In Defence of Derek Mahon

While I can’t speak to Andrew’s comment on Ulysses, I think both poems point toward a source of xenophobia which goes a little deeper than an immediate distinction between the insider and outsider.  Fear of the other and ignorance in both poems emerge as symptoms of xenophobia, but it is the paradoxical othering of the Irish speaker from his own homeland that produces this xenophobic sentiment.

In “Night Thoughts” the place has been transformed into a “Georgian theme-park for the tourist.”  It has been built up for the travel and tourism industry so that it is actually the tourist who belongs in this space rather than the Irish speaker.  What’s more the speaker must be all too aware of this irony, describing the place sardonically as an artificial “theme-park.”  In several ways this line points back to the “Georgian Dublin houses” in “Herbert Street Revisited” by John Montague.  The Georgian Dublin nature of the space sounds equally paradoxical to me and both point back to the colonial past in which the colonial subject is excluded from power within his/her own homeland.  A temporal distance also seems to be at work in both poems (and “The Chinese Restaurant”: “the place is as it might have been”, “as if the world were young” ), further removing the speaker from the space.  The alienation from the space begins with an alienation from the past, a communal sense of the past and the persistence of a place through time necessarily producing an ideology of belonging.  This is not the Ireland of “Yeats and Wilde,” this is the “new world order” and we need a new way of defining belonging.  The speaker achieves this in the end by “read[ing] the symbolists as the season dies” but there’s an acute pain in the inevitable and irreversible passing of the seasons.

Now look to “The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush” where another Irish speaker sits in the resort town of Portrush eating Chinese food.  The juxtaposition of “prawn chow mein” with the morning paper, iconic of the western world, again highlights the disjunction between speaker and place.  The “framed photograph of Hong Kong” reads to me as a generic and artificial representation of China that someone could find in any Chinese Restaurant, and probably would never find in a typical restaurant in China.  The Chinese man (who is actually never referred to as a man or specifically Chinese funnily enough) stands looking out at the sea rather than at the photo.  Neither the speaker nor the proprietor belong in this space, but multiple frames within the poem create a second distance between these two “foreigners.”  First the Chinese Restaurant which the proprietor can at least claim ownership over is framed in the larger lens of the Northern Irish town of Portrush, which is again framed in the even larger lens of the authentic Irish space invoked by the hills of Donegal.  I’m unsure whether to read the “light of heaven” as ironic or indicative of the speaker’s actual belonging to this pastoral place cast in the distance.  Furthermore, though the proprietor stands “dreaming of home,” the doorway creates a second frame around him through which the speaker can only watch.  He himself is unable to participate in a similar escape because his own home has been colonized by tourists.

It may sound, after this reading, like I have a personal issue with tourists, which I do.  While it may be a bit problematic and xenophobic to refer to people as “space invaders” I can at least understand where Mahon is coming from.  My own island in the Puget Sound was recently mentioned in an article in the Seattle Times encouraging folks to take a trip over to scenic Bainbridge Island to see the “historic Lynwood theater” and other incredibly uninteresting sites.  I spent many days this past summer downtown watching tourists walking around confusedly, maps in hand, stumbling into random stores to ask for directions to even more uninteresting sites.  Development has also increased rapidly in the past few years and the beautiful row of poplar trees that used to line the other side of the street outside my house were all chainsawed down to make room for some ugly multi-million dollar box mansion.  Needless to say, I’m not a huge fan of tourists or local change.

A Boy with a Book about Old Men and Seals

I was surprised, reading “Gaelic Stories” when I came across number 2 in the sequence and had to pause for a moment.  Why was this so unbelievably sad?

A story

About an old man

And a seal.

I never thought my childhood would intersect with this class in many interesting ways.  I don’t have any Celtic culture family members unfortunately and have never traveled in the British Isles.  But I did have a favorite children’s book, Greyling by Jane Yolen, about an old man and a seal, which I just learned comes right out of Scottish folk-lore.  The book is about a Selchie, a seal that can shed its skin and walk about on land as a human.  Most of the Selchie myths I’ve found on the internet revolve around romantic encounters between these seal-folk and humans: man meets seal, seal becomes a woman, man steals the seal’s skin forcing her to marry him.  Alternatively woman meets man, they have a child, man turns into a seal and takes the child away.  You can look here if you want a slightly more elaborate retelling.  What was interesting about my book was that it wasn’t a romance at all.  I’m not sure if there is an old myth that it’s based on which didn’t turn up as I was looking or if the author just decided she was sick of human seal love stories.  Nevertheless here’s a quick summary:

An old fisherman and his wife live together in a house by the sea.  They are very lonely and have no children.  One day the fisherman finds a baby boy on the rocks and takes him home.  They raise the child and love him, until one day the man is caught in a storm out at sea.  The boy becomes a seal and goes to rescue him but after swimming his father to shore he returns to the ocean and the couple never see him again.

This may or may not be the Selchie tale that Ian Crichton Smith was thinking of but these wonderfully short and cryptic “stories” leave so much up to the imagination, its exactly what we were talking about when the subject of found poetry came up.  Most of these aren’t really stories at all because as someone pointed out there’s really no verbs, nothing to drive a narrative.  Instead, the space between the objects in each little poem invites the reader to create their own narrative.  The brain is so fun because it won’t ever let you just look at a group of objects without trying to invent a story to connect them, it desperately needs meaning and patterns.

Is there anything innately sad about a man and a seal?  For me at least, I can’t separate these nouns from my own childhood mythology.  Or is it a process that works in reverse?  Is there something universal about old men and sea creatures that we just can’t shake, which keeps writing itself into our stories?  I’m not sure, but these two nouns, seal and man, are painful for me in a way that seems to go beyond the story from my children’s book.  The effects of time and memory have slowly compressed the tale that my parents read to me into a symbol embodied in these two figures and I’m sure its picked up a lot of other meanings as I’ve gone along growing up.  What “Gaelic Stories” gives us are a series of similarly condensed narratives, each constructed using words that in turn carry their own stories wound up inside them.  Is it sad to think that every myth and story eventually erodes down to such small fragments or should we be amazed that so much can be contained within a few surviving words?

Some thoughts on Dumbness and Eloquence

Ok, Ok, I know I just posted so I apologize, but after I posted my bit on Dolmens and bogs I took some time to go back and catch up on former blog posts and found myself getting really excited reading Susanna’s post on how we read.  Amanda has already made the point that we need to treat poetry differently, that it deserves a particular sort of intimacy and attention.  I’d like to respond instead to the criticism of English as a “bastard language” (which strikes me as completely ridiculous) because I think it ties in very cogently with a philosophy of language that Deane is getting at.  (Like Susana’s post, this one might get a bit rambly, as it has been a recent little fixation of mine.  I apologize in advance.)

I’d like to ground this quickly with a short argument that J.L. Austin makes in his book How To Do Things With Words, which, I should say, I have only read a short excerpt of for another class.  Namely, that language is not just a way of describing a pre-linguistic world that we initially perceive, but in fact language is a way of thinking the world.  Language is the medium through which we interpret and make sense of, well, everything in one way or another.  More importantly, language actually creates the intelligible world that we live in by producing the names, categories and structures through which we must articulate all our thoughts.  How does a nation create national identity?  By referring to themselves in a specific way, by calling themselves Irish!

The wonderful thing about poetry is that it is always reimagining the language, not just coming up with new names for familiar objects, but shifting syntax, grammar, fundamental patterns of structure, to create a different interpretation of the world.  And how does this tie into Eloquence and Dumbness?  Writing in Irish, as Deane points out (or notes that others like Burke pointed out), is more than a matter of audience.  The Irish language imagines a different world than the English language.  English is, in Deane’s words, not just the language spoken by the imperial invaders, but “the language of a condition—modernity” (113), while Irish is the language of nostalgia, a language fixated on the past which can barely even imagine a future.

Part of this, I believe, is the adaptability of English, its willingness to absorb new terms and forms.  The scholars of Irish, on the other hand, strove to maintain their own language as an eclectic object, cementing it even further in the past by resisting any new additions or changes.  Later attempts to revive the language through mandatory education can be understood to have failed partly for the same reason: the language they sought to teach was necessarily a standardized form.

Moving back to the essay:  Deane has two models of Eloquence and Dumbness, “the polite are civilized and eloquent, the uneducated are dumb; yet it is also the case that the “natural” are eloquent, the polished are dumb” (117).  By natural, he is referring to that language closest to the unspeakable “language of the unconscious” (from the bottom of the same page), which some might call the language of God, or the natural world.  Again, as a side note, I think poetry is a language that surrenders itself to this dumbness, breaking down more rigid structures to get closer to something “real.”  The Eloquent and civilized language establishes categories which it then forces, often violently, on the colonized, who almost never fall perfectly into these imagined structures.  The English recognize a very narrow definition of “civilized” and anyone who falls outside this definition is essentially screwed.  But paradoxically I think, English is only able to do this by previously establishing itself as the Dumb language capable of adapting to the shifting reality of the modern world.

So to wrap up, very poorly I’d have to add, I don’t want to in any way ignore the cultural context in which the two languages of English and Irish exist and are used.  Obviously the English relied on more than just their language to establish an empire.  I only want to point out a way of thinking about language itself, which might inform our discussion in the future, especially when it comes to poetry.  I’d love to hear if anyone else is thinking about this, or thinks I’m just spouting crap, or that I have no idea what I’m talking about.  Anything that gets us thinking.

Afterthoughts on Bog People and our modern marks of violence

I left class today thinking a bit about the land and the ways in which it can serve as a very personal historical record.  It’s always interesting to think about how we talk about the land, I believe Professor McInerney referred to the “scars” left by fallow fields as evidence of the Famine.  While not nearly as visible, the bogs of Jutland and the bog people they have preserved seem to serve a similar role.  Violence throughout history manages, in one way or another, to embed itself in the land.  I think in describing the “peat-brown head/ the mild pods of his eye-lids” Heaney draws the same conclusion as the language of the earth, peat and seed pods, work their way into the body and solidify it as part of a landscape.  We see this again as the anthropomorphized earth opens up her fen to internalize and preserve the body.  Knowing what the bogs contain, and living in such an environment, I think it would be extremely difficult to ignore the presence of the dead all around you.  A quick and tangential side note that comes to me now:  is this partly what Tolkein is drawing on for his Dead Marshes?

The desire for the recent dead of Ireland to “germinate” where they lie in the fields seems to me a similar attempt to map these new acts of violence onto the land where they can be preserved and read in a later age.  Germinate especially carries that sense of perpetuating the memory, or renewing it rather than letting it grow old in some archive.

Paulnabrone Dolmen in Western Ireland, courtesy of Wikipedia

We mentioned in class that Ireland too has plenty of bogs, but as Montague points out in his first poem in the anthology, it’s also got plenty of dolmens.  These are the huge stone structures from around 3000-4000 BC that basically mark the sites of Neolithic graves.  I’m not sure if it was early this semester or in the Inventing the English class last semester that we talked about these things and how the Celts, arriving in the British Isles were convinced the sites were cursed or haunted.  Again, the omnipresent memory of the dead rooted in the landscape has a real psychological impact on the culture.

Nowadays, though, violence has a way of enforcing itself on the land, rather than the peaceful way in which the earth opens up to accept the Tollund Man.  Trenches and bunkers come to mind immediately, but more recently, the effect of bombs, artillery and bullet holes on the lived world leave a mark that simply cannot be ignored.  I think this might be one way of explaining why it’s difficult to draw a direct parallel between the Tollund Man and Heaney’s modern neighborhood murders.  While both plant their memory in the landscape, our contemporary wars and genocides have yet to be properly memorialized.

Welsh Folklore

The connection between “Math son of Mathonwy” and “Vision and Prayer” today really got me thinking about the unique narrative style of the Mabinogion, the collection which the story comes from.  The specific treatment of time, space and magic is what makes these tales exceptionally bizarre.  At times I find Dylan Thomas’ writing equally bizarre.  His strange syntax transforms nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns.  Almost no attention is paid to the modern conventions of what constitutes a narrative.  And as we talked about specifically in class, his images intermingle with and represent each other in a way that utterly confounds me.  Keeping Thomas’ style in mind, I think it’s interesting to go over the ways in which time, space and magic are treated in Welsh Folklore.

In the Mabinogion time passes in stops and stutters.  A year may be dismissed with no more than a sentence.  In one instance, a group of warriors spends 80 years feasting and drinking with the disembodied head of their leader before they open a door and must return home to bury the head.  At certain points, incredible stretches of time like this are condensed into a few short moments in the lives of the characters with almost no explanation.  Similar to this, I suppose, is the Irish story of Oisin, who returns home to find a few centuries have passed while he’s been gone.  Time itself is not a constant progression but is subject to disruption.

Space also appears as a malleable medium, one that may expand, contract or distort itself at various moments.  Objects which appear close recede from the viewer even as one approaches them.  Distant lands are reached with a few quick steps, though seemingly nothing has changed.  The peculiar warping of space and time is largely a function of magic or the supernatural.

But unlike the magic wardrobe, there is no boundary where this world begins and the other-world ends.  Magic is matter of fact and so embedded in the world of Welsh folklore that it passes for commonplace.  This seems particularly odd for the reader, who might be wondering how a king who was just sitting in court with his men can lie across the span of water between Ireland and England and make a bridge (this is actually from the same story as the 80 years of feasting, “Branwen Daughter or Llyr”).  The weirdness gets weirder when no one in the story thinks to question how any of this is possible.  Of course, magic is a familiar element in many modern narratives, but it is always explained.  Wizards need wands to cast spells, there are magic words or diagrams, some device is always imagined which regulates how magic works.  In other words, magic is understood to have its own governing physics.  The very fact that magic must be cast, that it cannot simply “be” is evidence of this inherent need for logic.  The difference in the case of these Welsh stories is that magic is already assumed to be part of the natural physics of the world, or it permeates it in some way.  It needs no explanation, or perhaps it is beyond explanation.

Can we think of Dylan Thomas’ style as working with space, time and magic in the same way?  I think the scarcity of punctuation in “Vision and Prayer” serves to remove the dividers which otherwise set up spatial and chronological relations between clauses and ideas.  Without commas, the ideas flow together and interact as if they had been focused into a single space and time, or rather as if they existed in a region unstructured by space and time.  This, I think, is one reason why it takes so much effort to unpack his work.  In a more general sense, Thomas’ characteristically unique sense of syntax seems similar to the Welsh idea of magic: words turn up in places where they clearly don’t belong and his lines are marked by a certain “unlogic” in construction.  And yet they flow naturally and beautifully, probably because they never bother to stop and acknowledge their own weirdness.

The Sword in “Meditations”

I suppose I’ll follow suit and begin this post with a quick introduction.  I’m an English major, though I haven’t officially declared it yet.  I love poetry, which is a big reason for why I’m in this class.  I was raised on trashy sci-fi novels and I’m a big fan of their bad movie equivalents on the scyfy channel.  On top of that, I really just like the feeling of a good pen.  I want to think a little bit about the sword in “Meditations in Time of Civil War” and Yeats’ portrayal of history, so I’ll preface it with one further point, which is that I love the simple thought of history itself, how we interact with and transform it.

As an emblem for art, the sword seems to be a very deliberate choice.  Yeats sets it up as an icon of the heroic past which some Japanese man, despite his “country’s talk/for silken clothes and a stately walk,” had the good sense to preserve during the wave of industrialization that swept through Japan.  So is W.B. Yeats some kind of Irish Tom Cruise fighting for the samurai (or the Irish equivalent) and their glorious heritage?  What does it mean, after all, that at a time of horrific violence and civil war Yeats chooses an object whose own personal history is steeped in the bloodshed and feudal warfare of medieval Japan?  Certainly, such swords are beautiful works of art but at the time of their creation, I would be curious to know how they were understood.  Though they may have been prized possessions and family heirlooms, they were also manufactured instruments made with a specific purpose.

unfortunately I don’t have the time or expertise to photoshop Yeats’ head onto this

I’m unsure at this point (and I would welcome anyone else’s thoughts) but it seems that by describing the sword as “changeless” Yeats initially casts it as an immortal artifact, an object that stands outside of time and thus represents the past in its purest form, unmediated by history.  After likening it to the moon, however, and pointing out the moon’s transformative cycle—“if no change appears/No moon”—it seems that Yeats is suggesting the sword is in fact just as transitory; “only an aching heart” would conceive of a piece of art as changeless.  Similarly the soul only “look[s]” unchanging.  If history is not just a study of the past but a way in which the present is transformed into the past, then nothing, not the sword, art, nor the immortal soul, can escape history and hold off change.  On one level, the sword, which appears to be a timeless work of art, has already been transformed from a weapon into art.

This could be Yeats reflecting on his own aching heart.  He believed in an Irish heritage, large family houses passed down through generations, the preservation of the language, and he was fascinated by Irish folklore and myth.  Perhaps in this period of cultural upheaval he knew that heritage could survive unchanged.  On the other hand, I think he knew it would endure in some form.  Though the moon moves through its cycles it is a constant and familiar presence and has been before there were even people to bother talking about how poetic it was.