Hungering: a Poetry Jukebox for Dublin’s Docklands

‘We asked for poems about hunger now, and the memory of past hunger that lingers in the gut’

On a sunny day in Dublin’s docklands, the history of the city can seem deeply buried under sharp-cut modern pavements. The sun bounces between tinted skyscraper windows. The Liffey curls past, its currents hidden deep beneath its glassy surface.

But there are shapes among the plane trees on the dockside campshires – slender, elongated shapes, almost as thin as these young trees, dappled in the vivid green leaf-light of early summer. Behind them, a starved dog crouches. These are Rowan Gillespie’s Famine Statues.

Stand beside them and address your attention to the area again. Look for the organic, the tactile among the bright steel and glass. The evocative line of the CHQ building draws the eye – a warehouse denuded of its forbidding front, its petrified forest of cast iron columns revealed through its floating glass facade. The masts of the Jeanie Johnston cause a tangle in perspective with the Sam Beckett Bridge’s reclining harp. The cobbles beneath your feet raise a metallic jangle from a passing bicycle.

You can’t pave over history. Like grasses and weeds, like buddleia cleaving to a building’s rotting mortar, history notches itself into the empty spaces. In last summer’s droughts, a forgotten henge left its ghost mark on a scorched field in Co Meath. Here, in the docklands, history stands its ground between office blocks and hotels. And so when Maria McManus, the director of and powerhouse behind the fantastic island-wide Poetry Jukebox project, approached me to co-curate a new set of poems for a Poetry Jukebox to feature in the docklands, the area’s history dictated our theme – Hungering.

It’s easy to forget that Custom House Quay was once a departure point for hundreds of thousands of emigrants. With Dublin Port moved further from the centre of town, the ghosts of the departed seem to have drifted away, dispelled by the revellers enjoying drinks in the sun on the terrace outside CHQ. But writing a hundred years after the famine, Patrick Kavanagh aptly said: “The hungry fiend/ Screams the apocalypse of clay/In every corner of this land”.

These migrant ghosts are not just our lost ancestors – they are our cousins, our brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, making a home for themselves somewhere far away. They are us, on a sojourn away from home, longing for the tastes, sights, sounds that make us feel that sense of belonging. For Hungering, we asked poets to speak to us of their desires, their longings, their hunger – the new delicacies they’ve tasted in places far from home, or the comfort they’ve found in the flavours of home savoured far away. We asked for poems about hunger now, and the memory of past hunger that lingers in the gut.

In response to our call out, we got poems that dealt with hunger – both physical and spiritual – and with isolation, longing, homesickness. Nuala O’Connor begins our journey through the jukebox with a simple famine-era itinerary of items which speaks volumes about what the owners lacked, while Jean O’Brien’s Census imbues similar small items with the value bestowed by daily cherishing. Cherry Smyth’s They Ate Grass assaults the listener with striking images of starvation.

Maria Isakova Bennett, Caroline Bracken and Joan Carberry address more contemporary stories of those who lack through the small rituals we observe to help ourselves ignore the plight of those less fortunate. These are troubled and troubling poems, but with a bright shard of empathy at the core that jolts the listener from their complacency.

And then we have poets reflecting on time away from home – loneliness and passion and youthful anticipation mingle in Mark Granier’s High Rise Squat, 1989, Shannon Kuta Kelly’s Bucharest 1989 and Aoife Riach’s Vancouver. Nidhi Zak/ Aria Eipe’s formerly exotic, fruit and Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal’s Chai Tea Latte wryly address cultural difference while honouring the tastes of home, while Glyn Edwards’ Night Fishing is a nocturnal hymn to hunger itself. Paul Maddern’s Observe Winter charts decline both in the seasons and in the fortunes of those awaiting the return of a failed hunting party.

Iggy McGovern and Conor Cleary address the heartbreaking rituals of emigration with humour and pathos; how passing certain milestones helps mark a difficult journey, while Miriam Gamble is haunted by the ghost of an emigrant ship.

Reflecting on the ongoing migrant crisis, Jane Robinson’s Precaria conjures both beauty and brutality, while Ruarí de Barra’s Empty presents a stark picture of a world inured to pity, based on his eye-witness accounts on the PONTUS rescue missions in the Mediterranean. Charleen Hurtubise’s Museum examines what can be rebuilt from the wreckage of a life, and Moyra Donaldson’s Family Picnic offers a final meal to lost family members.

These 20 poems of longing and desire are by poets with links to Ireland north and south, England, Wales, Scotland, the US and India but in their subject matter they journey even further afield. We hope that this summer at CHQ, passers-by might be coaxed by the voices of these talented poets into an unexpected journey in the heart of Dublin’s Docklands.

Poetry Jukebox will be at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum from July-October 2019 and is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland through National Lottery Funds. Its presence at EPIC is, in addition, supported by Poetry Ireland, Fáilte Ireland and UNESCO Dublin City of Literature

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