Joan McBreen


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Ireland, Oaxaca, and the Soundscape
20 March 2010 by molossus

The Watchful Heart: A New Generation of Irish Poets, ed. Joan McBreen (Salmon Poetry/Dufour Editions) €18/$32.95

Acclaimed anthologist and poet Joan McBreen has compiled a selection of younger Irish poets, the majority born in the sixties. Most names will be unfamiliar to even quite avid readers of poetry in America, but include Loius dePaor (in translation from the Irish), Mary O'Donoghue, Patrick Quinn, and Nuala Ní Chonchúir. Despite its origin in a Derek Mahon poem, the title retains some triteness: it is hard, in America at least, to seriously consider any volume of poetry with the word "heart" in its title.

In her introduction McBreen writes that these poets should be considered part of the ongoing dialogue of Irish poetry and poetics. Owing to the limited space allotted each poet a mere three poems the book reads just like that, a sort of introductory conversation with the poets themselves, all who have published at least two books, none of whom the reader can fully comprehend here. Unlike Graywolf's New British and New European anthologies, which are generally more generous in their selection of poems (especially the former), The Watchful Heart does not offer any critical introductions, however brief, but instead begins each selection with a simple biographical note.

Like several other UK anthologies notably Carcanet's OxfordPoets series McBreen's pairs original poems with brief essays by the poets. The essays are particularly noteworthy, often contextualizing the poetry that precedes them or more satisfyingly expounding on topics ranging from the relationship between poetry and work to poetry in the electronic age to Patrick Chapman's "Fortune Cookies" aphorisms, a sort of Irish Sargentville Notebooks without Strand's whimsical surrealism.

The poetry itself is contemporary, fully engaged in conversation with European, American, and world poetry. Irish in origin but universal in theme, the poems within make for good, enjoyable reading. Like the best anthologies, one can open to any page and find something worthwhile. Leontia Flynn, in her poem "Art and Wine," writes,

And would you, I mused, perhaps understand me more,
if I could, for a single second, shut the fuck up?

Though in context the question is certainly rhetorical, I speak to the included poets as well as their anthologist when I request that they not shut up but continue to dialogue with world poetry.