Rereading the poetry of place
There’s an endless construction project going on next door to us in Salthill. Traffic on the street shuts down in both directions each day for the arrival of a tractor, and the gravel for a new driveway has just been laid. Large trees have been chopped to hedge-rows. Yesterday, in the morning, a displaced bird flew into one of the exhaust tubes of our apartment, located above the kitchen cabinets. It flapped around and was quiet. Outside you can see the small black hole in the beige stucco where it must have perched in confusion or lost direction.
Talking about landscape in recent Irish poetry brings with it the slur of anti-modernism, of an unfashionable interest in loco-descriptive verse. But to think that way is to lose sight of the politicized history of land in contemporary Ireland, from the unfinished “ghost estates” to the recent monetization of water. Poetry that inhabits specific places, local settings, landscapes, or environments in Ireland today cannot fail to be shaped by the enclosure tactics of global capital; those who write about place are the very people who have been expelled from those places. In this sense, the landscapes of contemporary Irish poetry are the indices of dispossession.
In The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (Profile, 2010), David Harvey defines “accumulation by dispossession” as
all those peasant and indigenous populations expelled from the land, deprived of access to their natural resources and ways of life by illegal and legal (that is, state-sanctioned), colonial, neo-colonial or imperialist means, and forcibly integrated into market exchange...by forced monetization and taxation. The conversion of common rights of usage into private property rights in land completes the process. Land itself becomes a commodity. (244)
Paula Meehan’s “Death of a Field,” from Painting Rain (Wake Forest, 2009), is one place to start for rethinking landscape in Irish poetry. Meehan elegizes the “end of the field,” which announces “the start of the estate”:
The end of dandelion is the start of Flash
The end of dock is the start of Pledge
The end of teazel is the start of Ariel
The end of primrose is the start of Brillo
The end of thistle is the start of Bounce
The end of sloe is the start of Oxyaction
The end of herb robert is the start of Brasso
The end of eyebright is the start of Fairy
In an interview with Amanda Sperry, Meehan writes,
My own specific field, the field of the poem, was behind the house I live in, a small coastal meadow which acted as a kind of pressure valve for the surrounding housing estates. Its traditional hedges, its rich flora, its bird and insect life all made for an increment of connection and biodiversity in an otherwise suburban and highly concreted environment. It's an almost finished housing estate as I write. My poem and old maps are part of its memory apparatus now. (“Interview,” 2008)
The so-called “landscape” poem insists: these are not lost landscapes. They’re stolen ones. Certainly such poems (more to come in the next post) can be read and enjoyed as attempts to represent, in recognizable conventions, natural beauty. But they're also, at the same time, so many traces of their own expulsions from the commons.
Harvey, David. The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. Profile Press: London, 2010.
Meehan, Paula. “An Interview with Paula Meehan.” Wake Forest University Press, November 2008. http://wfupress.wfu.edu/an-interview-with-paula-meehan/
–. Painting Rain. Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest Press, 2009.