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Strapped on, wheeled out, forklifted, locked

In position for the drive,

Bone-shaken, bumped at speed,

The nurse a passenger in front, you ensconced

In her vacated corner seat, me flat on my back –

Our postures all the journey still the same,

Everything and nothing spoken,

Our eyebeams threaded laser-fast, no transport

Ever like it until then, in the sunlit cold

Of a Sunday morning ambulance

When we might, O my love, have quoted Donne

On love on hold, body and soul apart.

Seamus Heaney? Oh it’s on now. I haven’t forgiven you yet, you vino voleur, you grog guzzler – I will have my vengeance!

‘cough’

And yet – when I read the poem quoted above, titled Chanson d’Aventure one of the early entries to this collection, I could not help but remember my father back home in Ireland. That frustration with wanting to say what is on your mind, but incapable of giving expression to these thoughts due to physical infirmity. Heaney’s words are instantly evocative for me of witnessing my dad’s irritation at his condition. The poem itself refers to the writer’s own stroke in 2006 (I just wasted ten minutes searching the Irish Times website to find mention of this. A golden goose for whoever can find it for me).

I should not be surprised really. A lot of Heaney’s work conjures up images of an Ireland I know, instantly familiar and well realized here through verse. The title is take from one of the poems collected here, which is dedicated to Terence Brown and describes the action of passing ‘bags of meal‘, along a line of aid workers. In this moment the individual becomes a part of a chain of humans, united in a rare moment of communal activity. The work is true, the goal worthy, allowing the insecurities and seperateness of the individual to vanish. An annihilation of self that he suspects can only be equaled by death itself: “A letting go which will not come again/ Or it will, once. And for all.”

My favourite poem from the selection here is The Conway Stewart, a beautiful transformation of a new pen into a living creature, an ally for the poet to help in the composition of future works:

The nib uncapped,

Treating it to its first deep snorkel

In a newly opened ink-bottle,

I am also fond of An Old Refrain which contrasts the ordinary English words for countryside fauna with the local idomatic descriptors of Heaney’s Northern Irish childhood.

Where I start to look in askance at the page is the later poems referring to the Aeneid and provincial French poetry. On the one hand I admire the effort to place poetry drawing a connection between Irish countryside life with Provence, but it is not an association that comes naturally. For one the poet mentioned here Eugène Guillevic seems like a more natural companion to English masters like William Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy. Peppering verse with different French words does not help the attempt at solidifying the connection between Ireland and the Continent. Ireland is part of Europe, but I feel as if this attempt to be more European only succeeds at turning a blind eye to life in my homeland. I am reminded of John Banville‘s early attempts to be a more European author:

“So I decided, with no cosmopolitan experience, to turn myself into a European novelist of ideas: Banville, the modern European master. I was young. I was reckless. There are people who tell me they think Doctor Copernicus and Kepler were my best books, but I feel now that in those novels I took a wrong direction, that I should have done something else.”

Even that famous neologism of Ireland’s most famous literary expat James Joyce – ‘riverrun‘ – appears in the poem Colum Cille Cecinit. Joyce is literary Ireland, but how many of the Irish have read Ulysses, or even A Portrait of an Artist As A Young Man? Perhaps that is an unfair question, but it played on my mind when reading some of these poems. They seem isolated from life at home.

Yes the material is familiar to me and I do not think Seamus Heaney could fail to evoke strong memories of home and the past if he tried, but I suspect for me it is not enough.

 

My parents had not met Mr and Mrs Grace, nor would they. People in a proper house did not mix with people from the chalets, and we would not expect to mix with them. We did not drink gin, or have people down for the weekend, or leave touring maps of France insouciantly on show in the back windows of our motor cars – few in the Field even had a motor car. The social structure of our summer world was as fixed and hard of climbing as a ziggurat.

I have this sad memory of my dad deciding to take the family on a spontaneous holiday to Connemara in Co. Mayo. No bookings were made and as far as we could tell there was no real plan either. We were just packed into the car and set off on the road. During the trip he began to tell us stories of his first trip out west, after he had left school I believe, the friendships he had made and the strange characters he had encountered. We even travelled out to the same B&B he had stayed in as a lad. Dad left us in the car to arrange for our rooms. My mother was very quiet, which of course only added to the tension.

When dad emerged he looked defeated. The landlady had not even remembered him. There were no rooms available for a family. We wound up staying in a cramped single room in Salt Hill just outside the centre of Galway city for a few days and then retreated to Dublin.

Memory can be a treacherous thing you see. The narrator of John Banville‘s novel, Max Morden, wrestles with the memories of his youth, that he tries to return to in order to have some small reprieve from the pain of the present. They often cheat him though, his recollection of events stopping and starting as he is forced to correct himself. So much of what he remembers is lost to the intense fog of emotion that he endured as a teenager, his infatuation with the Grace family still felt intensely after all these years.

The narration itself is not neatly stacked between the present and the past. Often his memories will be spurred on by an unexpected association with his present-day musings, and vice versa. Max himself is yet another one of Banville’s dissolute academics, men of letters, outsiders (Kepler; Mefisto) – whose minds are occupied and overcome by abstract thoughts that have shoved out any chance of seizing happiness in the moment.

As such the story yo-yos between his current life as a grief-stricken widower, alienated from his only daughter and frustrated with his progress on an artistic treatise on Pierre Bonnard; and his memories of the Grace clan, bound up with feelings of class envy and arousal for the women of that family. He is a man haunted, emotionally stunted by the experience, his numbed (and courtesy of a prodigious consumption of alcohol, even more numbed) reaction to his wife’s death the result of his failure to face the events of his past. His creative failure reflects the lack he feels within him:

I was trying to write my will on a machine that was lacking the word I. The letter I, that is, small and large.

The Graces themselves are an unusual family, even allowing for their social superiority to Max and his former friends from The Field (whom he quickly abandons for the company of the Grace children). The son and daughter, Myles and Chloe, shared everything, a result of the boy being a mute. His sister shares with him the experiences of someone who can communicate with this outside world. They are like twins, separate from everyone. Carlo Grace, the father, is a loud and gregarious sort, with a conspiratorial sense of humour that strikes Max the child instantly as ‘masonic’, even ‘satanic’. Mrs Grace, or Connie Grace as Max comes to think of her in the throes of his passion, becomes his fixation, with the disapproving gaze of au pair Rose acting as a barrier against the boy’s desires.

Max’s pursuit of higher learning as an adult can be seen as an attempt to raise himself to the social station of the Graces (there but for the Grace of God…), but it is also an escape from the tragedy that befalls them.

Brutally honest, a fine addition to the canon of this most European of Irish writers.


“Why did you leave Ireland”?

“I was sick,” he said. “I was sick of Ireland, he laughed.”

“Seriously Michael.”

“Seriously, if you knew anything about the country you wouldn’t ask me why I left.”

There is a moment towards the end of this book when the protagonist Katherine Procter walks down Grafton Street in Dublin late at night, crosses the Ha’Penny Bridge over the River Liffey, continues on towards Blackhall Place and finally reaches her destination of Carnew Street. I smirked to myself when I read this and remarked to Stephanie that you could tell this book was not set in the present day.

Eight months ago I was mugged at knife-point in Dublin. Every day after that I was scared to go out on to the streets at night. I desperately wanted to leave the city. The date of our departure for Australia seemed an eternity away.  When I think of Dublin now, that is what I remember, an unending, oppressive sense of fear. In a very real sense, I saw my travelling to Australia as escape.

Katherine is also looking to escape. Born and raised in Wexford, she has left her husband and child and fled to Spain. When she thinks of Ireland she remembers the dead relationship between Tom the man she married and her herself; her estranged son, who takes after his father in every respect; and finally she remembers the local people in the area who hated her family for being Anglo-Irish Protestants, who burned down her house when she was only a child. Her own mother left Ireland afterwards, terrified of the Irish and refusing to return from London. Now Katherine has followed in her foot-steps.

Barcelona is a world away from Enniscorthy. Katherine discovers an enclave of bohemian artists and begins to receive training in becoming a painter herself. She meets Miguel, an enigmatic man who uses art to frame the political upheaval in Spain following the Civil War and falls in love with him. Her mother sends her enough money to support herself and together with her new lover, she begins to reinvent herself, leaving her past as a member of the Irish landowner class behind.

The arrival of Irishman and Enniscorthy native Michael Graves in Barcelona puts Katherine on edge. Not only is he an insistent reminder of the life she ran away from, as a Roman Catholic he symbolises to her the same mob that attacked her home causing the breakup of her family when she was a child during ‘The Troubles’ in the South of Ireland. Furthermore he attaches himself to Katherine and Miguel from the moment they first meet him. She wakes up the first morning after encountering the Irishman to find him asleep beside her lover.

It appears that not only is her past not finished with her, but Miguel’s own history has caught up with the couple. He refuses to hide his anti-Francoist fervour, risking imprisonment. His status as a former revolutionary and a Catalan makes him a target for police intimidation. Katherine cannot understand why he insists on reliving his hatred for the Spanish fascist regime, why he cannot simply plan a future for them together. She slowly comes to recognize that Miguel’s wartime activities are not so different from the actions of the landless Catholics who attacked her family thirty years ago.

This is a beautifully written first novel by Colm Tóibín. The parallels drawn between the Irish and Spanish Civil Wars are cannily illustrated, with Katherine’s blinkered inability to recognize the hatreds of her own upbringing causing her to view the historical wounds of Spain as exotic curiosities. Tóibín’s writing is reminiscent of John Banville’s European Irish fiction, with protagonists finding inescapable echoes of Ireland on the Continent.

I strongly identified with Katherine as my own relationship with my homeland has become twisted by fear, despite knowing how irrational that feeling is. Funnily enough I continue to meet Michael Graves all over Sydney, the Irish accent reappearing at the oddest times. This is the life of an emigrant, I suppose, finding reminders of home wherever I go. More importantly though I am no longer afraid of returning home. Australia, and in part writing for this blog,  allowed me the opportunity to heal.

This book is beautifully observed, thematically insightful and ferries its haunted protagonists to a welcome peace of sorts.

“There were great writers, Joyce among them, who dealt at length with the seedy as an aspect, an inescapable aspect of human affairs, but this was to throw something else into perspective. They did not rejoice in it for its own sake. And they were men with wide experience of life. They did not have this weak fascination with the sordid. Most of those who dealt in it now though, he thought, were actually sheltered middle-class males and females, playing a game, trying to be toughies, to show their laddishness. And they really knew very little about it, very little about the criminal and his mind, or the mind of his symbiotic twin, the policeman.”

Anthony Cronin, Roddy Doyle, Hugo Hamilton, Marian Keyes, Frank McCourt, Pauline McLynn, Conor McPherson, Joseph O’Connor, Gerard Stembridge, Donal O’Kelly, Owen O’Neill, Tom Humphries, Charlie O’Neill, Gina Moxley and Gene Kerrigan. Fifteen writers, one narrative, shared between them. The Irish have a love/hate relationship with their culture, this insistence on the soggy island being the home of ‘saints and scholars’. There was a great little show last year called The Savage Eye that dedicated an episode to lancing the pomposity of Irish writers and artists. Yeats Is Dead is title notwithstanding, a broad parody of James Joyce’s fiction that mixes crime and satire into the proceedings.

With each chapter a different writer takes control of the story, setting off a dizzying chain of one-upmanship. Roddy Doyle is the first up to bat, commencing the proceedings with an accidental murder. Two crooked cops have been working for Mrs Bloom (ho ho!) as hired thugs. Ordered to intimidate an elderly hermit named Tommy ‘Stanislaus’ Reynolds into returning a stolen item, they inadvertently cause the man to have a heart attack. Then he is shot. The chapter closes with the two Gardaí reporting their misadventure to their employer. Mrs Bloom is a formidable woman, who has made a living from theft from an early age. Doyle even includes a stolen ‘papal throne’, from Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland in 1979 in her home. The scene is set, with an intimidation racket gone wrong, a crime dame with a controlling interest in many areas of Celtic Tiger Ireland and two bent coppers fearing for their lives.

As each chapter follows, however, things quickly escalate beyond this humble beginning. Soon corpses are pilling up; more characters are introduced; there are adulterous affairs; wild swerves in plot; book forgery scams; chaotic trials and political corruption. The McGuffin is revealed to be a lost work of James Joyce’s, an unfinished novel, or possibly a chemical formula, known as ‘Yeats Is Dead’. The story rambles on in a shambolic manner, with each of the characters unknowingly being controlled from behind the scenes by the canny criminal mastermind Mrs Bloom.

I laughed twice during the fifteen chapters of this book. The first time courtesy of Roddy Doyle having a bent copper’s mistress reply to a request to talk dirty by simply saying ‘The Flood Tribunal’. Owen O’Neill, spotting an opportunity to poke fun at all the Joycean namedropping throughout the book, names a character after the famous Irish broadcaster Eamon Dunphy, which also raised a chuckle. The remainder of this book is a train wreck, especially the chapter written by Marian Keyes. Here we have an author trading in lazy stereotypes and dated references, who is over-indulged by the Irish reading public. She introduces into the plot a Dublin Southside rap music fan named Micky McManus, who secretly wants to be Black. It is an insulting and ridiculous character portrayal, which is quickly mocked by some of the later contributors by transforming Micky into a blackface sporting, would-be Rastafarian homosexual.

I chose the above quote from Anthony Cronin’s chapter as it summed up the weaknesses of this book perfectly. At times some of the writers attempt to introduce some social realism into the proceedings, but for the most part Yeats Is Dead trades in Irish stereotypes and clichés. Frank McCourt wraps up proceedings with a smutty parody of James Stephens that owes more to the Carry On series.

Vulgar and farcical like the Celtic Tiger era that inspired it, this is an absolutely toxic waste of time. ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone…’ and spinning in its grave.

At times it felt as though we were playing two different codes. We saw the paddock as an ever-changing pattern of lines. The Irish, on the other hand, saw the field as a sort of steeplechase, covered with low barriers and walls which as far as they were concerned were there to smash into. They believed in luck. They were like kids taking it in turns to kick a pebble down a bumpy road.

We longed to tell them what they were doing wrong.

I have been to two football games in my life. If you think that’s bad, neither game was even the same kind of football. In 2008 I went to see a Sydney Swans game with my cousin playing at home. Years before then, when I was still a child and to be honest I cannot remember now how old I was, my dad brought me to see Ireland’s international rugby team play in Dublin. I cannot remember who the opposing team was, although I have a strong suspicion we lost. When I was a kid, Ireland seemed to lose a lot of games, regardless of the sport. Stephen Roche winning the Tour de France in 1987 was like the second coming of Christ as far as my dad was concerned, more so because the cyclist had broken our pan-sport losing streak.

What I’m getting at is that sport never really figured largely in my life. Yeah I’ve been to the pub to watch a few games, with the Duke off Grafton Street a great venue for a rugby international if you’re that way inclined, but over the years I simply did not take any interest in sport generally. So to find an historical, if poetic, account of the 1905 All Blacks Originals’ campaign not only readable, but gripping, riveting stuff, was something of a shock.

The opening of the book describes the long sea voyage taken by the New Zealand team, travelling up along the coast of South America, before making a break for the Atlantic. The men take to practicing their manoeuvres on deck. Eventually during a break on shore, they return to the vessel with pumpkins to catch and toss. The women passengers on board stick below deck in the saloon where it is nice and warm. The All Blacks can see each other’s faces freezing in the cold, drifting across a vast ocean travelling further and further away from home. Together they are farmers, civil servants, husbands, miners, bankers, factory workers and amateur sportsmen. Their manager George Dixon instructs them in a series of exercises to build up a team dynamic, such as describing the women in their lives, or if they have none, to imagine one based on the traits described by their fellow players. Throughout the book Dixon invents more and more bizarre bonding exercises, until the team becomes a cohesive whole. Finally the shores of England come into view. Many of the men are descended from immigrants who left the British Isles, some more recently than others. It is a strange homecoming, to a place far away from home.

The second half of the book describes the team’s epic series of wins against local clubs and international teams such as England, Scotland and Ireland (although they run into a spot of bother with the Welsh). As their fame grows, the men measure their fame by the numbers drawn to greet them at the train stations, the sophistication of the menus served to them at dinner, or their column inches in the newspapers. Their meteoric popularity soon eclipses other events in the world, such as massacres in Odessa and war in Japan. The men dressed entirely in black are at the centre of the world for the duration of their tour and defeat becomes a rare experience they are almost curious to experience.

Lloyd mixes history with fiction, prose and poetry, to dizzying effect. There is a telling sequence where the All Blacks team are invited to dine with Oxford scholars, who lecture them on different schools of learning (the haka, they are informed, is similar to the war cry of Achilles). Lloyd’s group-mind narrator states –

What we knew

What we understood

Had no beautiful language at its service

Lacked for artists and sculptors

What we knew was intimate

As instinct or memory

That to me is the central point of this book – to make of the game something alike to Art.

Wonderful.

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