Adam Wyeth reviews John Ennis's newest poetry collection
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 Salmon in autumn 2013. He runs an international online Creative Writing workshop at www.adamwyeth.com.
(Three Spires Press, 2012)
Postponing Ásbyrgi can be obtained from the author at Hightown, Coralstown, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, Ireland. All proceeds are going to Öryrki in Iceland, specifically to Andri Valgeirsson, programme manager, youth section. Price, Package & Postage total 15 euro. Also, from Graham at the Ewing Gallery, Glynmill Inn, Corner Brook, Newfoundland.
John Ennis is one of Ireland’s most well-established senior poets. With fourteen collections and a bevy of prizes behind him, he also has a special connection to Newfoundland and Labrador. As Head of the School of Humanities at Waterford Institute of Technology until his retirement in 2009, he was Chair of the Centre for Newfoundland and Labrador Studies. During his position he edited a book of Irish and Newfoundland poetry.
In his fascinating and perhaps most ambitious collection to date, Ennis turns his attention north again, this time to Iceland through the unlikely inspiration of the post-rock band, Sigur Rós. Ennis came relatively late to the band, only discovering them for the first time in 2011 while watching the award-winning 2007 documentary, Heima, (Icelandic for "home") which tracked a series of free concerts Sigur Rós gave in Iceland. Ennis fell for the band, hook, line and sinker, and has been strongly under the Sigur Rós spell ever since. Now that spell has transmuted into a book of remarkable poems that responds to their music.
While a senior Irish poet and a young post-rock band may sound like an unusual pairing, the unique ambience and epic range of Sigur Rós lends itself beautifully to poetry. In one poem Ennis describes their sound as "not music but translucence". A lot of Ennis’ previous poetry shows a fascination with music too. His elegy on the death of his father, ‘Listening to Mahler’s Resurrection’, is a poem in five movements with sub-sections that reflect the original symphony. In the reverse, Sigur Rós have strong ties to poetry. In 2001, they released Rímur featuring an Icelandic fisherman and musician, Steindór Andersen reciting traditional Icelandic epic poetry.
The collection is divided into eight sections – beginning with ‘Longship’ and ending with ‘Stradbally Hall’ where Ennis first saw the band perform live – the bulk of the poems are based on and named after the Heima concerts. Sometimes the poems are a kind of "emotion recollected in tranquillity" after the music, sometimes the poems happen as a meditative commentary when the music plays, other times the poems capture some of the band’s unique settings for musical arrangement, as in the poem ‘Reykjavík’: "... the Rós four grab at gardening gloves to play merimba [sic] down in a cave. / A stony glockenspiel in the perma depths to the flames of braziers, this frisson, / Sometimes music spills over in a hall where blue light and blue curtains rave … ".
Typical to Ennis’ work, the mystical and mythological is never far away. In the opening poem ‘Longship’ Ennis paints the familiar portrait of the singer leading from the front, his fans, a sea of faces before him. The poem begins with, "See him off now raiding the inarticulate ... ". Snatching the last words from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, Ennis keeps his sails close to Eliot’s wind. There is a sense of the epic and religious experience while listening to Jónsi Birgisson’s otherworldly "voice in the high latitudes where the sun knows little sleep". The double entendre on "high latitudes" encapsulates both the Nordic geography and the frontman’s falsetto voice. The poem’s high notes continue with, "He is the mast, the sail, the kerling, the sunstone of Icelandic spar." The metaphor of comparing Sigur Rós’ vast sound to watching a longship sailing "into future mists" is a clever and fitting analogy.
‘Longship’ at once captures the futuristic and epic sound of Sigur Rós while also containing something of the ancient world as well. This paradox takes its stance from Eliot’s Four Quartets again, that "Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future." In ‘Longship take two’ Ennis also adds a dash of Irish humour while watching the band from Europe’s most Northern outpost:
We were whisked off by you, trussed like sides of bacon
Across your shoulders that smelt of herring and cod...
The similes of "bacon" juxtaposed with "herring and cod", show two cultures becoming infused, while at the same time giving the flavour that all the poet’s senses are being ransacked. Listening to Sigur Rós, Ennis embarks like an Irish mythological hero on a voyage to other worlds. The cultural connections between Ireland’s mythological wonder tales and the ancient Icelandic sagas provide a deep context throughout the collection. The title name, ‘Ásbyrgi’ – as well as being the location of the last concert the band gave during their Heima tour – is a canyon that lies in the north of Iceland with strong links to mythology. According to legend, the horse of Odin, the chief god of Norse mythology, stepped down there leaving its giant hoof print.
In the poem ‘Salka’ – taken from (Iceland’s Nobel Prize winning author) Halldór Laxness’ political love story, Salka Valka – ancient folklore is linked with the currently topical. While the poem can be enjoyed simply for its ballad musicality, there are deeper resonances hidden within. The poem is dedicated to Nadia and Maria, two members of the Russian feminist punk-rock collective Pussy Riot who are still serving terms in prison after they descended on a Moscow church wearing vibrant balaclavas, lip-synching "Mother of God, get rid of Putin!" Ennis’ ballad begins:
Sleepy head, put down your head
It’s late, even the stars are in bed
Nothing for it, daughter, but sleep.
Figures mist in our heads. Don’t weep...
The poem also uses the Irish language refrain, "Mál – ál – aléo" taken from the traditional Irish song ‘Na Gamhna Geala’, that laments a woman who yearns for the carefree days she spent as a child with calves before becoming a prisoner to circumstance. She curses the priest who forced her to marry to an old man.
One of the remarkable qualities to this collection is how the poems often follow a similar pattern to Sigur Rós’ distinctive music, that begins with a slow downbeat which builds into a crescendo, or trailing off into repeated rises. Ennis also regularly uses the sonnet form, the rhythm and and rhymes giving the sway of music with the advantage of conversation between the octet and sestet, or opening quatrains, mid section and summary couplet. Various forms of rhyme knit the sound patterns together, as in the brilliant sonnet, ‘Rembihnútur’, meaning "black knot", which is also the title track of Sigur Rós’ 2012 record. The poem begins, "Slipneir, slip not, slip knot, some hope, o come down not/ Reef knot, square knot, the double fisherman’s / grinner knot… ". The woven word-music is tied up with Muldoonian wordplay and classical allusion. The overall quatrain structure, with rhyme, also reflects the Icelandic traditional four-line rímur.
However, more essential than form, it is the collection’s molecular exploration into sound itself which proves the most fascinating. "In the beginning was the Sound and the Sound was the / Sound of sounds… " begins the poem, ‘The Vonlenska of Jon’, showing that music and language are primarily one and the same. But sound also contains a more personal resonance to Ennis as well. Within the collection he writes about his own loss of hearing from Ménière's disease, a condition of unknown origin that affects the labyrinth of the ear causing progressive deafness and tinnitus.
Because I’m deaf by percentages in both ears
Well, seventy in the left and thirty in the right
Since the Ménière's in ninety-five left its scar
I like to motor alone wherever by day or night
The fiat sedici radio blasting trailing Hengilás.
Of course how we hear the world around us affects how we perceive it. Intriguingly, two of the giants of 20th century Irish literature, Joyce and Yeats, both had very different relationships with sound. While Joyce played the guitar and was a fine tenor who could have turned professional, Yeats was tone deaf. Beethoven’s almost complete loss of hearing radically transformed his later compositions and it’s interesting to consider how Ennis’ work may have changed since contracting Ménière's disease. Evidently from this collection based on music, it appears that Ménière's has made Ennis pay even closer attention to sound. In the poem ‘All the Big Trees, take two’ he refers to the condition again, this time going on to evoke the "humming chorus" of ash trees in a gale, only to reveal, "humming’s not an accurate word, / A gentler susurration that falls, rises, falls, rises… ". Ennis goes on to describe the sound of the leaves as "a thousand and one muted castanets, / And when your leaves are fallen at your buried feet / It is another all along the clean lines of your limbs." Like Beethoven, it appears that the loss and distortion of sound has given the poet greater intensity and emphasis to what he hears.
Time and again, Ennis strikes the right note in this formally layered and nuanced love letter to one of Iceland’s most innovative bands. The poems’ compressed expressions of warmth, intensity and startling metaphoric resonance reflect some of the moments of ecstasy and magic that occur as you listen to Sigur Rós. Those unfamilair with their music will be inspired to seek them out, while current fans will be transported further into the enigmatic and ethereal translucence which is brilliantly evoked in this lyrical and noteworthy collection.
©2013 Adam Wyeth
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Nuala Ní Chonchúir interview with Wyeth