Wednesday, December 2, 2020


This piece first appeared in Boston Irish Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 4 (Winter 2020), p. 9.

Browsing my bookshelves a few weeks ago, I paused and pulled down
 The Coast Road, a dual-language volume by Irish-language poet Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh that I first read shortly after its publication by Gallery Books in December of 2016. Comprising translations from thirteen Irish poets, each with her/his distinctive poetic signature in English, it is an engaging gathering from start to finish, and the forty-six poems included in the volume (forty-eight in English, as two of them are translated twice, one of those twice by the same translator) constitute a rich fabric expressing the sensibility of a “millennial” woman poet writing as Gaeilge.  (Ní Ghearbhuigh was born into an Irish-speaking family in Tralee, County Kerry in 1984.) 

Revisiting the book almost four years later, I was reminded of how the facing-page translations of Ní Ghearbhuigh’s poems actively invite even a non-Gaeilgeoir like myself to pay notice to the poems as they were originally written. One in particular caught my attention by way of translator Justin Quinn’s handling of a specific line.  The poem is titled “Filleadh ar an gCathair,” which Quinn translates as “Back to the City.”  Fair enough: my foclóir (dictionary) confirms that filleadh translates literally as “return” and cathair as “city.”  I was perplexed, though, by Quinn’s decision to translate the phrase “Faoiseamh a gheobhadsa” in the final stanza not literally (“Relief I will take”) but as a highly conspicuous literary borrowing: “And peace comes dropping slow.”  Obviously, this phrase is lifted directly from the first line of the second stanza of William Butler Yeats’s iconic poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”: “And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.”

Asking myself by what sort of license a translator would do that, I was pleased to discover the answer in Ní Ghearbhuigh’s own translation of the poem she executed when it was named Ireland’s European Union Presidency Poem in 2013.  (It was also shortlisted in 2015 for RTÉ’s “A Poem for Ireland” competition.)  In her version in English, which differs line by line from Quinn’s anyway, she actually leaves “Faoiseamh a gheobhadsa” untranslated . . . a decision which led me to learn that the exact phrase is the title, and the first line, of a poem by celebrated mid-twentieth-century Irish-language poet Máirtín Ó Direáin.  Translated into English most recently by Frank Sewell, Ó Direáin’s poem appears to be a simple lyric expressing the longing for home of an Aran Islander unhappily transplanted to Dublin:


Peace I’ll find
For a short while 

Among my people
On a sea island, 

Walking the shore 

Morning and evening 

Monday to Saturday 

     Home in the West. 


But is Ní Ghearbhuigh’s interpolation of Ó Direáin’s line into her poem as simple as it seems?  A quarter-century ago, Irish-language poet Nuala Ní Dhomnaill explained in an essay published in the New York Times Book Review the richness of the linguistic medium she works in: “Irish is a language of enormous elasticity and emotional sensitivity; of quick and hilarious banter and a welter of references both historical and mythological; it is an instrument of imaginative depth and scope, which has been tempered by the community for generations until it can pick up and sing out every hint of emotional modulation that can occur between people.” Indeed, just as Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh herself “references” Ó Direáin’s poem, translator Quinn recognizes that Ó Direáin is probably referencing Yeats’s poem.


In fact, the thematic sensibility of Ó Direáin’s poem aligns very neatly with Yeats’s.  In his Autobiographies, Yeats, who had been “very homesick in London,” recalls how his poem was prompted in 1890 when “walking through Fleet Street . . . I heard a tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water.  From the sudden remembrance came my poem Innisfree. . . .”  A half-century later, Ó Direáin evidently feels just as lost in Dublin, and his poem “Faoiseamh a gheobhadsa,” whose title Sewell translates simply as “Peace,” seems to involve on Ó Direáin’s part a conscious dovetailing with “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”  (Celtic Studies scholar Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith has written about the deep cultural implications of this nexus in a fine article published in the journal Scottish Studies.)


Thus directing readers not only to Ó Direáin’s poem, where the speaker imagines the comforting familiarity of his community on Inis Mór (the largest of the Aran Islands) but also to Yeats’s poem, written deep in the London suburb of Bedford Park where the speaker finds solace in memories from his teen years of an idyllic setting in County Sligo’s Lough Gill, Ní Ghearbhuigh’s speaker, far from the madding crowd that Ó Direáin and Yeats both long to escape, actually misses desperately, and projects her return to, the vitality to be found in the heart of a city.  The poem opens this way in Quinn’s translation:


Tonight I’m coming back.

I taste the city’s sweat around me,

And it tastes good.


The whole thing’s present tense,

And heat throbs from its walls

In the late afternoon.


Apparently the city in question is Bordeaux in France, where Ní Ghearbhuigh spent meaningful time betwixt and between her studies.  How millennial is that?  


And how telling about the state of contemporary poetry written in Irish is her “talking back” to the sentiment of poems by such eminent precursors as Yeats and Ó Direáin?  Titling her New York Times Book Review essay “Why I Choose to Write in Irish, The Corpse That Sits Up and Talks Back,” Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill concluded by quoting in its entirety her best-known poem, “Ceist Na Teangan”—literally “the language question” but translated deftly by Paul Muldoon as “The Language Issue.”  Valuing the distinct spirit expressible only by the Irish language, the poet inscribes her desperate hope for the future of that spirit in terms of the Old Testament story of the infant Moses abandoned in a basket “amidst / the sedge / and bulrushes by the edge / of a river”: poetry in Irish, she suggests, is the basket that, having been “borne hither and thither,” may eventually end up “in the lap . . . / of some Pharaoh’s daughter.” Indisputably, Ní Dhomhnaill was (and continues to be) such a daughter.


By the evidence of The Coast Road, Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh is too, a status and a stature affirmed by Ní
Dhomhnaill herself in 2017 when she presented to Ní Ghearbhuigh the so-called “Parnell Stick” that Seamus Heaney had presented to her in 1998. (Cut in Avondale Wood by Irish Parliamentary Party leader Charles Stewart Parnell in 1889 or 1890, this ferruled whitethorn walking stick at some point came into the hands of novelist Brinsley MacNamara who at some point passed it on to poet W. R. Rodgers who relayed it to politician and historian Conor Cruise O’Brien who presented it to Heaney. Someday Ní Ghearbhuigh will recognize another writer in turn by passing that baton, as it were, of honor.)  Clearly, Ní Dhomhnaill saw and heard in Ní Ghearbhuigh’s millennial poems that vibrant spirit—that élan vital, perhaps—expressed in “Filleadh ar an gCathair”/“Back to the City”:

 But neon signs

light up the strangest corners

of my heart.


And peace comes dropping slow

on the moonlit window ledge,

my ear lulled to the traffic’s song.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020


This piece first appeared in Boston Irish Magazine, Volume 1, Number 3 (Autumn 2020), p. 15.

 Outside of the larger-than-life figure of Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967), County Monaghan has produced only a handful of poets whose work is known and read widely. The most notable of these include Mary O’Donnell and Aidan Rooney. Also a prolific writer of novels and short stories, O’Donnell has published a half-dozen books of poems. Rooney, who teaches at Thayer Academy just south of Boston, has just published his third book, Go There, with Massachusetts-based MadHat Press.


Caitríona Ní Chléirchín is thus a rara avis in more ways than one. First of all, she is Monaghan born and bred. More precisely, she hails from Gortmoney, a townland of Emyvale, a village of about 700 residents located on the N2 about halfway between Monaghan Town and Aughnacloy, County Tyrone. The village’s previous claim to literary fame is as the setting for “The Fair of Emyvale,” a melodramatic short story published by Tyrone native William Carleton in The Illustrated London Magazine in 1853. (Carleton lived in the vicinity of Emyvale between 1814 and 1816. Residing with relatives in Derrygola in the parish of Donagh, he passed what he remembers as “the most delightful period of my youth” while attending a “classical school” conducted by his cousin in Glennon in the neighboring parish of Truagh.) Adding to those distinctions, Ní Chléirchín writes in Irish.


The author of two books of poems published as GaeilgeCrithloinnir (2010) and An Bhrídeach Sí (2014)—she recently launched with The Gallery Press a facing-page dual-language volume, The Talk of the Town. Translated by Gallery publisher Peter Fallon, the thirty-five poem selection introduces to English-language readers a poetic voice that is both engaging and intriguing. As the title poem makes clear, Ní Chléirchín writes as a “millennial” woman. Titled “Corgarnach” in Irish, which means “whispering,” the poem laments the plight of a woman—everywoman—who is constantly being scrutinized, evaluated, objectified:

From time to time I just

get tired of being a woman,

the cuts to the chase I’ve to put

up with, and then inattention.

Made to feel self-conscious by the gaze of others (perhaps not just the male gaze), and by the whispering too, she becomes the object of even her own harsh judgment:

I’m tired of how my face

feels, and my fingertips,

my hair, my waist,

my very hips.


Yet Ní Chléirchín also shows how poetry with a contemporary sensibility can still stand on the shoulders of a long tradition of poetry written in Irish. That tradition includes dánta grádha—love poems—and there are love poems go leor in The Talk of the Town: poems of lost love and longing, of abandoned love and regret, of new love and of love renewed. Tellingly, the very titles of many of these poems resonate with the spirit of Douglas Hyde’s famous dual-language compilation of dánta grádha originally published in 1893, Love Songs of Connacht: “Drumshark (The Ridge of Love),” “My Man of the Sea,” “When You Go From Me,” “I Went Out to Find You.” Inevitably some of them even deploy tropes that recur in the poems translated by Hyde: in “Tar Liom, a Ghrá,” for example, translated as “Come Away with Me, Darling,” Ní Chléirchín locates the emotion of the poem in a bucolic landscape steeped deep in the pastoral romantic conventions of an earlier time:


Come away with me, darling,

out into the fields, into spring

pasture. We’ll make a reed bed

in a hollow and lie there a while

under a sky loud with birds’ singing.


In contrast, in “Taom”/“Swell” the speaker is unambiguously contemporary in her dismissal of a former love interest:


Don’t come within a mile

of me, nor lay 

a hand near me. Don’t say

a single word to me.

Don’t cry out.

Don’t even throw an eye my way.


Ní Chléirchín also includes several poems centered on the loss of her beloved mother, Vonnie. The most overt of these is “Capall Bán”/“The Old Grey Mare,” in which she engages myth in giving her dying mother permission to “cross / the threshold, for to cross / the threshold you’re fated”:


That’s the all of it, my dearest,

and the old grey will transport you well

when you go to those Elysian Fields

where a tear has yet to fall.


Her mother is also present in the six-poem sequence titled “Trasnú na Teorann”/“Border Crossing” which reflects the proximity of Emyvale to the border with Northern Ireland where she was born. Many readers will recognize the poet’s nod toward Seamus Heaney in Peter Fallon’s literal translation of the opening lines of the first poem: “Whatever you say / say . . .” Describing her mother as “a huddle of worry, a bundle of bother, / and struggling to banish the dread // of the ‘Big Shed’ at the border,” Ní Chléirchín expresses, like Heaney before her, the sense of personal violation that the checkpoint represents. For the poet and her family it is, moreover, a site of cultural violation: “That was no place for laughter, or Irish music or— / indeed—Irish itself. The sweetest sound was silence.”


In some ways stylistically anomalous in the overall collection, Ní Chléirchín’s poem remembering a ceremonial reading of poems at the grave of Patrick Kavanagh in Inniskeen actually invites the reader to pay heed to how so many poems in The Talk of the Town are, like Kavanagh’s, grounded in Monaghan, the “land of the little hills.” The Irish name for Emyvale is Scairbh na gCaorach; for Gortmoney it is Gort na Móna. Kavanagh once wrote: “Naming . . . is the love-act and its pledge.” In a single poem, Ní Chléirchín names—actually incants—townlands and villages and parishes intimately familiar to her as she searches for a lost love: Derrygassan, Derryshillagh, Derryhee, Dernashallog, Ternaneill, Blue Bridge, Ballyoisin, Inishdevlin, Donagh, Castle Leslie, Lisboy, Coracrin, Cornacrieve. The reader is with her every loving step of the way.


Not surprisingly, Ní Chléirchín’s writing in Irish has earned significant recognition: Crithloinnir won first prize in the Oireachtas competition for new writers in 2010, and An Bhrídeach Sí was joint winner of the prestigious Michael Hartnett Poetry Award in 2014. Affirming “a poet with a mature confident voice,” the judges’ citation for the Hartnett Award noted: “Her mastery of Irish and sense of being at home in both tradition and modernity is evident throughout the book, in poems set in the seventeenth century, poems framed by Gaelic mythology and in intensely personal lyrics. The poems are full of passion and also quiet reflection on life and love and death.” All of this rings true to the rich gathering of poems translated in The Talk of the Town.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020


This piece first appeared in Boston Irish Magazine, Volume 1, Number 2 (Summer 2020), p. 10.

In 1938, the year before he died, preeminent Irish poet William Butler Yeats spelled out in his valedictory poem “Under Ben Bulben” explicit instructions for the epitaph he wished to have cut into the slab of local limestone that would mark his grave:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by.

Ironically, given that his intention was to turn on its head the Roman entreaty of Sta viator—“Halt, traveler”—commonly found on roadside graves in old Italy, Yeats’s stoic directive has become a summons to his legion of admiring readers and other literary tourists to do just the opposite of what he commanded. Located in Drumcliff churchyard in County Sligo, his grave is probably the most frequently visited in all of Ireland. A couple of years ago I made the pilgrimage there myself . . . and not for the first time.

Will the grave of Seamus Heaney, the only other Irish poet whose popularity and name recognition rival Yeats’s, likewise become a must-see tourist site?  Born in 1939, the year that Yeats died, Heaney emerged as a promising poet in the mid-1960s then rose to prominence in the 1970s and to fame in the ’80s.  In 1995 he was awarded, like Yeats before him, the Nobel Prize for literature, the judges honoring him for his “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”  He died in late August of 2013 and was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in his home village of Bellaghy in south County Derry.  Thanks to the opening in 2016 of The Homeplace, a former Royal Ulster Constabulary police station in Bellaghy converted into an arts centre dedicated to his writing and his life, Heaney’s final resting place may indeed become a destination.  I visited his grave in 2016 to pay my respects to a writer and a man whom I have admired greatly since first encountering his poetry in 1978, before he had become “famous Seamus.”

I was reminded of that visit recently when I read a particularly fine poem included in Go There (MadHat Press), a rich new volume by County Monaghan native Aidan Rooney.  The author of two previous books of poems, Day Release (2000) and Tightrope (2007), Rooney is a longtime resident of Massachusetts, where he teaches at Thayer Academy in Braintree.  An unabashed admirer of Heaney, Rooney not only traveled to Dublin for his funeral but also followed his funeral cortège northward to Bellaghy for his interment. His experience in the cemetery prompted a poem that he titled simply “In a Country Churchyard.”

For seasoned readers of poetry, that title will call to mind Thomas Gray’s iconic “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” from 1751, a somber meditation on human mortality.  “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,” Gray intones in the opening stanza, “The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea, / The plowman homeward plods his weary way, / And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”  As Heaney’s friend and fellow Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz once wrote in a poem, “One clear stanza can take more weight / Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose.” Composed not in Gray’s precisely measured and strictly rhymed quatrains (32 of them, no less) but in four supple blank verse six-line stanzas, Rooney’s poem is likewise built to carry its thematic weight, and it is built to last.

While dedicated to the memory of Seamus Heaney, Rooney’s poem actually has at its focal center the aging unnamed gravedigger in St. Mary’s cemetery whose son, also a gravedigger, confides in the poet that Heaney’s burial will be his father’s last day on the job: “We want him to go out on a high note,” the son explains.  But this is unbeknownst to the father: “We haven’t told him yet, the son disclosed, / but will when all the fuss is over.”  The attuned reader might recognize that Rooney himself is recognizing common ground (as it were) between the recently deceased poet and the elder gravedigger. This is hinted at in the first stanza when, describing how the younger gravedigger stood with “his right foot on the left lug of a spade,” Rooney makes a deft allusion via that word “lug” to Heaney’s most famous poem, “Digging,” the first poem in his first volume of poems, Death of a Naturalist (1966).  In that poem of succession from father to son, Heaney remembers with a precise eye how adeptly his “old man” handled a spade to dig potatoes on the family farm: “The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft / Against the inside of the knee was levered firmly.”  Rooney’s Heaney-esque deploying of the Ulster dialect word “fornenst” in the second stanza—in this context meaning “alongside” or “near”—offers another linguistic link between the poet and the senior gravedigger: “His father sat fornenst the opened plot, / on a stone wall the sun going down lit up.”

By the third stanza, Rooney becomes more explicit in equating the two men when, suddenly seeing the father from the perspective of the son who will carry on the family operation of helping to bury the dead, he casts the soon-to-be-retired gravedigger as a stand-in for Heaney:

His father’s hair, as the poet’s used to, glowed
in a sudden, sideways burst of sunshine.
Magnesium burning. And would not let up
no matter the light. Or the light dying.

To his credit, however, Rooney resists any temptation to follow Heaney’s lead, which famously involved transforming the farm implements of his forefathers—the spade for digging spuds, the sleán for cutting turf—into a metaphor: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.”  (Yeats used a similar trope in his poem “Pardon, old fathers,” apologizing that “I have nothing but a book, / Nothing but that to prove your blood and mine.”)

Rooney’s poem ends instead with a striking description of how the son fills in the poet’s grave by tipping from a mechanized digger’s bucket a load of shingle scooped and transported from Lough Neagh, which figures so prominently in Heaney’s poetry.  (Aptly, with a surface area of more than 150 square miles, Lough Neagh touches on five of the six counties of Heaney’s native Northern Ireland.)  The gravel cascading “like the wall of a waterfall,” the speaker in the poem—ostensibly Rooney himself—watches the son as “He watched his father through its thinning veil / get up to get the shovel and the rake.”  Still unaware that this will be his final burial, unaware of “the sun going down” on his undertaking, of “the light dying” on his shock of white hair, the older man persists, as did Heaney with his pen, in taking up the trusty tools of his trade.

In mid-August of 2015, a little less than two years after Seamus Heaney’s death, the wooden cross that temporarily marked his grave was replaced by a simple headstone of Kilkenny blue limestone inscribed with words from his poem “The Gravel Walks”: WALK ON AIR AGAINST YOUR BETTER JUDGEMENT.  Heaney once explained that line in an interview: “My poetry on the whole was earth-hugging, but then I began to look up rather than keep down.  I think it had to do with a sense that the marvellous was as permissible as the matter-of-fact in poetry.”  Less a directive than an invitation, his epitaph may prove as much of a summons to readers to visit Bellaghy as Yeats’s is to visit Drumcliff.  And a summons to visit his poetry as well.

Friday, March 27, 2020


This piece first appeared on the website of Boston Irish Magazine, March 2020

Moving as easily between color and black and white as he moved from analog to digital when that technology shift came, Dublin photographer Fionán O’Connell has snapped literally tens of thousands of photos over a career, amateur and professional, now spanning more than four decades.  His stunning recent work can be sampled on his nicely-maintained website:

But not long ago I happened upon a cache of fifty or so of his older photos dating back to the 1990s, all of them analog, all of them black and white, most of them printed on 6.5 x 8.5-inch semi-matte paper.  Flicking through them, I found myself coming back, over and over again, to an observation, or an assertion, made by iconic American photographer Walker Evans: “Fine photography is literature, and it should be.”

I assume that what Evans meant by that was akin to the well-worn saws that “every picture tells a story” and “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  But much deeper.  As I riffled through those old photos, two of them in particular rose from the cache, like trick cards in a magician’s deck, as if to prove Evans’s point.

One, dated 1998 and captioned “Belvedere College, S.J.,” is intrinsically “literary” in my eyes thanks to Belvedere’s most celebrated alumnus, James Joyce.  The famous author’s relationship with Belvedere has been explored both at length and in depth by Joyce scholars (most notably by Kevin Sullivan in his book Joyce Among the Jesuits and by Bruce Bradley, S.J. in his book James Joyce’s Schooldays), yet O’Connell’s photo engages not with “Joyce’s Belvedere” per se: as an alumnus himself, and as a former teacher at the school and the father of a recent graduate, O’Connell has his own claim on Belvedere.

In fact, focusing on a seemingly innocuous detail of the College’s physical space—a wooden sash cord pull and a chain mechanism illuminated by natural light from a round-arched window—his photo registers a spirit of place that not just Joyce but truly anyone who has haunted the hallowed hallways and the classrooms of the College might have experienced and absorbed: a subliminal yet indelible imprinting of Belvedere as physical space.  (Incidentally, other alumni of distinction include poets and writers Austin Clarke, Denis Devlin, Liam O’Flaherty and Mervyn Wall, historians Tim Pat Coogan and Owen Dudley Edwards, artist Harry Clarke and iconic photographer Fr. Francis Browne, celebrated classical pianist John O’Conor, Abbey Theatre co-founder William Fay, nationalist heroes Kevin Barry, Cathal Brugha, and Joseph Mary Plunkett, businessman and rugby star Tony O’Reilly, and former Taoiseach of Ireland Garret Fitzgerald.)  

What makes this shot so interesting to me is first of all that it represents a variation on what I call O’Connell’s “peripheral vision”—his method of registering with his camera lens essentially what an individual might glimpse, fleetingly and subconsciously, out of the corner of his/her eye.  Set at the edge of a dark background but also centered in the left half of the photo, that lathe-turned cord pull becomes the memorable focal point of the overall image: it enters the viewer’s consciousness just as subtly yet also just as certainly as it would enter the consciousness of a typical Belvedere schoolboy.  A masterful photograph can guide the viewer’s eye just that way.

But what compounds my interest is, of course, the Joycean element: in an intriguing (yet also coincidental) way, O’Connell’s photographic art shares certain aspects of Joyce’s narrative technique of “stream of consciousness”—“interior monologue” without authorial filtering—that he employs at times in Ulysses.  Add to this the fact that Belvedere College is the setting for most of Chapters II, III, and IV of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man . . . and that in Chapter IV Joyce has the eye of his character Stephen Dedalus drawn to a different sort of window cord during his consequential interview with the director of vocations at Belvedere: “The director stood in the embrasure of the window, his back to the light, leaning an elbow on the brown crossblind, and, as he spoke and smiled, slowly dangling and looping the cord of the other blind, Stephen stood before him, following for a moment with his eyes the waning of the long summer daylight above the roofs or the slow deft movements of the priestly fingers.  The priest’s face was in total shadow, but the waning daylight from behind him touched the deeply grooved temples and the curves of the skull.” Obviously, my reading of that photo through a Joycean lens takes very literally Walker Evans’s notion of photography as “literature.”  

The other photo that caught my eye has its own story to tell.  Titled on the back “My Parents’ Bedroom,” it is a simple domestic interior—spartan, really—comprising three basic elements: the headboard of a bed, two splashes of sunlight thrown on the wall through an awning-style window (note the shadows cast by its levers), and a crucifix.  As with the Belvedere photograph, the art of this one is determined by O’Connell’s utilization of what photographers call “available light” to direct the viewer’s eye within the frame of the photo: already made conspicuous by being located off-center in the shot, the crucifix is made even more eye-catching by being half-shadowed, in effect bisected by the streaming sunlight.  As the ultimate focus of the entire image, it is also the crux (as it were) of the “story”—the “literary” dimension—implicit in the photo.

And that story involves that most intimate space—the bedroom—of O’Connell’s parents.  Ernest Hemingway has famously described one of his writing practices in terms that seem to apply here: “If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show.”  A symbolic expression of private religious belief, the crucifix in the photo is, in literary lingo, a synecdoche—a part of the photographer’s parents’ shared intimacy that represents the whole of that intimacy.  Another iconic American photographer, Diane Arbus, once remarked: “A photograph is a secret about a secret.  The more it tells you the less you know.”  As in a Hemingway narrative, much is left to the viewer’s inference or intuition.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019


This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 30, Number 5 (May 2019), p. 5.

Several years ago, I used as the epigraph on the syllabus of my Recent Irish Writing course this wonderful observation by Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes: “The English language has always been alive and kicking, and if it ever becomes drowsy, there will always be an Irishman.” I thought of that quotation recently as I read Pedro Páramo, a short novel by another Mexican writer, Juan Rulfo (1918-1986).  My interest in the novel, first published in Spanish in 1955, was piqued in part by my understanding that it may have been influenced by Rulfo’s reading of James Joyce.  Reading Rulfo, I was definitely on the lookout for affinities between Pedro Páramo and Joyce’s “damned monster novel” (as he described it)—Ulysses.

I read the text of Rulfo’s novel before I read Susan Sontag’s Foreword to the translation by Margaret Sayers Peden.  When I did read Sontag, I was struck by how closely her description of the novel’s central concern resonated with the Joycean affinities I had scribbled down in my readerly notetaking: “The novel’s premise—a dead mother sending her son out into the world, a son’s quest for his father—mutates into a multivoiced sojourn in hell.”  As readers of Joyce know, the opening episode of 
Ulysses, “Telemachus,” reintroduces Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of Joyce’s earlier novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  Having returned to Dublin from a brief sojourn in Paris to keep vigil at his dying mother’s bedside, Stephen remains conflicted almost a year later by the memory of his mother: “Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes.”  Just pages later, the character Haines attempts to engage Stephen in an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “The Son striving to be atoned with the Father.

Of course, each of these references could be read simply as a common literary motif or trope.  But the further I read in Pedro Páramo the more I was reminded of an admission made by Stephen in “Nestor,” the second episode of Ulysses. Remembering Haines’s casual remark that “It seems history is to blame” for political friction between Ireland and Britain, Stephen explains himself to the officious headmaster of the school where he teaches: “History . . . is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”  As the novel unfolds, the reader discovers that for Stephen—and likewise for his co-protagonist, Leopold Bloom—“history” is not just general (political, economic, social, cultural, and so on) but personal.  Ditto for Juan Preciado, the protagonist of Pedro Páramo.  Late in Rulfo’s novel, the reader recognizes that some of the action channels La Cristiada, the Cristero Rebellion of 1926-29, as well as the earlier Mexican Revolution of 1910-20.  But much of the novel focuses not on those events but on Juan’s “personal” history relative to his mother, his father, and the lost world—the ghost town—of Comala.  And it is really in Rulfo’s inscription of Juan Preciado’s search for his father that Pedro Páramo resonates most meaningfully with Joyce’s Ulysses.

The theme of “the nightmare of history” permeates Ulysses, but two episodes in particular speak tellingly to Rulfo’s narrative.  The first of these is the sixth episode, “Hades,” in which Leopold Bloom, attending the burial of his friend Paddy Dignam in Glasnevin Cemetery, effectively makes the same descent into the underworld that Odysseus makes in Homer’s The Odyssey, the text that provides Joyce with the elaborate scaffolding for his narrative.  Tracing the route of Dignam’s funeral cortège across Dublin, Joyce invites the alert reader to recognize that the various statues and monuments commemorating Irish political figures that line the city’s thoroughfares—Sir Philip Crampton, William Smith O’Brien, Daniel O’Connell, Sir John Gray, Lord Nelson, Charles Stewart Parnell—represent not just a sampling from “the catalogue of Dublin’s street furniture” (a fine phrase Joyce coined in Stephen Hero, a rough draft of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) but a manifestation of how history—the past, memory of the past—constantly infiltrates the mind and the imagination of the individual.  (In the Homeric parallel, these figures also have their counterparts in The Odyssey.)

Obviously, Joyce continues this conceit within the grounds of the cemetery itself, referring overtly to O’Connell’s grave and Parnell’s grave.  Relative to Rulfo, however, the more significant passages in “Hades” are those describing first the stonecutter’s yard and then Prospect Cemetery that the cortège passes en route to Glasnevin: 

The stonecutter’s yard on the right. . . .  Crowded on the spit of land silent shapes appeared, white, sorrowful, holding out calm hands, knelt in grief, pointing.  Fragments of shapes, hewn.  In white silence: appealing.

The high railings of Prospect rippled past their gaze.  Dark poplars, rare white forms.  Forms more frequent, white shapes thronged amid the trees, white forms and fragments streaming by mutely, sustaining vain gestures on the air.

In her Foreword to Pedro Páramo, Susan Sontag quotes Rulfo as saying that the structure of his novel is “made of silences, of hanging threads, of cut scenes, where everything occurs in a simultaneous time which is a no-time.”  In Leopold Bloom’s case, the public memory associated with the statues and the monuments eventually gives way to his private memory of his father who committed suicide and his son Rudy who died in infancy.  In Juan Preciado’s case, countlessfigures from the past, their names mere whispers, populate the ghost town that his dead father still presides over.

And that brings me to the other episode of Ulysses that I believe informs Pedro Páramo both thematically and structurally: that is the fifteenth episode, “Circe.”  Fortunately for his boundless legion of readers, Joyce shared with three friends—Carlos Linati, Herbert Gorman, and Stuart Gilbert—complementary versions of a schema in which he labels the episode’s “Technic” as “Vision animated to bursting point” or, more simply, “Hallucination.”  Many Joyce scholars agree that the term “phantasmagoria” is also apt to describe the effect of “Circe.”  While Rulfo’s novel does not resemble “Circe” stylistically (Joyce’s text is written on the page in the form of an expressionistic drama, as if intended to be performed on stage), it nonetheless shares with this climactic episode of Ulysses the idea that the individual carries within himself or herself an elaborate personal “nightmare of history” that needs to be awakened from.  No less than the vast cast of characters encountered by Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom in “Circe,” the elusive and spectral figures encountered by Juan Preciado in Pedro Páramo represent forces—some in his consciousness, some in his subconscious—that he must engage with, confront, and subdue.

For Stephen Dedalus the awakening from the nightmare is dramatic and emphatic, taking place when, rejecting the phantasmagoric specter of his mother, he declares: “The intellectual imagination!  With me all or not at all.  Non serviam!”  He then punctuates his declaration by smashing a chandelier with his ashplant.  For Bloom the awakening is poignant, coming in his vision of his son as a changeling—a fairy child—fulfilling his father’s dream in an alternative world.  For Juan Preciado, whose return to Comala has led him into the collective unconscious of a community ravaged and then decimated by the sins of his father, the awakening occurs in the last sentence of Pedro Páramo, in his vision of his father brought low by his inability to escape “the nights that filled the darkness with phantoms” of his deplorable past: “He fell to the ground with a thud, and lay there, collapsed like a pile of rocks.”

Saturday, December 15, 2018


This review first appeared in New Hibernia Review, Volume 22, Number 3 (Autumn 2018), 147-49.

A lyric poet by nature, Tom French concluded his fourth volume of poems, The Way to Work (Gallery Books, 2016), on an anomalous note—with a coda (his term) titled “1916” in which, provoked by the centenary celebrations of the Easter Rising, he reflects on “the gulf between the beautiful ideals read out to a handful / of rubberneckers and what has become of those ideals.” Notwithstanding the bit of international notice it gained for him in the form of an appearance on the radio program Open Source with Christopher Lydon, that poem is a pretty blunt reminder of a distinction once made by Robert Frost: “Poetry is about the grief, politics about the grievances.”

In The Last Straw (Gallery Books, 2018), French returns to his more natural pitch and register, characterized by an exactness of both word and phrase:

Everything that can be is disconnected.
        Our fire dies.  The starlings, nested
in the eaves, have settled.  We have cut
        the house adrift to sleep . . .

 He also returns to a form that he clearly feels at home in—the sonnet, mostly unrhymed and mostly deploying flexible lines that work variations on the conventional iambic pentameter pulse of that form.  Indeed, 50 of the 89 poems in The Last Straw are fourteen-liners, that formal structure (often three quatrains and a couplet but sometimes either two quatrains and two tercets or four tercets and a couplet) underscoring the rhetorical movement within any given poem.  The ending of “Tigh an Táilliúra, Carraroe” yields a typically pleasing example of French’s talent for “turning” a sonnet.  Describing in the two quatrains that open the poem how a customer in a pub suddenly “stands and dances to a jig on the radio,” French uses the final six lines to lead the reader to reflect, as he does himself, on the implications of what he witnessed:

That was thirty years ago.  I have seen
       men in the throes of dancing since,
but none like that man that morning,

who stays with me not because he was blind
       but because he did the only thing he could
when the tune came on.  He stood.  He danced.

That poem is one of a sequence, titled “After Hours,” set in pubs around Ireland.  The Last Straw includes four other sequences. In the seven poems comprising “Costa Blanca” the poet reflects both
gratefully and guiltily on the luxury of a family holiday in Spain during the current European immigrant crisis.  The fifteen poems that make up “Bank” afford a rich historical record of working a turf bank.  “Heywood” comprises seven poems recalling the poet’s education at the hands (at times literally) of the masters and the teachers at the Salesian College in Ballinakil, County Laois.  Focusing on the timepieces of two British soldiers during the Great War of 1914-18 (one of them the poet Edward Thomas), “Two Watches” engages with a subject and a theme that eventually emerge as central to the volume as a whole—in the famous words of British soldier-poet Wilfred Owen: “My subject is War, and the pity of War.  The Poetry is in the pity.

In fact, some of French’s most compelling standalone poems appear to be inspired by the spirit of Irish soldier Francis Ledwidge that lives on in that star-crossed poet’s native County Meath, where French works as an Executive Librarian specializing in Local Studies. These include the truly wonderful blank-verse sonnet “Tattie Hokers,” which draws on the story of a battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders, a Canadian regiment, pausing on the march between Amiens and Albert in October of 1916 to help a French farmer pick potatoes: “They can’t resist / stacking rifles and throwing off backpacks // to postpone death . . .”  Imagining how “Mucking in here makes it peace time briefly,” French captures the pity of war indeed in his closing tercet:

The scent of potatoes brings back the bothy,
       straw mattresses arrayed on seed boxes,
the cow house swept out for men to lie down. 

 Another, “Unidentified Farriers, Western Front,” is obviously prompted by a photograph:

They have taken time out from the slaughter
       to enjoy the banter and be photographed
by a cameraman who steps from under
       a black cloth and carries their souls away.

In this decade of centennial commemorations in Ireland, French is a rarity among contemporary poets in his commitment to validating and valuing the upwards of 300,000 Irish-born soldiers, long marginalized by politics, time and history, who served in the British Expeditionary Force during the Great War.

One of French’s great strengths as a lyric poet is his capacity to find the makings of a poem in diverse, and sometimes obscure, corners.  These include his own personal experience as in a poem like “Kilcreene,” which records an intimate moment with an aging relative undergoing treatment at the Lourdes Orthopaedic Hospital in Kilkenny. Describing how he helped the old man undress and then watched him resign himself to bed, French writes:

                   I know now this is how a god lies down.
I kiss his stubbled cheek, his handsome face,
       and bear, in shopping bags, his clothes away.

Another is “Sisyphus in Cricklewood,” which tells of an Irish émigré to London who has worked “painting the one bridge for years”:

He’d been fresh off the boat when he began.
       An old hand showed him the ropes early on
and left him to it when he’d got the hang.

       Now he does it most days with his eyes closed.
Each new year he sets out for the far bank
       and, each new year, for the far bank again. 

Another is “Church of the Resurrection, Ballinfoyle,” an intriguingly respectful—even reverent—poem in essentially post-Catholic Ireland.  Inscribing “the priest and the sister above on the altar / who would pass for a couple of ancient lovers / passing the bread and wine to one another,” French grants them a grace and a dignity inflected with not even an iota of irony:

He loves her.  She knows where everything goes.
       Now they bow to the miracle of each other,
to the tabernacle which is their kitchen cupboard.

The recipient of the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2001, the Dermot Healey Award in 2015, and the O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry in 2016, Tom French is a lyric poet of the first order. His poems are richly realized and a true pleasure to read.