Joan McBreen


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The Watchful Heart: A New Generation of Irish Poets

The Watchful Heart Review by Nessa O'Mahony
Poetry Ireland Review 99
Edited by Joan McBreen, The Watchful Heart: A New Generation of Irish Poets (Salmon Poetry, 2009), €18.

Joan McBreen performed a major service to Irish poetry when she brought together the work of 113 Irish women poets in her 1999 anthology, The White Page (Salmon Poetry). That book sought to correct the imbalance in the representation of women writers in Irish poetry anthologies and proved in the process that Irish women's poetry was vibrant and diverse. As a poet included in that anthology, I turned to McBreen's latest collation with anticipation and curiosity; given the slew of anthologies ofIrish poetry over the past few years (for example, Bloodaxe's The New Irish Poets), I was intrigued to see what rationale she might use for her latest choice.

The Watchful Heart contains the work of twenty-four poets who represent, for McBreen, the new generation of Irish poetry. Each was born in the last fifty years, has published at least two collections of poetry and wasn't featured in The White Page. Each poet has also contributed three poems, along with an essay in which they explore an issue close to their hearts as poets. The editor points out that had she also drawn on the poets contained in The White Page, she would have produced a volume far larger than either she, or her publisher, intended. So here we find ten women and fourteen men, representing what McBreen terms 'some of what I felt would be the best of recent Irish poetry'. She makes no claims that her selection is either 'comprehensive' or 'all-inclusive', a statement that rather dilutes the fun for the reviewer, of course. How can one possibly rant away about the exclusion of Mr X or Ms Y in the face ofsuch reasonableness?

Of course, the question of what makes a 'new generation' is relative. I turned to the book expecting new faces and comparatively recent publication histories; imagine my surprise, therefore, to discover editor, publisher, anthologist and teacher Pat Boran as the first poet featured. Surprise mingled with pleasure, of course; Boran's lambent poetry hasdelighted me for a long time and, as a poet who began writing in the 1990s, when Pat was a regular teacher of creative writing workshops throughoutthe country (not to mention the author of one of the best creative writing handbooks produced in Ireland), I have always seen him as a wisementor of an earlier generation. But he's actually only a year older than me and, in terms of chronology (he was born in 1963), he fits the book's criteria. Indeed, his inclusion serves as a timely reminder of how muchhe has managed to achieve in a comparatively short time-period and heis, as I said, always a pleasure to read. This splendid haiku, dedicated tothe poet Leland Bardwell, proves the point:

A housefly settles
on the still end of my pen:
haiku counterweight.

Clearly an ageist approach isn't going to elucidate McBreen's method so suffice to say that established names, for example Peter Sirr, JohnO'Donnell, Leontia Flynn and David Wheatley, mingle with poets whose reputations deserve to be far more widely known. Mary Branley, whoseessay coincidentally also evokes the spirit of Leland Bardwell, has threefine poems here. I particularly liked the skilful rhythm of 'Sé do bheathaa Mhuire', where the lilt of the prayer's lines is artfully captured:

lift and drop
atá lán de ghrásta

rattle and whist
of the máidí raimhe

It's also nice to find Patrick Chapman here, another admirably prolificwriter of poetry, short stories and screenplays. Chapman can range frommordant humour to lyric romanticism; we get both in the first poem inhis selection, 'The Darwin Vampires', where the eponymous villains are shown both in 'those places in between, where microbial kingdoms, / Overthrown with a pessary, render needle-toothed / Injuries invisible', and in 'A taste-regret on someone's tongue; a sudden tinted / Droplet inthe iris of a fading smile; a blush upon / a woman's rose'. Chapman's essay, in fact a series of Fortune Cookie aphorisms, kept me giggling; I particularly liked the notion that 'Your ancestors will not be proud ofyour work, because they are dead.'

Two Irish-language poets are featured, Louis de Paor and Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, each with poetry in the original and in translation. Louisde Paor's accompanying essay is a thoughtful meditation on the advantagesand limitations of translation which, he points out, is necessary. 'Theoriginal remains obstinately, shyly, out of reach, and yet the impression it leaves on the linguistic veil that both conceals and reveals confirms themarvellous diversity of languages other than our own.' Mac Lochlainn explores the issue creatively; his poem 'Aistriúcháin Eile', rendered as 'Translation', suggests the slippery, protean quality of the task:

Is shín Barra amach a lámha láidre,
is síos leo láithreach san fharraige sáite,
gur thóg amach bradán beo beathach,
bradán ársa na beatha.

Then Barra stooped and thrust his hands into the sea
And pulled out an ancient fish
That kicked and writhed against his grip,
And showered them bothIn glitters of water.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir is another poet who writes with equal fluency in Irish and English, as her most recent poetry collection, Tattoo: Tatú (Arlen House, 2007), revealed. But here she is purely in English-languagemode, and demonstrates her characteristically sharp eye for a killerimage, as in the poem 'Foetal', where 'we are fastened to our bed / youcurl to the curl of me / unshaped to a shape that fits'. She also demonstrates the carefully thought-out nature of her poetics in her essay on poetry as 'female self-portrait', where she claims literary descent fromwriters such as Eavan Boland, Sharon Olds and Edna O'Brien. Cherry Smyth is equally articulate on her process. For Smyth, writers are 'designed to speak, to tell stories and when the listener and we get lost in the telling, the story becomes an art.' Her art is clearly visible in poemssuch as 'December Morning, 2007', where:

Dying is always happening,
holding up its dark
mountain from the depths of a lake,
questioning the summer tableon the winter deck,
the unplanted earth.

Not surprisingly in this increasingly mobile age, the 'new generation' features some poets who no longer claim Ireland as their home. John McAuliffe settled in the UK some time ago, although his poetic imaginationseems equally at home in his new locale and in the childhood home of memory. I particularly liked the sense in the poem 'A Midgie' of the poetmaking matter out of his immediate surroundings: 'The garden goes greener in the lilac time. / This will go down on the permanent record'. Mary O'Donoghue is also based abroad - she lives in Boston - but finds an entire world as her point of reference. In an extract from her 'Letters to Emily: Finding Your Voice' she writes:

a shriek to make Atlantic waves turn tail,
turn a church on tiptoe on its steeple,

a shriek so pure and true it's heard
at the bottom of an Australian well,
as if the London air raid warning
was sounded by a pipistrelle...

In his essay, Justin Quinn uses his vantage point as a resident of Prague toexamine the changes that have occurred in Irish society and wonderswhether 'a fundamentally new immigration pattern...can...invigorate themonoculture that has held sway since 1922.' Provocatively, he adds that 'there's a corresponding ambition that the category of "Irish Poetry" itself will go up in a puff of smoke. No decent poet would ever wish to be merely an "Irish" poet (just as he or she wouldn't want to be merelyan American or Australian poet).' Interesting, then, that one of his featured poems, 'The Crease', seems to evoke that well-known poeticstance, that of the wistful emigrant, albeit with a wry tone:

What's the river doing now? Does it blaze
with stunning blue and pink? Does it amaze
next to no-one with its smart remarks
on quays for long-gone merchants and their clerks,
on lopsided buses leaning in on it,
or cranes that raise the skyline bit by bit...

I promised earlier that I wouldn't be one of those reviewers that beratesan anthology for its omissions. Each editor is entitled to their choice, forpoetry is a subjective business. I did rather wonder why there was no place for Leanne O'Sullivan here (perhaps her fine second collection Cailleach:The Hag of Beara, from Bloodaxe, came too late to make her eligible), but I was delighted to read other fine poets, such as Paul Perry, Kevin Higgins, Anne Fitzgerald, Mary Montague, Alan Gillis, Joseph Woods, Damian Smyth, Eileen Sheehan and Kate Newmann. There are many others - Dave Lordan, Ann Leahy, Ciaran Berry and Nell Regan to name a few - who have made impressive débuts over the last decade and who will surelyappear in future anthologies. The Watchful Heart may not be the last wordon Irish poetry at the start of the twenty-first century, but it provides apretty good taster.

Heather Island

Heather Island

Review by Eamon Grennan, 2009.

Through their simple, plain-spoken respect for the ordinary forces of the landscape she loves - for its fauna and flora, its "season of stillness," its "late blackberries ruined by rain", or its "disconsolate cry of the lost" - the poems in Joan McBreen's quietly lyrical third collection compose a settlement for the heart, even a site for soul-pondering.

In brief elegies and celebrations her poems address losses, local phenomena, familial transitions, fashioning language-moments of subdued rapture (bird wings "the colour of opals") or sharply accented nostalgia (living away from Ireland, she insists that "one seashell to hold close/ to my ear would do,/ and rain on my face").

"I sing my own song," she says in one poem, and in the best of these poems her notes ring sweet and clear, so even winter clouds can "break, letting in such light."

Heather Island

Review by Geraldine Mitchell, 2009.

In this, her fourth collection, Joan McBreen interrogates loss and completes a tentative journey of renewal. A quiet strength sustains the consistently elegiac mood of "Heather Island". This poet of autumn and diminishing light revisits the shapes and colours of Tully lake and mountain in Connemara, the 'browning bracken' and 'the late blackberries'. But McBreen also travels far beyond the comfort of the familiar, to South America, to Borges and Neruda, to the mysteries of passing time and death. There is a serenity and sense of liberation, in her poems of acceptance, of 'souls set free/wheeling in the wind/unhurried/in a vast sky/beyond sound'.