Saturday, October 4, 2008


This review of The Blackbird's Nest: An Anthology of Poetry from Queen's University Belfast (Blackstaff Press, 2006) first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 18, Number 1 (January 2007), p. 18.

Given that Queen’s University in Belfast now houses the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, readers of Irish poetry might be forgiven if their list of writers associated with that institution begins with its most famous alumnus. But with the publication of The Blackbird’s Nest: An Anthology of Poetry from Queen’s University Belfast, Blackstaff Press, in conjunction with the Heaney Centre, has made a move toward ensuring that the list does not end with Heaney or even with the small cohort of poets who emerged alongside him in the early 1960s or in his immediate wake. Arranged chronologically by author’s date of birth, the seventy-one poems collected by editor Frank Ormsby represent poetic activity from almost the start of the twentieth century right up to the present.

The roster of fifty-three poets is impressive: many turn out to be household names, but some are surprises. Even among the former, however, some of the poems that Ormsby selects are surprises—refreshingly so. From Heaney’s body of work, for example, the editor chooses not any of the Nobel Laureate’s signature pieces (“Digging,” “The Tollund Man,” “Punishment,” “The Harvest Bow”) but “Postscript,” which urges the reader to be pervious to “big soft buffetings” that “catch the heart off guard and blow it open,” and also “A Sofa in the Forties,” which mines a memory from Heaney’s simple childhood in rural Ulster: “All of us on the sofa in a line, kneeling / Behind each other, eldest down to youngest, / Elbows going like pistons, for this was a train // And between the jamb-wall and the bedroom door / Our speed and distance were inestimable.” While Ormsby does include Ciaran Carson’s well-known “Belfast Confetti”—“Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks, / Nuts, bolts, nails, car keys”—he picks “Hamlet” as well, a long-lined and intentionally rambling narrative poem that shows off Carson’s ventriloquial talent as a storyteller.

A pair of poets whose work tends to be both allusive and elusive, Medbh McGuckian and Paul Muldoon have two engaging poems each in the anthology. So does Michael Longley, whose sonnet “Ceasefire” universalizes the grief of Northern Ireland’s sectarian strife by dramatizing an encounter at the end of the Trojan War: “When they had eaten together, it pleased them both / To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might, / Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still / And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed: // ‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done / And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’”

In fact, one of the gratifying aspects of The Blackbird’s Nest is its representation of what Heaney (borrowing from Patrick Kavanagh) refers to in the book’s Foreword as the way that, in an academic environment, “Imagination . . . is in constant negotiation between the parish and the universe.” This is evident from the start, as the first two poems are translations from Latin by Helen Waddell, who attended Queen’s from 1908 to 1912; she was also awarded an honorary degree in 1934. Two translations from the work of twentieth-century Italian poet Eugenio Montale by Indian-born professor G. Singh have a similar sort of reach and richness. So does a pair of translations from Catalan poet Gabriel Ferrater by Arthur Terry, a former professor of Spanish at Queen’s; surely, the closing lines of “A Small War” speak as much to the troubled streets of Belfast as to anywhere else in the world: “I was young, like most who go to wars, / who are scared of the flesh, and destroy and abuse it. / All, in a word, emblematic, eternal.” A poem by History professor Sabine Wichert, apparently tapping into her growing up in post-WWII Germany, likewise looks beyond the literal walls of the University and also beyond the border of Northern Ireland.

Poems by writers who simply spent some time at Queen’s, in one capacity or another, add a further dimension to The Blackbird’s Nest. Crusty British poet Philip Larkin, who served as sub-librarian for five years in the 1950s, is represented by two poems, including the compelling “Church Going,” in which the apostate poet admits wryly, “Hatless, I take off / My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.” Writer in residence at Queen’s from 1991 to 1994, London-born Carol Rumens has a wonderful variation, couched playfully in the language of an unconsummated sexual encounter, on the Irish aisling (dream vision) tradition. Boston-born Janet Fitzpatrick Simmons, who taught for a time in the Department of English, has a poignant lament for her late husband James Simmons (who is also included in the anthology): “How could I have imagined this loss: / me standing over my beloved’s grave in the wind / that blows off the Atlantic visible from this Killult churchyard . . .?”

Hovering over (or perhaps behind) the entire anthology is the figure of British poet and professor Philip Hobsbaum, lecturer in English at Queen’s from 1962 to 1966 and founder of the legendary “Belfast Group” of writers, which included not only poets but also future playwright Stewart Parker and fiction writer Bernard MacLaverty. While making clear in his Introduction that Hobsbaum’s influence as poet was minimal, editor Frank Ormsby stresses the legacy of his organizing and hosting weekly meetings at his flat: “Literary friendships and productive rivalries developed and a number of poets progressed towards the pamphlet- and book-length collections that would make the north of Ireland one of the power points of Irish poetry and of poetry in English in the second half of the twentieth century.” Certainly Hobsbaum engineered the bridge between the few poetic pillars of the first half of the century represented in the anthology—John Hewitt and W. R. Rodgers, Robert Greacen and Roy McFadden—and those who would follow Heaney and company.

But as Ciaran Carson, Director of the Seamus Heaney Centre, suggests in his Afterword to The Blackbird’s Nest, poetry at Queen’s has never been fully institutionalized—a fact corroborated by the diversity of voices that round out the anthology. These include James Fenton, a part-time student in the 1960s, who writes in the Ulster-Scots dialect: “A fissle unther the deed, saft-hingin thatch, / A strippit shedda, a wheekin scad, / Ye jook crootched an shairp an quait / Amang the queelrods.” They also include the working-class vernacular of former University security guard John Campbell: “I’m an old jobbin’ poet, born outa my time, / if you buy me a likker, I’ll read you a rhyme. / I’m not hard to pay, a wee lager and lime . . . / If yer flyin’, I’ll take a quick half-in.” And Irish-language poets are represented by Gréagóir Ó Dúill and Cathal Ó Searchaigh, as well as by Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, whose “An Máine Gaelach” proves linguistically bold even in translation as “The Irish-speaking Mynah”:

00000Quixotic bird, tattered old sea-dog,
00000he stammered out amazing repartee
00000and drunken troopers’ curses,
00000all the passwords of the old Falls Road IRA.
00000Resting actor, stuck to the barstool
00000of his perch, a veritable Sweeney
00000tethered by his string of gabble.

The cover of The Blackbird’s Nest features an image of a single bird’s egg. Its title referencing the ninth-century Irish poem “The Blackbird of Belfast Lough,” which has afforded the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry an apt visual emblem (reproduced as a frontispiece in the book), the anthology offers only a glimpse into the poetic incubator of Queen’s University. But it is an enticing glimpse, and the nicely detailed Biographical Notes that close the book point readers toward available collections by the individual poets represented in this fine gathering.

No comments: