New voices, old roots


Irish Poetry: Finding the individual voice is always the challenge for the poet or writer; to say things in your own way beyond yea or nay, and to leave that signature in the skull, writes Alan Titley

Louis de Paor came out of the Cork renaissance of the 1970s - one is tempted to say that there is always a Cork renaissance anyway - but never became one of the gang that came before him. While poetry should always be romantic (there never is a practical reason for the stuff), he always avoided the romanticism of the mushy line and the soft tone and the fuzzy diction. There was always something wire-taut about his work - no floss here.

His latest collection snips and cuts, and packs images of a sharply perceived world into craftwork of the highest order. The writing is rife with asides and turns and subtleties that plead reading and rereading.

'Alba', for example, in its 19 short lines, is resonant of history and religion and education and personal experience through striking images of black rain falling on the white skin of Scottish women, and blood and water being intermixed in the surface kind words of the minister. 'An tAmhránaí' seems to be about a wedding celebration, but all life is going on in a few bad strokes of a song, and the world out there invades the celebration like a canker.

This seems to be de Paor's way of working: to take the surface and rip it apart, to strip the tinsel and reveal the grot, even if it exposes beauty along the way. This dilemma is exposed in 'Máistir Dána', the dilemma of the teacher, or the poet, who sees art as "relevant" to the public sphere, but is not quite prepared for the impact of that "relevance" when it visits the world. And while he generally eschews the plainly public political poem, there is enough anger in 'Tar éis na Réabhlóide', with its image of the watery drip from the sweet mouth of the minister complaining about the weather, to give us energy for months to come. Close readings expose non- intrusive links and hints and echoes, but more joyfully he takes a chance on puns and carries it off with style.

His work could bear and profit from the kind of examination that is given to Cathal Ó Searcaigh in On the Side of Light. Ostensibly, this is a book of critical essays, but it is just as much a celebration of Ó Searcaigh's work, including as it does translations of his poems, a lengthy and uplifting interview and photographs of the poet as a gay young lad, or with his people in their place, or with international writers such as Mutsuo Takahashi, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Tomas Transtomer.

The essays are serious, scholarly and enlightening, although inevitably they contain some repetition. Frank Sewell, as one of the editors and as a translator, is one of the finest interpreters of Ó Searcaigh's poetry. He wrestles with the contradiction, as do some of the other contributors, notably Nobuaki Tochigi, of this rooted poet wandering the world in his imagination and bringing it all back home. Home is both a sanctuary and a place to escape from, a mainspring of inspiration and a flight from shadow.

There are also essays on the straight homosexual bent of his love poetry, a central element which has come to subjugate his other concerns in recent writings.

Jan Voster's photographs bring us back to that stark and bleak landscape which the words of Ó Searcaigh's poetry seem to deny. They are black-and-white shots of his moors and glens and mountains and sedgy lakes, and ruined tin roofs of abandoned houses, and trees stripped bare and cuckoo-spit streams and gashed bogs, and they are accompanied by the poet's work in prose and in verse.

They are testament to the fact that words soar and pictures sing. But their linkage is appropriate, and Ó Searcaigh's prose musings are as deepening in their enlightenment as Jan Voster's photographs are rich in their singularity.

Alan Titley is a writer and scholar. His weekly column, 'Crobhingne', appears in The Irish Times every Thursday

Agus Rud Eile De. By Louis de Paor, Coiscéim, 56pp, €5

On the Side of Light: the Poetry of Cathal Ó Searcaigh. Edited by James Doan and Frank Sewell, Arlen House, 256pp.

Caiseal na gCorr Gríanghraif/photographs by Jan Voster, Téacs/text by Cathal Ó Searcaigh. Comhairle Chontae Dhún na nGall/ Cló Iar-Chonnachta.