Losers Keepers, Andrew McNeillie, £9 (paperback)
The Untenanted Room, James Simpson (with woodcuts by Carolyn Trant), unpriced (paperback)
A Woman Called Rose and Other Poems, Ángel Crespo (translated by Arthur Terry), £9 (paperback)
Andrew McNeillie introduces the major themes of his fourth volume of poems in ‘Losers Keepers’:
Guardians of hardship’s dignity,
all who stay on, and all who leave.
Send money home as you can.
And keep the heart’s hearth alight …
emphasising the forces of change, transience and emigration experienced whilst living on the Aran Islands. In living with the people of Aran he feels the loss of ‘roots’ within himself. It is a feeling written about hauntingly, at greater length but similar intensity, in his prose recollection of living ‘on the edge of the world’ with ‘The island’s winter storm wakes’, ‘the back- roar of the sea’, ‘a storm lamp on the open shore’, ‘the massed hooves of the wind’:
The Grey Fella was no pale horse. He was the finest, flintiest, limestone-enriched, charcoal-dappled animal you ever met on the road, coming at a trot on a halter, showing his paces at Galway fair. Will modern Ireland at last be born when youno longer see such a sight on the road? Men wheeling horses round in the street? Men with enough dung on their boots to plant an Aran field ..?
(from An Aran Keening, The Lilliput Press, Dublin, 2001)
As a stranger on Aran, and like Synge in earlier days, McNeillie writes in Losers Keepers, ‘I went among them, the latest of my kind’, and indeed the poems recall in places the work of J. M. Synge himself (one of them being entitled, ‘Rider to the Sea’). He tells us in fact, in the opening pages of An Aran Keening, that he came to live there through an adolescent reading and fascination with J. M. Synge’s book, The Aran Islands.
As in An Aran Keening, McNeillie’s central concern here (recalling the last line of G. M. Hopkins’s ‘The Wreck of The Deutschland’) is with what he terms ‘the heart’s hearth’, a sense of belonging, a question of what is found, what is lost and what is kept in the poet’s drifting and wandering. The island’s culture provides weight, he adverts, to his own contemporary ‘weightlessness’ – a roof over his head. He recollects his newly-found island home as ‘a sill or hearth’ where he could establish a writing routine (the sure ‘touchstone’ of his work), contemplating ‘the sea’s hearthstone’, ’the bucking surf’, ‘boats rusting in quays’, ‘fish-basket, marker buoy,/ net-tangle, bleached spar’ – and ‘the sea’s hunger’ (minding on fishing tragedies). He calls himself a ‘lubber’ amongst fishermen (‘their eyes like the eyes of gulls, salt-sharp’), an outsider (‘never will I enter their world’), honest enough to acknowledge that fact. ‘I’m here at their indulgence’, he admits, the poet ‘on watch’ at his ‘flittings’, rather than involved in the life of the land or sea – ‘the heart’s Eden’, as he sees it (but not sentimentally it must be said), of those who live there.
It is the concrete physical reality of that life which impresses McNeillie (as indeed it did Synge). It is a ‘rooted life’ which recalls his own childhood in Wigtownshire. There is ‘common faith’, the ‘common world’ of ‘common folk’. This is not seen in a disparaging light, as the adjective might suggest, but in the praising sense. He describes ‘How the familiar opens out’ to them, in their cherishing of ‘near things’, without any hankering or irritation, embodying a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a whole culture:
My friend sent me a photo of his coffin
lying in state at Onacht, with his cap on.
… People from ‘the islands’ and
two sisters from America, the whole island,
came to pay their last respects …
(from ‘Aran Keening: i.m. Tom Hernon’)
Here is a communal dignity we have lost in our corporate society. The poet soon begins to notice the Irish stress on tradition and memory: ‘genealogy and all that’s in a name’ and ‘things/once living, and unseen’. By way of contrast he laments how many contemporary cultures ‘lost their footing long ago’.
It is in this connection with belonging that McNeillie celebrates the Gaelic of George Campbell Hay (Deòrsa Mac Iain Dheòrsa). In seven songs (‘prayers of praise’ shining ‘like herring in/a ring-net’) in homage to the Gaelic-Scots poet, McNeillie lauds his ‘weighing eye, the heart’s net’, his ‘independent heart’ and his upholding of ‘the old language’:
The art of haven-finding, one vowel short of the real thing, but adequate for life on earth, at sea. So Ebbing Point to Laggan Head might sing, flashing farewell as the fishers go into the darkness. The way you went on your last disappearance. You with the tongue of the people in your scholar’s mouth, there was no greater truth to tell, no truer way to speak.
McNeillie hopes to emulate ‘the lineaments’ of his ‘shipshape craft’, ‘the even keel’ of ‘word for word’, the only ‘test of time’ – a culture’s language, its poetry and its song.
It is the world of ‘rituals not schedules’ which impresses McNeillie. His poetry is an appreciation of those who seem to ‘accept Providence’ and believe in the human scale of things. Here, transience (‘the tide-blaze’, ‘starlight in the quick dark’, ‘summer whispers to the wind’s scythe’) is accepted as a fact. The islands possess an edge of understanding where finitude meets the inextendible, and where women at their waulking songs cherish something you can ‘put no name to’:
As if heard but not seen,
their presences in what proportion
absences? Tap the barometer
to know, from one day to another.
The heart’s variable weather
begins with such things
once living, and unseen.
There is a similar feeling for landscape and the relation between language and the natural creation in James Simpson’s book, The Untenanted Room. Fourteen psalms celebrate ‘that place/not properly inhabited,/swept clean, adrift, cut off,/hung on the grid of numbers’, where the poet, like McNeillie, searches for a secure ‘dwelling place’. All physical realities are now, the poet writes, ‘contorted to the abstract’: ‘god and dreams’ have become ‘inconsequential’, ‘scribbled in the margins of our lives’; ‘words lie forgotten’, living only on ‘the borders of the full sea’. The poet counters this by celebrating the beauty of transience (‘crackling/blackthorn, sparks of elder’, ‘shattering sparks,/struck from the forge’), and lauding ‘singularity’ and independence of spirit:
Ours is the singing of the antlers blazing,
ours is the claim of the boar tusk whittling,
freeing the midden of the oak tree island,
singing the night and the unforgetting.
Like McNeillie, Simpson is keen to praise that which is ‘Not there;/in the distance,/beyond earshot;/not there; out of reach,/inside the dream,/ beyond the dream./Passing away,/in the distance;/only a memory’. The poem is an environmentalist’s elegy for the dying earth. It addresses an important contemporary issue, accompanied by fine woodcuts by Carolyn Trant.
Ángel Crespo is a modern Catalan pastoral poet. He has been praised by Arthur Terry (mentor to Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon, and an eminent Irish scholar of Catalan) for his ‘feeling for country life’, the individuality of his language, and for his ‘pictorial values’ and ‘visual accuracy’. Each poem, Terry argues, is ‘a new beginning’, evincing particular places with ‘their sense of humanity’. It is a quality evidenced in the opening stanzas of the title poem, ‘A Woman Called Rose’:
I remember her with her apron and pail of water,
a woman among beasts, looking for something,
bending under the heads and hooves,
under the cartwheels.
I remember her swollen belly,
her flushed cheeks,
and the look on the face of her husband
in charge of the oxen …
The poet’s emphasis is on the moral lives of ordinary men and women. He focuses on their humanity, ‘their fragrance/of body and spirit’, far removed from what he calls ‘the wolf’s howl’ and ‘the sacrificial trough’, exploring the ‘depths of light’ of the spirit. It is a poetry surmounting loss and exile: ‘And the invisible flame/catches once more at the cold ash’, fusing ‘wisdom and ignorance … into new metal’. In that sense Crespo’s work sits squarely with that of McNeillie and Simpson in its concerns. There is a very fine front cover to this book by Ann Johnson, which enhances the distinctiveness of the poems.