I have no technical knowledge of poetry. Up until recently I had read no post Yeats Irish poetry. The poets whose work I have read most extensively and whose power has sustained my interest are besides Yeats, Whitman and Hart Crane. I am now coming to feel, after reading five collections of 21th century Irish poetry, that the most intense deeply felt Irish work may now be found among its poets. I have begun to read the work of Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh, John Montague, Michael Longley and others. I am working my way slowly through the 1000 page anthology Contemporary Irish Poetry edited by Wade Davis.
I find posting on collections of poetry very challenging, more so than on novels or short stories. I know the authors have placed their souls in their work and I try to give them the proper respect.
I am trying to find an approach to new collections. I do not see myself as reviewing them (and I hate to be called a "reviewer") so I wondered how I should talk about them, how do I see what I am doing? I am not reading the collections only as discrete works of art, I am placing them in my mind as part of the Irish literary tradition. I have my own preoccupations of course, just like the poets do. Irish poets are very self-consciously Irish, they know they are in the shadows of Giants. Sometimes I think why should I read anyone but the greatest of poets. I sense Irish poets love their wounds, they have no intentions of letting them heal. I also think more than in other cultures, Irish poets write for each other. Irish poets are fixed on death, many poems are about seeking escape from loss and pain.
I am not technically trained in the mechanics of poetry, I am not an academic or a scholar. I just read stuff and post about it. I am not aligned with any particular school or group of Irish writers.
Posting on short stories is harder, for me, than novels, and posting on a collection of poems even harder. In speaking of short story collections I have used a guiding metaphor of visiting a forest. I think in posting on a poetry collection I will see myself as exploring a new to me city. In some cities I will be without guide in a place where I share no common language with the inhabitants. In some I will scream out "tourist", in some I will know I am not really welcome. In some I will fit in very well and feel right at home. In the best collections I will see things I never saw before, my range of experience will be strongly stretched, in some I will realize I never fully saw what was in my own town. One of the best impacts of poetry is to increase our perceptivity. One of the highest goods of deep reading of quality literature is that it allows and sometimes forces us to see the humanity in other people. I know that Euro Disney is not Nirvana. I know that the luxury and comfort of the people in the rich part of the city are paid for in tenements and sweat shops. I know when politicians say all must share austerity they mean they will sell their smaller yacht while old people who cannot afford their medicine die. I know there are monsters lurking in the city, I know that Pol Pat hated cities and the people in them. I know the imperial foreign policy of England caused massive famines not just Ireland but in India and Africa. I know ideologies are dangerous. I need poets to help me move beyond reading facts to feeling, to seeing the skull mask behind the smiles. I need them to move beyond a miasma of bitterness and contempt for humanity, I need them to see the naked face of evil. A good poet should sometimes see this in the mirror and so should a good reader. There is a beauty in evil, Thanatos is erotic.
Dempsey's poems, none in the collection are more than two pages, are miniature gems of acute observation. Several focus on issues of domestic life. I have begun to make use of word counts in collections to discern writers deeper concerns. In the poems of Dempsey, to give one to me interesting example, "potato" appears in about one third of the poems. I think those without at least a starter knowledge of Irish culture will not see the deep import of the potato. It is not just a food, I try to imagine Filipino households without rice and I see a people-even if there were an abundance of other foods-at a loss. It is a symbol of well being. Dempsey's works often focus on relationship, domestic life. She also writes about events in a irish history, the inescapable tragic history of Ireland and there is a very intersting reflective work on loving a poet. I will try to quote enough from her work to give you a feel for it.
As I have done with the other collections of contemporary poetry I have posted on, I will make some observations on a number of her poems. I do this to possibly help potential readers get a sense of her work, to increase my understanding and to plant them deeper in my memory.
"While it Lasts"
After reading the stunning poem of domestic life, "While it Lasts", which opens the collection I was amazed almost stunned by what it seems to say about the role of wife and mother. It is set in Ireland but it is a universal work. It has a darkness, it is almost surrealistic. One day a mother's hand just fall off as she is working in the kitchen. She tells her husband no need to make a fuss, it is just one of those things that happen. The husband is glad to see how nicely her bloody stumps heal. The woman has completely submerged her identity in her role as cook and care giver. She is not a real person in the eyes of anyone. It is written in a disturbing kind of deadened style that mirrors the subject matter. I found myself thinking about my wife and my late mother as I read this.
"I judged the mashed potato contest giving marks for presentation, flavor, consistency
The winner, a dimpled woman of Amish appearance.
What's your secret? I asked before I woke
It's all about love, she said, all about love."
"Mash" is about a dream. That the teller dreams of mashed potatoes shows the deep importance of the potato. A well cooked abundance of potatoes symbolizes domestic love and being good at cooking them means a woman is a fine mother and wife. Dempsey writes very movingly about the small details of the work behind being a mother. The poems are partially about submersion. Dempsey is not judging, just showing life.
"Slow Poison, 1944"
"Carrots and apples, potatoes and beans,
what and oatcakes, turnips and beets,
There were always people knocking".
"Slow Poison, 1944" seems set somewhere in Europe in the darkest days of WWII. It is the story of a family tring to survive on their farm. The father was taken to work in a factory. The mother slowly fades away. The story beautifully told could be of a family five thousand years ago or one from today's back pages news.
"Drunk the Poet"
Every one knows stories about the troubled lives of poets, Crane, Rimbaud, Rilke, Dlyan Thomas and a thousand others. Raving at a world that does not appreciate their genius, hiding from themselves in drugs or drink, half making a living somehow or other. "Drunk the Poet" tells brilliantly the story of the life of the woman in the life of such a poet. She feels on one side an obligation to help him realize his genius but she cannot help but wonder if she is not being fooled by the poet and herself. She thinks, what if he is not that great? A wonderful work any ranting poet should ponder.
"Verbatim", (quoted at the start of this post) spoken in the persona of Barbara Ennis Price, is a deeply felt poem fully in the tradition of Irish literature as a post colonial cultural area. Of course we knew the Bristish first came in the middle 1500s or so but they had numerous invasions. Of course we know this is looking back on an idyllic period that probably exists only in legend. It is the cry if any colonized people.
I greatly enjoyed and was deeply moved by these very closely observed poems. They have much to tell us about relationships, domestic life, poetry and above all they are a great pleasure to read. I recommend with out reservations to all lovers of fine poetry.
Kate Dempsey writes fiction and poetry and lives in Ireland. She has been collecting jobs for her author biography since she could read. She has worked as a coffee grinder, a terrible waitress in Woolworths, a Harrods shop assistant, a computer programmer, a technical writer, a writer in schools and a mother. She's lived in England, Scotland, The Netherlands, South West USA and now in Ireland. These diverse jobs and homes are reflected in her witty, observational writing, which is widely published in Ireland and the UK. Her short stories have been broadcast on RTE Radio and published in the Poolbeg Anthology 'Do The Write Thing.' She was shortlisted for the Hennessey New Irish Writing award three times and her poetry in many magazines and anthologies. She runs the Poetry Divas Collective, a glittering group of women who blur the wobbly boundaries between page and stage at cool events all over Ireland. Her first novel, The Story of Plan B, was shortlisted for the London Book Fair LitIdol.