The Casement Sonata by Gavin Friday review: The curve of words

Gavin Friday disinters Sir Roger Casement’s long-lost poetic voice in a work of ambient poetry, one of the strangest and rarest gifts offered up this centenary year

One would think poetry could not only survive but thrive in an age of audio technology of every kind, but the old silos within the arts are slow to crumble. Pop music remains mired in a mess of crude song forms – with only exceptional talents like Leonard Cohen providing literary enlightenment in common song. Meanwhile, so much poetry is still stuck in recitative amber, adopting false mannerisms much as Vachel Lindsay’s vocal antics which influenced Yeats and others to intone poetry artificially.

Contemporary spoken word was born pretty much at the same time as rock and roll, with Dylan Thomas not only providing the initial impetus at the Caedmon label but lending his forename to pop’s most durable literary star. Now, with The Casement Sonata, Dublin singer songwriter Gavin Friday has delivered a feature-length work that might push the envelope by fusing dramatic monologue and the Irish long poem with ambient music as initiated by Brian Eno in the 1970s. Collaborating closely with fellow Dubliner James McCabe, a James Clarence Mangan aficionado, Friday disinters Sir Roger Casement’s long-lost poetic voice to re-inhabit the trauma, glory and transcendence of imperialism as it shattered into nationalisms of every race and colour.

Casement is the original for both George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (another outsider in defiance) and Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz (how closely Marlon Brando’s toying with divinity in Apocalypse Now mirrors Casement’s final imitation of Christ). The fascination of Joan of Arc, Kurtz and Casement, punk antagonists of monolithic power systems, lies in their epic refusal of power but also in their infatuation with it. In a fitting final image from the sonic installation, Casement compares himself to David, a comparison taken directly from the man’s final letters:

Unarmed, save with a pebble, I have walked through history
As though I were to die this very day.


The Casement Sonata lies in a submerged tradition of modern Irish letters that includes Patrick Kavanagh’s Lough Derg as well as Eugene Watters’ The Week-End of Dermot and Grace (when will some clever radio producer finally stumble across this sonic gem from 1964?). At the same time, it reflects and expands upon Gavin Friday‘s 2011 album catholic. That album’s artwork featured Friday’s uncanny re-enactment of Sir John Lavery’s iconic death portrait of Michael Collins. It is no coincidence, for example, that the Sonata is aired in the Hugh Lane Gallery, alongside Lavery’s dramatic portrayal of the Casement trial, High Treason. It is also highly appropriate that the artwork accompanying the new recording should prefigure Casement as a Dada-esque head complete with attendant mosquitoes. 1916 was a year of not only historical but also artistic revolution, the original punk rebellion if you will.

Since his days with The Virgin Prunes, Friday has travelled a staunchly independent path, with many backwoods encounters with the world of film. His successive influences in pop, cabaret and film are all to be heard evenly matured in a new auditory genre Friday and McCabe are calling ambient poetry. Five interlocked movements form the body of the Sonata – from Banna Strand, Congo and Peru to Ammersee and Pentonville. In other words, key meridians along Casement’s lifeline that conduct the dramatic story arc of his existence. Functioning as one giant flashback after capture on Banna Strand -– much like Citizen Kane (and didn’t Welles also attempt to film Heart of Darkness?) – the Sonata zooms you sonically back to African jungles of the 1890s, forward again to Peruvian rainforests in 1910, onward to a Bavarian lake during the military stalemate of 1915, before finally landing us in Pentonville prison where Casement arrives at a final vision of transcendence, imagining his burial at Murlough Bay along the Antrim coast, in view of Celtic Scotland.

The Casement Sonata is a classically designed sonic work that would make an album on its own, filed alongside Jim Morrison’s American Prayer. A radio interlude, reflecting the fact that Sackville Street witnessed the world’s first radio broadcast during Easter Week, comes between Ammersee and Pentonville, simply entitled Easter Rising (also John Huston’s original title for an unmade film on the subject). A bonus track not appearing in the main installation, you’ll be the first to read it below. The Casement Sonata, which ran until last Sunday at the Hugh Lane Gallery, is one of the strangest and rarest gifts offered up this centenary year.

Malcolm MacClancy is a writer and lyricist with cult band Interference. His poetry has appeared in Agenda, The London Review and Poetry Ireland Review. His debut volume After Hours is forthcoming (Dublin: Silkenbeard Press).

Radio Interlude

Easter Rising

The mirror ripples from the single stone of your life.
In the dream gourd of the skull now see
Sackville Street in smithereens, rumour riding
Ireland like a nightmare, the red glare at night
And sunlight burning on the Liffey like armour.
Great-breasted Calliope with her magic grammar
Troubles the darkness into song: the Aud lies wrecked
At the bottom of the water, while here clouds of dust
And smoke consume Kelly's tackle shop, the DBC café,
Hopkins & Hopkins, jewellers, and the Imperial Hotel.
Elsewhere, Jutland and Verdun grumble and thunder
While here the dead horse stiffens on the empty street.
Elsewhere, time is streaming away, but here the past lingers
Like Pompeii graffiti. Time moves slowly through you
As Hector is dragged through the dust and debris.
This train, or the other one, begins to move.
I don't know whether I'm coming or going.
A dream or sword opens my flesh above the dark pool.
I have walked through history to the other side.
Aeneas, Odysseus, drifting on the same sea.

Almost a life, not quite a death, an Ireland
Of cloud swims slowly through the sky above the Post Office.
Mauser and Maxim, Lee Enfield and Lewis gun
Bark and chatter across the barricades.
The burnt-out trams and the ricochets,
Imagine these too, as the moon lies oystered in cloud.
O in the book of my soul now I read
How those Amazonian solitudes have led
To this strange desert, this barbarous tongue.
Sackville Street is speaking in flames, in smithereens
And dead language poetry where English ends.
This interrupted dream of life, the wandering planets
Have already forgotten this lost world
But the future too can be remembered.
Time moves slowly through you as the Liffey
Rivering with pain reaches the sea.
An Ireland of cloud swimming slowly through the sky,
I wake with the taste of Gaelic in my mouth.
Aeneas, Odysseus, drifting on the same sea.
I have walked through the other side of history.

From The Casement Sonata,
Words: Friday & McCabe