Walt Hunter

Speculations: new Irish poetry


On Vona Groarke's recent work

Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Hvile (Rest) (1905) is a work equal in visual ambiguity and complexity to Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656). Hammershøi’s painting presents a woman sitting in a chair with her back to the viewer. A slump in the shoulders angles the right part of the neck into shadow. The eyes are turned away. The face is withheld. If this is a scene of “rest” for the person in the room, it is also a scene of refusal on the part of the gendered subject of portrait-painting, who in this case rejects the work of sitting to be painted (or the millions of portraits subtitled, invisibly, Work). And in rejecting this work, she abjures the ethical relation that, for Emmanuel Levinas, is formed by the dramatic encounter with the “face.”

Dead air

Sinéad Morrissey's 'Through the Square Window'

Fernand Braudel is a historian of globalization who works within and against a tradition of geography as the science of colonial and state power. Volume 1 of Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, first published in 1949, begins, in a deliberate gesture of departure, not with the eponymous sea and the plains around it but with the snow on the mountains. "Here we are far from the Mediterranean where orange trees blossom" (27), he writes, conjuring the tropes and conventions of "landscapism" in history as much as in poetry. "To tell the truth," Braudel continues, "the historian is not unlike the traveler. He tends to linger over the plain, which is the setting for the leading actors of the day, and does not seem to approach the high mountains near by" (29).


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.

And yet we must live in these times

Poetry against austerity

The latest metonym for austerity is, in Ireland, water. Since the fall, the Irish have prepared for the imposition of new charges on water usage (long included as part of general taxation). The projected annual costs range from 60 euros to 160 euros per family. Protests against the “semi-state company” Irish Water have drawn allies from Detroit; thousands marched last weekend against the arrest of five protestors in Dublin; two of the jailed protestors are on hunter strike. Galvanized by Syriza's victory in Greece, Ireland, which pays an extraordinary percentage of the total European banking debt, is one of the fronts on which the new international battle against neoliberalism is being waged.  

I spoke to the Galway poet, activist, and teacher Sarah Clancy last week about Irish Water, among other things. Sarah will be appearing again in these pages. But for now I want to draw attention to a poem she read at a recent protest. Here's the video (linked in case the embedded one doesn't work).


At Heaney's grave

Over the weekend, I was north of Belfast visiting a friend in the Glens of Antrim. She took me to see the grave of Seamus Heaney, who died in fall 2013. Those are snowdrops in the picture. The grave is in the corner of the graveyard, with a stone wall on two sides. The sign on the road for it is far more elaborate than the grave itself, which is a simple wooden cross. Not pictured here: the fake plastic roses tumbling on the other side of the wall; the discarded headstones piled against the wall. Some hooved animal had made a print in the earth of the grave.