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AN UNSCHEDULED LIFE:

Adam Wyeth reviews a collaborative publication by Joseph Horgan & Brian Whelan

 

 

Adam Wyeth in Southword Journal

ADAM WYETH was born in Sussex in 1978, and moved to Ireland, County Cork in 2000. His debut collection Silent Music was published by Salmon Poetry in 2011 and was commended by the Forward Poetry Prize (2012). His poetry has won and been commended in many competitions, including The Fish International Poetry Competition (winner, 2009). His work appears in several anthologies including The Forward Prize Anthology (2012) and The Best of Irish Poetry (2010). His poems have appeared in many literary magazines and journals, including: The Stinging Fly, The SHOp, Poetry London and Magma. Wyeth is a member of the Poetry Ireland Writers in Schools Scheme and a featured poet on the Poetry International Web. His forthcoming book, The Hidden World of Poetry: Unravelling Celtic mythology in Contemporary Irish Poetry is due out with Agenda in February 2013. He runs an international online Creative Writing workshop at www.adamwyeth.com.

 

 

 

 

An Unscheduled Life

An Unscheduled Life

Joseph Horgan & Brian Whelan

(Agenda Editions, 2012)

ISBN: 978-1908527073

£9 paperback

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An Unscheduled Life is a new collaborative work of poetry and drawings by Joseph Horgan and Brian Whelan about the lives of Irish immigrants in industrialised England. Every poem and picture works closely together like sections of a puzzle joining the fragmentary lives that exist on the edge of society. The combination makes for a haunting book with every poem and drawing enhancing the view of the other's perspective.

 

Both artists were born in England of Irish immigrant parents and while there is humour and richness to the strong Irish communities, there’s a sense of lament underlying each poem and drawing. Joseph Horgan, winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2004, published his first collection Slipping Letters Beneath the Sea in 2008 with Doghouse Press. In 2010 he published his second book The Song at Your Backdoor (Collins), a prose work about walking and cycling around West Cork. Brian Whelan, since his training at the Royal Academy, has painted from memory the city of his childhooddepicting life’s glories and tragedies on both religious and secular plains. His religious art hangs in many cathedrals and churches across England, Spain and Poland. His other artwork also includes CD covers for bands, including The Popes with Shane MacGowan.

 

While the bulk of the poems hail from Birmingham, where Horgan grew up, Irish characters hover behind every street, and around every corner, "never closed on a view of somewhere else". Ireland is roused like an otherworldly lady just out of reach where "love passes over like a weather front". The poems are not honed into any particular form but seem to organically take shape as momentary vignettes, captured like scraps of litter floating in the wind. Likewise Whelan’s lively illustrations – there’s one on each left-hand of the page – embody a childlike flamboyancy, many of them displaying a dashed-off panache as if scribbled quickly on the back of a napkin. These aspects are what give this book its unique and moving aesthetic. Nearly every Irish character depicted is caught in flux, none of them are settled; both artists’ complimentary styles capture the transience of immigration. It is in this vein of apparent incompleteness that makes the poems and sketches so artistically complete. The edges of poems and blank spaces between the line drawings become part of the lost voices of the Irish diaspora.

 

In the poem ‘Incomplete’ Horgan conjures a lively pub scene that becomes, in its singsong bustle, an allegory for the complexity of growing up Irish abroad where "revolution was just around the corner". Beginning with the first line, "We live there forever", the speaker is uncertain whether he is "reduced/ or is it enlarged by songs", symbolizing Irish identity. The poem weaves in and out of characters, "rebel songs… endless mass…" evoking both the smoky bar, "in a place where we couldn’t exhale…" and the confinement of being Irish abroad; the pun of "exile" ghosting in the word "exhale". By the close, the poem echoes back to the start, but this time resolving "it does not reduce us/ in any way/ just/ makes us/ forever". The circular refrain echoes the circular motion of Irish traditional music, becoming "forever", as if eternally entwined in a Celtic knot. The brief but bold understatement appears a riposte to those who deny and denigrate the second-generation Irish born in Britain.

 

Horgan was reared in Birmingham’s large Irish immigrant community. While the characters, music, pub-talk and church-going that haunt these poems show all the characteristics of an Irish upbringing, the clashing street names such as "Imperial Road or Lower Dartmouth street" suggests an incongruity. Ireland is always that "somewhere else" like Tir na nÓg. In the poem ‘Holyhead’ the speaker observes "strangers/ coming back home… to a place that didn’t exist". The transient and volatile lives keep them on the outskirts like ghosts. The evocative poem, ‘I met my father in the street and we shook hands’ begins:

 

I saw you in the distance he said,

like the moon on a winter’s day.

 

The sense of unsettlement and drifting is evident throughout making it hard to tie any one person down. In ‘The biography of Billy Matthews’ the elusive character stands for "A generation of missing people".

 

‘How irish women survived’ is another haunting portrait, this time trying to capture the poet’s mother, beginning, "I will not give up on this drawing of you". The poem examines how those who left Ireland were "restless in both places, even when returning to Ireland". The difficulty of trying to draw immigrants becomes a fitting metaphor for someone sitting for a portrait as the poem concludes, "I cannot draw you, if you will not sit still". Whelan’s adjoining picture depicts an old woman in a chair that has the crooked sparseness, evocative of some of Picasso’s sketches. The white space around the lines of the drawing stifle like a blanket of silent confinement, becoming a heart-breaking response to Horgan’s title, ‘How irish women survived’. This is poetry and visual art working at its best together.

 

Similarly, Horgan’s prose poem ‘City centre’ sits fittingly in the centre of the collection as a single square paragraph. It begins, "I have the old city in me and factories of the hand. I have smoke-fogged pubs at the end of corners." The poem continues with the "I have" litany reaching a cumulative effect. Whelan’s illustration opposite is a square-shaped sea of magazines, in the middle of which is the head of a street vendor in a paddy cap puffing a pipe. The surprise of the drawing against the poem enhances both pieces, each one deepening and adding to the other's perspective.

 

In the poem ‘Growing up irish’, Horgan describes "going home on the ferry" as an "aberration". The lower case ‘i’ in Irish again, suggesting the uncertainty and ambivalence in identity. Going home requires negotiating "a different terrain". The poem’s disquieting end, "In the end Ireland/ cut the ground beneath us", gives a sense of the speaker in the poem hanging in the air feeling, paradoxically neither one or the other. This idea of not being able to return to Ireland as fully Irish subtly evokes other Celtic myths, such as the Voyage of Bran returning from his journeys in the otherworld, the Land of Promise, and turning into dust as he touches Irish soil.

 

Even in the erotic ‘For the love of streets’, beginning, "In the northern city/ I lift your dress," there is the sense of being on the outskirts. The poet’s frenzied eye is aware of the "clamour beneath your skin" and "lives of quiet repetition".

 

Rather than being only a lament for a lost world, many of the poems cast a cold eye on Irish life. In the poem ‘When fathers were monsters’ the speaker suggests a connection between political and domestic violence when "bombers/ become nothing but fathers".

 

In the final poem ‘Last orders’, Horgan makes the brilliant metaphorical link between the Celtic sea and black stout:

 

The waters of leaving were black.

Nobody saw me. I watched the prow cutting

Sea like soil.

 

Whelan’s illustration depicts a table of pint glasses half-empty with stout. In this picture there are no people, "like the night" they have gone. But the fact that there is a glass on its side spilling the black stuff off the table and forming a puddle on the floor evokes the state of flux. This final departure of being gone and showing half-empty glasses evokes mutability along with half empty lives. The whole collection of pictures and poems becomes one whole metaphor for Ireland’s emigration spilling out across the "black ocean". Like so many of the poems and drawings, it is what is left unsaid and unseen that give this work its atmospheric power. An Unscheduled Life is a book of great heart and subtlety. While it may be a personal exploration and invocation to both the artists’ childhoods, its themes of rootlessness make it relevant to many of the shifting societies today.

 

©2012 Adam Wyeth

 

Author Links

 

Adam Wyeth at Poetry International Web

Wyeth's author page at Salmon Poetry

Nuala Ní Chonchúir interview with Wyeth

 

 

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