Joan McBreen

Niall MacMonagle's Launch of Map and Atlas at Listowel Writers Week on June 3rd 2017

Art alerts us to everything about our being here on planet earth; poetry heightens and deepens our understanding of what it is to be alive in time. And this extraordinary thing called making art has been with us from very early on. In 1995, in the Chauvet Cave in France wall paintings were discovered that were dated to approximately 30,000 to 32,000 B.C. and therefore many millennia earlier than the dates attributed to the wall paintings of Lascaux. Painting and poetry are very old art forms and Moya Cannon points out that ‘the need to make something beautiful was central to our emergence as human beings. Our need for beauty is very old’. But beauty is one thing, truth is equally important.

In Map and Atlas, Joan McBreen captures both beauty and truth. Her new collection is arranged in three movements which she calls Homage to Omey; The Story in Shadows; Voyages. These three sections signal McBreen’s love for the West of Ireland, what Thomas Hardy calls ‘the sorriness underlying the grandest things’ and McBreen’s actual and imaginative journeying, journeys that have taken her to Kate O’Brien’s grave in Kent, Zurich’s Hauptbahnhof , Katherine Mansfield’s house in New Zealand.

Childhood, love, loss, landscape, the writing life, the making of poetry are her themes In the book’s deceptively simple opening poem, ‘April in Rusheenduff’, yes, McBeen celebrates the natural world but she is not only alert to stars and yellow gorse but how ‘in the undergrowth,/ among snarls of weeds/ and rough stones,/ garlands of mountain creeper/ weave their black roots.’ Here that steely, unsentimental detail sets the tone. Ambrose Bierce defined out-of-doors as ‘chiefly useful to inspire poets’. In Joan McBreen’s case – and so many of her poems are ‘out-of- door’ poems – nature does inspire but the natural world prompts her to find in nature a way of understanding life’s complexities. A rose is a rose is a rose? In McBreen’s case a rowan tree is never just a rowan tree; it becomes a presence, a symbol of resilience, an image of how an unnamed ‘you’ with ‘your bare hands tore/ sinewy poisonous climbers . . . away from the bark’; Or in ‘Spring Haiku’ outer and inner worlds illustrate E M Forster’s dictum: ‘only connect’. Here it is: ‘Frost on the grass/ one bird in the bright/ air. And tears.’ That it is a broken haiku, that it deliberately doesn’t follow the 5/7/5 syllabic structure seems right here: the hint at loneliness and grief doesn’t allow for it.

Joan McBreen adopts Emily Dickinson’s advice: ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –’. Within the nature lyrics the outer world is not only the outer world but a way of revealing the personal. In ‘Autumn Rain in Renvyle’ when McBreen watches ‘the lake/ fade form darkness/ to more darkness’ we, the readers, sense more than the coming on of night. Or when in the title poem ‘Map and Atlas’ the cold rain, the gathering of wild flowers speak indirectly with a wishful ache of a daughter returning to America.

McBreen’s ‘I’ voice is individual but never solipsistic and when the poems sometimes address a ‘you’ or speak using ‘we’ even then there is a keen awareness not only of the preciousness oflove but of an inevitable and accompanying sorrow. I’m thinking of such moments as the closing lines of ‘The Story in Shadows’ where we read: ‘I sit on a rock, watch you walk away/ around a headland’.

In a poem from McBreen’s 2009 collection Heather Island she writes ‘It is quiet, ordinary,/nothing seems to happen’. Her poems are quiet but in them things do happen and happen quietly. Birds, plants, flowers are McBreen’s trademark; her work is lyrical but also tough, clear-sighted: on the first day of spring, a day that ought to be one of promise, McBreen, walking by the sea at twilight says: I kick a dead fish/ along a beach, lift it with my foot.//it falls on wet sand, makes no sound.

Over and over these 40 poems, in Map and Atlas, chart a physical and emotional territory. We begin in Rusheenduff and journey with McBreen towards places far from Connemara – to London’s Royal Academy and the poetry of silence in a painting by Vilhelm Hammershøi; to where ‘soldiers/ fight their fights’; to Azinhaga, a village in Portugal where José Saramago was born.

A map can be local in focus, an atlas opens up the whole world. In Map and Atlas, McBreen looks beyond the here and now; she takes us through the seasons, she takes us places with pin-point exactness and yet always conveys a sense of the mystery of time passing and our being part of that process.

Recently, Don Paterson said: ‘Poetry is a distinct pleasure, and unlike any other art form. It requires no special knowledge to enjoy it, just the patience to tune to its unique way of doing things; and once you’ve dialled its wavelength . . . . you’ll never want to go without it again – and nor will the world ever look quite the same.’

I invite you to tune in to the poems in Map and Atlas. Joan McBreen’s way of seeing and her lyric voice capture a not only the unease, uncertainty, sorrow that we all encounter. She has looked winter in the eye but with quiet optimism she reminds us that there is always ‘Another day and sun breaks through’, that the night sky on sleepless nights sometimes presents us with ‘a full moon,/ an evening star’. It gives me great pleasure to launch Joan McBreen’s new collection – poems that serve as both map and atlas for where we are, for how we live our lives and for how we might live.