Joan McBreen

Reviews

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History Lessons
Review by Fred Johnston, Books Ireland, October 2003

As with every profession, there are writers whose 'commitment' is marked by rung-hopping up the ladder of what they define as success, usually by courting the right people, especially the right columnists, and flattering in tones worthy of Stendhal's Parma courtiers; and there are those who work steadily and consistently in the shadows, as it were, whose voices are heard only in the work itself and without whose diligence there would arguably be no decent writing at all.

Joan McBreen is one of these. In her ground-breaking anthology - before Field Day had come round to addressing the issue - The White Page / An Bhileog Bhan McBreen thrust Irish women poets of our century into the world and, not surprisingly, the anthology has been reprinted. As much as being a work of considerable study, compiling this anthology was a distinctly unselfish act in an age when many poets are selfish and self-interested (it may be noted in this context that royalties from sales of McBreen's new book are to go to the Leukaemia Trust at Galway's University College Hospital). If she didn't produce another line of her own, McBreen's anthology would remain a worthy achievement and a marker on the map of Irish women's writing.

So it was time, perhaps, that a 'selected' came out. I've always been chary of Collecteds and Selecteds, especially when publisher-poets produce their own, and when I was asked to compile one of my own I felt that I had, in some sense, passed over into some other, more antique realm; that it was my fiftieth birthday party all over again. I also felt distinctly undeserving.

Be that as it may, selecting what one may deem to be the best of ones work, if one has published some volumes before, it is not utterly a bad thing; there is an opportunity for reassessment and one finds almost always that the poems one thought were ones best in the past are the first to be chucked out.

Whether this spring-cleaning process is of interest to our tiny poetry public is another matter. And do we contemporary poets have a subconscious wish to mature prematurely? For there is a rush, I sometimes think, to bring out the Collected or the Selected before it is due. Whether this is down to publisher or poet, I do not know. McBreen has produced two collections of poems; I leave the question open.

This is not a large opus and one might notice that there are nearly as may new poems as those taken from The Wind Beyond the Wall and A Walled Garden in Moylough. The additions have come up through the ranks in magazines and other publications. They have a solidness and shapeliness to them, and a punch at times, wrapped in a straight-talking manner:

I cannot sleep. My mind pictures a road,
my mother walking beside me, singing,
taking me home, turning off the light;
then the night filled with yearning...
('What We Have to Offer')

'Night' placed three words in on the last line, echoes 'light' at the end of the line above it, creating a carry-over rhythm which makes the music in this stanza. 'Camellia' is a poignant but not melancholy poem, where grief and personal sadness are held off until, one imagines, a time arrives to make a shape to them, almost as a potter does with clay at his wheel:

It is time to name grief,
find words
and bring them to you
with my bare hands.

Now this poem carries an epigraph from Carolyn Forche, an American Nobel poet forcefully politically engaged, whose own anthology, Against Forgetting; Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, contains work of almost 150 poets writing about the erosion of civil liberties and abuses of human rights. Perhaps not surprising that McBreen, whose own anthology make waves in a different sense, should be drawn to this writer who believes that poets should do the work journalists won't do (it has been rather the other way round over here).

'Willows' is dedicated to a friend, Galway-based Anne Kennedy, who was also an American poet and who died in 1998. I knew Anne well and know too that, for one thing, some sickly sweet writing has been done to her memory, the like of which she would herself have deplored, as she did the pomp and posturing of fluttering, gnat-like scribblers. I think - and I have mentioned before - that Anne would have been amused at being quaintly mythologised as a symbol or ikon of any kind and might have viewed it as hardly to be taken seriously; this poem is by far the best thing I've read to her memory. It is straightforward, unfrilled, unpretentious, and honest:

In September you left. The first frosts now
lie on the grass and on the willows
whose disconsolate leaves blow around us.

What makes this poem significant is the snapshot image as much as the allegory, almost mediaeval, of planting, resurrection, the virtually religious rite of the willow cuttings, described in the first stanza, lined upon a table, wrapped, gift for friends, signifiers of the underworld.

'Solstice 2001' is a memorial poem to the poet and singer James Simmons, who died after a long illness in 2001. Simmons, in my view, was particularly significant, not just for his contribution to Ulster poetry, but for his bridging the gap between song and poetry, a gap widened in the drawing-room and very Edwardian English mentalities of too many Irish poets. The Honest Ulsterman, his magazine so prominently, was supposed to produce an issue with memorial poems to Simmons, but a long time has passed and nothing has happened so far.

Wild roses adorn
the ditches
on the road
from Dunfanaghy
to Falcarragh...

There's a simplicity, the line-drawing basicness of a Japanese ink here; the poem might have become a tanka or haiku. Memory and tragedy seem entwined in the new poems; but this is not a particularly mournful collection. If in any recollection there is wistfulness, then all poems mourn.

I have not always been a fan of linguistic simplicity in poetry, or thematic simplicity, for that matter, as it can often deteriorate into mushy prose, like decent peas too long boiled. McBreen's new poems have avoided this, however, by being informed by a new deliberateness, a having-to-be-written-ness about the poems which often makes the difference between a good apparently simple poem and a bad simplistic one.

'Memory' is a very good and deceptively simple poem to Medbh McGuckian; time passes, the poets grow older, the earth does too; interesting to what extent McBreen utilises images of houses, walls and gardens to inhabit her poems with a sort of domestic reference-point; a painter, perhaps, painting the same house but from different angles.

Tell me, how out of so much
waking and sleeping
came the music of your mind,
the words I've grown accustomed to...

We might ask a similar question of everyone who has ever impressed us; whose everydayness we could only with difficulty attune to the magic or wisdom they imparted or gave to us. For this is a poem about how one poet inspires another, how life inspires life; and growing out of the dark loam of these poems is the resurrection of new things, hopes, new grass for new-born dreams to stride upon.

Books Ireland, 2003.