The consumption of poetry and music in this town proceeds at a pace so rapid that the upcoming Fleadh Cheoil, the world’s biggest trad music festival, seems an impossibility – surely, there can’t be any more to do. But residents of Sligo expect the population to double from 10-17 August, with fiddles and pipes on every corner, bridge, and balcony.
The Gallery Press Reading
On Wednesday I attended one in a series of Tread Softly Festival readings at the Methodist Church on Wine Street. This one featured Andrew Jamison, Ciaran Barry, and Ciaran Carson, three of the most widely read poets from Ireland’s premiere poetry publisher, The Gallery Press. There to kick things off was poet, editor, translator, and Gallery Press founder Peter Fallon who first brought up Jamison.
The specificity of Jamison’s images was what first struck me – his poems at times approached lists (albeit beautiful lists). “Let’s face the music, go back to the ballroom,” he says in a poem about Chekhov’s Olga Mikhailovna, trading in the cliche for an original image; “everyone will wonder where we’ve been.” The poem is as much about his enchantment with Chekhov’s character as it is with Chekhov’s short stories themselves. (A story, Jamison said in an aside, is like a dram of whiskey; a novel, like a pint of Guinness. And poetry? He left that metaphor for us to spin.)
In “Amen,” composed of memories of his grandmother, he says, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us.” The omission haunts us; we can’t help but hear the ghosts of the words he left out. The meaning of the rote phrase is thrown open: deliver us from evil, deliver us from good, deliver us from knowledge and remembering and not remembering and responsibility. Deliver us.
After a week in a seminar with Professor Herbet Tucker (of the University of Virginia) my ears were attuned to Jamison’s prosody. His careful consciousness here, his subtle rhymes, refreshed my senses dulled from a life lived in the land of the free verse.
Ciaran Barry then performed, a contemporary of Jamison’s though with three volumes already published; he spoke with a slight tremulance in the back of his throat, like a priest incanting a prayer the power of which fears him, or a potter holding a bowl delicate from the fire.
His poems were more surreal and less concrete than Jamison’s, suited to his style of recitation (which, I suppose, might hearken to W. B. Yeats’ famous BBC readings). His themes were predominantly historical, and he explored them with understated humor, muted pathos, and sensitivity. “Electrocuting An Elephant,” the true surreal story of Thomas Edison testing his new electrocution device and camera, ended unforgettably: with “One eye open that I wish I could close.”
Finally the eldest poet, Ciaran Carson, closed the night. Rather, though, it was an opening and a closing: he began and ended his reading with tunes on his tin pipe, strange old melodies that took the audience, for a time, into a new dimension of aural and emotional understanding. Carson read original poems and a series of poems he had translated from French.
“Do we not wander the byways of language? I don’t know what it means but it sounds great,” he said, and sent us off into the night, down other byways of language and thought and – most essentially – sound.
Joan McBreen’s The Mountain Ash of Connemara CD release and reception
I’ve been lucky enough to call Joan McBreen – esteemed Irish poet, daughter of Sligo, and veteran of the Yeats school for some thirty years – my seminar classmate for the past week. On Thursday she released The Mountain Ash of Connemara, a CD of selected work set to new arrangements by Glen Austin, and performed by the RTE ConTempo Quartet, and the launch was one of the most moving of the moments that have arrested me since I landed in Ireland. The string quartet’s masterful interpretation of Austin’s scores had what the Irish call “the true drop,” something distilled from the natural elements on which Joan draws in her poetry into a elixir. We hung on every unexpected pluck of the strings – we soared on new melodies suddenly familiar.
One thing was obvious at the 6pm reception in the Glasshouse Hotel: Joan McBreen has many, many friends. Two tenors sang a cappella lays of soldiers and lost love; one of the tenors recited a bawdy poem; Yeats Society President Damien Brennan and Summer School Assistant Director Matthew Campbell gave speeches – and all the while Joan went around passing out sprigs of Mountain Ash. I wore one like a green and orange pocket square. There were reels and jigs; there was abundant wine; and spontaneous recitations of Yeats and Heaney and McBreen’s own poetry popped and crackled in different pockets and booths throughout the evening.
When the party was winding down, Joan approached the booth with all the youngest Yeatsians. “You’re all students, you don’t have any money,” she said as she passed out copies of her new CD.
Stiff-arming a creeping cold and stifling a cough, Sinéad Morrissey opened a copy of Parallax, her fifth collection of poetry, which won her the T.S. Eliot Prize this past January – but she didn’t look down. Instead she recited a poem from memory, reciting in her measured, mousey, forward-moving voice.
“If the rain could be translated into words, Little You, and Little Me, Little You, and Little Me, would be the closest thing to meaning you could catch,” she said, her eyes never breaking from her audience.
Sinéad told bizarre and engrossing tales of her childhood in Belfast, and of moments in time beyond her own life appropriated for her artistic “thesis” of parallax: the first jigsaw puzzle, made in 1766; David Nivens riding an elevator to heaven. She brought us to the Belfast Communist party’s annual Christmas Bazaar, and gave us nail-shaped pencils for Maggie Thatcher’s coffin.