Lecture at the Yeats Winter School, 2013, and published in Cork Literary Review, 2013
Poems, if they are any good at all, hold a knowledge elusive and multiple, unsayable in any other form.
The poet Denise Levertov spent most of her working life in the United States and was prominent in the Anti-Vietnam war movement in the sixties and seventies. She claimed that a poem should have four qualities, that it should be direct as what the bird said, hard as a floor, sound as a bench, mysterious as the silence when the tailor would pause with his needle in the air. It is on this last quality which I would like to focus in the context of the Irish poetic tradition. I want to bear in mind the other qualities which she regards as essential – that a poem should be direct as what the bird said, hard as a floor and sound as a bench. It is these qualities which give the poem the necessary ballast to allow us to admit of the quality of mystery. What I propose to do is to look at a number of poems by modern Irish poets and to explore how and where the quality of the mystery resides in the poems. There is a certain inherent contradiction in this enterprise, since, by definition, mystery refuses to be quantified or charted, so I will attempt to tread softly. It seems to me that there are many manifestations of and vocabularies for the mysterious, for a sense of ‘the other’.
However, before we start to look at the poems I would like for one moment to return to Denise Levertov’s tailor, poised eternally with his needle in the air. What does that image stand for? This is a human being at work on one of the oldest and most practical of human activities, one of the activities which defines us as human, – stitching clothing which protects us from the elements, when he is distracted by some thought which brings him elsewhere. As a child growing up in on the edge of a village in Donegal in the 1950’s and 60’s, I had a surrogate grandfather, a next-door neighbour who was a tailor. Like many tailors of his generation, he had applied himself to that trade because of a disability, having lost a leg during the First World War. He was known as a great talker and repository of stories. His use of language was distinctive, since he had come from a small, relatively isolated, Protestant community whose English was full of archaisms. I was almost grown up and reading Shakespeare and Chaucer before I realized that his habitual use of ‘hit’, instead of the preposition ‘it’, his pronunciation of afraid as “afeard’ were survivals from medieval English rather than corruptions. The news of the area came to him, in the process of his work, as he measured his clients for suits and carried out the subsequent fittings required as the work progressed. Although possessed of a fine sense of irony, there was nothing of the gossip in his temperament. There was a real sense in which he ‘contained’ the small stories of the locality. When a story emerged, years or sometimes decades later, it was as artfully shaped anecdote – the famous “news which stays news.”
I like to think that an apprehension of mystery has something to do with this containment of stories – frequently of the stories of others as well as one’s own – and of the moments of perception which come with the mulling over of experience. Mystery emerges from the quotidian and returns to inform it.
Although, in the main, I will focus on more contemporary poetry, as this is the Yeats winter school and Yeats himself had such a deep interest in myth and ‘the other world’, I thought that I would begin by looking at one of his best known and best loved poems, the song of Wandering Aengus.
Before I read it, I would like to quote something which the American poet, Mary Oliver, wrote about an early encounter with Walter De La Mare’s poem ‘the Listeners’.
‘The lovely, fairy-tale other-worldly quality of ‘The Listeners’, with its shrouded and then released emotion, its mystery an essential part of this emotion, released me in 1950 and releases me today, from this world. And this release is, I suggest, one of the primary charges of creative work.’
In ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus, mystery is present from the first line – when the writer goes ‘into the hazel wood’. In Celtic mythology, the hazel is the tree sacred to the poets and, in some versions of the legend of the Salmon of Knowledge, it is a hazel tree which overhangs the pool where the salmon lives. The hazelnuts fall into the pool and the salmon is nourished by them.
The events occur at twilight – that liminal time between two lights, at dusk or at dawn, which has always been associated with the magical – the time when white moths are on the wing. As a boy in his teens Yeats had developed an interest in moths. He used sometimes sleep out in a cave above the sea in Sligo to study them. He later said that it was the awakening of sexual desire at puberty and its attendant torments which prompted him to stay out rather than any scientific interest. This poem was written when he was in his twenties and again tormented, this time with his obsession with Maud Gonne.
Then, when moth-like stars were fluttering out – he dropped a berry in a stream and caught a little silver trout – something beautiful from the ordinary world but taken out of its own element. All of the things mentioned in the first stanza– the hazel, the twilight, the stars –are things of beauty which belong to the ordinary world but which are, at the same time gateways to another world.
Then in the second stanza, a fish is laid on a floor and a fire is lit. This is an image which is beautiful in the sense in which a Dutch still life or an Andrew Wyeth painting is beautiful. It is of everyday things but with a pulse of the immanent beating through them – an image, as Denise Levertov said, direct as what the bird said, hard as a floor, sound as a bench – but suddenly all changes – there is an unexplained rustling, a turning around and we have entered a different dimension with the poet. We are party to his apprehension of metamorphosis as the trout becomes a glimmering girl with apple blossom in her hair. (Yeats associated apple blossom with Maud Gonne as he claimed that when he first met her in his father’s house in Bedford Park in 1989, he saw her against a background of apple blossom. He described her complexion as being ‘luminous like apple-blossom through which the light falls.’)
There is, perhaps something in our spirit which needs to believe in metamorphosis, which argues that, if caterpillars can become butterflies, then we ourselves can struggle out of the cocoons which hamper us and take flight when we are tormented with a fire in our heads. Is it this which delights us in this luminous stanza which, as Mary Oliver puts it ‘with its shrouded, then released emotion’, which…‘releases us from this world’ – as we share with the speaker a literally wonder-full sense of release?
This sense of release is tempered in the last stanza, which begins dramatically with the speaker in old age still in search of the vision but still firm in his belief that he will ‘see her face and take her hand’ – that the trout girl, the light-footed Flora/Maud Gonne will indeed be his. He concludes with an image of fruitfulness and of love transcending time and yet being in love with time, that magnificent image of passing nights and passing days, ‘the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun’ – of the fruitfulness of time, the tasting of life. The image of the sun and moon, we are told, comes from a tradition relating to a May procession where children or young girls carried a floral arch with a ball covered in silver paper and a ball covered in golden paper hanging from it – to signify the passing of nights and days. This final image is reminiscent of the rhetorical question put by the American poet Stanley Kunitz: –
What is imagination but a reflection of our yearning to belong to eternity as well as to time?
The next poem at which I would like to look is Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘October’. It is one of a number of late sonnets which Kavanagh described as ‘Noo poems’. Much of Kavanagh’s stock in trade was earthiness and grit, manure heaps and ass carts, yet he also could write with soaring lyricism of ‘The spirit-shocking wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill’ or of ‘my black hills that are happy when dawn whitens Glasdrummond Chapel.’ He had been extremely ill the mid-fifties and, on recovering in 1955, claimed to have been re-born as a poet on a bench on the banks of the Grand Canal. His biographer, Annette Quinn, questions this explanation and attributes the wonderful expansiveness of the ‘Noo Poems’, at least in part, to the affirmation and stimulation which he had received on a visit to the US in the summer of 1957. I suspect that both explanations may be correct, that in recovering from what he had thought to be a fatal illness, Kavanagh was profoundly grateful to have been restored to life. In addition to the welcome accorded him and his work in the U.S., his encounter with the Beat poets in New York, the permissions and candour of their work, may have granted him the permission to completely drop, if only for a time, the sardonic masks expected of him in Dublin literary circles. Like Yeats before him, he was drawn to the work of the American poet, Walt Whitman. During the immensely productive period in the autumn of 1957 when he wrote ‘October’, he wrote another sonnet entitled ‘Leaves of Grass’, referring very explicitly to Whitman’s joyous celebration of the earth and of life.
Kavanagh is important for many reasons but foremost, perhaps, for claiming new territory for Irish poetry, not the catalpa trees, the hazel woods and the lakes of Coole or the mythologized mountains of Sligo, but the small, wet hill-farms of Monaghan; not Yeats’ idealized noble, gaelic-speaking peasant, but contrary bachelor farmers or farmers’ sons who feel trammelled by convention and family obligation.. He continued to claim unpromising territory in the 1950’s in ‘The Hospital’ which opens with the defiantly unlyrical lines–
A year ago I fell in love with the functional ward of a chest hospital: square cubicles in a rowPlain concrete, wash basins, an art lover’s woe
This opening led on to a line which can almost be seen as a Kavanagh manifesto ‘For nothing whatever is by love debarred/ the common and banal her heat can know.’
‘October’, part of the same group of sonnets, is an utterly candid poem of epiphany, of the opening of the doors of perception, of praise to autumn light and of acceptance of the autumn in the speaker’s own life.
Written in 1957, in this sonnet he begins by bringing together an October in his late teens and October of his middle age. ‘O Leafy Yellowness, you create for me/ a world that was and is now poised above time’. It is as if time, with its attendant anxieties, has collapsed, has ceased to exist, that there is nothing but this luminous moment which he inhabits and embraces completely –
The breeze too, even the temperature
And pattern of movement is precisely the same
As broke my heart for youth passing.
A master of surprise and contrast of mood, Kavanagh trips us up with the unexpectedness of that line ‘As broke my heart for youth passing’. He then shifts the mood again with the affirmation –
I want to throw myself on the public street without caring
For anything but the prayering that the earth offers.
He gives us this declaration of love for life itself and he concludes with those last four lit lines which are the verbal equivalent of a Van Gogh painting: –
It is October over all my life and the light is staring
As it caught me once in a plantation by the fox coverts.
A man is ploughing ground for winter wheat
And my nineteen years weigh heavily on my feet.
Painters use light to convey mood. Most of us recognize that low intense autumn light which throws everything into relief. It catches the young Kavanagh, again among the gold of autumn trees, by the fox coverts – what a beautiful word – ‘covert’, implying a world which is hidden, exciting, and sensual.
The final lines of a poem frequently lift it from the quotidian into the mysterious. But in this semi-ecstatic poem, however, the last two lines ground the poem superbly, like a kite anchor, and prevent it from floating away. They are lines ‘hard as a floor, sound as a bench’. The man is ploughing ground for ‘winter wheat’, preparing to bring life down into the ground where it will sleep out the darkest season of the year. We are then presented with the paradox of a very young man lamenting the passing of his youth ‘My nineteen years weigh heavily on my feet’, the plodding metre weighing down the line down even further.
It is precisely the gravity and earthiness of the last two lines which lend credence to the sense of ecstasy or epiphany which pervades the rest of the poem.
Kavanagh’s sense of mystery, of ‘the other’ is very different indeed to the world of the occult, the world of myth and faery, which underlay the everyday world of W.B. Yeats. His is a highly original, and frequently paradoxical combination of traditional Catholicism and what he called ‘paganism’ – an apprehension of the mystery and heartbreak of flowering, fruiting and death, where the mystery of return and rebirth somehow contain and transcend the heartbreak.
I will now turn to a poet, Eavan Boland, who sees herself, rightly, I believe, as an heir to Kavanagh.
Her own explicit claim to kinship with Kavanagh is as follows
‘To be politicized in a poetic tradition, without having powers of expression or intervention to change the interpretation is an experience Irish women poets share with Kavanagh. Like them, he was part of the iconic structure of the Irish poem long before he became its author.’
For centuries, women had been central to the Irish poem as an Aisling, literally a dream figure, a woman of unearthly beauty, sometimes with the name of Kathleen Ni Houlihan, sometimes Eire, who appeared to the poet and who turned out to be a personification of Ireland. The other familiar female nationalist icon was that of the long-suffering mother, who had sent out her brave sons to die, related of course to the Virgin Mary.
What Eavan Boland did was challenge these debilitating stereotypes and assert the right of a flesh and blood woman to be the author of the poem, as Kavanagh claimed the right of the idealized ‘peasant’ or small farmer to be the author. (An older Kavanagh quipped that when he had first arrived in Dublin ‘the big thing besides being Irish was peasant quality. They were all trying to be peasants. They had been at it for years but I hadn’t heard.)
Although brought up in privileged circumstances, as the daughter of a diplomat, Boland resembles Kavanagh also in claiming new territory, new thematic tilth for Irish poetry. Kavanagh had been thought vulgar and unliterary when he extended poetic territory to include cattle and spray-cans, the rough banter of country lads, the sexual frustration of ageing bachelor farmers and their embittered squabbles about land. One critic said ‘Kavanagh’s poetry does not wash behind its ears’. Boland made equivalent raids on the unarticulated – motherhood and suburbia were regarded as quite unsuitable matter for poetry during the 1970’s. ‘The dial of a washing machine, the expression in a child’s face – these things were at eye level as I bent down to them during the day. I wanted them to enter my poems. I wanted the poems they entered to be Irish poems.’
She took it upon herself to subvert what she called the ‘Romantic heresy’ which was responsible for ‘a damaging division between what is poetic on the one hand and, on the other, what is merely human.’ And yet elsewhere, speaking of her poem ‘This Moment’ and a line in it about carrying her child home towards ‘a window, yellow as butter.’ she says quite explicitly, ‘I wanted to convey both magic and ordinariness.’ Many of her poems are set in a suburbia which she paints as defiantly ordered with neatly clipped hedges, cut lawns. (The Dublin suburb, Dundrum, in which Boland lived , even rhymes with ‘humdrum’). Yet into this ordinary world, the extraordinary enters. Her otherworld is not the world of the Celtic twilight, or the world of Catholic religious symbols, but the world of Roman and Greek myth. A young woman can set off to her neighbour’s house in the twilight and suddenly a tree speaks to her. In her poem ‘The Suburban woman, a detail’ The speaker sets out, a modern woman in casual clothes, on a short journey to a neighbour’s house, This is how she sets out ‘I am definite to start with’, but another world begins to encroach. It is late autumn, possibly coming up to Halloween, a time of magic and shape-shifting. It is typical of Boland to resist the temptation to slip into anything reminiscent of the Celtic Twilight. In the half-light, the path begins to blur and suddenly a tree speaks to her – it is the metamorphosed tree of Greek myth, perhaps the nymph Daphne, who was pursued by Apollo and who cried out to Gaia for help and was changed into a laurel tree, or perhaps Leuce who as pursued by Pluto and changed by a jealous Persephone into a white poplar tree. We do not know which of the nymphs Boland refers to, but she invokes a sense of danger, of the uncanny, in this most controlled of environments.
Boland is wary of myth, subversive of myth, resistant to myth and yet she draws upon its power to enormous effect in many of her poems – most particularly in her poem ‘The Pomegranate’ which refers to Ceres, the Roman goddess of the harvest, who presided over grains and the fertility of the earth and who was also the goddess of marriage and the cycle of life and death. Her daughter Persephone had been abducted by the God of the Underworld, Hades, as she was out plucking flowers. Discovering that she was gone, Ceres searched high and low for her, She learned from Hecate – the farsighted one – where Persephone had gone to but was unable to enter the kingdom of the dead. Her heart grew cold. She neglected her duty of fostering growth so that the earth was laid waste for an entire year and nothing grew. Such was the desolation that Jupiter was prevailed upon to send Mercury down into the underworld to petition Hades to allow Persephone to return. Eventually he agreed to let her go but he offered her a pomegranate to Persephone, who had refused all food or drink since her abduction. She ate six seeds of it before she returned to earth to be rejoined with her mother. Ceres was overjoyed to see Persephone again but dismayed when she heard of the pomegranate seeds. Because Persephone had eaten the food of the underworld, she would have to return there for three months of every year. So each year for the period when she went down to Hades, Ceres went into mourning, neglecting her duties so that winter and the other seasons came to the earth for the first time.
Boland open ‘The Pomegranate’ by quite explicitly voicing her reservations about myth. She says that she makes an exception for this particular myth, that she loves this legend because she can identify with if from several different angles. Firstly, as a child in exile in a London of fog and strange accents she had felt like Persephone in the land of the Shades, as Hades was called. Later, she reminisces, as a young mother, she had felt like Ceres when she went out to collect her little daughter at bedtime to carry her home in the summer dusk
When she came running I was ready
To make any bargain to keep her.
She carries her home past whitebeams and wasps, knowing, with an adult’s knowledge, that winter was in store for every leaf and every living thing on the road. The poem then shifts back to the present, as she looks in on her sleeping teenager and notices the uncut apple on the plate beside the sleeping girl’s bed. She relates the apple to the pomegranate in Persephone’s story and comes to a sudden and painful realization that, in spite of her instinct to protect her daughter as a small child, she would be failing as a mother if she did not allow her daughter to eat the fruit, the equivalent of Persephone’s eating the six pomegranate seeds, and so to allow her to experience the seasons of life, the waking of her own sexuality and the necessary separation from her mother.
But what else can a mother give her daughter but such beautiful rifts in time?
If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift.
For Boland, therefore, the other world is sometimes the other world of Roman and Greek myth, of Hades, the Land of Shades, dark and fraught with danger. It is however, territory which must be negotiated as part of the deal of being fully human.
She is also extremely conscious of the more tangible underworlds which young women must negotiate. In spite of, indeed possibly because of, her own cosmopolitan background, in poem after poem, she takes it upon herself to bear witness to the women who have been denied a voice, whose story has never been told – young women who have disappeared unaccountably or the young women whom she mentions elsewhere in her work, who were claimed by the underworld in different ways – the women who went into the workhouses with their children, young impoverished female emigrants, the women who died of so many plagues and famines.
The world of Roman and Greek mythology is also of central importance in the poetry of Seamus Heaney. He opens his 1991 collection ‘Seeing Things’ with a translation of a passage from the Aeneid. It seems to me that this particular collection may have marked a candid, yet cautious, opening to a sense of the transcendent. The title of the collection is a typical Heaney sleight of mind, with its dual meaning of ‘seeing things’ in the colloquial sense, imagining things which are not there at all, and ‘seeing things’ in the sense of the scales falling off one’s eyes, of becoming conscious of things in their complex and frequently mysterious reality. The frontispiece of the volume is a translation of a passage from the Aeneid, when Aeneas, the Trojan hero, is pleading with the Sybil or prophetess of Cumae to tell him how to descend into the underworld to visit his dead father Anchises. In Heaney’s translation, the Sybil is ‘
‘making the cave echo with sayings where clear truths and mysteries were inextricably entwined.’
We are already in the territory of poetry, that territory ‘where clear truths and mysteries are entwined’. Aeneas pleads with the prophetess ‘Tell me the way to open the holy doors wide’ Heaney’s translation here is reminiscent of the English poet/mystic William Blake’s image of ‘The Doors of Perception’. ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.’
The prophetess tells Aeneas that if Jupiter favours him he will be able to negotiate
‘The murk of Tartarus and pluck the golden bough, ‘
This bough, we are told, which grows in the woods around the Sybil’s cave, comes away easily for those few chosen by Jupiter and another one immediately grows in its place, but nobody else can move it. The Golden Bough has long been associated with the gift of poetry, which can explore and bring light down into the underworld of the human unconscious, which can bring back news of what happens there and can sometimes even bring healing. Aeneas is told that if he succeeds in plucking the Golden Bough, he is to carry it down to Persepnone, the queen of the underworld, to whom it belongs. So there is this strong sense of poetry belonging in large part to the underworld of the unconscious.
The first poem in this collection, ‘The Journey Back’, is an invocation of the shade of the twentieth century English poet Philip Larkin, quoting Dante. In his Divine Comedy, Dante, guided by the roman poet Virgil had visited the underworld,. So from the beginning of Seeing Things, from the title, the frontispiece translation focusing on the Golden Bough and the opening poem, we are given the message that the volume is journeying into mysterious territory, although, as Heaney says in ‘The Journey Back’, the opening poem ‘ It felt more like the forward journey back into the heartland of the ordinary.’ – because, of course the extraordinary is always in the ordinary, it is a matter of being able to perceive it, of ‘seeing things’.
The Poem ‘Markings’ is indeed located in the heartland of the ordinary – boys playing football in a field at evening. This poem can be read in many ways – at face value as reminiscence, or as a statement regarding the necessary structure of a poem, or the necessary structure of a life. It can also be read as a poem about those things which can be seen and verified and those which cannot, those things which can be measured, which need to be measured, and those which resist and elude measurement, which of their nature ignore and transcend boundaries.
We marked the pitch: four jackets for four goalposts,
That was all. The corners and the squares
Were there like longitude and latitude
Under the bumpy thistly ground,
Readers of a certain age will remember seeing this scene a hundred times, and some may have participated on many occasions in just such a game. The jackets thrown down to mark the goal posts were the only visible part of the pitch, apart from the bumpy field, overgrown with thistles. The rest of the pitch was imagined – the corners, the sidelines, even the line between the two teams as the teams were picked. And notice again the double-entendre in the word ‘Pitch’ – in one sense, simply the football field, in another the musical register, the tone of discourse. I am inclined to think that, in the way in which Kavanagh’s late sonnets marked a change of tone and even pitch in his work, Seamus Heaney’s ‘Seeing things’ marked a change of tone, of pitch for him. In ‘Fostering’, a later poem from this same collection Heaney speaks of ‘waiting until I was nearly fifty to credit marvels’. He may perhaps mean that fifty or so is the age where people start to worry less about proprieties of one kind or another and begin to trust the evidence of their own deepest experience.
But we have strayed from the game. The limits of play are ‘like longitude and latitude/ Under the bumpy, thistly ground.’ Already, in the first four lines, we have the tension between the world of the meadow, the rough ground, the four jackets, the youngsters, and the world of abstraction – the imaginary sidelines and corners like longitude and latitude ‘to be agreed or disagreed about when the time came’. These abstract markings, although invisible, are absolutely necessary for the functioning of the game. We can think of them metaphorically, if we wish, as the loose, structural boundaries which contain a poem in free verse, or the conventional, moral and cultural boundaries which contain a life, or a society.
As with Yeats’ Poem and Eavan Boland’s, the action is set as the light begins to fade, the clear light of reason, where all can be seen clearly, where all can be controlled. The boys continue to play on in the half light as ‘the actual ball came to them/ like a dream heaviness. The rhythm and ritual of the game sustain them at this point and they are carried on by its momentum as the markings disappear in the half-light. This perhaps, is how we live a great deal of our lives.
As I said, this poem can be read at the level of memoir – and it is wonderfully evocative at this level – the word ‘youngster’ for instance, locating it in a sepia-tinted era before the words ‘adolescent’ or ‘teenager’ were common currency in Ireland. It can also be read as a poem about the writing of poetry. How the formal technique, the metre, the line, the stanza, are what energize the poem, and get it rolling until it takes on its own life and like the game, its own momentum keeps it going even though the boundaries are no longer visible.
The poem then shifts back abruptly to other markings and lines, we are given a catalogue of the pleasures of precision and planning,
…….lines pegged out in the garden,
The spade nicking the first straight edge along
The tight white string.
Or string stretched to mark house foundations,
Pale timber battens set at right angles
For every corner, each freshly sawn new board
Spick and span in the oddly passive grass.
Everything is straight, the pegged string, the line marked by the spade, the timber battens, the imaginary line down a field of grazing
And then in the last stanza all these straight lines, these precisions prove to be doors into strangeness, as the regularities of verse can prove to be a door into mystery.
The last five lines veer off into the surreal, carried by the line and rhythm of ordinary farm activity into the poetic.
We are given three ordinary, rhythmic actions which do strange dream-like things:-
The mower, using a scythe, parts a golden sea; someone does the impossible, with a windlass and a bucket, in hauling the centre out of the well’s water, and two men with a cross saw, sawing a felled tree, appear to be rowing the steady earth.
These are perhaps what Keats calls ‘the truths of the imagination’ and this particular collection is full of them.
In yet another short and very well-known poem from this collection we are given an image of the monks at Clonmacnoise at prayer when a ship appeared above them in the air and its anchor hooked itself into the altar rails. A crewman shinned and down the rope/and struggled vainly to release it. The abbot said that they would have to help him, so the monks did as they were asked to do and the man ‘climbed out of the marvellous as he had known it.’ Explicit in this poem is a sense that we do inhabit two worlds, the world of the rational and a world which is not quite amenable to reason, that we spend our lives negotiating between the two, and that one cannot be explained or understood within the terms and vocabulary of the other, only experienced as ‘the marvellous’.
The marvellous, the surreal and the numinous are central to the work of, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, at whose poetry I would like to look next. She seems more than almost any other contemporary Irish poet to have the gift of telling the truth, but telling it slant, as exhorted by Emily Dickenson. Her poems do not yield up their meanings easily yet they have tremendous emotional force. Many of her poems are full of cloisters, churches and saints, viewed from a quietly subversive angle. She has spent much of her life in Italy and her poetry is imbued with the images of Italian art, particularly sacred art, and of architecture. It is full of airy spaces and of life rendered strange when viewed obliquely. In ‘Fireman’s Lift’ she writes of a memory of seeing a painting of the assumption of the Virgin Mary thirty years previously in the dome of Parma cathedral. The entire inside of the this dome is frescoed by Antonio Da Correggio, with a scene of dozens and dozens of little cherubs with plump flailing legs pulling together to lift the Virgin Mary towards the light at the centre of the dome.
Where the church splits wide open to admit
Celestial choirs, the fall-out of brightness.
The virgin was spiralling to heaven,
Hauled up in stages.
NÍ Chuilleanáin proceeds to present the sublime in extremely matter-or-fact terms, and has the angels heaving and hauling at the Virgin, supporting and crowding her, introducing an earthiness into this most celestial of scenes, the cherubs struggling to push the mother of God up past the edge of the clouds. She writes of how the painter worked in collusion with the architecture and refers to the inside of the dome as a ‘wide stone petticoat’ again anchoring the miraculous in the ordinary world. The scene as she portrays it is almost playful. She then tells us, in a line reminiscent of the later Kavanagh at his most candid: –
“This is what love sees, that angle,
The crick in the branch loaded with fruit,
A jaw defining itself, a shoulder yoked.
Eavan Boland quotes her mother’s painting teacher as having said that ‘There is a place in the painting where the soul sits.’ It seems to me that this is the place in this poem, these magnificent lines, where the soul sits, which celebrate a luminous moment
Ní Chuilleanáin also draws frequently on motifs from folklore and fairy tale. In ‘Following’, she gives us a dream-like sequence where the narrator is following ‘Her father’s coat through the fair’ then finds herself ‘tracing his footsteps across the shivering bog by starlight’ a bog which is full of ghosts and spectres. She finally discovers him in a library,
‘Where the light is clean
his clothes all finely laundered’,
and in this library
‘the square of white linen
That held three drops
Of her blood is shelved
Between the gatherings
That go to make a book.
There is nothing sanitized or sentimental about her use of folk tales. She uses them as Perseus used his shield, as a mirror in which to view the terrible, without being paralysed by it. She brings the adult reader into the world of folktale to explore themes of danger, loss and redemption – nowhere more, perhaps than in ‘The Girl who Married the Reindeer’. This is the story of a girl who went out alone to pick sloes, who met a reindeer and who rode off on his back as they journeyed into the north. Fifteen months later, she arrived home ‘hunched on the back of a trader’ for her sister’s wedding. There was evidence that she had had a child in the meantime. Her family bathed her and tidied her up. Her sister’s mother-in-law, the old queen, gave her a potion which make her forget her life in the north. She settled into a life of order and domesticity in her family home. Ten years later the reindeer died and, in death, his body turned into that of a handsome man. His son headed south to find his mother who initially does not recognize him. This is a theme which appears in different forms in cultures worldwide, the young girl, or young man who marries a wild creature and who returns to her or his own culture greatly changed. There are many Scottish and Irish legends of seal women who come out to sunbathe on the rocks, taking off their sealskins to reveal a human form. A fisherman spies the beautiful seal-woman, hides her skin and persuades him to come home with him. She has children with him and forgets her own people until one day, when the husband is away at the market, she finds her sealskin hidden in the thatch. She puts it on and returns to the sea. She does however often swim near to the shore to talk to her husband and children. Various families in the west of Ireland and Scotland claim kinship with the seals on this account. Sligo has the legend of Oisin, the poet of the Fianna who was found on the side of Ben Bulben. His father was Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his mother was a woman who had been bewitched and turned into a doe. All of these stories are, perhaps, about the difficult, yet necessary integration of various aspects of our nature – the social, domesticated, civic rational aspect of our humanity and the more instinctual, sensual aspect. It is interesting that in the Fionn Mac Cumhaill legend it is Oisin, the embodiment of poetry, who mediates between the two worlds.
The boy in Eiléan Ní Chuilleanain’s ‘The Girl who married the Reindeer’, is an Oisín-like figure. He appears
‘Led by the migrating swallows
The boy from the north stood in the archway
That looked into the courtyard where water fell,
His arm around the neck of his companion –
A wild reindeer staggered by sunlight.’
Just as he arrives, the old queen, who has been ailing, dies in the tower. Her spell is loosed and the boy’s mother recognizes her son. The breaking of the spell is the moment of epiphany, the moment when something reveals itself to us. The Witch in the Tower, as the queen is referred to, relates to a conservative, fearful and reductive sense of reality. The boy had been there already but the spell which had bound his mother, the world view with which she had been constrained, prevented her from recognizing him. But now she sees his body in a surprising image of ‘a snake pouring over the ground’. This is not the Christian vision of the snake crushed under the virgin’s heel, but something more like the snake of Asclepius, a deity associated with healing and medicinal arts in Greek mythology. The snake, because it shed its skins, was symbol of healing and rebirth. The symbol of the serpent is also closely associated with Goddess worship. The poem closes with the beautiful lines
‘The light groove on his chest
Like the meeting of two tidal roads, two oceans.
The groove is the groove which we see on a deer’s chest but here the deer man’s son has it, bringing together in a most tender way, as with Oisín, the animal and the human. Maybe, these poems and folktales are also a reminder of our place in and our unity with the natural world, which civilization and technology conspire to make us forget.
The breaking of the spell is the moment of epiphany, the moment when something reveals itself to us. We could hazard a guess that the witch in the tower relates somehow to a conservative, fearful and reductive sense of the world. The boy had been there all along but the spell she was under, the world view with which she was constrained, prevented her from recognizing him. But now she sees his body in that surprising image of ‘a snake pouring over the ground’ .This is not the Christian vision of the snake crushed under the virgin’s heel, but something more like the snake of Asclepius, a deity associated with healing and medicinal arts in Greek mythology. The snake, because it shed its skins was a symbol of healing and rebirth. The poem closes with the beautiful lines
“The light groove scored on his chest
Like the meeting of two tidal roads, two oceans.
The groove is the groove which we see on a deer’s chest but here the deer man’s son has it, bringing together in a most tender way, as with Oisin, the animal and the human. Maybe these poems and folktales are also a reminder of our place in and our unity with the natural world, which civilization and technology conspire to make us forget.
I have chosen to focus on five poems by five modern Irish poets. There are at least ten other Irish poets whose work I would like to look at in the context of Levertov’s fourth dimension. Jane Hirschfield, in her marvellous triad of essays, Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise, writes that
‘The encounter with the unknown is a nutrient in life as essential as certain vitamins, without it the soul falls into sleep, depression and despair.’ She claims that it is their inability to be known completely that infuses aliveness into good poems. And she quotes Donald Hall as having said that a good poem is a house with a secret room at it s centre, the place in which all that cannot be paraphrased is stored. The room can never be opened to ordinary habitation, yet its presence changes the house.
I lived for many years near the centre of Galway City. One of the pleasures of living there is the way in which the sea comes right into the heart of the city and fills it with light. For several years, I had been taking a daily walk along Nimmo’s pier and one day I noticed what I at first thought was a wellington boot floating near the quay wall. On closer inspection the boot had two eyes and was inspecting me. I had had no idea that seals came into the estuary and up the river and even the canal, that they had been swimming beside me, unobserved, for years just under the surface of the water, as I had walked the pier. After that, as I looked out for them I began to see them quite frequently, sometimes singly, sometimes several together at the time of the spring tide. Any morning I saw one it seemed like a kind of a blessing. It occurred to me that the Connemara pronunciation of the Irish word for ‘seal’, rón, is almost identical to the word rún, which means ‘secret’. I began to think of the seals as emissaries from the underwater world. Their rhythms of emerging and disappearing, their fluidity, contrasted starkly with the noise of morning traffic and of building sites. On a fine still morning I felt that there is only a thin skin between this world and ‘the other’. I loved the fact that, as mammals, they had to negotiate between two worlds. They needed to come up to breathe and to breed. On a metaphorical level they resemble us in that we are both creatures who need to negotiate between elements. We cannot live all the time in a humdrum world of work, eat, sleep – a world where we are only producers and consumers. We need to rise out of that world to allow our spirits to breathe, whether it is to climb a mountain or to hear a quartet by Mozart or a tune by Myles Davis or John Doherty or to read a poem, or dance or look at a painting by Jack B Yeats, where he has a country boy riding home on Pegasus.
Poetry seems unnecessary for survival, music seems unnecessary, dance seems unnecessary, painting seems unnecessary and yet it is impossible to imagine a human society surviving without at least some of these arts.
Years ago I stumbled upon a remarkable quotation from Frederico Fellini, which I hesitate to use because it might seem to make a very large claim. However, if we think of him as an Italian filmmaker, as the inheritor of the mantle of renaissance artist I think that his claim may be allowed.
What is an artist? A provincial who finds himself somewhere between a physical reality and a metaphysical one. Before this metaphysical reality we are all of us provincial. Who are the true citizens of transcendence? The saints. But it’s this in-between that I’m calling a province, this frontier-country between the tangible world and the intangible one – which is really the realm of the artist.