Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The freshness of what happens

Reading Pearse Hutchinson:Review of collection of essays on PH edited by Philip Coleman and Maria Johnston, published by Irish Academic Press.

Reading Pearse Hutchinson: From Findrum to Fisterra. Editors, Philip Coleman and Maria Johnston. Irish Academic Press. 286pp. €50 hb.

By Peter Sirr

Reputation is a funny thing. Some writers are richly garlanded from the outset, and as they develop, their work attracts a growing body of secondary apparatus – casebook studies, festschifts, conferences, honorary degrees. Others might as well have a ‘Do Not Disturb’ placard hung about their necks for all the attention they attract. It’s odd to think that the volume under review is the first collection of critical essays on a poet of such vitality and distinction as Pearse Hutchinson. With its chronology, bibliography, an interview and  fifteen essays on all all aspects of the work, the book shines a very welcome light on the achievement of a fine poet whose imaginative openness and deep immersion in cultures we very much need today.
In one of the pieces gathered here Robert Welch gives us a vignette of the poet walking in Leeds: ‘It was a jaunty thing, this walk. It had an edge to it, a kind of sharp readiness to take on things. . . it was a rhythmic facing into the freshness of what happens.’ In describing the walk he is, of course, also creating a snapshot of the poetry – jaunty, edgy, combining rich, sometimes opposed or contradictory flavours: its love of strong sun and the cultures that flourish in it, but also ‘the quartz glory’ of Connemara and Irish, its sensuality tempered by a Northern grittiness.
Translation has always been at the heart of the enterprise, as Welch and others rightly emphasises. The languages and cultures he encounters – medieval Galicio-Portuguese, contemporary Catalan, Galician, Portuguese and Castilian as well as Irish –  are not simply external associations, but form part of a single creative continuum, a world view and a soundscape where ‘cicada, chameleon, lagarto’ can rub shoulders, where Catalan, Irish and English can occupy the same poem and not seem strange to each other. This aspect of his sensibility is usefully explored in essays by Martín Veiga and Benjamin Keatinge  as well as Welch. No other poet inhabits otherness as profoundly as Hutchinson, or has the kind of sympathetic imagination that can synthesise different traditions and histories and write from within them. It’s an act of fruitful self-translation, and Robert Welch is surely right to say that ‘the act of poetry, for Pearse Hutchinson, is an act of translation, whereby things shift in relation to each other.’
Many of the languages that preoccupy Hutchinson are threatened, or were when he encountered them, and the sense of threat and the resultant determination to battle all manner of prejudice, to achieve a ‘true gentleness’ is very much part of the poet’s psychic make up. Likewise, as Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin reminds us, his passionate commitment to the past is a commitment to the vulnerable: ‘The history which concerns Hutchinson is predominantly that of the poor and defeated.’ Hutchinson’s raids on the past also afford him the opportunity to broaden the record, to let his eye for accurate detail set down facts and lives easily forgotten or discarded. Accuracy is important to Hutchinson, the poems are full of facts, the love of fact is one of their animating forces. Ní Chuilleanáin picks up on how his use of notes and annotations as extension of his poetic strategy shows ‘someone whose wish to communicate delightful knowledge overflows the boundaries of the conventional form’.
Similarly, Ciaran O’Driscoll homes in with a poet’s eye on Hutchinson’s attention to the miracle of the multum in parvo, citing for instance the wonderful short poem ‘Koan’ where the poet, clearing his kitchen, suddenly hears ‘the sound/of spent matches/touching the handle of a silver spoon/a gentle tinkle/you never heard/that particular /sound before –/il mondo meraviglioso:/there’s always a first time...’ Lines like these remind us of the direct force of the poet’s force, its deliberately democratic plain-speaking.
The cultural receptiveness, the attention to history, the love poetry, the poetry of the overlooked and undervalued – all of these things exist simultaneously in his work, and the core of it all is a gift for empathy born out of a great capacity for love, ‘the greatest reality’.
Philip Coleman builds his essay on the importance of friendship in the work: ‘Hutchinson’s deployment of a poetics of friendship in his writing is. . .one of the things that makes his work unique in the history of modern and contemporary Irish poetry’, citing a poem where the poet remembers the words of his friend and mentor in Barcelona Josep Queralt, ‘“he donat la meva vida al amor dels amics”/I gave my life to loving my friends.’
Vincent Woods reminds us how precarious is the voice of the poet. Oró Domhnaigh was one of the most innovative radio programmes produced by RTE, memorable for the poet’s distinctive voice and scripts but incredibly, of the 104 programmes made, the station, abashed at the price of new tape, erased all but two. Woods has retrieved the scripts and provides a fascinating discussion of them and of Hutchinson’s career as a journalist, broadcaster and critic.
Inevitably, not everything here is as lively as the poet, and there’s a fair sprinkling of dutiful academicism, but the editors are to be congratulating on covering all the important features of Pearse Hutchinson’s work and the book is an important acknowledgment by scholars of what many poets and readers have long known – that he is an essential poet.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Education by Stone: João Cabral de Melo Neto

Two poems, taken from the recent The FSG Book of Latin American Poetry

O Fim Do Mundo

No fim de um mundo melancólico
os homens lêem jornais.
Homens indiferentes a comer laranjas
que ardem como o sol.

Me deram uma maçã para lembrar
a morte. Sei que cidades telegrafam
pedindo querosene. O véu que olhei voar
caiu no deserto.

O poema final ninguém escreverá
desse mundo particular de doze horas.
Em vez de juízo final a mim me preocupa
o sonho final.

The End of the World

At the end of a melancholy world
men read the newspapers.
Men indifferent to eating oranges
that flame like the sun.

They gave me an apple to remind me
of death. I know that cities telegraph
asking for kerosene. The veil I saw flying
fell in the desert.

No one will write the final poem
about this particular twelve o’clock world.
Instead of the last judgememt, what worries me
is the final dream.

Translated by James Wright

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Elbow Room

A letter brings me to my teenage father,
unpicks his bones and calls him back
from his week of boarder’s rations, his years
of darkness and silence, to where he sits
in the depths of winter in his cousins’ kitchen
and wolfs his Sunday lunch.

What does he say? He lifts a fork and vanishes
until now, how many winters
later, and his father, too, lifted and returned
to drive his hackney down the narrow roads
flat capped and with his elbow out the window
so close I can reach my hand across –

as if that casual elbow opened a portal,
poked through time to graze the city air
or as if I might somehow reach in to raise
these always resisting bones, always
unfinishable journeys. How much can you stretch
from lunch to dinner, from headstone to hearth

and back again? But the engine is running
in the unkillable car, my grandfather changes up
as he leaves the bend
and accelerates from the letter.
Around the corner, my father drains his cup,
pushes back his chair. After lunch

comes nothing, unmemory, unwritten.
I can follow them to nowhere, to where
the engine rusts and the broken years
lie in fields, and when the traffic stalls
I can open the window
and rest my arm on the door, let my elbow

graze the zone, let the altered day come in.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Valerio Magrelli

Age of the duck-hare: the poetry of Valerio Magrelli

published in Agenda Vol 45 No.4 / Vol 46 No. 1, May 2011

Valerio Magrelli is one of the brightest stars of Italian poetry, widely acclaimed since the appearance of his first collection Ora Serrata Tesserae when he was twenty three. The title of that collection gives a hint of the kind of poet he is — it’s the irregular, serrated demarcation between the retina and the circumferential tissue inside the eye. So specialist is the title that when he went to the optician some months after the book came out, the optician remarked ‘I didn’t realise we were colleagues, I see you’ve written a book . . .’

The scientific term directs us to a poetry preoccupied with visual perception of the world, and the forensic attention applied simultaneously to the gaze. The blank page is ‘like the cornea of an eye’ where the poet ‘embroider(s)/an iris and in the iris etch(es)/the deep gorge of the retina’:

A gaze then
sprouts from the page
and a chasm gapes
in this yellow notebook.

Monday, August 08, 2011


Back from the blogging dead. Has The Cat Flap been filled with cement? someone asked. Pretty much, for the last few months, but it will now be re-activated. To begin with, a piece published in the Dublin Review for Winter 2010-11. The piece led to a documentary on RTE Radio, produced by Bernadette Comerford, available for download here

Poems, prose and who knows what else to follow...

When I started falling, I didn’t think much of it. I took it as something the body naturally did, a way of testing itself, maybe, or a kind of trick. I’d get up in the morning and go down to the bathroom on the first landing, splash water on my face, and immediately lose consciousness. A few seconds later I’d find myself on the red lino of the bathroom, haul myself up, and go back to the sink. And then it would happen again, and again I’d pick myself up from the floor and return to the sink. (I might not have been so quick to return if I’d known that water was one of the triggers of the falling, or rather the alchemy that took place between water and light as I washed my face.) To me, falling was just part of the morning ritual. Occasionally I reported it to my mother, but the notion must have seemed too silly to register, just the kind of thing a boy could be relied on to make up. So I went on falling, giving myself a few bruises every morning, lurching backwards into the day.


Featured post

Eastword Ho!

This is the latest from the Dublin essays I've been working on. This time I'm prowling the tangled history and contemporary rea...