Wednesday, October 1, 2008


This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 17, Number 1 (January 2006), p. 20.

Decades ago, British novelist Kingsley Amis declared that “nobody wants any more poems about paintings.” I suppose he had a point, as many such exercises in translating the visual into the verbal come across as just that—mere exercises. There are notable exceptions, of course—W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” being one of them. An engagement with a marvelous piece by 16th-century Flemish painter Pieter Breughel (the Elder) depicting the fatal fall of wax-winged Icarus, Auden’s poem invites us to reflect on how “suffering”—that common denominator of the human condition—“takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Observing how in Breughel’s painting “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster” of Icarus’ headfirst plunge into the sea, his “white legs disappearing into the green / Water” while the ploughman on the clifftop above holds heedlessly to his task behind his plodding horse and the ship in the shimmering bay sails on its way, the poet affords us perspective on a particular catastrophe relative to the larger canvas of general human history.

I thought of all that recently when I happened upon a news story out of Ireland involving Tim Pat O’Donovan, a former road bowls champion who has been suspended by Bol Chumann na hÉireann for one year “for allegedly bringing the game into disrepute.” A member of the Ballinacurra Bowls Club of Midleton, Co Cork, O’Donovan is seeking a High Court injunction against BCÉ. The exact nature of O’Donovan’s transgressions were not detailed in the report I read. One can only wonder! An ancient sport, road bowls is played in Ireland primarily in the far-flung (from each other, at least) counties of Armagh and Cork. A simple-sounding game, it involves usually two players competing to see who can take the fewest throws to project a 28-ounce iron ball along a stretch of winding road around 3 miles long. Spectators place bets on the throws and on the ultimate outcome.

According to his legal counsel, O’Donovan needs to keep at the bowling to avoid going “stale.” No doubt the scales of Irish justice will weigh that case with all due deliberation. Whatever the ultimate outcome of that “contest,” the news story reminded me of a poem about road bowls published a few years ago by Cork City native Greg Delanty. The opening poem of his 1995 volume American Wake, “After Viewing The Bowling Match at Castlemary, Cloyne 1847” first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly along with a reproduction of the oil painting by Daniel MacDonald (1821-53) that triggered the poet’s musings on this pastime.

A Corkman himself, MacDonald exhibited his paintings regularly during his short lifetime, both at venues in Cork and at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin. Interestingly, when first displayed at the Cork Art Union, his depiction of road bowling, now in the permanent collection of the Crawford Municipal Art Gallery in Cork, was subjected to close scrutiny—and was given a rather severe commentary—in a review published in The Cork Examiner:

Its characteristic is floridness. It seems, in scenery and coloring, too fine for its subject. But when the artist’s judgement shall have been sobered down, somewhat, to the forcible simplicity of things as they are, we think he will be capable of a great deal. His figures on the left are well disposed, though rather too crowded, and too freshly tinted. Those on the right are very expressive and very good. The squire, or well-dressed young farmer, leaning forward, less to mark the chances of the bowl, than to put his ‘commether’ on the coquettish little peasant girls before him, is very well imagined and executed. The principal figure—yes, really, we should be much better pleased if that principal figure was left out altogether, by particular desire. The head seems arranged for an appearance on the stage, and it wears pumps—the figure, we mean. Moreover, the face is the very facsimile of a portrait in the room by the same artist. Mr. MacDonald has much to unlearn.
Seemingly, however, some of those very aspects that were grounds for complaint are among the features that drew Greg Delanty to the painting. Addressed to American visitors to Cork, the poem opens with an attempt to make the strange less strange by presenting in more familiar terms the striking get-up of MacDonald’s figures:

00000I promised to show you the bowlers
0000000out the Blarney Road after Sunday mass,
00000you were so taken with that painting
0000000of the snazzy, top-hatted peasant class
000000000all agog at the bowler in full swing,
000000000down to his open shirt, in trousers
00000as indecently tight as a baseballer’s.

Now a longtime resident of Vermont, where he teaches at St. Michael’s College, Delanty is accustomed to “translating” from one culture to the other. He even has a baseball poem, “Tagging the Stealer,” in his 2001 volume The Blind Stitch. Recalling “Home From Home,” a poem included in Southward (1992), in which the poet promises to help a visitor navigate not only the maze of streets but also the amazing talk of his native city—“the rapid slagging & knawvshawling that are / loaded with words you’ll find in no dictionary”—Delanty recognizes the need to play host in this poem as well. Like Seamus Heaney in his poem “Making Strange,” in which he plays the gracious yet self-conscious tour guide for a visitor to his native rural County Derry, Delanty proves to be both “adept and dialect.”

Indeed, he must be truly so in the second stanza which, by way of its particular diction—the language of the bowlers and the spectators themselves—takes the reader right to the action of the road bowls:

00000You would relish each fling’s span
0000000along blackberry boreens and delight
00000in a dinger of a curve throw
0000000as the bowl hurls out of sight,
000000000not to mention the earthy lingo
000000000& antics of gambling fans,
00000giving players thumbs-up or down the banks.

Ringing true to Delanty’s description in “The Fuschia Blaze,” the prefatory poem to Southward, of “my fuschia verse, / struggling to escape / the English garden / & flourish / in a wilder landscape,” the “earthy lingo” of this stanza—the Irish loanword “boreen,” the slangy “dinger,” the expressive “thumbs-up” or “down the banks”—also represents a version of what Heaney has famously celebrated as “the music of what happens.”

But that is not the only “music” in the poem. Employing a “nonce” (that is, just for this occasion) stanza of seven lines rhyming abcbcaa, Delanty reworks the scene of MacDonald’s painting in a form that is, in its own way, expressive of “what happens”—or of what happens next. Just slightly off-kilter by way of its irregular rhyme scheme and just slightly off-key by way of half-rhymes like span-fans-banks, the poem admits that sport—whether road bowling or “baseballing”—is a crucial social diversion from the darkness that lurks just beyond the frame, literal or metaphorical, temporal or spatial. What happens next in the poem may surprise some readers:

00000It’s not just to witness such shenanigans
0000000for themselves, but to be relieved
00000from whatever lurks in our day’s background,
0000000just as the picture’s crowd is freed
000000000of famine & exile darkening the land,
000000000waiting to see where the bowl spins
00000off, a planet out of orbit, and who wins.

But it should not surprise the reader attuned to the fact that Delanty locates the poem’s action in 1847—“Black ’47”—the darkest year of An Gorta Mór, The Great Hunger: the great famine that so decimated Ireland in 1840s. “Famine & exile darkening the land,” indeed.

Nor should this disconcerting “turn” in the poem—this “volta” as it is sometimes referred to in the “lingo” of poetry—surprise the reader attuned to the fact that Greg Delanty wrote “After Viewing The Bowling Match at Castlemary, Cloyne 1847” in the mid-1990s. Like the unpredictable turns in the road that the bowlers must navigate and negotiate, the poem runs utterly true to form in hinting, like Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” before it, that the canvas of history extends far beyond our immediate focus. With hindsight, we might ask how no one foresaw in 1995 the war and disorder lurking in our day’s background, darkening the land in 2005. Now, no less than MacDonald’s spectators in 1847, we wait “to see where the bowl spins / off, a planet out of orbit, and who wins.”

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