasionally wonder what people will say at our funerals, so nations also wonder how they strike tourists, migrant workers, visiting statesmen and women. Landing Places: Immigrant Poets in Irelandprovides some answers.

Eva Bourke and Borbála Faragó have edited an anthology of poems by resident aliens in Ireland and the reports that these poets file are various – ranging from mystical-dreamy, sardonic, wry, loving, appreciative, and back again to mystical-dreamy. Some of the poets remark upon Irish racism, others record their sense – both linguistic and geographical – of homelessness. Further poems show a heightened awareness of language as a theme – to live where one’s native language is not spoken is both liberating and difficult.

One amazing aspect of the anthology is that many of these poets seem to be writing in English (only occasionally is a translator mentioned). Anyone who has tried to write even the briefest of notes in a foreign language will be able to fathom this achievement. (The German poet Andreas Vogel outstrips everyone, however, by writing mordant and entertaining poems in Irish, and then translating them into English.) However, most of the poems in the book, including those by Anglophone poets, are undistinguished.

The biographical notes often provide more compelling reading. Here are some of my favourites: “her interests include the slightly darker sides of human nature, angelology and various kinds of feminism”; “She lives in Galway city with her two daughters and a Cairn Terrier”; “He lives, for his sins, in Belfast”; and, best of all, “Daniel O’Donoghue was born on the Rosslare-Fishguard ferry on October 25, 1953. He has never been clear about which direction the boat was travelling in . . .”.

But more generally, and more seriously, the biographical notes record a rich range of experience in different jobs in different parts of the world; often the notes record the jobs and nationalities of parents. The list of present and past occupations is also curious. Here are a few: translator of racist tracts, social worker, director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, hotel worker, branding consultant. Although I doubt that these aliens are forming literary communities of their own, as the Americans did in Paris in the 1920s, the cumulative effect is fascinating. One imagines all these outsiders with their strange stories in Ireland, a kind of fifth column, taking notes and waiting. Perhaps the publication of Landing Placeswill alert these poets to certain affinities and commonalities between themselves. Then things could get interesting.

Ireland, for the most part, doesn’t come across as a bad place to live (apart from the weather and the public transport, what there is of the latter). We get to see ourselves strangely in one of Vogel’s poems as a “strainséir é ina thírdhreach féin / rachadh coimhthíoch eile ina ghaobhar / thar a fhulaingt”. The implication here is that a German, with his command of the first official language of the country, can make us feel like resident aliens in our country, which is the work of all good fifth columnists.

The largest groups of poets come from North America and the UK (21 and 15 respectively), while 19 are from the EU excluding the UK, five from Africa, and six more from even further afield. Many of the Americans have family roots in the country, so their residence can be viewed as something of a homecoming. The large number of English-speaking poets also means that one is less likely to be surprised by the poems – both formally and thematically – and too much space is given to bland anecdotes of personal revelations. Although both editors themselves are resident aliens, they favour poetic modes that will be familiar to most poetry readers in Ireland, rather than the strange or unusual (which are usually given minimum coverage of a page and a half).

Instead of nine pages of work by, say, American poet Theodore Deppe, I would have preferred to hear more from the likes of Nyaradzo Masunda, who was born in Zimbabwe and now lives in Cork. Her strong repetitions contain wit and supplication: she both requests to be understood on her own terms, and also stands back to make wry observations. Also of note are Eckhardt Schmidt’s epigrammatic poems, Kinga Elwira Cybulska’s hip and louche reflections on her lost lives, and Matthew Geden’s incisive To a friend:

Suddenly the old farmer called us back

To drink three pints in the evening light.

Humanity is small but this drunkenness vast and marvellous –

Where now is England, where your empire?

Leaving aside the routine self-flagellation of the Britisher, the play with perspective here is generous and beautiful, placing us all sub specie aeternitatus, where we belong, and not locked up in our little nations. The main achievement of this anthology is to refresh this very realisation, and that is a good reason to salute it.


Justin Quinn’s most recent book of poetry is Waves Trees(2006). His translations of the Czech poet Petr Borkovec were published in 2008. He lives in Prague