‘Absolutely astonishing what you might find in the right flea market!’
A review of Gabriel Rosenstock's Margadh na Míol in Valparaíso/The Flea Market in Valparaíso.
“I open my poem to all that is
that will be that was
that could be”
These lines from ‘I open my poem’ might serve as a good means of describing the great diversity of theme, style and genre with which the author, Gabriel Rosenstock, explores the world in the bi-lingual publication Margadh na Míol in Valparaíso/The Flea Market in Valparaíso (Cló Iar-Chonnacht). Such heterogeneity is perhaps not surprising considering that the 141 poems and 21 haiku in this collection represent selections from the author’s oeuvre spanning over 4 decades, taken mainly from seventeen previous publications, starting from Susanne sa Seomra Folctha, 1973, through Sasquatch, which appeared in 2013. In order to appreciate, as far as possible, the depth and complexity of the work, an effort has been made to identify recurrent thematic trends and group and analyse individual poems accordingly. As will be seen, there are poems that consider aspects of poetry and language per se, while expression is given to the affective side of human nature in some exalting poems that celebrate interpersonal love and abstract devotion, in contrast to others that focus on persecuted, demonically possessed individuals and the injustice of man to his fellow man. The poems selected from Sasquatch present a view of life in the natural world through the eyes of a reflective and sensitive anthropoid and the disappearance of species is an underlying theme. Here also, and in some poems from elsewhere in the work, loneliness and, on the other hand, the desire for solitude, as well as a pragmatic search for meaning and structure in life compared to a belief in the supernatural are contrasting themes. Indeed, those poems that transpose the reader into the world of gods and mythic beings also provide a striking contrast to other, anecdotal, and bio-poems, where the poet focuses on life on the street and the world of real people. Finally, the collection includes some short poems that, in addition to the haiku, seek to capture the spirituality of the natural world and the enigmatic grandeur of the seemingly trivial in daily life. As mentioned, the poems will be reviewed thematically, following the foregoing order, and an effort made to the capture the singular strength and vision of the poetic voice that animates them all.
Why write poetry at all and for whom? There are several poems in the book that concern themselves with the creative urge and the working of the imagination and thus enable a layman to better understand the world as seen by the artist. ‘Apology’ captures the sense of anguish and urgency that underlies a poet’s wish to express his feelings in words. The poem explains the dynamic process for the benefit of another poet whose creative effort has been found badly wanting: “I’m sorry to have to say /That I didn’t really get your poem. /…Why did you write it in the first place? /It carries no trace at all of midnight /Sweat, or terror, or exuberance /nor of your being unable to touch base again /Until your poem was safely on paper /And you had hoarsely called back / Your soul, that, like a daddy-long-legs /Had gone cavorting high up in the firmament.” (Apology, 301).
The notion of catharsis is implied in another poem where the poetic process is described as a way of coming to terms with raw realty and moving on: “Let me massage you /With the essential oil of vowels. /How rigid all of you are! /let my white knuckles /Knead you with consonantal roughness! /You indulge yourselves too much. /And then, let me wipe you from memory - /Amen.” (Krishnamurphy and his critics, 311). Similarly, the notion of the poet as a sort of recycler of reality is expressed in ‘Cat food’, where, like bluebottles who have descended on a piece of cat food, the poet- narrator states: “Isn’t that the way with poets too, /… I clean up after all of you:/ recycler, chancer, / Bluebottle – call me what you want.” (Cat food, 309). An excellent example of the process of metamorphoses by which reality is reprocessed in the imagination of the poet is provided in a genially conceived anecdotal poem, where builders become Vikings and coffee turns to blood: “I’m having a cup of coffee. Not at my ease. /Builders in their yellow helmets behind me. /They’re on about some match over in England…. There’s music from Hell being vomited from the radio. /The coffee is only so-so. /A coke can is kicked up the road. /Plastic bags are being carried by the wind. /…The coffee turns to blood…/The angel scarpers. /I imagine the Vikings back again /The ones in bearskin shirts /Ravaging and roaring/ An axe gleams/ A spear flies /The traffic stops (it was stop-go anyway)/ Drivers take to their heels/ A church is razed (it was half-empty anyway)” (A cup of coffee, 233).
The narrator’s belief in the superiority of his art is thematised in two poems that lament the loss to the world of poetry of two former aficionados. In one poem, the spiritual descent from the world of poetry to the dull, prosaic world of everyday reality is captured in a sublime metaphor: “In the blink of an eye she has abandoned the hawks/The eagles and the lions/She who knew so intimately/The beauty of prey taken in flight. /…. She has gone beyond poetry now;/It doesn’t satisfy her, nor does it stir her soul/ Or answer to her needs-/She has put her life in order.” (She has gone beyond poetry now, 173). In the second poem on this theme, the world of poetry is contrasted with that of science, and there is little doubt as to which one benefits from the comparison: “Since you have abandoned the unfathomable regions of poetry/It is in the definable terms of science/I account for you on paper/…Yes, I collect interesting facts, insects and so forth. / Were you to unexpectedly visit / The laboratory, someday, / It could be that you’d recognise fragments of yourself/ On shelves, under a Bunsen burner, / and on the floor” (Laboratory, 171).
The heterogenous nature of the poet’s target audience is revealed when he is questioned in a hypothetical interview: “Who do you write for? /For your contemporaries? /For future readers? / For yourself? /For God? / All, I must admit, of the above, /But I’m always jotting down bits and pieces/ For readers who are dead/And for readers who never have/And indeed never will have been (if you follow me) alive” (Interview, 187).
Several poems thematize the marginalisation of the Irish language. The sense of personal alienation that an individual might feel as a result of a sudden, national linguistic somersault is superbly evoked in ‘Mustanbih’, (An Arabic word for a Bedouin who entices dogs to bark by imitating them, especially when he is lost in the desert at night trying to find a camp – perhaps his own camp. Often, it’s not a dog but another lost Bedouin who answers him), where a wandering Bedouin represents an Irish speaker no longer sharing a common language with his fellow countrymen: “Bizarre, isn’t it, this hound-language/ that the hounds themselves can’t follow! / Follow they could ... but they don’t want to hear.” Anglicised place names disorientate him and even the natural world has lost its appeal: “My country is foreign to me/ Let them all be poured into a pot, /all those old place names, boil them/ until the poison of unfamiliarity/is drained from every bitter syllable. / The blackbird speaks pure gibberish/ Plants have forgotten their own secrets. / The man in the moon has disappeared overseas/ The rain doesn’t cleanse my skin/ The sun after it doesn’t dry me” (Mustanbih, 215). Commitment to the native tongue is also the theme of several other poems, including this one that concludes with a splendid metaphor that likens language to food: “Astray on a hillside, brethren, /Would we live on our words in lean times? / Would we, between us, concoct a meal? / Too right we would. We’d eat each other. Raw.” (Nourishment, 155).
On a different note, there are many poems penned over the course of the decades that address the themes of interpersonal love and abstract devotion and explore these sacrosanct longings with great sensitivity and eloquence. The theme of conventional, inter-personal, love is superbly evoked in two longer poems, ‘Quest’ and ‘Liadhain’. In the first one, in the exalted tone of a Middle Age troubadour, the strength of the narrator’s passion is ingeniously captured as he repeatedly asserts in ornate, ever changing and vivid images that he – though clearly a master – does not trust sufficiently in the power of language to do full justice to his feelings and, regarding the poems he has promised to write, explains that “They haven’t seen ink-/ You’ll find them in river foam/ In oceans/ In vapour above cliffs/ In whirlwinds/ In an eagle’s eyes/ In the clouds/ In the skies/ Even in the stars./….You are unnameable!” (Quest,105). “Liadhain” is a lengthy, finely wrought, poem, based on the 9th century story Comracc Liadain i Cuirithir, that tells of a doomed love affair underscored by a series of tragic misadventures surely comparable in heart-rending pathos to any similar peripeties that could ever be found in either life or literature. Once again sublime in tone, Cuirthir, an allegedly, historical character, from the early Christian period in Ireland, avows his love for the poetess Liadhain, in a wonderful series of analogies based on images from the natural world. Here are two such example: “She is all winds, /the middle of all seas-/Everything that moves/and does not/She is a change in season, /all the months of the year/She is day and night, /night and day”….“Her shape in the clouds/ her laugh between showers/ the rainbow/ her soul’s colours” (Liadhain, 195). In another love poem that brings a legendry, historical figure back to life, namely, the Assyrian, amazon Queen Semiramis, and again, as in ‘Quest’, in the tone of an adoring troubadour, the devotee cannot testify strongly enough to the strength of his commitment: “If you were homesick/For your own place/Among the mountains, /Plant upon fragrant plant I would sow, /Flower upon flower, /Trees and vines on the terraces-/Brick upon brick/Stone upon stone, /I would build the Hanging Gardens of Babylon/For you, Queen Semiramis.” (A glance from Semiramis, 163).
Other superbly structured poems featuring the theme of love include the short, evocative poem ‘Evolution’ , in which, again using analogies, this time from the animal world, the narrator emphasises the inequality between himself and the object of his admiration: “I have not evolved enough to cope with you. /The polar bear has fur on the soles of its feet/So that it won’t slip on the ice:/I slide all over the place/…The camel has three eyelids/As a shield against the sand:/Even with my eyes tight shut/You will be a sandstorm and blind me” (Evolution, 165). In another short and expressive love poem an Eskimo narrator eagerly anticipates his home coming when “She will be waiting at the igloo. /We will go inside, /she will light the lamp, I will stare at her. /She will hear the heart inside me melt.” (Homesick, 225). Reassurance to a loved one of the continuance of their relationship after physical death is the theme of another remarkable poem, hauntingly expressed in a plaintive tone of Gothic half-shades: “Without misgivings I frequented/the shadowy crypts of your soul/where in silent repose/the bones of your ancestors lie:/and one day you also/will whiten under the sod….But I will die, my good woman, before you/and I will reserve/a place for you at that ghostly table/where we’ll drink and reminisce until morning/about those long ago nights/when, without misgivings, I frequented/the shadowy crypts of your soul.” (The shadowy crypts of your soul, 181).
The Hindu concept of Bhakti, which refers to devotion to, and love for, a personal god or a representational god by a devotee finds sublime poetic realisation in the 18 poems that have been selected from the 2007 publication Year of the Goddess. Classics of the genre, the eternal nature and inspirational power of the goddess are recurring themes: “Before the eagle was /before the sea /before the oak was /You are /before the lake was /and the cloud /before Ireland /You are /before this poem was /it pulsed in You /before the sun and moon /We are light /nothing else.” (Advaita, 359), and again: “You come from clean air/ Pure sky/ Of our being/…Show yourself/ Your lips/ From which issue/ The flaming tongues/ Of my poem” (Clean air, 327) Her absolute spiritual sovereignty is underscored and she is depicted as the object of all devotion: “Everything points to You/ As You have ordained/ All works praise You/ Every syllable.” (Everything, 331), and again: “Every poem written for You /Is the one poem /One breath /One word, one syllable” (One Poem, 343).
One might wonder if the goddess represents a personification of the Divine Feminine or if the poems are addressed to a Hindu goddess, such as Saraswathi or Kali. However, it is perhaps better that she is left unnamed as, in this way, the celestial object of devotion achieves a universal significance and these laudatory and delicately expressed poems, like prayers, may readily be appropriated by any reader and redirected by him or her to a personal god, the life force, or to infinity.
In stark contrast to these uplifting poems of devotion and deep affection, the poet occasionally, and with outstanding mastery, explores the darker side of human relationships in all its shades from a romantic break-up into deep within the sinister world of spiritual malignancy, where hate is shown to be as pervasive as love. The theme of forsaken love is poignantly evoked in a memorable poem where the luckless narrator compares himself to a ruined, decaying, house: “You have made a ruin of me/the wind blows right through me/only the odd/ migrant bird/would nest here, astray/…. soon now, the ivy will take over/in a last embrace” (Last embrace, 159). A protagonist struggling, sometimes victoriously, sometimes not, against demonic psychological infiltration is the central theme of several poems. In ‘Raven goddess!’ the protagonist prevails against his antagonist, whom he christens Badhbh, the name of the mythological Celtic raven goddess, and explains how, despite her effort to destroy him, he triumphs against her: “What second name do you bear? / …Xolotl was the secret name I received - / The morning star, /Hound, /Twin brother to Quetzalcoatl. /…I will give a secret name to you/…Badhbh I call you. / There is no day in the week/Week in the month/Nor month in the year/That you do not come ravenous/To pick at my bones. / Who told you I was laid low? /…You choked Gabriel/…But Xolotl lives, Badhbh/ Shining over the killing field” (Raven goddess!, 177). Further exploring the demonic world of loveless spirits Dybbuk vividly describes the frantic efforts of a possessed narrator to exorcise an insidious spiritual invader: “You’re virtually an organism now, /A virus, a cancer/- Spreading throughout my body/You increase in me by the hour/…Aroint thee! /You are a dybbuk, a ghost/…I excommunicate thee, witch, /In the name of the father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Dybbuk!, 167).
The rampaging, destructive delight with which evil can manifest itself should it achieve ascendency over a person’s mind is vividly portrayed in a poem where the protagonist provocatively proclaims: “Let the raven come/ Let it pluck out my eyes/ I would make a black comedy of a wedding/ I would jump out of my skin at a christening/ I would eat grass! / I would drink hare’s piss! / I am a scarecrow/ Between heaven and earth/ Blind to my fate/ My provenance unknown/ From my soul’s furnace/ / Sparks break free/ Through my eyes. / Sometimes I’m a scarecrow” (Sometimes I’m a scarecrow, 97). In a similar vein, in Black Humour, one is left with the impression that the protagonist is possessed and has no choice but to learn to live with a spiritual parasite. “When I think you’ve retreated, / You black humour that shadows me, /There you are in bed with me/ Mockingly ahead of me. /…In everything, you are everything, / In me, for me, is your meaning, /You will never leave my side/ You black humour that shadows my life” (after Rosalía de Castro,119).
In two other outstanding poems in the collection, namely, “The lay of the displaced tribesman” and “To my husband who is labouring on the Great Wall the world of pernicious relationships and inner demons, is extended to embrace the theme of man’s injustice to his fellow man. In the first poem containing over 100 lines, image gives place to image as the protagonist, an American Indian, gives a harrowing description of the plight of his once proud and free people, now reduced to a poverty-stricken, hopeless existence. This poem is so well constructed that its central message is evident throughout, as in these extracts: “And we were given desert; our gods went thirsty;/ feathers abandoned their colours; a silence of birds. / Where is the waterfall’s resonance that used to waken me each morning? / Here at the journey’s end, on a bare nameless plain. / Do not remind us of any cynical promise.” “We speak a different language that chokes us, /More than the endless dust spewing from the ravaged land/ The thud of dancing feet too rare, too lifeless, / An old air of exile becoming pure jingle! No-hopers/ passively chewing dole tobacco, / An old tin can grateful for the spit” (The lay of the displaced tribesman, 57).
In equally powerful and moving imagery, the second poem infuses the reader with an unforgettable impression of the misery endured by the thousands and thousands of civilians forcibly conscripted into helping with the construction of the Great Wall, as, for example, in this extract: “The wind bears horrific news from the north-/ That rice is scare among you and millet even scarcer/ That the frost clings to you like mud/ That the air is black with ravens/ That the arrows of the barbarians rain down upon you/ That the Great Wall slithers like a dragon/ Over mountain and desert.” The poem concludes with a splendidly appropriate metaphor, equating personal sorrow with an imprisoned, walled-in heart: “Since you went away, a bleak wall has encircled my heart. / return and demolish it, O lord of my soul. But soon.” (To my husband who is labouring on the Great Wall, 147).
Recounting the emotions and daily experiences of an anthropoid, occasionally reassuringly intermingled with references to the benign and friendly spiritual presence in nature, the themes of loneliness and the search for a sense of identity as well as the disappearance of species structure the 35 short poems selected from the 2013 publication Sasquatch. The series commences with a description of the anthropoid’s physical death and then, in a series of flashbacks, relives scenes of his daily life before, finally, describing his spiritual rebirth in the cosmos in a wonderful image: “Clouds moving across clear blue waters /drawing him away /out of this world /out of himself /away /into blue silences /silences stretching over silences bluer still /stretching to breaking point /his spirit’s blue flame dancing in the waters /in the sky.” (Blue silences, 429).
Reflecting an ingenious concept, the poems draw attention both to the creature’s feeling of loneliness underscored by the prescient feeling of the disappearance of the species and his own approaching death as well as to his longing to find a way of circumventing the inevitable through finding a mate and procreating or miraculously assuming another form, animate or inanimate. In general, these poems may be interpreted as an analogy for the disappearance in the world of plant and animal species and a cry for help.
The sasquatch infers signs of his own imminent disappearance from everyday observations, as when he “sees a bird in flight /when it disappears /something inside him says /you too will disappear /how /when /why /he knows not” (Bird in flight, 365) or again where we learn that “Loggers came and went /the sasquatch has lost count /of all the trees he once knew /the woods are not the same without them /his own species, /trees disappearing / from the face of the earth” (Loggers, 391) Autumn, on the other hand evokes the transience of the entire material world: “Autumn/ and the river turns to gold/ the sasquatch has seen it all before/ the world is an illusion/ nothing lasts/ his footprints vanish/ his breath vanishes/ there will be no trace of him” (Autumn, 415).
His longing to see his species survive or, at least, to escape his own mortal destiny finds expression in several poems that give voice to these yearnings: “The sasquatch dreamed/ he had found another:/one with whom/his race would continue/he awoke/rocks they were/in the sea/bare reefs” (Once by the coast, 369) “A cloud became a white owl/ the sasquatch longed to be something else/ anything/ anything but this shadow/ on a bare mountain.” (White owl, 417); “For a second/ the sasquatch thinks he is changing/ into a bird/ a human/ a god” (Bird flying into the moon, 411). He is even enticed by the idea of adopting a mineral form: “When the sasquatch saw them/ all those smooth stones/ he wondered what could have done it/ wind/ sea/ corrosive cry of gulls/ here I’ll lie, he thought/ become like them.” (The smoothness of stones, 373).
As mentioned above, the selected poems from Sasquatch are frequently interfused with a sense of spirituality that encourages a suspension of disbelief in favour of the acceptance of a magic world where it seems reasonable to communicate with plants and heavenly bodies and understand the whole of nature in animistic terms. In ‘Ferns’, for example, “…he bathes/ his feet in a clear stream/ closely watching as ferns/ send messages/ swaying, becoming still/ one must be alert”. In ‘Offerings’, “the river chuckles”, while in Sasquatch among stars it is revealed that he dialogues with the stars and it is recommended that “What sasquatch says to the stars/ what they in turn whisper in his ear/ let it remain between them.” (Sasquatch among stars, 395). Even the sky itself is credited with a conscience and in The sky one learns that “The precious sky/ has come down/ come down to embrace me/ smother me with its fragrance” (The Sky, 427).
Several poems selected from other publications in the book coincidentally thematise aspects of the sasquatch’s concerns transposed into the world of humans, and, in one case, into that of a related anthropoid, the yeti, who, in like manner, is portrayed as seeking to escape from his lonely environment. In this case, however, there is no longing for an instantaneous and miraculous transformation or afterlife transmigration: the yeti would be content with a mere geographical change, namely, to swop the lonely, barren, snow-covered heights of his native reaches for a friendly home in Connemara, stating, that “The Himalayas wreck my head I’d like/A cottage in Connemara/ (I hear there’s no snow there)/ To learn sean-nós/ To wear tweed, cut turf, lower pints, draw dole.” (A portrait of the artist as a yeti, 139).
The sasquatch’s wish to undergo a process of metamorphosis and become one of a different species does, nonetheless, find a novel parallel in the human world in a poem where, in a deeply passionate tone, the narrator expresses a wish to dissolve entirely and become integrated into the body of his loved one “I wanted to dissolve in you. / But here I am still/ Solid, crystalline. White. / Insoluble/Where did the experiment go wrong?/ Have we the genius to begin again?/ As I drain into you/It will generate such heat/That I will crystallize in you:/ Crystal upon crystal /Taking shape in you/Coming and going in you/Here and there, there and here/Like sunshine between showers, until/My very essence is distilled.” (Science Lesson, 161).
Providing a different perspective, the sasquatch’s wish to flee from loneliness is reversed in favour of a sort of Romantic longing for solitude in a poem that allows us to accompany the late Indian poet and film maker, Vishnu Khare, as he goes deeper and deeper into a huge forest, “Beyond all howls, grunts, whispers and roars/To where not even lightning reaches” on a quest for peace and inner harmony and where he “…returns to the self”. (Have you heard the news? 431) A similar, albeit unrealised wish to flee from the world and the ineffectuality of the more usual attempts to do so are humorously discussed in another poem where the desperate protagonist finally resorts to a desperate, measure: “Escape? How? /It’s impossible. Escape? /Nobody can escape anymore. /Pipedream. /People shrink, shrink into themselves. /They think that’s an escape. /Or they go on a package holiday /still hoping to escape. /…Time was you could escape /and nobody would know where you were /But now there are cameras everywhere/…I’m writing this under the bed” (Escape, 299).
The overall search for meaning and a sense of identity in the world is the underlying theme of a poem that describes the narrator’s spiritual experience as he searches for enlightenment on a lonely cliff and queries the fundamental nature of existence: “…Beyond all these fiddlings - / Thought! / And who is in thought/ or who thought of thinking/ in the first place - / and why? / Inside me, things happening/outside me, things happening/Should they be organized/ be ordered, be shaped?” (Zen meditation on a cliff, 189).
Some other poems in the work thematise a different aspect to the search for meaning and reflect man’s timeless effort to come to terms with the mortal and uncertain nature of physical existence through a belief in deities and other supernatural beings whose goodwill might assure a safe passage through this life and a friendly welcome in the next and the collection includes an eclectic selection of poems based on Celtic, Hindu, Greek, Egyptian and Aztec mythology, as well as on the historical Buddha, namely, ‘A dream of myth’, ‘Homage’, ‘Maenad’, ‘Am light’, ‘Xolotl’, and ‘The Buddha’.
Homage celebrates the sanctity of the elephant, evoking the elephant – god, Ganesh, the son of Lord Siva and the goddess Parvati in Hindu traditional belief, against the background of a jungle feast of elephant flesh: “The elephant’s death is the song of life:/ Come, leaves, and celebrate/ With the sun arrowing through you/ OM Sri Ganeshaya Namah!/ The elephant is like a god/ Like a mountain/ Like thunder/ Its tusks bear the earth’s weight/ And all it contains/ Sri Ganeshaya Namah!/ Come….let us eat and drink of it…/This is the core of God/ Om Sri Ganeshaya Namah!” (Homage, 141).
The Buddha reflects on the mystical, enigmatic, nature of Siddhartha Gautama and wonders if it is possible to emulate him: “How far did you travel, Buddha, /Or how far can you be followed/ /You immolated yourself in Nirvana, far on the other side, /The other side of yourself, Guatama, /And with the height of compassion /You left your gentle image after you /A smile that comprehends yuga after yuga /An image that says you were not there - / To burn in the first place –” (The Buddha, 305).
Returning to the world of myth, in colourful, surreal imagery Maenad brings one of the Maenads –the most significant members of the female retinue of the wine-god Dionysius – back to life: “She stands in the sea/Something unspeakable/In her almond-shaped eyes/ Salt foam will soon sting/ Her swollen vulva and she will cry out/ The waves will shrink from her fury/ Lemons and oranges will rain down/ Rainbows of fish will arc from the water/ And there will be one great humming.” (Maenad, 143).
‘Xolotl’, the lengthiest poem in the whole work, represents a fascinating exploration of the world of Aztec deities and beliefs. The entire poem is written in a simple, persuasive style that brings the Aztec mythological world convincingly to life. According to their beliefs the twin brothers Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl constitute the twin phases of Venus as the morning and evening star, respectively. Xolotl, being associated with the sunset, would guard the Sun as it travelled through the underworld, known as Mictlan, every night. In the actual poem the narrator expressly assumes the identity of Xolotl and proceeds to narrate the entire poem in his name, except for an interlude when Xolotl’s brother-god Quetzalcoatl speaks through him. Xolotl proclaims himself to be “the voice of the desert”, “a cloud over Fódla, / the evening star/ that awakens Banba”, he is “whooping towards the dawn/ joyful/ and parched/ sated/ and thirsty”. In long, eloquent discourses he praises the beauty of, and encourages respect for, animals and plants, trees and flowers, and, language itself: “words also/ are stones/ to be cherished/ stones/ are words”. He gives advice on how to bury the dead, heal the sick, and, in the final section of the poem, gives a guided tour of the Aztec heaven and underworld, singing the praises of various prominent deities and outlining some of their more important functions. In an interlude in his discourse, he allows his brother-god, Quelzalcoatl speak though him. Quelzalcoatl, often depicted as a feathered snake, recounts stories from his life and gives spiritual advice: “yollotl/ a muscle/that throbbing thing/ in your breast/ that’s all…/ nurture/ it/ to be a blossoming heart/ that’s all - / yolteotl”. (Yollotl is the Nahua word for heart and teotl the word for God. Yolteotl means heart of God, and philosophically is a state of oneness with the universe).
In contrast to such poems centred in the world of myth and metaphysical belief, there are many others in the book that re-channel the reader’s attention into everyday matters through retelling anecdotal incidents, imbuing these with unexpected, sometimes humorous, significance or providing brief, perceptive sketches of famous people.
One such poem, for example, vividly describes a scene from the poet’s childhood and the lasting impression it induced: “Outside, a motorbike backfires, / Straightaway I am back in Kilfinane. / Cradling a rifle/ My father is in the dispensary. /… Finger on trigger, he closes one eye. / Mammy screams then; but her voice/ Is distant, will save neither/ Me nor the rat splattered on the floor. /…That was the first killing/ the first lesson in death; the teacher my father”. (My father’s dispensary, 91). Some other anecdotal poems focus on the power of the imagination. In one, Manhattan seems transformed through the power of music: “Do you know/that when you sang/there were/no more/skyscrapers/that New York/was filled/with heather/with holly.” (For Meg (Who sang in Gàidhlig, one night in New York), 137) A child’s make-believe world is memorably evoked in another poem where the static on a TV screen in the early hours is seen as reflecting various interesting animal shapes: “Five o’ clock in the morning/ And she wanted television. / Was I going to argue/ With a two-and-a half-year-old madam? Downstairs with us/ Didn’t bother to dress/ And the room was perishing. / Still pitchdark/ We stared wide-eyed at the white screen. / Okay? / Satisfied? / But she could make out snow/ And a giraffe through the snow/ And an Artic owl/ Gliding/ Overhead.” (Television (about my daughter Saffron), 103).
Some brief quotes from the bio poems may serve to provide another indication of the striking perceptive power and conceptual skill of the poet: “A rangy man in a field/Rehearsing ancient stories/Before the sun sets” (Seán Ó Conaill, storyteller, 207) “You wrung pain/ from the height of sweetness/ sweetness/ from the height of pain” (Billie Holiday, 127). The iconic photographer Harry Thuillier is commemorated in a poem that concludes with a marvelous metaphor: “You saw all of life, Harry, and death, too, revealing itself/now and forever in the darkroom of your soul.” (Harry Thuillier Jnr (1964/1997), 209).
In addition, the work also features several poems in which the poet gives free rein to his sense of humour, providing thereby further testimony to the astonishing range of the poetic voice that resounds throughout the collection. For example, in ‘Clock’, when a weary worker prior to retiring for the night rebels against the alarm clock: “I put the clock in the fridge tonight/…………The beetroot, the cheese and the frozen carrots/Will waken up at ten to eight. / Let them jump on a bus. / I couldn’t care less”. (Clock, 93). In another poem a self-effacing narrator makes some very amusing analogies: “Self-portrait as a crocodile? /Because only my snout /Remains visible above the surface? /But do I have that lethal quality? /… Self-portrait as a monkey? /Because I make people laugh? /I make myself laugh. Pure and simple /…Still it has to be the perfect choice: a newt” (Self-portrait, 293). An alcoholic Orang-Utan comes to word in Syójó and in a very amusing rhetoric, partly confessional and partly accusatory, takes the reader on a guided tour through his world: “We don’t need passwords or a secret handshake/To find our own congenial company:/We smell the drought from one another…Sometimes the real citizens don’t even see us. / We debate the big subjects/ 'For God’s sake, where’s the sake? / Where has the time gone to? '.... Success means nothing to us/ Our social skills are zero/. We don’t play golf. / If people like you find syójós like me strange/ How come, you don’t find people like yourselves strange? / Or do you have answers to the big questions: / ‘For God’s sake, where’s the sake? / Where has the time gone to?’” (Syójó, 185).
There are, finally, many, mainly short, poems of an esoteric nature that seek to capture the inner life of plants, or, otherwise give the impression of meaning infinitely more than they say and bringing the reader to the outpost of some parallel reality. In ‘Lascaux cow’, a cow from one of the famous cave paintings near the town of Montignac in SW France is, in a few short phrases, repainted in words to give an impression of independent life, and depicted as a source of libido renewal for the weary protagonist: “Thou bovine child of silence and slow time/ On a cavewall in Lascaux, / Isn’t it frisky you are/ After thirty thousand years! / …. O you immortal, enduring, bucklepping cow/ Bellow me into wakefulness!” (Lascaux cow, 111) The plants in Restaurant Plants “…see no sun/Taste no rain………/Sometimes, however, /In the middle of the night, /Silent leaves reach/Towards God” (Restaurant Plants, 129). Similarly, the transcendental spirit of a flower is evoked in In a vase: “I have put you, flower, / in a blue Chinese vase, / I’d dare not lay a finger on your/ terrifying exquisiteness;/ stars and moons converse with you, / runic poems from on high, / teaching you their ancient ways, / cold and adamantine.”(In a vase, 89) Another simple, but though-provoking poem hints at the responsiveness of plants to human emotion: “It was like a miniature/ Sculpture by Calder, / Your cactus in the kitchen, / Your nursing plain on its wounded arm-/ A splint! / I doubt that I’ll see that again/ It’s equal for kindliness to prickliness. / You poured love/ And everything blossomed”(Splint, 95).
In a like manner, the haiku in the collection seize on seemingly unimportant observations of nature and urban life and imbue them with an arresting majesty and significance. Here are some examples:
“A single magpie /swallows a beakful / of its reflected self” (p.313)
“Foghorn /little by little / the world fades away” (p.315)
“the flea market in Valparaiso/ a German helmet/ is rusting away” (p.315)
“Frosty morning /a robin bares her breast/ to the wide world” (p. 317)
In grouping and reviewing poems by theme and type an appreciation of the depth and scope of the various subjects treated has been possible. Poetry itself, the theme of several poems, has been depicted as a demanding but rewarding master while the importance of language in shaping an individual’s world view has found poignant expression in several poems. The full spectrum of the human condition, forever wavering between hope and despair, is manifested in the diverse nature of the poems that explore the longings, hopes and fears of the human heart, and give voice to its screams of agony and ecstasy. The comprehensive nature of the treatment of these themes may be perceived through contrasting poems that celebrate personal love and devotion, with those thematising the demonic and selfish side of human nature. The search for meaning and happiness has been considered from the aspect of rational introspection and, in contrast, the viewpoint of the religious world of metaphysical belief as the panacea for all man’s ills has been presented. Similarly, the ideal environment in which to achieve self-realisation – in seclusion or through integration into the circle of one’s fellow beings – has been considered from both perspectives, while in the poems devoted to the sasquatch, the great sensitivity and empathy with which the fears and hopes of the protagonist are recorded lend credence to the idea of an anthropoid with a higher sense of purpose. In another striking contrast and fascinating contradiction, the unreal world of gods and mythic beings is presented with a naturalness that makes it seem plausible whereas some of the anecdotal poems that describe scenes of everyday life emphasize the power of the imagination to transcend reality. As has been seen, several shorter poems and haiku successfully infuse the seemingly trivial and unimportant with an enigmatic grandeur and spirituality and hint at an underlying and purposeful conscience animating surface reality, while those devoted to the teachings and philosophy of Hinduism and Buddhism successfully capture the mystique of the Oriental worldview.
Reading the poems in the chronological order in which they are presented in the collection is sure to be an exciting experience as an ever-changing variety of style and theme arrest the attention and speak alternatively to the reason, the imagination, the heart and sometimes seem to touch the very soul. They will stimulate reflection, arouse the emotions, amuse and, occasionally, astonish. Most of all, they will serve to expand the reader’s worldview to include an enhanced appreciation of-and renewed curiosity in the world of art and myth, in that of the spirit, and that of the street.
The poems in the collection were originally conceived and written in Irish and are printed in the original Irish with facing-page translations into English. The actual translations were partly undertaken by Gabriel Rosenstock himself and, the greater part, by another renowned bi-lingual poet and composer of haiku, Paddy Bushe, precise indications of the responsible translator being provided in the index of poems. The book is available for purchase from the publishers, Cló Iar-Chonnacht, https://www.cic.ie.« Return to listings