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Val Nolan

Val Nolan teaches contemporary literature and creative writing at NUI Galway. He regularly contributes criticism to publications including Poetry Ireland Review, The Sunday Business Post, PN Review and The John McGahern Yearbook. A poet and a fiction writer, he has been published in Southword, The Stinging Fly, Poetry Scotland, Crannóg and Revival. He was most recently invited to read on the emerging writer's panel at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature. NUIG awarded him the 2008/09 Oliver St. John Gogarty Scholarship and he is also the recipient of a Clarion Foundation Scholarship to study short fiction at University of California, San Diego.




To Ring in Silence: New and Selected Poems by Paddy Bushe

Even So: New and Selected Poems by Mark Roper



To Ring in Silence: New and Selected Poems
Paddy Bushe
(Dedalus 2008)
€25 bound/€16 paperback

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He moves easily between styles, "absorbing / The character of the times as quickly / As his brush soaks ink", says Paddy Bushe of ‘The Master Calligrapher’, one of the east Asian figures which people his verse, and – on the evidence of To Ring in Silence – a modest self-description of the poet himself.

Though born in Dublin, in 1948, and now living in Kerry, Bushe’s poetry extends further than the typical fault lines of Ireland’s rural/urban divide. From ‘Cross Slab, Church Island’ to ‘The Paving Stones of Tiananmen Square’, To Ring in Silence returns again and again to the writing and rewriting of history and literature on a global scale, to the collision of the fragile individual with a relentless, ever-changing world.

Out of the resulting cacophony, the 'Song of Amergin' is heard from a "black and slender" iPod; the "groaning ice" of a Greenland glacier "announces our impending doom"; we’re told of Gerard Manley Hopkins visiting Skellig Michael and of John Donne appearing in Beijing, and, of course why wouldn’t they? In Bushe’s poetry – well-learned and well-travelled – anything is possible.

This valuable, single volume codification of his work makes clear too the many ways in which Bushe’s everyman style is at odds with the grandiloquent pronouncements of writers who have come before him. The "Deadly / Dead generations" of ‘Proclamation’ tell those of Pearse’s Ireland to "Get off our backs" while ‘Digging’, meanwhile, seems to answer Heaney’s poem of the same name, chiding that "digging will discover nothing / Unless the ground has first / Been probed in the imagination".

Yet the most "crucial presence" here – as Bernard O’Donoghue puts it in his introduction – is that of Michael Hartnett. Like the late Limerick poet, Bushe writes in both English and Irish, slipping from one to the other with a refreshing disregard for the usual, careful segregation of Irish texts from their English-language brethren. Facing-page self-translations assist those without the cúpla focal, while, for those with the faculty, subtle differences between the texts provoke and enlighten.

‘Final Version’, a poem in Memory of Hartnett himself, captures beautifully just that mercurial aspect of translation, but it is in ‘A Present from Newcastlewest’ – a piece written for Hartnett’s partner Angela Liston – that Bushe’s recollection of his fellow writer is best realised:

This was Michael’s favourite stone, you said,
As you opened your fist and closed mine
Around your gift. Instinctively I paused, anticipating
The pun, the punchline, the Hartnett coup de grace.

Somehow it seems fitting that these memories of Hartnett are placed between ‘Li Bai’s Last Poem’ – evocation of the great Chinese writer who is said to have drowned while drunkenly trying to embrace the moon – and ‘Poets at Smerwick’, a sequence retelling the role of Ralegh and Spenser in one of the closing acts of Gaelic civilisation in Munster.

Like Hartnett, Bushe is well known for his versions from the Irish cannon, and pieces here rework Irish songs such as ‘Sean Ó Duibhir’ and ‘Dónal Óg’ into emotional English-language laments, the latter’s "God / Forgive me, I’ll take the boat’ taking on a renewed poignancy in the current climate."

Further sequences draw on the legends of Celtic bard Amergin for inspiration, though it is Bushe’s China verses – displaying the poet’s genuine affinity with Far Eastern society – which truly engage and delight. Like ‘butterflies and dragons’, the music and culture of Bushe’s Chinese cities and their hinterlands leap from the page declaring "Victory! History! Dynasty!". Among the Naxi, he witnesses how "the wandering spirits of those who died / By murder, suicide and war are danced / Into quietude" and "would have them dance all over Ireland […] where bodies have been found, and not found". There are even, perhaps uniquely, poems in Irish about China:

Agus an ghráin dhearg ag an bPáirtí
Ar éanacha beaga ceoil
As gach aon ghráinne cruithneachtan
A ghoideann siad idir portanna.

This international influence also seeps through in a smattering of translations and digressions on the craft of writing. In particular, two wonderful translations of Rilke’s ‘Buddha in Glory’ – one in English, one in Irish – are accompanied by the poem ‘Translating “Buddha in Der Glorie”’, itself translated into ‘Ag Aistriú “Buddha in Der Glorie”’ as conventional demarcations between languages and influences are done away with by Bushe’s work. Indeed, To Ring in Silence proves his to be one of the most accessible and immediate poetries currently bridging the gap between our two languages and the world.

Anything but parochial, this volume demonstrates the far-reaching and attentive talent of a voice to whom ornate or baroque poetry is anathema; a writer for whom "inscription / Is simpler in stone". As it is with ‘The Master Calligrapher’, so too it is with Paddy Bushe: "These are the broad strokes. The detail / Is where his controlling genius shows".

©2009 Val Nolan



Even So: New and Selected Poems
Mark Roper
(Dedalus 2008)
€22 bound/€14 paperback

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Nature has always loomed large in the poetry of Mark Roper; that much has never been in doubt. Nonetheless, when one peruses the titles of his recent work – ‘Barn Owl’, ‘Hummingbird’, ‘Swallow’, ‘Woodpecker’ and ‘Heron’ being a representative selection – it is impossible to ignore the intensification of this focus in the last half-decade or so. Roper, working away steadily in the Kilkenny countryside, has become not just a nature poet, but a fully fledged bird poet to boot.

Though born in England in 1951, Roper is no blow-in, having lived in Ireland since 1980. A creative writing teacher and a former editor of Poetry Ireland Review, his work has long been a familiar presence in magazines and journals here. Indeed, the collections on which this selection draws – The Hen Ark (1990), Catching the Light (1997), The Home Fire (1998), and Whereabouts (2005) – have all been published or co-published with Irish presses. This is not to suggest though that Roper has been standing still.

One of the main strengths of this volume is how it demonstrates the distance Roper has travelled since his early work. Readers who only know the poet through, say, the widely reviewed Whereabouts, may be surprised at the bodily concerns of The Hen Ark, a collection through which coroners rummage for "trinket of cyst or tumour", and skin "conceals a labyrinth / of water".

No doubt ‘Ann Jackson’, the story of an 18th century Waterford girl born with horns, is the most obvious example of this.

Maculate conception.
hornchild, scapegrace,

I wish her a fair hearing,
an absence of mirrors,

The early work further displays Roper’s mastery of the comma, an easy mark to use badly, and his sense of humour. ‘The Last Tiger in Piltown’ ("lent his name to / a wide variety of jungle products") and ‘The Census’ ("'I don’t care what you find,' / said the Sergeant […] just don’t / find me any more land") both from Catching the Light, manage to amuse the reader without ever seeming smug.

But Roper is less inclined to explore absurdities in his newer work. Among the weightier writing here, the reader encounters occasional pieces of Ekphrastic verse – ‘Manet’s “The Fifer”’, for instance, or ‘Van Gogh’s “The Farm”’ – in which Roper meditates on the perspective his own eyes bring to the paintings. There are love poems too, and touching pieces about family, though of course it is the nature poetry which dominates.

While Roper has been praised for presenting a de-romanticised portrait of nature, his writing seldom approaches the remorseless, Hughesian focus on the harshness of the natural world, and so can seem, of all things, sentimental on occasion (‘Goldcrest’, where the titular bird flies into a glass door and the poet waits to see if it will die, is an obvious exception). In lesser hands this outlook might seem trite, but Roper imbues a certain civility into the creatures of these poems. His barn owl, for instance, is said to be ‘farming the dark’, while cattle ‘come in ones and twos’ with all the quiet jocularity of Kavanagh’s cyclists.

The author’s birds fly low over houses and alight on home-made feeders, but in the main they keep to the edges of our world. Storks and swans appear out of mist or glide in from off the coast. In Roper’s poetry, as in life, the most meaningful encounters occur in states of liminality, ‘behind the rows of heavy skulls’ where lie ‘the heavier skulls of the hills,’ or far away from distraction where the only sound is ‘the farmgate’s one-note xylophone’.

Roper’s poetry is old-fashioned, though rarely old-hat, and British poet Carol Rumens – introducing the volume – characterises his work as reports on ‘lived, day-to-day experience’. Roper himself, in a startling moment which recognises our current ecological fragility, declares: ‘So that is what it was like to live / in that once green, that once blue world,’ and, sometimes, it is as though the poems here constitute a kind of time capsule into which the author has absorbed shared contemporary concerns.

As 'New and Selected' volumes go, Even So fulfils its function admirably. The book conveys the sense of a writer on the verge of a deepening theme, pausing to allow his readers opportunity to catch-up, but more than that, the new work here promises a new seriousness in its move away from reportage and towards what is coming to be thought of Eco-Poetry. Pieces like ‘Cut’, with its "two halves /still thinking they’re one", resonate with a changing world we no longer recognise:

So you drive to work
thinking of this and that
and suddenly find
you don’t know
what road you’re on

Yet it is down that path, along the line of the incision itself, that Roper’s verse is heading. The rich poetic naturalism of Even So is just a stop along the way.

©2009 Val Nolan



Author Links

Video of Nolan reading at the White House in Limerick

Article by Nolan for The Post about Ted Hughes

Nolan on the Gogarty Festival at Poetry Ireland




©2009 Southword Editions
Munster Literature Centre

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