I did not know Eavan Boland before this, did not know Paula Meehan. I did know the exquisiteness of words, the occasional poet that tells my heart, spells my heart, rips rebuilds reweaves renews and changes the world for me. Gift-givers. Both of these women are such poets.
Instead I bought this book because they were writing cities.
I bought this book because I love Dublin, too. This post focuses on words and writers and cities, but I loved every word, every poem, the so-much-more, the different-for-all-of-us that lies in every line. Paula Meehan at the ends says ‘The way a poem lets you hold so much in mind’. Which is why each poem will forever be so much more than what I write here. This is an apology for narrowing them down really, for making too obvious how much this blog is to mark and capture things I hope to weave together sometime in the futures. Not tell how things are. I’d have to write poetry for that.
The intro is from editor Jody Allen Randolph, and situates everything nicely — there is so much to think about here:
What gives cities their unique identities? As this book will suggest, a city gets its identity not just from its buildings, its industries, its history, its public events, and its notable citizens. It also finds its identity from being imagined. The years, decades, centuries in which a city shapes its inhabitants add up to a rich life and afterlife of meaning and memory. Those meanings and memories requires language and expression (9).
She writes ‘We also understood that poets both find and give identity to the city…As editors, we imagined this book as a topography of the city with the poet…’ Thus poems arranged topographically not chronologically, in sections of river, city, suburb.
And this, a paradigm…I am never sure I like those, but this works better than most:
But we wanted to do more that just suggest the ways in which a poet has imagined a city over a span of four or five decades. We wanted to sketch out a paradigm for how a city is imagined. To this end, we envisioned a series of suggestive dialogues between text and image, and between poet and poet. (11)
And so a skimming of poetry, pulling bits and pieces that speak to the city and hopefully not damaging the whole and damn but you should go read them all anyway.
From City of Shadows, a reclaiming of the ordinary for poetry, so much of her work is about that.
I absorbed the sense that poetry was safe here in this city at twilight, with its violet sky and constant drizzle, within this circle of libraries and pubs and talks about stanzas and cadences. Beyond it was the ordinariness which could only dissipate it; beyond it was a life for which no visionary claim could be made. (13)
Except Boland makes this claim, scatters it in beauty and pain across the page.
Once in Dublin (my city of white pepper):
make the past.
Make the present seem out of place.
How do I know my country? Let me tell you
it has been difficult to do. And when I do
go back to difficult knowledge, it is not
to that street or those men raised
high above the certainties they stood on —
Ireland hero history — but how
I went behind the linen room and up
the stone stairs and climbed to the top.
And stood for a moment there, concealed
by shadows. In a hiding place.
Waiting to see. Wanting to look again.
Into the patient face of the unhealed. (19)
The Huguenot Graveyard at the Heart of the City
This city with its colours of sky and day —
and which is dear to us and particular —
was not a place to them: merely
the one witty step ahead of hate which
is all they could keep. Or stay. (21)
Migrations, our city through the eyes of others, an empathy with the plight of strangers. Everything our world lacks now.
Tree of Life
for dawn to make us clear to one another
Let the sun
inch above the roof-tops,
be the light that shows again
the blossom to the root. (27)
An Elegy For My Mother in Which She Scarcely Appears
as is my mother, on this Dublin evening of
fog crystals and frost as she reached out to test
one corner of a cloth for dryness as the prewar
Irish twilight closes in and down on the room
and the curtains are drawn and here am I,
not even born and already a conservationist,
with nothing to assist me but the last
and most fabulous of beasts — language, language —
which knows, as I do, that it’s too late
to record the loss of these things but does so anyway,
and anxiously, in case it shares their fate. (33)
Language, over and over it is language in many of the same ways other colonised people experience its loss, its erasure, the way it shapes experience and meaning. Much here reminded of Assia Djebar among others.
And Eavan Boland loves rivers too, and their complex relationship with the city, here a generative one.
Gifts of the River
I begin with the Liffey because a river is not a place: it is a maker of places. Without the river there would be no city. Every day, turning its narrow circle, endlessly absorbing and re-absorbing the shapes and reflections of the city, it mirrors what it created. With the river, the city every day has to throw itself again into those surfaces, those depths, those reflections which have served as the source of all its fictions. (43)
Dawn on the River.
Dublin arises out of what reflects it.
looks to the east, to the sea, (45)
And here, I don’t know why I was surprised, happily, but so I was. Empire. Its complexities.
City of shadows and of the gradual
capitulations to the last invader
this is the final one: signed in water
and witnessed in granite and ugly bronze and gun-metal.
And by me. I am your citizen: composed of
your fictions, your compromise, I am
a part of your story and its outcome.
And ready to record its its contradictions. (55)
The Mother Tongue
The old pale ditch can still be seen
less than half a mile from my house–
its ancient barrier of mud and brambles
which mireth next unto Irishmen
is now a mere rise of coarse grass,
a rowan tree and some thinned-out spruce,
where a child is playing at twilight.
I stand in the shadows. I find it
hard to believe now that once
this was a source of our division:
Dug. Drained. Shored up and left
to keep out and keep in. That here
the essence of a colony’s defence
was the substance of the quarrel with its purpose:
Land. Ground. A line drawn in rain
and clay and the roots of wild broom–
behind it the makings of a city,
beyond it rumours of a nation–
by Dalkey and Kilternan and Balally
through two ways of saying their names.
I was born on this side of the Pale.
I speak with the forked tongue of colony.
But I stand in the first dark and frost
of a winter night in Dublin and imagine
my pure sound, my undivided speech
travelling to the edge of this silence.
As if to find me. And I listen: I hear
what I am safe from. What I have lost. (77)
The segregated spaces created by power, created for domination, the damage they do to hearts and lives:
Here is the city—
its worn-down mountains,
its grass and iron,
its smoky coast
seen from the high roads
on the Wicklow side.
From Dalkey Island
to the North Wall,
to the blue distance seizing its perimeter,
its old divisions are deep within it.
And in me also.
And always will be.
Out of my mouth they come:
The spurred and booted garrisons.
The men and women
What is a colony
if not the brutal truth
that when we speak
the graves open.
And the dead walk?
I am awe-struck by these poems. I sat, and then dragged myself back to the register of prose.
Glad I did. It is a wonderful conversation between the wonderful Paula Meehan, who crosses class boundaries and tells Eavan Boland:
I realised that an accent is not a politics…then it was, suddenly, both a political and a literary argument. About who writes the city. I began to see that the city you were writing into your poems was not a scenic backdrop for the working out of the drama of the self, that, in fact, your relationship was with the polis, with the power structures of the state as manifest in architecture, in statuary, in the suffered histories of the excluded as much as in the commemorated and sanctioned official histories. (98)
…I was interested in looking at a city as a place where the ghosts of power are remembered and tested. For me these ghosts are often colonial. But sometimes they’re just the spirits of place. (98)
I always puzzled at being told Irish poets have a great ‘sense of place‘. I suspected that underneath was an unstated ‘and you should stay in your place’. It felt like a simplification…It has become such a cliche that it masks, possibly drains of power, one of the most vital and crucial acts of the poet, the compact between the non-human and the human. Between the locale and its creatures, what waters and nourishes, as well as what threatens, what grows there. You mention ‘spirit of place’ and this rings truer to me than ‘sense of place’. We can trace this aspect of our work back to the Dinnseanchas, the responsibility we once had to enshrine, possibly encode, in language the lore and etymology of place. (98)
and again Paula on language:
And now consider the other games that are being played, when you sit down to work with a poem: with the language itself, English and its imperial nature, our resistant version of it, the beautiful words with their own histories, their ghosts; the play with the shape of the poem…The way a poem lets you hold so much in mind. That excites me. It’s the hit I get from making a poem. Why I go back again and again, craving the making.
Aren’t we always making the city up? The cities? (101)
To walk the streets of the city was, is, to stroll at will through the layers of its making and its peopling, to learn to place a particular building withing its era…all that, and always the lives lived there.
But, I have a sense also of something else at work — a kind of dream city or dreaming city. It doesn’t exactly map on to any known verifiable place. It’s the private sonic Dublin each poet makes — the individual song of the self in place, the free self in the given place. Maybe that’s our true city? (104)
They talk of Joyce, Akhmatova, Flann O’Brien and The Charwoman’s daughter by James Stephens which I too loved with a great love. Paula is more like me, writes of poverty and housing, being put in place, always fighting. Which makes this conversation between two such different voices so rich.
Final words from Boland responding to Meehan’s raising of the power of words and voice, of poems as communal:
The adjective ‘communal’ has a related verb — an old-fashioned one — which is ‘communing’. A word I’ve always loved. And one, when you look at it, that’s quite a bit removed from the adjective that seems close to it. For me, even when a poem is not apparently communal, even when it seems to be private, it can still commune. In fact it may make a particularly strong community with a reader, and still not be communal, just by speaking to and of solitude…truly one of the great possibilities for the poem. (107)