A kind of world-building: a celebration of poets who now call Ireland home
Pat Boran introduces some of the 51 poets in the anthology he co-edited, Writing Home
Nidhi Zak / Aria Eipe
“Where are we going? Always home.”
– Novalis, 18th century German poet and philosopher
“Home” is among the most emotive words there is. It refers to the place we come from, the place we first became ourselves; it seems to describe an intimate part of us. Just as many fairytales end with the protagonists (often children) making it, against all odds, back home, so too do the words home, safety and security seem at first glance almost interchangeable.
If our own times teach us anything, however, it is that not everyone shares in the same lucky experience.
For such an apparently innocuous word, it’s remarkable that home so regularly features in the most contentious debates of our age. From the international refugee crisis to Trump’s xenophobic dream-wall; from the relationship between local action and climate change to the shame of people sleeping on our streets, this most innocent-seeming word seems to conjure a battleground for the rights and freedoms of future generations.
Of course people travel for all sorts of reasons – study, work and simple curiosity among them. Many of us at some point choose to live elsewhere for an extended period, to make our (temporary) homes elsewhere, finding in foreign lands things that will enrich our lives when we arrive back home. Indeed for workers in the IT, banking and related sectors, this has almost become the norm.
For others, however, that outward journey is undertaken with considerable reluctance, resulting in feelings of displacement and loss that geographical distance alone cannot explain. One thinks, for instance, of a generation of Irish labourers marooned in Britain as if they had been shipwrecked on the far side of the world. Always dreaming of home.
Perhaps we need to make a distinction between homeland and home, the former designating a given, historical fact, the latter a place we continuously reimagine and refine. And for those who never enjoyed safety or understanding in their homelands or first homes, the journey outwards may be even more difficult, the task that lies ahead of them all the more daunting.
For some writers, all of these jostling meanings and connotations of the word home sit down to join them whenever a pen is picked up or a computer is switched on. The magnetic attraction and the simultaneous resistance of the word is one of the reasons why, for so many, the exploration of home is one of the first steps into a writing life. And so, the dual sense of delight and trepidation is everywhere in these poems.
Having settled on The “New Irish” Poets as the subtitle for this gathering, I confess to remaining somewhat uneasy about it as a label. Labels don’t do much for poetry, or for art in general. Impressionism, Cubism, Neo-Expressionism … The most distinguished practitioners push beyond the limitation of labels to make something new. For instance, we might reasonably ask: When do the New Irish become the Old Irish or just the Irish, without any need for qualification? That said, a little unease is not unusual (or entirely useless) at the start of a journey. If nothing else, it quickens the heartbeat and ensures that we pay attention.
As a boy I was much entertained by the suggestion that my surname might have a somewhat exotic origin. An uncle who served as a missionary in Kenya imagined he’d found a meaningful link with the well-known Boran people of that country (footnoted, to my delight, in Alex Haley’s bestselling novel Roots, an international cause célèbre at that time.)
Years later, discovering that the name was also common in Turkey, Thailand and a number of other places, I realised that its simple two-syllable form might be basic to any number of languages, and my bubble was burst. Even so, that African connection implanted in my adolescent self the notion that we are all from somewhere else – a notion which, when we think on a scale of more than a few generations, is these days demonstrably true. It is not only politics or commerce but even science itself that reminds us how much more complex and interesting is the real story of who we are and where we come from.
Nowadays when I think of the phrase New Irish, I think first of my Sicilian wife of almost 20 years, and then of my two Sicilian-born, Dublin-raised, trilingual sons. Despite my own immersion in Irish culture (or at least in the English language part of it), ours is, statistically speaking, a New Irish family unit; and, like that of our Bosnian, Polish and Tunisian neighbours, among others, our story too is part of the longer narrative of ongoing change.
At the Dedalus Press, we have long been committed to international writing and writing in translation and proud of our reputaton as “one of the most outward-looking poetry publishers in Ireland and the UK” (Unesco). A significant step on our own journey was the publication in 2010 of the anthology Landing Places: Immigrant Poets in Ireland, edited by Eva Bourke and Borbála Faragó, in part a response to the widespread changes in Ireland of the so-called Celtic Tiger years. Where that book presented the general observations of the writers gathered therein (many of whom had already or have since gone on to publish poetry collections of their own), for the present volume we thought to focus on writers not yet established in English, and to prompt them to respond to our general theme of home, mindful that a description of place is both a record of ongoing change and a rudimentary self-portrait of the artist.
It has been my pleasure to work with Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi in selecting the poems for this volume. Though her own experience as a young, female, Nigerian-born, Irish-bred writer is clearly very different to mine, we were both pleased to note how much agreement there was between our core selections. Reading blindly is a liberating and often an illuminating experience, not least when, after the selection process is complete, the identities of the writers are revealed.
Though they are presented as a unit here, this anthology hopes to recognise the differences as well as the similarities among its contributors. A list of these poets’ countries of origin ranges from Angola to Zimbabwe (with Brazil, Canada, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, England, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan … in between). But to list them like that is to create a false sense that these writers in some way “represent” their countries of origin, like the competitors in some kind of International Poetry Games.
Instead it might be better to think of them in three general groups. Here are poets who were born elsewhere and now make their life – or part of their life – here in Ireland (poets whose kitchens smell of the herbs and imported ingredients of other lands, one might say). Here too are poets who were born here but who dream in the culture or language of another place, inheritors of their parents’ aspirations and memories. And here too are a small number of poets born and perhaps raised in this country, but who have subsequently spent enough time outside of it that, sometimes, it too seems like an elsewhere to them now.
So what, then, is the true nature of home? How do we distinguish between the place we wish to imagine into being and the one from which we have emerged? One thing is sure. We never see our home place as clearly as when we see it in the company of a stranger, a visitor or new arrival who notices and questions the things that, for us, have long since become invisible. In that sense, this anthology is not just about the journey and experience of these 51 New Irish poets; it is also about the meaning of home itself.
Not everything we find in these pages will be welcome or positive. A number of the poets describe incidents of casual, or less than casual, xenophobia or outright racism, certainly not unique to Ireland (and perhaps less common here than in some jurisdictions), but troubling nonetheless. Visitors to our Emerald Isle have often struggled to balance the warmth of the céad míle fáilte, or one hundred thousand welcomes, with that curious first question many outsiders face, “How long are you here for?”, which sometimes translates as, “And when are you going back?” Could it be that even the fabled Irish welcome is not always as genuine as it might appear.
Reading through an anthology such as this, one imagines a possible mirror volume – a compilation of poems by the generation of Irish-born poets now making their lives and homes overseas. The truth is that the movement of people (out of necessity, opportunity or simple curiosity) is intrinsic to our species and certainly to our times. But that particular volume is a project for another day.
For now, with Writing Home: The “New Irish” Poets, we celebrate external influence and fresh perspectives; we celebrate not just new and emerging voices but new linguistic and cultural threads being woven into the fabric of Irish life. More than anything, we celebrate ‘arrival’ itself, in a country that is perhaps more used to commemorating departure and loss. And, so long as writing continues to be supported, published and championed here, we believe we have reason yet to be proud of this place we call our “writing home”.
Baldoyle (from Báile dubh-ghall, the town of the dark-haired foreigner)
My Name Is
The name of an old man whose head was torn off by a bomb and whose body was left on the frozen soil of Stalingrad,
The name of his wife whose body slowly melted in times of hunger and cold,
The name of their daughter who carried her wounded child through the burning streets,
The name of her husband, who was imprisoned by the country he fought for,
The name of their little girl who survived the war and named me,
The name of a little boy that came to rebuild the ruins of the city with one piece of bread in his pocket, which was stolen by a dog,
The name of their son who once bought me a bullfinch in a cage so I could set the bird free,
The name of his great-grandfather who escaped from Nazi camp and got into a Soviet one as a punishment for cooperation with the enemy,
The names of four Armenian siblings who lost their parents to typhus and moved to the devastated Russia to establish a new generation,
The name of their father who had his name engraved on a Nagant revolver,
The name of his wife, Siranush, which means love, the only name that should be given to a woman,
The name of her great-granddaughter, who is the only reason I’m still here,
The name of her younger brother, who’s been tortured in the pre-trial detention for six months and the name of what’s left of him afterwards,
The name of his cousin, who’s been beaten in the army for six hours and the name of what’s left of him afterwards,
The name of my cousin, whose heart stopped on New Year’s Eve,
The name of my grandfather, whose heart stopped when I touched the Western Wall,
The name of his niece, whose cancer was as blistering as her passion for life,
The name of her nephew, who got a bullet in his head because he was Azerbaijani,
The name of my friend, who never woke up after her 19th birthday,
The name of my friend, who never woke up after her boyfriend threw her out of the window on International Women’s Day,
The name of my friend who never woke up after taking a pill,
The name of my lover, whose mind is murdered with drugs and depression, who goes into a war against his own madness each time he wakes up,
The name of the Unknown Soldier, on whose bones my hometown is built.
I am so full of names.
My name is a verb,
My name is to awake,
My name is to destroy,
My name is cavt tanem,
‘I would take away your pain’,
Say it like it’s yours.
NIDHI ZAK / ARIA EIPE
So much talk of backstops and borders
bad politics heralding a return
to a history no one wants to see
so they tell us stories
instead: so many urban legends
that are probably untrue
like, have you heard the one about the house
in Pettigo, partitioned through the middle,
or the Belfast woman shoving butter down her socks
the brainy British official beckoning her near
for a friendly fireside chat, all that offending
sticky yellow warm pissing past her legs
or the crafty fisherfellow on that disputed estuary
between Donegal and Derry,
who painted his vessel two conflicting colours
so he could fish in the liminal lake without a fig for quotas,
buzzing busy as a worker bee between both harbours
or the bold schoolboy on his bicycle
pedaling across each day
customs guards turning his pockets inside out,
their notions upside down,
until lines were lifted,
checkpoints closed, guns given up,
then they asked him what it was,
the precious cargo he’d been smuggling
all those years
- they thought he’d never come around,
and he said, like any boy that age -
because what could we love
than the things which give us wings?
From the West Coast
It’s Arthur’s day, and night. The weather here is impermanent.
What they call a glorious day is only a glorious split second.
Umbrellas are useless unless you want to fly. People ask me
how I am but don’t stop to listen to the answer.
They thank me at the most unexpected moments. They eat late
at night and wonder why they get beer bellies. After drinking
they mark their territory by spewing here and there. Aggression
and verbal abuse towards staff of the Emergency Department
The paper says males here are among the ugliest in the world,
just behind the Poles. And they are short. For ten lines of
a recommendation letter by Doctor Fahy I will have to sleep
with him once, for fifteen I must sleep with him twice.
People call towers castles, hills mountains and greens parks.
Girls put headbands on their bums. Men wear sandals to match
their black suits at the dinner gala. Today’s lecture on art started
twenty minutes later than it shoud when most people had still
too arrive. The sign in a shoe shop in Abbeygate Street reads
Leather is not a waterproof material.
Many houses don’t have numbers and if it happens that they do
it’s difficult to locate a sign with the name of a street. There are
no woods in the area. People say it’s because of the English.
There are only a few bus stops in the countryside. If you are lucky
to find one, there is no timetable on it. Buses are delayed.
This is not how I imagined my death.
32 kg suitcase
before I left home
I packed a 32 kg suitcase
I still have some
of the clothes and books
shoes and photographs
my grandmother’s notes and coins collection
and memories from my first ever flight
the suitcase is still here
covered in dust
if I was to come back
what would I pack?
a red brick from henrietta street
a slang dictionary from the north inner city
burdock’s fish and chips
bookshops: books upstairs and chapters
fragments of stories from smokers
huddled in doorways
but how can I go back
after leaving home
I became a stateless citizen
with a 32 kg suitcase
Boy in a Blue T-Shirt
Chasing a ball on a verdant pitch,
rowdy, gangly, with milk moustaches -
schoolboys shake off beads of sweat
from sunburned foreheads.
Messy cowslips, croaky voices, strong legs.
It’s a goal!
What a shot!’
When I ask my son who scored,
he waves his hand, points,
in the blue T-shirt!’
And I search for a boy in blue,
while the team
hurrays its hero,
the only lad on the playing field
with black, almost purple skin;
just ‘a boy in a blue T-shirt’
to my son and his soccer team.
Upon Arrival in Dublin
In this run-down place with its wide stairs
and landings I will sleep for the five fitful nights.
At this small basin I will wash, and in it will clean
my clothing and linen - I teach, research, flat-
hunt from a six-bed dormitory. One foot in the door,
the other on the streets, constantly hopping from hostels
to hotels to B&Bs and back, for the better part of three
months, at some times halfway living in a UCD cube farm.
Neither fitting in with the properly settled property
owners nor with the boozy folks at the inner-city
evening corner, with English too good for a foreigner
and not good enough to be Irish –
a philosopher trying to move on to pastures new.
A strange heart looking for home and a new beginning
Layers of Me
One day I woke up
and I was gone.
On the floor
I saw a carpet.
Through the window,
a tree I’d never seen before.
It was shaking with passion,
orange, yellow, red leaves
all over the road,
while pedestrians jumped puddles,
clasped by coats and fat scarfs.
I noticed the cold.
By my bed, a pair of fluffy slippers,
behind the door, a dressing gown waiting.
I didn’t go far,
the cracking old parquet flooring
announced my steps
and there came voices towards me.
I naturally replied
in batches of sentences, words and courtesy
unknown to me.
In my wardrobe I had clothes
I would never consider.
The contacts on my phone
were all new to me.
I read the obituaries in the paper
searching for my name.
I tucked myself back into bed
To listen carefully to my recollections.
In nearly every spiky point of my memory
I saw a curve,
a dead end
where I had to turn
and shape a new track.
Whether change meant trouble
I refaced my needs.
I bred certainties
waited for my rebirth.