I happened to hear of the Mountains to Sea Book Festival last time I was in Monkstown. A brochure had been left out at the local Comhaltas center, and as soon as I saw that the festival would offer an opportunity to meet writers like Eavan Boland, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Longley, I shifted my travel plans to accommodate a trip to Dun Laoghaire (very close to Monkstown).
As I arrive back in Monkstown for the festival, the most notable absence is that of Seamus Heaney, who was slotted for one of the keynote events.
(A sketch of Seamus, drawn as a gift for a friend)
I heard of Seamus’s death a few days ago while walking down the street in Kilkenny, from the voice of a radio persona broadcasting live in the streets. I feel immeasurably blessed to have met Seamus (probably the single most influential poet in my writing life) and shared a drink with him last year in Boston. I was taking a class on the works of Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel taught by their close friend and publisher, Peter Fallon, at Boston College. The class gave me the opportunity to re-read Seamus’s poetry and immerse myself in the history that surrounded his work. It feels surreal to be traveling in Ireland as a poet on the occasion of his death.
Seamus Heaney was, in many ways, the contemporary poetic voice of Ireland, of its political and social history, and yet he was known for his sweetness and humility as much as his work. Everyone in Dun Laoghaire is talking about Seamus– the writers, the attendees both local and international, the people in line to buy groceries. Every newspaper and television program seems dedicated to tributes.
One of the things that strikes me most about Ireland is the fact that literature is woven into the cultural fabric of the country. Storytelling, poetry, folklore, and music are the heart of the Irish sense of community. Seamus Heaney, as well as the poets whose work I’ve featured on this blog, are part of a literary legacy marked by writers like Yeats, Joyce, and Kavanagh. People in Ireland care about and identify with the work of their poets. They know their literature, embrace it, and share a communal belief that poetry can be a tool for cultural reparation. Seamus’s death is felt palpably everywhere I go; he leaves behind a body of work that documents a history of violence while also celebrating the simplest scenes.
Even as they grieve, the writers who have come to Dun Laoghaire are using this event to commemorate Seamus and to celebrate the vitality of the literary scene in Ireland. The poets whose readings I attend read Seamus’s poems and share anecdotes in conjunction with their own work. However, one of the most effective tributes these writers can pay is found in the beauty and uniqueness of their own work.
The best way for me to describe the eloquence and intelligence of these writers is through their words. I’ll share some of my favorite quotes, ideas, and excerpts of writing, along with pictures taken around Dun Laoghaire.
Event 1: Margaret Atwood
I’m the last person to make it in to see the sold-out Margaret Atwood event. Throughout the evening, I love the anecdotal quality of her conversation with Catriona Crowe. More time is spent talking about advances in science, animal hybrids, cooking, and botany than about the writing and promotion of her books. To give an example of a non-sequitur: “There’s a very good book out on edible weeds.”
During the Q&A, one member of the audience brings up another interview in which Atwood had discussed the correlation between language and creation/origin stories. She reiterates and elaborates her argument for her audience tonight: whenever you have a human language with a past tense, you end up with religion, or at least with creation myth. The child who asks “Where did I come from?” will eventually work his/her way back to an origin story. I find this argument compelling because religion and myth are often seen as defining marks of culture, and once she points it out, it seems obvious that the unique cultural trait of the origin story would be tied to the uniqueness of language.
Event 2: Ó Chuan go Sliabh- Tionscadal Dhún Laoghaire
The lights dim in the Maritime Museum. Shadow along a tunnel of wood, a stuffed bear hung in a buoy, a written history of lifeboats in Dublin. A projection screen is illuminated behind two podiums. The curator for this event reads his introduction in both Irish and English, moving freely between the two, like my mother does when speaking casually in English and Spanish. In this case, however, I only understand one of the two languages. I enjoy the surprise of transitioning in and out of comprehension.
This bilingual poetry event is meant to highlight the work of local authors. The first poems read are in Irish, with written text and a photo slideshow appearing on the screen. I love matching the sound of Irish to the text. With Irish pronunciation, I’m most interested in aspirated consonants, the way pairing an “h” with another consonant can reduce that consonant to a breath or change its sound completely (i.e., mh = v/w). As the poets read, it seems to me that entire letters are being passed over. A syllabic truncation, both guttural and lilting.
The poems and images are also presented with a backdrop of live music. The first poet begins to reads after a few notes are fingered on Colm Mac Con Iomaire’s guitar. Midway through the poem, the looping pedal takes charge of the guitar, and the violin starts its prolonged whispers, gaining tone and strength between words. One poem deals with the sea, and the images presented are also of the sea, and the song that Colm plays is “Port na bPucai”– an air that, according to legend, was based on the sound of whale-call.
I recognize Colm’s playing when he starts “Blue Shoes”. I’ve been listening to this particular tune, played with his signature style, for years, ever since I first heard him play with the Swell Season as an undergraduate. I’ve been enamored with his playing ever since, but I never looked him up as an individual artist. I can’t believe that the moments of connection in my life have led me here to experience his music again.
After a beautiful and atmospheric reading, I talk to Colm for a little while, and he’s incredibly kind, enthusiastic, and gracious. At the end of our conversation, he gives me a copy of his CD, “The Hare’s Corner”. I can’t express how special it is to receive the recording from the musician himself after such an unusual, collaborative event.
Event 3: Eavan Boland
I’ve admired Eavan Boland’s work for years and recently taught a few of her poems as part of an Introduction to Creative Writing course at BU. Currently, she teaches in the Creative Writing program at Stanford, and she has a markedly academic tone to the way she speaks. I love the way she broadens the discussion of her own work to be about the craft and practice of writing.
One of the early topics Professor Boland discusses is the question of writing from an ethical standpoint as a poet. She draws a distinction, for example, between being a feminist (which she is) and writing “the feminist poem”(which she does not attempt to do). The difference is likened to the difference between the nature poet and the environmental activist poet: the nature poem promotes the preservation of environment without coming from a foregone conclusion, while the activist poem may come from an ethical standpoint, but have less of a personal effect. According to Professor Boland, the ethical standpoint doesn’t necessarily make good poetry unless it also has a private force. This argument falls in line with the type of poetry that I’m most attracted to. She points to a poem like Seamus Heaney’s “Punishment”, which is “ethically ambiguous and stronger because of it”.
Professor Boland also talks about the virtue of finding a “clear, luminous language” for poetry, citing the simple beauty of William Blake’s “The Tyger”. Later, when asked the famous question of whether you can really “teach” Creative Writing, she says that you can’t, but that the workshop atmosphere does offer the invaluable service of building “a community of craft”.
Of the poems read, I most connect to the historical and private portrait painted by “Quarantine”.
In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking-they were both walking-north.
She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.
In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.
Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:
Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and a woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.
Event 4: Michael Longley
Poet Michael Longley takes the stage following a fun, science-fiction-filled reading by American poet Jane Yeh. A close friend of Seamus Heaney’s, Longley begins his reading with his two favorite Heaney poems. Silence follows, and he promptly interrupts it, telling us that we’re “allowed to applaud those two poems”.
The Harvest Bow
As you plaited the harvest bow
You implicated the mellowed silence in you
In wheat that does not rust
But brightens as it tightens twist by twist
Into a knowable corona,
A throwaway love-knot of straw.
Hands that aged round ashplants and cane sticks
And lapped the spurs on a lifetime of game cocks
Harked to their gift and worked with fine intent
Until your fingers moved somnambulant:
I tell and finger it like braille,
Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable,
And if I spy into its golden loops
I see us walk between the railway slopes
Into an evening of long grass and midges,
Blue smoke straight up, old beds and ploughs in hedges,
An auction notice on an outhouse wall—
You with a harvest bow in your lapel,
Me with the fishing rod, already homesick
For the big lift of these evenings, as your stick
Whacking the tips off weeds and bushes
Beats out of time, and beats, but flushes
Nothing: that original townland
Still tongue-tied in the straw tied by your hand.
The end of art is peace
Could be the motto of this frail device
That I have pinned up on our deal dresser—
Like a drawn snare
Slipped lately by the spirit of the corn
Yet burnished by its passage, and still warm.
Mossbawn: Two Poems in Dedication
For Mary Heaney
There was a sunlit absence.
The helmeted pump in the yard
heated its iron,
in the slung bucket
and the sun stood
like a griddle cooling
against the wall
of each long afternoon.
So, her hands scuffled
over the bakeboard,
the reddening stove
sent its plaque of heat
against her where she stood
in a floury apron
by the window.
Now she dusts the board
with a goose’s wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails
and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.
And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.
Of his own work, the poems that Longley reads capture the poignance of personal relationships, using everyday scenes to insinuate both deep love and deep loss. He reads three love poems, then switches over to poems written for his late twin brother.
I’m moved by the sweetness of Longley’s love poems. After spending an intensive year in the analysis-heavy atmosphere of workshops, where the shameless love poem is unwelcome, it’s refreshing to hear poems that are simple and celebratory, that chart the course of a relationship through the documentation of moments. I’m especially drawn to “Cloudberries”, where even the title has a whimsical feel. The poem closes with a kiss, and with the honest and telling line “kisses at our age”. These kisses are remarkable because most people would no longer expect the older couple to be amorous, and the lovers might not expect it themselves.
You give me cloudberry jam from Lapland,
Bog amber, snow-line tidbits, scrumptious
Cloudberries sweetened slowly by the cold,
And costly enough for cloudberry wars
(Diplomatic wars, my dear).
Among the harvesters, keeping our distance
In sphagnum fields on the longest day
When dawn and dusk like frustrated lovers
Can kiss, legend has it, once a year. Ah,
Kisses at our age, cloudberry kisses.
In between these events, I also attend smaller award readings and go for lots of runs in the area. I love running along this coastline, and I have to say that this is the first time in my life I’ve fallen in love with the sea.
I like run along the East Pier and turn when I reach the end. The shadows of the Wicklow Mountains rise up behind the church tower in the center of Dun Laoghaire, and light breaks unevenly through clouds to brighten the water around me.