(First published by Cassandra Voices)
There’s a strangeness to singing in a language you don’t understand, akin, perhaps, to the sensation that comes with remembering, vividly, a person who has died. In both cases, you can almost touch the life recalled, even as the shadow glimpsed in that one word, “almost”, clouds your every sense. Whenever I hear a song, an eddy of radio-speak, a casual exchange, unfurling in Irish, I go quiet, caught in the webs of a faltering familiarity. Likewise, when I return to them, I find that the recollections I have of my grandparents are locked in a grammar of (often palpable) absences: I’ll not see their like again.
By choosing Irish place-names as titles for a number of poems in my new collection, Phantom Gang, linking the elegies I had composed for my grandparents with the landscapes I associated with them in north Leitrim, I was trying to register, in outline, the forms of loss under which the poems had been written: the twin river-banks – an unreachable language, an irretrievable time – between which my memories had flowed since their deaths. So in “Achadh Bhuachaill” (meaning, literally, ‘Boy’s Field’, and transliterated to ‘Aghavoghil’ in English), the townland’s emotional cartography begins to shift, as the poem slowly unearths a seldom mentioned incident from the local past, relayed to me by my granduncle. It begins: “The land here / dreams in silhouettes // our bodies learn to read”.
The relationship between land (and its changes) with the memories that mark it, of course, is as old as poetry itself. It recurs as a shaping concern in the work of John Clare (1793-1864), the so-called ‘peasant poet’ of the late Romantic period. “Oh, words are poor receipts for what time has stole away”, he wrote, remembering the open commons he had known in the Northamptonshire of his youth, one of many areas in rural England directly affected by the 1801 Inclosure Consolidation Act, converting communally tended landscapes into real estate. “There once were days, the woodman knows it well”, he said, “When shades e’en echoed with the singing thrush”:
There once were lanes in nature’s freedom dropt,
There once were paths that every valley wound –
Inclosure came, and every path was stopt[.]
This truncation, and the subsequent disappearance, of the much-cherished social and ecological terrain of his upbringing, can be sensed in the knotted, quickening language of Clare’s pastoral poems, often scintillating in their natural notations, even as they crackle under the weight of the vexed environmental histories they record. The communal fields and woods, the trilling heaven of the poet’s boyhood, seemed increasingly irrecoverable to Clare, having been carved up, indelibly, “[in] little parcels little minds to please”, leaving “men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease.”
Phantom Gang attempts to pay tribute to this distant figure, a “loss-eyed wilder-man”, who was also, at different points in his life, a kind of “hierophant // of dirt-in-bloom / and revelry”. Tuning in to the fierce, burnished weathers of his work, the book simultaneously tries to sift through the swarming static of contemporary history to a new zone of clarity, where the spectres (of poverty, displacement, homelessness, environmental corrosion) that so ruled Clare’s world, two centuries ago, might be recognised afresh in our own – “our age / of wilting seas // and homesick, lock-out blues.”
In all of this, among other things, I discovered that reading poetry is not so very different from the writing of it. We bring what we have – our small store of hopes and memories – to the threshold of another life, trusting in the possibility of recognition or discovery. The words on the page, I now believe, form a living monument to that possibility, creating a space where lost presences might be acknowledged, where the vitality and freedoms of an uprooted world can be sensed anew, pressing through the topsoil of everything left over, no matter how scarce. That, I think, is what the poem, “The Commons” (dedicated to Clare), reaches towards, near the collection’s close:
Is this, then, our one inheritance,
the ache where voices grow?
My poem’s a lifted echoing,
as if they might continue.