Poetry: Leabhar Na hAthghabhála: Poems of Repossession, edited by Louis de Paor
A terrific, open anthology includes more than 160 poems in Irish and English
Poet Louis de Paor: illuminating choices and juxtapositions
Poetry is a slow art, its practitioners emerging into the light every three or four or 10 years with new, polished books which begin to circulate, slowly finding readers and responses, through booksellers, reviews and Ireland’s distinctive festival culture of readings and workshops. It is an ecosystem that feels not just slow but adventitious and incremental, with up-and-coming and original voices constantly in dialogue with more experienced writers.
Every so often, though, a book arrives which shows the possibility of reconsidering and reconceiving the way poetry works in Ireland: Leabhar Na hAthghabhála: Poems of Repossession (Cló Iar-Chonnacht/Bloodaxe, £15/€20) is one of those books. Editor Louis de Paor brings together more than 160 poems in both Irish and English – more than 500 pages of poetry from the past century, much of the translation newly commissioned (and at an eminently reasonable price). Anthologies are fraught, question-begging enterprises, as are translations. Who is in? Who isn’t? Is this or that poem (not) included? Does this translation truly capture that great summit of X or Y’s writing? And de Paor’s book will prompt its share of healthy conversations on those topics, but the overwhelming response of most readers to this anthology will be that a brilliant and various century of writing has been assembled.
This variety will strike most readers first. De Paor chooses to begin with short aperitif-like selections from Pádraig Ó hÉigeartaigh, Patrick Pearse and Liam S Gógan, three poets whose aesthetics could not be more different, the first drawing on song structures, the last far more technical and literary in impressive poems such as Liobhárn stáit/Ship of state, whose mood and disillusioned clarity will remind readers of his contemporary, Austin Clarke. Pearse’s mixture of heroic prophesying and idealism – about the nation and about adolescent boyhood – are not shirked in Maurice Riordan’s lucid translations.
Many readers will already have favourites among the major mid-century talents Máirtín Ó Direáin, Máire Mhac an tSaoi and Seán Ó Ríordáin, and here, certainly, de Paor’s editorial choices and prefaces are decisive and, to say the least, stimulating. Their poems are seen as representatives or even curators of an aspect or region of the language: while de Paor recognises the modernist echo chambers of the later work, Ó Direáin is praised for his “ability to give symbolic resonance to the spoken language of his own [Inis Mór] community”. De Paor writes of Mhac an tSaoi that “the deep conservatism of language and form, particularly in the earlier work, provides a cover for the more transgressive aspect of her work” and Biddy Jenkinson’s translations of that early work do indeed present us with poems that are musing, dramatic and vividly articulate.
De Paor strikes a more sceptical note in relation to the language of Ó Ríordáin’s more experimental, iconoclastic and sometimes bastardising poems. Ó Ríordáin is a reference point for both Irish- and English-language poets, and a wealth of translations of his work already exists which makes selection a trickier matter. De Paor chooses not to include, say, Ó Ríordáin’s own English versions, or Ciaran Carson’s classic translation of Malairt as Switch, or Maurice Riordan’s version of Reo as Frost, choosing or commissioning instead new, often freer versions in their place by a wide range of poets and translators. The consistency with which Ó Ríordáin’s contemporaries are translated seems to strengthen our understanding of their work, but, notwithstanding the original brilliance evident in Adhlacha mo mháthar, Cúl an tí and Saoirse, de Paor’s inclusion of so many disparate translators will probably send readers looking for more Ó Ríordáin elsewhere. Though, in time, maybe those of us used to other versions may find ourselves, like users of new mobile phones, coming around to his way of thinking.
Something similar happens with the poems of the poet who is most substantially represented in the anthology, the much-translated Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Paul Muldoon’s versions in The Astrakhan Cloak, in particular, made a mark on many readers (and deeply influenced Muldoon’s subsequent work), but de Paor chooses here to present Ní Dhomhnaill only in Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s translations. I miss some of Muldoon’s touches, but the result vindicates de Paor’s choice: Ní Dhomhnaill’s black wit and exuberant description carry her readers with her. Her range of tones, from poem to poem and from line to line, is a marvel of recent Irish writing. It is difficult to think of another writer who could carry off the high Romantic situation of Éirigh, a éinín/Rise up, little bird, whose wide-angled, populous scene drifts towards its clinching final phrase: “I see the smile and I prefer it to the source of her tears /and I know that you well deserve praise, for a thing so small, / your ardent twittering evidence of the fun and the pain / that are part of being alive, my dear little bird, my own image.”
Like Ní Dhomhnaill, Biddy Jenkinson writes with forceful originality and her poems engineer memorably awkward situations – watching praying mantises in Alabama, the moon as a knife, cockroaches on a hostel ceiling – whose applications and suggestiveness proliferate the more they are dwelt on. Éiceolaí/Ecologist imagines “a woman next door who keeps her house, her man, her son, as neat as can be and she tries to keep her garden as tidy as she keeps them” and ends, with great relish: “There’s woman next door who’d keep her garden in order but it won’t take us long to make a hash of her borders.”
This is a terrific, open introduction to a century of Irish-language poetry and its connections and conjunctions animate the debates and breakthroughs and experiments, successful and otherwise, that comprise our living tradition. It is illuminating to read Tomás Mac Siomóin alongside Jenkinson, but their precise, metaphysical poems are then set off nicely by a powerful extract from Seán Ó Corraoin’s biographical long poem Beairtle/Bartley and the colloquial, observant steadiness of Sean Ó Tuama, which itself seems to beget the buoyant conversational elan of the tales and schemes of de Paor, Liam Ó Muirthile, and Michael Davitt, whose astonishing elegy for his father An Scathán/The Mirror, as translated by Paul Muldoon, offers an image for the productive mirroring this book makes available to its readers:
When I took hold of the mirror
I had a fright. I imagined him breathing
I heard him say in a reassuring whisper:
I’ll give you a hand, here.
And we lifted the mirror back in
above the fireplace,
my father holding it steady
while I drove home the two nails.
John McAuliffe’s fourth book, The Way In (Gallery Press), was published last year