Gabriel Rosenstock’s Glengower: Poems for No one in Irish and English

The poems in GLENGOWER Poems for No One in Irish and English are grouped into three sections and two appendixes, nos. I and II. Of the sections, which are dealt with in greater detail below, the thirteen poems in the first one, entitled In India and thereabouts, are populated by saints and mystics and interspersed with metaphors and allusions that reinforce an image of timelessness and the transcendence of physical reality. The sixteen poems of the second section, Glengower, take the reader into the village of that name and acquaint him or her with the comical and unusual issues that the villagers must contend with and the highly amusing and frequently ineffectual efforts of the local Development Committee to deal with them. Krishnamurphy, as the third section, with its ten poems, is called, features an often-hilarious Irish seer of that name, who, though occasionally thoughtful and serious, frequently responds to the questions of his disciples in a way that might indicate that he is on the way to attaining the supreme state-of-mind propagated by his great Indian namesake, Jiddu Krishnamurti, namely, mindlessness! The fifteen poems in Appendix I have no overall generic or thematic basis, and feature largely disparate, but deeply thought- provoking poems. Appendix II’s twelve poems deal with important actors and events of 1916 Ireland, the year of the rebellion, and are in Irish. Regrettably, I am not qualified to review these poems.

In the section In India and thereabouts, some poems hauntingly explore the no-man’s-land separating the known and the metaphysical world, as in Hare Krisna “When the music of the flute subsides /concentrated in that silence/the future poetry of all mankind” or in Who knows? when a Maharishi enjoins some boys to stop throwing stones at a crow. “Leave him alone. /No ordinary crow that one, /but a sage on pilgrimage”, he tells them. In the poem The Poet as Untouchable, the poet is likened to “a cloud that appears/from nowhere/from some hill or mountain/where language still mutters/like rain/where a goddess dwells in a cave/unsung epics smouldering in her breast”. The Poem Maker describes the process of preparing and writing a poem on female palmyra leaves, the poet “chanting all the while in gratitude to Saraswati/from whom all poems emanate.” In Broken Bangle, an unauthorised seller of bangles is being taken to the police station when she suddenly looks up and sees a rainbow -   symbol of a broken bangle and a reminder, perhaps, of the unimportance of the material world. Singing its heart out asserts that only when the mind is entirely free of the structure of desire (in this instance desire would consist of the wish to conceptualise the “Void” through “…listening/ to the singing bowls of Tibet”) can it comprehend and reach the Void, considered the supreme goal by, among others, Jiddu Krishnamurti.

Three longer poems in this section see the author switch identity in one poem and create a dynamic relationship between past and present in the other two. He assumes the identity of a fellow poet, Amarjit Chandan, in Gunachaur: a pilgrimage and allows the past have access to the present in a poem dedicated to the wandering mystic Meher Baba (1894-1969), and again in a masterfully constructed poem, Bhima Bhoi, dedicated to the poet and religious teacher of that name. Amarjit Chandan had written a poem, Gunachaur, wherein he nostalgically evokes his love for the town of that name, his mother’s birth place, though he has never visited it. Rosenstock does, empathetically and convincingly, in his poem, where, inter alia, he imagines “…there may be a cock crowing/a goat scratching itself against a neem tree. /Amarjit’s distant relations showering me with praise/shouting `Wah Wah! ´”. In Meher Baba Kisses the Feet of Lepers, the Indian mystic’s love and dedication to the lepers, about the most unfortunate among his fellow-men, is expressed as follows: “Dust of the roads on misshapen feet/kissed over and over again by Meher Baba/embracing their beautiful souls/God’s fragrance spreading far and near/sweeter than jasmine.” The poem concludes with an earnest request to the mystic to “Come, come to us/Come to Dublin, Belfast, /Cork, Galway/kiss the feet of lepers/bankers/politicians/lawyers.” Bhima Bhoi starts by questioning the uncertain origins of the  poet(nobody knows exactly when or where he was born, but approximately 1850 and maybe in Jatesingha in the state of Odisha) , but dismisses this search as trivial and irrelevant, as “Did not he himself say that his father is the beginningless Lord/ his mother the primal energy/from whose union he appeared/his tongue aflame with poetry?” The poem soon takes us to the centre of contemporary Dublin where the author informs us that he took a stranger in a café to be a reincarnated Bhima Bhoi, whereas the stranger thought that he, the poet, himself,  was BB, returned from the dead, whereupon the bewildered poet flies in fright, only to be overtaken on the street by a cow (BB had earned his living as a twelve-year- old minding cattle) that proceeded to amble down the street, pausing to listen to a busker chanting a bhajan – one that had been composed by BB himself in praise of the Alekha, the absolute ontological reality, the Param Brahman! “Form brighter than a million flames/Limbs dazzling like a million suns…” chanted the busker before the cow then thoughtfully continued her journey towards Trinity College.

In the second section, Glengower, the mysterious fog that suddenly settles on the village of Glengower and described in the opening poem, Fog, bodes no good as the unsettling events that assail it shortly afterwards testify: in Statue we are informed of a statue coming from where and representing whom or what no one can tell that suddenly occupies an empty spot; Overcrowded Graveyard describes the deliberations of the Development Committee in the face of this alarming fact, their conclusion (carried unanimously) being “that people refrain from kicking the bucket/until this crisis has been resolved”; Vandalism highlights one of the structural weaknesses of the Development Committee as the guilty party involved in the tampering with the bilingual sign that announces entry to the village, the English name having been painted out, leaving only the Irish Gleann na nGabhar, cannot be named and shamed as “the town boasts only one language fanatic -/the Chairman”, so he is probably the culprit. Incidentally, two other significant structural faults in the DC are incarnate in the form of the die-hard communist “Lefty” and, his arch antagonist, the very conservative Anglo-Irish protestant “Mrs de Lacy-Moran”, each unfailingly insisting on interrupting the discussions of the committee to steer it in the direction of their particular social views. For example, in Seagull Attacks, a poem that describes another disturbing circumstance to add to the concerns of the villagers, namely, the systematic stealing of food by sea gulls, Lefty emphatically declares that “This problem with the seagulls, /it’s not an ornithological one, so to speak/but something to do with overproduction/and the capitalist system generally!” As might be expected after such an extreme assertion, the conservative “Mrs de Lacy-Moran takes a fit of the vapours”. In the brief periods of respite between the management (or, be it said in the interests of truth, mismanagement) of local catastrophes the DC sometimes introduces matters of aesthetic importance to its agenda, but here also the ill omen presaged by the above-mentioned fog, does not miss an opportunity to assert itself. Thus, in The Poet, a motion to personalise the mysterious statue with a plaque proclaiming it to represent a 17th century local poet, Seán Bán an Ghleanna, is carried unanimously, but, in Unveiling the Statue we learn that instead of Seán Bán, the plaque honours Seán Ban, meaning Seán the womanizer.

This brief review of Glengower would be particularly lacking if two further significant poems, namely, Memories of the Goddess Kali and Glengower Tavern, were not mentioned as a brief look at them might help to cast some light on the cause(s) of the sudden and sinister sequence of events, that have come to plague the peaceful lives of the villagers, only a few of which could be mentioned in this brief review. In the first of these two poems, there is also question of a statue, the figure in question, portraying the Goddess herself, Kali, had been brought back from India by a grand-uncle of the redoubtable Mrs de Lacy-Moran. As, so she reports to the DC, “the servants would not stay under the same roof…. daddy took the statue out of the house….and he made smithereens of her/that awful tongue of hers in the grass/like a red autumn leaf”. Could we not have here a classic case of revenge of the Gods? The second poem, Glengower Tavern, is decidedly supernatural in its implications, as did not the mysterious and secretive new arrival to the village, M. Thierry Gillet, reveal to Lefty in that very tavern that he had recently actually passed away and used the opportunity to visit both Heaven and Hell? Incidentally, he explained rather cryptically that the immediate cause of this brief and temporary shuffling off of the mortal coil was due to the inexplicable absence of a flock of crows upon which he was totally dependent to awaken him in the morning. Did he also not reveal that he was currently working on a sculpture depicting seven CROWS in a FOG. The fog, sorry plot, thickens! Whether he might be the cause of the curse – a man that can so readily roam about in the realm of the hereafter and return would surely have an array of spells in his repertoire – or, for some mysterious reason, have been selected as a target,  – the sudden disappearance of the crows being perhaps merely another deadly link in the alarming and sinister chain of events -the possibility of the involvement of Thierry Gillet, be it as agent or victim, must be seriously considered.

No doubt further and deeper analysis of this section would be necessary to arrive at a solution to the riddle, but, in any case, the unlikely but most amusing events that beset Glengower and the bungling efforts of the DC to solve them, all recorded in a simple, prosaic style, combine to make a very potent comical cocktail that is sure to quickly inebriate even the most sober minded of readers.  Glengower can continue to serve as a mental refugium to be visited whenever a little bit of solace in the form of humour is needed to compensate for any slings or arrows that outrageous fortune might direct in our direction. Naturally, occultists and aspiring witches, of all categories and genders, are also recommended to peruse the poems in this section both for enjoyment and useful professional tips!

The section entitled Krishnamurphy features 10 poems in most which a protagonist of that name – an Irish Master – philosophises on a range of subjects, usually in response to questions posed by his disciples, sometimes on matters of more general interest, but, as might be expected, often closely related to the theories of his namesake, the Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986). However, the Irish sage’s replies are sometimes a very humorous misrepresentation of the theories of the Indian Master. In Krishnamurphy Smashes His Ego, the Irish philosopher triumphantly declares “Yes,yes,yes: I have smashed it!”, making this assertion, however, with “His chest swelling with pride.” Similarly, in Marijuana, in response to a student’s question, “Should the government legalise marijuana?”, he replies that “In an ideal world…/marijuana would be legal/and governments illegal.”  In Aliens he replies affirmatively to a student who innocently asks “Master, /Are there aliens among us?”, stating that “…., you may have voted for one/In the last general election.” His personalised version of Krishnamurti’s teaching are again very humorously evident in Monkey Mind, when in response to a student’s question of “How to still the monkey mind” he side-steps the issue with the retort “Not a valid question/No monkeys in Ireland/Next?” Krishnamurphy goes on the batter sees the rural Irish sage once more misinterpreting a student’s question, confusing “head” as synonym for hangover with “head” meaning intellect, but, his answer, coincidentally, would meet with the great JK’s approval as he implicitly avows that man’s core belief, namely, that the human mind is responsible for all the misery, brutality and confusion of the society in which we live. 

Krishnamurphy however, also shows that he is capable of profoundly interesting and independent views. In Krishnamurphy and Ashtavakra, for example, he names Ashtavakra, an important figure in Hindu religious mythology, who was born a cripple, as a model to be imitated to achieve enlightenment, adding cryptically that “To be like Ashtavakra you must be/crookeder that a corkscrew!” Lovers in a Garden briefly explores the relationship of art to reality, while in Tohi Bohi, he reveals his acceptance of orthodox Indian spiritual practices, when he invites his students to join him in chanting the mantra: “Tohi Mohi, Mohi Tohi/ Antar Kaisa”, (Oh Lord!! You are Me and I am you. What is the difference between us?).

To a certain extent many of the seemingly disparate and thematically unconnected poems in Appendix I could be loosely considered as an analysis and reflection on death and disappearance in different forms. Death as tragic accident is the theme of To a brother drowned and Pearse’s Ophelia. In the first poem the death of the poet’s brother, who drowned in a lake in Glendalough, County Wicklow, is commemorated. In an attempt to relive the final moments of the tragedy, the author asks, “What last poems pound in your brain/bubbling up to the astonished air” and describes the anguish and grief of the survivors in a metaphor that likens their great sorrow to the act of drowning itself: “We witnessed nothing/something in us forgot to surface/lingering dumbly/in umbrous, uncharted, zones”. Pearse’s Ophelia recalls another accidental death in the water, that of a young member of the Gaelic League, Eibhlín Nic Niocaill, who drowns while trying to save another girl, who eventually survived, off the White Strand in Great Blasket on August 13, 1909. The poem also reflects on the unique spiritual qualities of a local priest, Father Tom Jones, who was credited with the knowledge of an ancient spell that could serve to call the soul of one departed back into the body, i.e., revive someone who had recently died. On this occasion, though he was present when her body was brought ashore, he failed to revive her, whether because he refused to exercise his unique gift or simply could not on this occasion. The mysterious stranding of a whale near the Gaeltacht village of Machaire Rabhartaigh in County Donegal is the subject of Leviathan. “What had brought it in” asks the narrator and discounts the likelihood of human agency, in the form of the Royal Navy, in favour of a metaphysical agent, as that night, after all, “Enbarr, the sea-god’s horse, was heard/thundering along the strand/his long white mane billowing”

A very curious contrast to the tragedy of untimely, accidental death may be found in another poem in this cycle, namely, Comfort lady: a veteran remembers. Here the protagonist, a Japanese WWII combatant bemoans the fact that he did not die: “I went to die for the Emperor/and lived. I am eaten by shame….” This poem also evokes death in another form – suicide - and focuses on the leap off a cliff to her doom of one of the thousands of civilians – forced foreign labourers as well as Japanese citizens - who choose such ways of ending their lives rather than submit to the US Army, which had been hideously vilified by Japanese propaganda. The soldier had never been the same since he saw the clip of that woman’s death leap - “emitting an eagle’s whistling cry”, as he felt no doubt that he should have acted similarly at the end of the war, seeing that he had not been lucky enough to stop an American bullet.

Disappearance in the form of a long-or short-term flight into an imaginary or physical reality, might be considered the theme of several poems in Appendix I that privilege the occasional need to escape into a more benign or inspiring environment. Lethal Injection recalls the execution of Timothy McVeigh, found guilty of planting the bomb that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City in 1995, at the Federal Correction Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, on June 11, 2001. The poem speaks of the author’s wish to forget that he had ever heard of this crime or the state sponsored execution of the perpetrator. He singles out the river that flows though Terre Haute, the Wabash, as personifying the whole cycle of events and expresses the wish that, instead of that river, he could “…imagine untrodden flowers, another/river, a darker one. Its name/unchanged over a thousand/years, as legend-whispering reeds/will testify. No prayers or curses mingle/with its murmuring. A lone/kingfisher, eyes glued/to the water, alert, unafraid.” Similarly, The sun will be free describes a voluntary flight and records the imaginary and welcoming world, centring in Jerusalem, created in his mind by a twelve-year old Jewish inmate of Dachau to help him escape from the despairing reality of his real circumstances. The desire to escape into a different environment, this one fictitious, is also the theme of Malgudi a town created in his imagination by R.K. Narayan and used as location for most of his books. The reader is taken on a stroll through this town by a thoughtful narrator who sings its praises, pointing out interesting places such as the Truth Printing Works and the Albert Mission School and mentioning local people of interest like the holy man Raju and Dr Raman, not to forget the “poet who is recreating the life of Krishna/in priceless monosyllabic verse-“ who will “surely…become my dearest friend”. Once again, this poem demonstrates the expediency of creating an imaginary world, whether, like Narayan, so as not to have to bother with real facts, or, for others, as a place to inhabit mentally when outer circumstances are unfavourable. The theme of Have you heard the news? is also disappearance, escape from reality, but this time the flight is physical and we accompany the 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”.

Another form of disappearance is cultural loss for whatever reason, social, political or technological and underlies the subject matter of three poems. A valley in Mexico contrasts aspects of the life style of the inhabitants of a Mexican village then and now. The author tells us that in bygone times “The highlight of the year/is a horse race like none other. /No starting point, no finishing line. /Men ride around the village/at a leisurely pace. /…… No winners, no losers. /…. Long time ago.” Today, however, “… they watch television. It’s all in Spanish.” Through the contrast between the short description of the current way of passing the time and the much longer and positive description of the horse event, the reader is left in little doubt as to where the author’s sympathy lies and one is also left feeling saddened by the disappearance of this annual event that would have entertained riders and villagers not only on the day of the event but throughout the year in expectation of it. Similarly, Recurring Nightmare contrasts the present and the past in so far as they concern the cultural norms of American Red Indians and, here also, one is encouraged to question the value of progress, as the emancipated, but superficial life styles of young, modern Indian women is contrasted with a mystical trance culminating in verses capable of healing that a shaman ancestor stages behind a sacred waterfall: “In olden days a seer would sit/on a threadbare bullock hide/and in a recess behind the bright roar/plunge into ancestral silence/invoking the restless spirit of the falls/before emerging from a corona of spume/to scatter pearl-strung litanies:/all who listened were rooted to the ground/and were healed.”  In The Last Postman the poet captivatingly describes the daily round of a postman on a bicycle, “head stooped, wheezing/as though bearing the weight of the world” and lists the contents of the different sorts of routine letter that would, together, weigh hugely on a single mind, such as “bills, eviction notices, summonses/the desperate incoherent poetry of unrequited love/an emigrant’s litany from a distant shore”, etc.,  But most of all the postman must bear the knowledge that he and his profession, might soon disappear, that  “the age of letters is drawing to a close.” And he asks himself if “…he will venture out some morning early, his satchel empty? /The last postman.”

The theme of disappearance in Sheet Music for Bird Song is very concrete as the poem speculates on the whereabouts of missing people. The author asks if they might have gone back to school “learning again how to say/`Good night, see you in the morning! `” or if, perhaps, “...they assemble/like fixed stars on frosty nights/disappearing over and over again?” Finally, he supplies some possible explanations, with a very surprising conclusion.

The disappearance of flags and the nation state is the theme of two other poems included elsewhere in the collection, to wit, White Flags and Credo. Very appropriately from the standpoint of the millions of Africans and others willing to risk their lives in search of a better political and economic environment, in White Flags the author hopefully suggests that flags might disappear altogether someday, “The American flag/on the moon/has turned white, /bleached by the sun. /……All flags will pale/Some sunny day”. In Credo the poet disavows his allegiance to any nation state; in this short, but powerful poem, quoted here in full, he states: “I am no longer of Ireland/or of any goddam nation state/if I am anything/I am grass in a forest/trampled by elephants/a forest so vast/even the monkey cannot find its borders/grass upon which rishis rest/before composing the Upanishads”

Of the remaining poems in this Appendix, the amusing antics of a magpie with the “Victorian enthusiasm/for discovery and self-betterment” are described in Still Life with Dolmen; some salient, stereotypical, characteristics of an average 19th century Church of Ireland bishop and his family are listed in His Grace on a Plinth and the Appendix concludes with a brief, personal poem, To My Parents, that very touchingly evokes the notion of the prior existence of the human spirit.

Because there is a strong thematic link between the poems in each section, and, to an extent in Appendix I, it is probably best to read them section by section, whether at a single sitting or over a longer period. Whatever way is chosen, they are sure to leave an unforgettable impression and, in the case of In India and thereabouts and Krishnamurphy, might be the beginning of a new adventure of exploration for those not familiar with the characters and concepts treated, and, for those who need no introduction to them, transmit a welcoming feeling of coming back home. Glengower is a superbly constructed cycle where underlying a gentle and very amusing satire of village life and politics is a mood of mystery and malignity that leaves one slightly unsettled and puzzled, but highly entertained. Some of the poems in Appendix I will sadden, particularly if read immediately after the comical digressions of the eminent Sri Krishnamurphy, while others will stimulate reflexion on interesting issues such as the significance of cultural change, the importance and power of the imagination and the possibility of a united world, undivided by national borders.

Thomas Goggin is an ex UN professional active mainly in the fields of administration and finance in diverse duty stations (Vienna, NY, and outreach offices of UNECA and DPA in Tangiers and Dakar, respectively). Since retirement he has rekindled his interest in literature with formal studies in the UK, self-publications and sundry reviews, mainly of poetry. Currently lives in Vienna. 

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