Poems from another island


POETRY: HARRY CLIFTONreviews Spitting Out the Mother TongueBy Christodoulos Makris Wurm Press, 67pp. No price given

IT MAY BE another generation before Irish poetry is transformed, as it is going to be, from the backward and inward-looking entity it presently is to something expressing the actuality of life as it is everywhere, while happening, merely, to emanate from Ireland. Cyprus, where Christodoulos Makris, now resident in Ireland, grew up, might seem too remote for analogy, but it is only too similar. An island, leaning backwards into its own Arcadianism, fissured by binary politics and history, Americanised and technologised, its people split between home and elsewhere.

Two branched out to Canada, two to America, two to the cloister.

Of the remaining three

Only the eldest stayed on course.

One by one they start to fall

In a silent pact to bury within the roots of the family tree

Whatever made them flee or not flee.

( Nine)

There is hardly an Irish family who would not identify with that. Which is precisely what makes this concentratedly intelligent set of poems, nominally Cypriot, so actually universal.

The world it inhabits has gone past the point of the national, and begun to relax into its own ubiquity as a fact of life, without the usual anguish of expatriation. The stance is more that of Czeslaw Milosz’s “Greek who changes cities”, maintaining his balance not by affiliation to this or that set of national pieties but by loving the world, as a physical essence, wherever he happens to be.

Halloumi is also made in the Lebanon and Romania

Other cheeses common in Cyprus

Are the Greek feta and kaskavali –

Related to the Bulgarian katchkawalj and the Italian caciocavallo

( The Cheeses of Cyprus)

The cheeses in that poem, as an understated intercultural metaphor, are so much more than cheeses, but they are also cheeses, real moments in a physically rich life that underwrites the flux of uprooting and different countries on every other page. We are never not at home, whatever contemporary nervosities may be in the air, as long as life – the life of eating, drinking, sex, palaver, dancing, the spicy smell of the streets – is being lived, as it is here, in the body.

So you thought that Yianna, Maria and Aliki

Would stay at home

Waiting, until ‘you and the boys’

Finish your jamming session

And return in the morning to enter them?

Fool, they’re all round my place

Drinking raki, dancing to beats from the Bosporus,

Smoking joints, rolling down their stockings . . .

( Nicosia Journal)

For all its apparent spontaneity, though, this is a carefully plotted sequence, extending through childhood and adolescence into what I take to be fatherhood and the starting of a new cycle. A novel of sorts, with the epiphanies, the pure moments, lifted clear and held to the light of a cool intelligence, analysed. For the life of the mind is everywhere present here too, the issue of word and thing when English is a kind of translation from an unspoken mother tongue with its own base, and strange displacements happen

The sea carries intimations of home – Eoria –

Where we are least uncomfortable in our skins,

Or breathe with most ease. It’s a solution

We either enter or exit to. Here we say go out

To sea – venture somewhere foreign. There we go

In to it, as if returning to some primeval hearth.

( Translations)

Intelligence, the defence mechanism of the Wandering Jew, is so often also the sister of neurosis. Not so here. I do not know what brought Makris to these shores, or whether he will go on living here, but he and his poems, so universally at home in themselves, are a straw in the wind, a forerunner, in Irish poetry and Irish poetry publishing, of what has already happened in Britain with Grace Nichols, Benjamin Zephaniah, Jackie Kay. Strange as it may seem, the greenest shoots are sometimes foreign.

Harry Clifton is Ireland professor of poetry