The freshness of what happens
Reading Pearse Hutchinson: From Findrum to FisterraEdited by Philip Coleman and Maria Johnston Irish Academic Press. 286pp. €50
REPUTATION IS A FUNNY THING. Some writers are richly garlanded from the outset, and as they develop their work attracts a growing body of secondary apparatus: casebook studies, Festschriften, conferences, honorary degrees. Others might as well have a Do Not Disturb placard hung about their necks for all the attention they attract. It’s odd to think that the volume under review is the first collection of critical essays on a poet of such vitality and distinction as Pearse Hutchinson. With its chronology, bibliography, an interview and 15 essays on all aspects of the work, the book shines a very welcome light on the achievement of a fine poet whose imaginative openness and deep immersion in cultures we very much need today.
In one of the pieces gathered here, Robert Welch gives us a vignette of the poet walking in Leeds: “It was a jaunty thing, this walk. It had an edge to it, a kind of sharp readiness to take on things . . . [I]t was a rhythmic facing into the freshness of what happens.” In describing the walk he is, of course, also creating a snapshot of the poetry – jaunty, edgy, combining rich, sometimes opposed or contradictory flavours: its love of strong sun and the cultures that flourish in it, but also “the quartz glory” of Connemara and Irish, its sensuality tempered by a northern grittiness.
Translation has always been at the heart of the enterprise, as Welch and others rightly emphasise. The languages and cultures he encounters – medieval Galicio-Portuguese, contemporary Catalan, Galician, Portuguese and Castilian as well as Irish – are not simply external associations but form part of a single creative continuum, a world view and a soundscape where “cicada, chameleon, lagarto” can rub shoulders, where Catalan, Irish and English can occupy the same poem and not seem strange to each other.
This aspect of his sensibility is usefully explored in essays by Martín Veiga and Benjamin Keatinge as well as Welch. No other poet inhabits otherness as profoundly as Hutchinson, or has the kind of sympathetic imagination that can synthesise different traditions and histories and write from within them. It’s an act of fruitful self-translation, and Robert Welch is surely right to say that “the act of poetry, for Pearse Hutchinson, is an act of translation, whereby things shift in relation to each other”.
Many of the languages that preoccupy Hutchinson are threatened, or were when he encountered them, and the sense of threat and the resultant determination to battle all manner of prejudice, to achieve a “true gentleness”, are very much part of the poet’s psychic make up.
Likewise, as Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin reminds us, his passionate commitment to the past is a commitment to the vulnerable: “The history which concerns Hutchinson is predominantly that of the poor and defeated.” Hutchinson’s raids on the past also afford him the opportunity to broaden the record, to let his eye for accurate detail set down facts and lives easily forgotten or discarded. Accuracy is important to Hutchinson, the poems are full of facts, the love of fact is one of their animating forces. Ní Chuilleanáin picks up on how his use of notes and annotations as extension of his poetic strategy shows “someone whose wish to communicate delightful knowledge overflows the boundaries of the conventional form”.
Similarly, Ciaran O’Driscoll homes in with a poet’s eye on Hutchinson’s attention to the miracle of the multum in parvo, citing for instance the wonderful short poem Koan,where the poet, clearing his kitchen, suddenly hears “the sound / of spent matches / touching the handle of a silver spoon / a gentle tinkle / you never heard / that particular / sound before – / il mondo meraviglioso: / there’s always a first time . . .”. Lines like these remind us of the direct force of the poet’s voice, its deliberately democratic plain-speaking.
The cultural receptiveness, the attention to history, the love poetry, the poetry of the overlooked and undervalued: all of these things exist simultaneously in his work, and the core of it all is a gift for empathy born out of a great capacity for love, “the greatest reality”.
Philip Coleman builds his essay on the importance of friendship in the work: “Hutchinson’s deployment of a poetics of friendship in his writing is . . . one of the things that makes his work unique in the history of modern and contemporary Irish poetry”, citing a poem where the poet remembers the words of his friend and mentor in Barcelona, Josep Queralt, “ ‘he donat la meva vida al amor dels amics’ / I gave my life to loving my friends”.
Vincent Woods reminds us how precarious is the voice of the poet. Oró Domhnaighwas one of the most innovative radio programmes produced by RTÉ, memorable for the poet’s distinctive voice and scripts, but, incredibly, of the 104 programmes made, the station, abashed at the price of new tape, erased all but two. Woods has retrieved the scripts and provides a fascinating discussion of them and of Hutchinson’s career as a journalist, broadcaster and critic.
Inevitably, not everything here is as lively as the poet, and there’s a fair sprinkling of dutiful academicism, but the editors are to be congratulated on covering all the important features of Pearse Hutchinson’s work, and the book is an important acknowledgment by scholars of what many poets and readers have long known – that he is an essential poet.
Peter Sirr’s most recent collection of poems is The Thing Is, published by Gallery Press in 2009