Brazil has football and, in the way that gifts align, Ireland has poetry
Curating A Deeper Country: the latest edition of Belfast’s Poetry Jukebox honours CS Lewis
Emily Murtagh from Kilkenny and Eleanor Hooker from Tipperary
When I got the invitation from Maria McManus to be co-curator of A Deeper Country for the Poetry Jukebox project, I knew there was no way I’d turn it down. It was impossible at that time in late 2018 to know that the poets Sophie Segura and Ian Duhig will have poems in close proximity in the final choice of poems. I certainly could not know that the haunting, liminal lyricism of Deirdre Cartmill and Anne Casey would converge in the quest for the deeper aspects. With the exception of Ian Duhig, I was engaging with the works of every poet in the final selection for the very first time.
What I knew for sure from the start was that there would be poetry because Ireland and poetry have become collocated in world literature. Think poetry and think Ireland. It is no cliche. Think Ireland and think her poets. There is a poetic progeny out of Ireland that is everywhere present on the planet today. Brazil has football and, in the way that gifts align, poetry has Ireland. In my neck of the tropical woods as in much of the world today, the image of Ireland and poetry is of an endless spiral of double helixes. Imagination and thought, speech and silences, piety and perfidy, beauty and ashes, deep calm and troubles.
The theme of this edition of the Poetry Jukebox, A Deeper Country, is in honour of the life and works of one of mankind’s deepest minds revealed in modern times, the poet Clive Staples Lewis. From my teenage years I’d been drawn to this singular mind. The clarity of his moral vision, the plumb of his thoughts, the range of his language, his wry humour, his circle of friends. The last aspect of his prodigiously productive life that I became familiar with was his poetry – full of searching as it is of a mindfulness before all fads. Poetry of disciplined musicality and distinct muscularity. I said yes again. Here was a chance to gun beyond binaries, into the Deeper Country that Lewis spent a great deal of his time on Earth describing.
When Maria McManus turned in the sheaf of poems recorded in the poets’ own voices, there was the expected range of interests, the anticipated felicities and the bounty of poetry destined to surprise the hearer. Still, Maria warned me to brace myself for the occasional odd crab in the basket. At least one recording came across that way.
I should pause to say that though I live in the midst of a thriving oral culture in which poetry is the dominant form of artistic expression in most of the over 200 languages of my country, this was a novel experience for me. Technology had made possible what could only have been a dream in the lifetime of CS Lewis himself. They came from all over the world. There was variety in tone and texture, plurality in the haul.
The actual job of choosing the 20 poems that would be exhibited was tougher than I expected. There were many brilliant poems that sadly couldn’t be featured because they didn’t come into the orbit of the theme for this particular curation. I do hope the poets will find homes for these in the future. It was also tough because it was like a blind audition. The voices and their inflections registered but not the demeanour.
Andrew Roycroft’s Common Places was a natural fit for the theme. It established a form of common ground for seekers. It granted access, much like that door into the other, deeper dimension. Lewis himself gave the Deeper Country a name, Narnia. More than one poet seized that key but Marion Clarke’s poem turned it expertly to let in the surprise. The percipient choices of Eleanor Hooker in her poem made it impossible to ignore in the gathering. Leaflight, the poem by Sven Kretzchmar, reaches into realm where light’s dalliance with natural phenomena delights and elevates.
The most common perception of what Lewis represented is seriousness. He was, indeed, a very serious mind, a focused writer with a published body of work as remarkable for the range they represent as the gravitas they possess. When I came across Kirsty Niven’s poem, Jadis, I was again reminded of the unique ways in which the seriousness of things that Lewis touched upon continues to influence writing today. Reading Lewis closely, however, one cannot fail to also note the near infinite capacity he had for joyful things and true pleasure, for dance of the spirit and grace. It was therefore a delight to encounter the poets Philip Crymble and Demi Anter, whose works picked up on these touchstones.
I digress here again to say that the first known Irishmen to set foot about 300 years ago on territory that is today Nigeria were Augustinian monks. They set up churches, health services and schools. The littoral estate they first touched in the Warri province, though known for oil and gas today, continues to retain the liturgical character of tradition while managing to provide us with some of the finest minds in the humanities in Africa. I suggest that time has not erased their initial impact. There is a way their coming over made the encounter with Lewis part of a progression through history – or eschatology.
Listening to the carefully wrought Flowers by Colin Hassard and Ricochet by Joy Fleming, the nature of entropy and atrophy comes through the subconscious to the listener. Deep inside humankind is that truth buried – that we were made for more, made of more. That it cannot be true for Guinness alone, this “moreness”. By the time the probing poem by Nicole Carter, which she titled The Shingle Shore, comes up for listening, the atmosphere is decidedly more. More assured, more satisfied. But the way in which satisfaction comes is one which the poet helps us realise – not from the unknown to the unknown but from the known to the unknown.
The stunner by Malachi Black, De Clementia, possesses heft and ease so that astonishment arrives on pneumatic wheels. Shelley Tracey reads the moments of genuine awakening like a palmist, taking time to intimate the listener of cues and clues. Bethany Ashley bends the arc of grief in Stolen so that what’s recovered is more than was lost. If we ever ran the risk of forgetting the magic of synchronicity, Emily Murtagh and Amanda Bell pitch their poems, Firebreathers and Sleepless, into the mix.
The Deeper Country is more than the sum of many parts. In the way, perhaps, that only the alchemy of poetry can approach, the entire universe is but an integer in the equation that is incomplete without you and me. What the San from the Kalahari bring to that country is as important as what the Ainu brings. We cannot discount any and expect to arrive at the tone of plenary permanence that is that Deeper Country.
Lewis possessed many virtues as a man and thinker but he remains a beacon in his conviction that creation’s redemption is incomplete without the inclusion of all - men, women, children, animals and the very planet itself. I like to imagine that the poems in the jukebox would offer Lewis those elements he so treasured, surprise and joy. They certainly did for me.
Tade Ipadeola is a Nigerian poet, essayist, translator and lawyer. In 2009 his poem, Songbird, won the Delphic Laurel in poetry and in 2013, his volume of poetry, The Sahara Testaments, won the Nigeria Prize for literature. Tade maintains a keen interest in the life and works of CS Lewis, keeping a library of the complete published works of CS Lewis and the Inklings. He lives in Ibadan, Nigeria