A global view from Cork


ANTHOLOGY:Cork Literary Review, volume XIV Edited by Eugene O’Connell Bradshaw Books, 456pp. €20

AS A LITERARY FORM, the anthology, ideally, includes some of the glories of written art; occasionally, though, when an editor has an axe to grind, inglorious agendas that serve neither literature nor reader are found to have wormed their way in. This plasticity troubles commentators, who often judge the contents in terms of who is included and who is not rather than on the vision of the anthology as a whole.

Happily, in the case of volume XIV of Cork Literary Review,its commissioning editor, Eugene O’Connell, has thought outside the box, and his territory stretches from Cork to the rest of Ireland, the Middle East and the US. There is nothing intrinsically more poetic about being from Odessa rather than Cork, Kerry or Dublin, but this volume happens to be as global as it is local. In the local context, one can but mark the transformations in Irish poetry in recent years and the general loosening of its corsetry.

O’Connell assembles a panoply of writers who differ in age, nationality, interests and achievement. That he has provided them with enough space to register their work properly (in the case of most of the poets, at least four poems are included) means that this is a hefty work that needs some settling into in order to absorb its diversity and sparkle.

Familiar voices include Joseph Woods, Bernard O’Donoghue, Richard Tillinghast, Aonghas MacNeacail, George Szirtes, Gerard Smyth, Patrick Cotter, Paddy Bushe, Adam Wyeth, Mary Noonan, Dave Lordan, Matthew Sweeney and Liam Ó Muirthile (translated by Gabriel Rosenstock). Apart from the poetry, there is a fine satirical memoir from Mary O’Malley, a rake of translations from Italian by William Wall and plenty of interviews and discussions, as intimate and probing as only the best conversations can be.

A discussion between Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and James Harpur explores backgrounds, the moment of deciding to write poetry and the idea of poetic inspiration. Ní Chuilleanáin’s calling to poetry came early, Harpur’s somewhat later. This civilised face to face pares back the layers that often interfere with talking about writing.

While Barbara Brown writes a superb essay on Maurice Harmon’s translation of Acallam na Senórach, Harmon himself turns his forensic eye on the poetry of Dennis O’Driscoll in an essay called Where Language Reigns. This examines one of O’Driscoll’s signature collections, T he Bottom Line, at the same time establishing some links in the chain of development that makes O’Driscoll’s work some of the most vital, nourishing and well-tended poetry in English today. Harmon nails down the particulars, noting the constancy and attentiveness of O’Driscoll’s voice, remarking simply in a concluding sentence that “the poems speak with civility and grace, and make no demands on us beyond those of imaginative and intelligent engagement”.

Another aspect of this eclectic anthology is the Brian Turner-edited American section, which introduces some writers we might not otherwise encounter, among them Ilya Kaminsky, Fady Joudah, Nick Flynn, Eleanor Wilner, Linda Gregerson and Oliver de la Paz. Turner, in a welcome, unpretentious and informative introductory essay, speaks about the decision-making process involved in compiling his selection. He says that an editor’s duty is, “like any good host”, to make a statement about the shaping of an anthology, thus standing firmly behind his writers. In Turner’s American section, the works included do not focus automatically on the accessible so much as on the morally complex and the intellectually informed.

Within this cluster, Ilya Kaminsky’s work belongs to a long strand of poetic expression regarding war and the role of the passive individual. Since his arrival in the US in 1993 Kaminsky has won many awards for his icy and brilliant work, which occupies that liminal space between the desire for peace and the actuality and defragmentation of war, as in the poem 9am Bombardment:

Running down Vasenka street my clothes in a pillowcase

I was looking for a man who looks exactly like me

so I could give him my Sonya, my name, my clothes.

Running down Vasenka Street with my lips moving,

one of those who run from the trolley that bursts like an intestine in the sun,

those who lock the door, lock it with the second key,

and who try to speak, stutter but try to speak.

A wife screams as if she were in labor she was in labor.

Although it is disappointing that Eugene O’Connell supplies no introductory essay, instead leaving his inclusions to hang somewhat opaquely in the ether, he has drawn together an anthology that, one senses, was patiently and carefully compiled. The result is surprising, often enigmatic and consistently enriching.

Mary O’Donnell’s most recent book, The Ark Builders, was published by Arc. She teaches creative writing at NUI Maynooth