Wednesday 28 November 2012

The European Muse

The European Muse

reviewed by  Seamus Gallagher.

The European Muse, an event organised by Peter Sirr and the Dublin Book Festival and sponsored by Poetry Ireland, took place in Smock Alley Theatre on Saturday 17th November.

It was hosted by Michael O'Loughlin and gave rise to a very stimulating discussion by four Irish poets and the Dutch classical singer and poet, Judith Mok. Harry Clifton, Moya Cannon, Judith Mok, Mary O'Donnell and Michael O'Loughlin discussed the influence of European poetry in translation on their own work.  Each read and spoke about a poem and poet that had an influence upon their poetry.

Michael O'Loughlin spoke about The Survivor by Tadeusz Rosowicz, a Polish poet whose work changed how O'Loughlin perceived poetry.  He had been brought up believing that a poem had a particular shape to it and 'did not look like' the work that Rosowicz was producing. As a result of reading this and other European poetry, his own writing changed. 'My early poems, when I read them now sound to me as if they were translationese' he observed. He then noted that a poet like himself might have been accused of a kind of reverse parochialism, where he was only interested in what was European and not what was happening at home. This of course, he eventually realised, is a false distinction: where is Europe if not here? For O'Loughlin, reading European poetry therefore brought about the realisation that Ireland is as much Europe as Holland or Poland.

Harry Clifton had a similar experience when he encountered the European Muse, but with a different emphasis. While O'Loughlin was struck by how different the new poetry looked, Clifton was challenged by the unfamiliar sounds which he encountered, especially those in 'Modern Poetry in Translation' [edited by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort]. 'It sounded different to us,' he said. 'We were used to a particular 'noise', a sound of English and Irish poetry.'  He read an extract from The Song of Wandering Aengus by Yeats, as an example of poetry that is familiar to the Irish saying that 'It is beautiful, but not useful to us'. By 'not useful' I took him to mean something that was not useful to us as poets, something that we could not learn from. He then read Eugenio Montale's The Ark which he said sounded at first, strange, muddy and obscure to him, but emotionally engaging. Montale, who in his subjective poetry 'retreated into an inner, private world,' carried for Clifton a philosophical weight, which was not foregrounded in Irish poetry.

Mary O'Donnell developed this point saying that intellectual rigor and an abstract or philosophical approach whether present or not in Irish poetry, had not always been acceptable to Irish critics. While establishing the Irish canon, they wanted concrete details instead of abstractions, therefore the  poets they approved of tended - or tend! - to be more 'lyrical' than philosophical. O'Donnell 's European Muse, Ingeborg Bachmann, was a woman for whom philosophy was an integral part of life and work.  The invasion of her Austrian homeland by Germany was an experience Bachmann carried with her throughout her life. The psychic experience of 'invasion' haunted her, the poetry she wrote was very serious and she felt no compulsion to entertain. She was a complex poet who wrote in a melancholic tone but believed always in the redemptive power of art. O'Donnell read Bachmann's Timelapse and then read a poem of her own inspired by this, Turn Season.

I found Judith Mok's contribution particularly interesting. When she was growing up she told us that her 'ears were filled with various languages'. Her father was a prominent poet and throughout her early life Judith became accustomed to poets visiting the house, reading and discussing poetry. She read poetry not in translation, but in their original languages, in Spanish, French, English and others. The concept of 'European poetry' was something she only became aware of when she travelled to Ireland and America. Being a classical singer, sound is very important to her, and she reminded us that we don't read poetry just for its meaning. 'Poetry is sound too,' she said, and it is difficult to get across in translation how a poem sounds in its original language. She illustrated this by reading Friedrich Holderin's 'Helfte des Lebens' (Half of Life) in the original German, emphasising some lines and saying  that these sounds were really untranslatable.

Moya Cannon has translated early Irish poetry and has found what she called a 'to and fro-ing' between Irish, European and Greek poetry. She felt that the 'permissions' she got from unfamiliar forms of poetry  which she read when she was between seventeen and twenty-three years of age were very important to her development as a poet. She and Michael O'Loughlin recalled the Eblana Bookshop in Grafton Street in the 1970s and the small, precious selection of poetry in translation they found there. Moya spoke particularly about Antoni Machado, and his poem 'Renacimiento' (Rebirth) which she read in both English and the original Spanish and told us that she had first encountered his work in Michael Smith's translations. He was a political poet 'in a non-explicit way' she said, and he spoke about the power of the spirit in a sense that had nothing to do with anything ecclestiastical or with  logical positivism.  For Machado, poetry was the 'deep pulse of the soul'.

In the general discussion which followed some interesting points were raised.  Harry Clifton said that there was a 'fashionability' about reading poetry in translation. Lorca, for example, was highly fashionable to read as was Mandelstam in the 1970s.  Moya Cannon felt that some poets were right for a particular time, but also for a particular period in the readers own life. Michael O'Loughlin commented that we don't really know if Mandelstam is a good poet because we are dependent upon translation. Judith Mok felt that as you hear the voice of the translator the poetry is, in a way, the work of that translator. Harry Clifton concluded that we get an emotional excitement from the 'exoticness' that a foreign poet brings to our gaelic temperament.

I found it very interesting to learn what it was about reading poetry in translation that brought something to life in each of the five poets who had taken part in this discussion, and I left the theatre looking forward to reading their work again, and reading it in a new light.

Monday 26 November 2012

The Dark Earth and the Light Sky

The Dark Earth and the Light Sky

Written by: Nick Dear.

Playing at : The Almeida Theatre, Islington - Until 12th January, 2013.

Reviewed By Pete Lawler.
I have the utmost admiration and respect for playwrights brave enough to attempt to reincarnate well known poets, Shelley’s ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world,’ on stage in order to shed some light on the mysterious cult status their lives seem to acquire; or use that mystery and status to explore some of the issues of our age. The last time I saw it happen was at The Unicorn Theatre in 2010, in Stephen McDonald’s play, Not About Heroes, which explored with beautiful subtlety that much speculated upon relationship (not least of all in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy) that has so enraptured the popular imagination between war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.
Nick Dear does something remarkably similar in his latest offering, The Dark Earth and the Light Sky presenting a relationship between two gifted artists, one inspiring the other. But Dear focuses on a far more unheralded and underrated poet – at least in his own lifetime – and arguably one whose poetry was less about war and more about poetry and beauty, Edward Thomas (Pip Carter) and his friendship with the American literary colossus Robert Frost (Shaun Dooley).
In doing so, there are a host of contrasts that make Dear’s work stand out. It is far more about Thomas’ love of the English countryside, realised with evocative simplicity through Bob Crowley’s understated design. The rural pastures of Gloucestershire become the terms through which Thomas negotiates a sense of self and a sense of Englishness, his existential struggle to articulate and define who he is. It is an enthralling personal struggle, with the encouraging Frost, played with a compelling sense of righteous certainty and pomp by Dooley, as his foil through which he comes to terms with himself and his eventual decision to enlist in the army at the age of 37, and fight in The Great War, a decision that would lead to his death at The Battle of Arras in 1917.
The interplay between Frost and Thomas is precise and as funny as it is poignant, the chemistry between the two sustained with natural ease and an adept sense of timing. But the real and deep sense of pathos comes from Thomas’ widow, Helen, on whose memoirs, much of the play is based. It is her accounts of her husband, the tenderness between the two of them, her Job-like enduring patience and moving grief later on that stir our hearts in this story. Hattie Morahan is spellbinding in this role, with a ferocious and unrelenting vivacity that perpetually draws you further into her own struggle to make Edward understood as a person and as an artist.
Frostian purists might not be pleased. Moving though I found this piece, I felt at times that there was a worthy struggle taking place onstage between constantly questioning and self-critical Englishness and a smugly certain American way of seeing the world that in the end, presents Frost as a distanced pontificating coward who refuses to accommodate other ways of perception into his own worldview. The play’s shortcoming is that it is too worthily bent on ennobling Thomas. This purpose magnifies itself into a debate about two different ways of seeing responsibility and the world, a debate that sits awkwardly when it is most pronounced on stage, reducing characters to symbols, near-caricatures, especially in the case of Frost, the brash, lordly American.
This is a human story though and whatever worthiness stumbles around the corners of its parameters is outweighed by performances that give us a beautiful depth of humanity and bring to life for us the poetic genius of Thomas.
The Dark Earth and the Light Sky is playing in London at the Almeida Theatre, Islington, until January 12th, 2013.
Pete Lawler, was born in Pennsylvania and is now living and working in London. His blog 'The American Londoner' can be viewed here:

Friday 23 November 2012

Gerard Beirne's Games of Chance

Games of Chance:  
A Gambler's Manual


Gerard Beirne
Reviewed by: Ann Fallon.

Science has a special relationship to the physical world. Slowly and methodically it puts forward questions and hypotheses which are tested and assessed, and which have advanced our knowledge to the extent that we can now perform successful heart and brain surgery, we can immunise people against dangerous disease, we can begin to explore the depths of the oceans and the movements of the planets.

But science, in order to document and communicate its findings must use the methods of logic and draw language from the communal language pool.  This is the aspect of science which the poet Gerard Beirne engages with in his new collection of poetry Games of Chance. Beirne studied mathematics and engineering  and is in a strong position therefore to appreciate the stark beauty of the physical world which science uncovers but which scientific writers do not generally have the remit to engage with. His training gives him an insight into the equations of the mind, while his poetic sensibility allows access to the equally important equations of the heart. In his poems the paradigms of the scientific world are examined, and in revealing their strengths Beirne also reveals their limitations and these have to do with the limitations of logic. In ‘Two Methods of Proof’ he begins by telling us that: 

           Here's the illusion:

           given certain data
           arrive at a conclusion

           A premise:
                       an assertion given as true

He he first looks at the 'Rule of Detachment' and then writes that:

Equally aloof
                     the Rule of Syllogism
with it doctrine of inference
and the usual sound reasoning:

if p ⇒ q
and q⇒ r
               p ⇒ r

(a stanza following
The one that came before)

A transitive property of the conditional
The image
Implying the symbol

(if beauty is truth
And truth is all
Therefore beauty is all)

The ascent
before the fall.

The 'Rule of Syllogism' here leads to the realisation that the world is all we have, and that it is beautiful in all of its flaws. He points to the fact that in an Age of Reason, in an 'ascent' of the mind and of logic,   it is  easy to be deceived and to fall into the trap of believing that we understand everything. In doing so he seems to request a new Age, which grants the magnificence and power of science but is also wary of falling into the trap of closing our minds and believing that we understand 'all'. He does this by re-introducing the lessons of myth and the wisdom books of human creativity, which engage us with the story of the creation but warn us also of a 'fall'.  In this poem then the sure and certain knowledge which science brings is exhibited alongside our ability to create and to learn from our myths and metaphors. In a dispassionate way, Beirne is asking us to consider all of the possibilities. That alongside the knowledge of the world is our experience of creativity, our ability to create myth and poetry and that these yield other truths. In this poem it is left up to the reader to decide whether myth is subsumed, or reduced, under the aegis of science or whether creativity and imagination call to places beyond our current understanding.

Games of Chance opens with a cluster of poems which utilise logic and equations which  take the reader methodically through the paradigms and rules of science. Beirne then starts to introduce what is more recognisably poetic as in the poem ‘Galileo’s Method’. Here he shows us the human side of this wonderful scientist and imagines that in the course of his work he sees the fuller metaphorical implications of what that work means.

Galileo’s Method

In the dark of night, Galileo
looking out for light
as another might watch
for a paramour
lanterns glancing from tower tops

having been stopped
in the tracks of his lens
when it occurred to him
that all he has seen
has already passed

            (life after death).

Galileo setting out to unravel
the mysteries before his eyes
how fast light travels

and thus with the sun safely
beneath his feat
and all else who care
only for themselves
for the present fast asleep
Galileo and his observers separate
and while he waits
he chews on a stalk of grass
and contemplates light’s philosophy
the basic ingredient of life on earth
through gritted teeth he sucks the sweet sap
and whispers photosynthesis.

Galileo looks around
the silhouetted outlines of his surrounds
light revealing where he stands
upon this earth

(light, his interpretation of his universe
transmitting information through a void).

Galileo, like a sailor, glances to the sky
his beloved constellations wink
while he from reflex blinks his eyes.

Another favourite poem was ROTATION TRANSFORMATIONS which highlights the personal and social cost to the individual scientist for making discoveries which did not meet with the approval of the church. Both Galileo and Copernicus suffered greatly for their scientific discoveries and yet, as scientists, were not willing to tow the party line and ignore the truth. 


          Having fixed the stars in space
          Nicolaus Copernicus sets the world 
          (by default) into motion

          (the only possible deduction)

          dispelling the notion 
          of an earth at rest 
          at the centre of the universe.

          Incredulous at his own audacity
          Copernicus repeatedly wipes his brow
          and furiously paces his study.

          What now?

          All too aware of the consequences
          the sealing of his fate
          he looks down
          observes the movement of his feet.

          His world never to stand still again.

          the nature of rotation transformations
          the ongoing search for the centre
          the point about which all else revolves.

          Copernicus in a spin
          maps out his life
          its daily and yearly revolutions
          defines his rotation about the origin 

          keeping his distance
          maintaining his isometry.

          While elsewhere all around him
          the earth is stationary
          motionless amidst concentric rotating spheres
          of outdated postulations
          the fear of a heliocentric theory replacing self
          and God, that other great astronomer,
          of little help.

          Copernicus the church administrator
          counts the cost
          his uncle (Bishop Lukasz Watsenrode) aghast.
          His world precessing on its axis
          while Copernicus observes his own occultation
          the obscuration of his greatest work
          De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium.

          Finding his own place in space
          Copernicus awaits his death

          a rigid motion transformation.

          And us? Even yet
          our coordinates unknown
          our centre unnamed
          our images translated to another plane
          a geocentric cosmology continuing to reign.

Beirne has a clear grasp of the philosophy of science and attempts to bring the reader through this to reassign value to the power of art and to the possibility of spirituality which is hinted at through art. I am not certain that he manages to do this in each of the poems. For example I found myself skipping through equations to get to the more recognisably poetic metaphors. Nonetheless,  the poetic quality from the selection quoted above inspired confidence and brought me back toward the earlier poems where I began to notice previously unrecognised insights such as those in ‘Conditional’.  When he introduces the idea of the conditional he shows that the truth of logic is conditional upon the truth of the premise, or opening statements. If the opening sentence is false however, then the poet is ‘under no obligation’ to follow its logic. This is the great secret of logic and an important thing for scientists to remember too. If someone states for example that ‘all swans are white’ and we draw conclusions from this, the conclusions may well be false if we then discover that there are black swans in Australia. If the paradigms under which science operates are not true, then the conclusions drawn from such paradigms are equally not true. 

Games of Chance will support many re-readings, and because of this, the full impact of the ideas should eventually make themselves known even to someone like myself who has to struggle with equations. The irony of my reaction is not lost upon me either and  seems to have anticipated by Beirne when he writes in the opening poem 'Statements':  

          Begin with ideas
                 (the William Carlos Williams' thing)
          and end with the bane of man:

Both objective and subjective ideas are difficult to communicate, the subjective especially so and yet art manages this in ways that science seems to be excluded from. Certainly by the end of the book Gerard Beirne has woven some very complex and beautiful poetry and I was intrigued throughout by the quiet intelligence at play behind the art. I hope that Games of Chance leads him to further explorations in this area and am certainly looking forward to the next outpouring from this writer.

BIOGRAPHY OF  Gerard Beirne: His novels are The Eskimo in the Ne(London, Marion Boyars, 2003); and Turtle (Ottawa, Oberon Press, 2009).

His poetry collections are Digging My Own Grave (Dublin, The Dedalus Press, 1996); and Games of Chance – A Gambler’s Manual (Ottawa, Oberon Press, 2011).

His short story, Sightings of Bono, was adapted into a short film featuring Bono, and was published in Italy by Scritturapura Editore as a stand alone work in 2004.

He was runner up in the Patrick Kavanagh Award 1996 for Digging My Own Grave and was shortlisted for the Kerry group Irish Fiction Award 2004 for The Eskimo in the Net. He is a past recipient of two Hennessey Literary Awards including New Irish Writer of the Year. He completed his MFA in Creative Writing at Eastern Washington University in 1992.

Thursday 1 November 2012

Fight Night Gavin Kostick

Rise Productions'

Fight Night

Gavin Kostick

Performed by:  Aonghus Og McAnally

Directed by:  Bryan Burroughs.

Lannigan's, Eden Quay - 086 244 9511.
Lunchtime only 1pm until Saturday, 3rd November.

"After 3 long months on the road, Fight Night now enters its 
final week, playing lunchtimes at Theatre Upstairs, 1pm daily 
until Saturday. This is your last ever chance to see the 
show in Dublin. Come see for yourself what all 
the hype is about."

Reviewed by Seamus Gallagher.

Fight Night is pure theatre. A small intimate venue, a beautifully crafted script and a wonderful performance.  Whatever magic it is that visits when any good piece of theatre come alive, does the rest.

Gavin Kostick's script makes us laugh, its beautifully written moments of tenderness move us, and most of all it keeps us waiting for what happens next. It convinces us of the reality of the life unfolding before us. Although I have little interest in boxing Fight Night brought me effortlessly into the world of Dan Junior and his father (Dan Senior) for whom boxing is everything. Although firmly set in that world, the play is of course about much more than boxing. That "much more" begins with the birth of Dan Junior's son who, significantly for this family, is not named Dan. The arrival of Jordan into Dan Junior's life brings him back to boxing, back to his moment of failure six years previously, and back to his conflict with his father with whom he hasn't spoken since that moment. Becoming a father brings Dan Junior face to face with Dan Senior in a struggle for which boxing is a perfect metaphor. 

The only actor on the stage is Aonghus Og McAnally. In his podcasts for Rise Productions (the first podcast went out a year ago today, coincidentally) he speaks about the intense physical preparation he undertook for this play and from the moment the lights come up we can see what he is taking about. He skips, shadow boxes, uses weights, does press-ups throughout the entire play - while delivering his lines. The fast physical work of a boxer sets the pace of the play and this is contrasted with moments of intense stillness. 
In one of these moments Aonghus Og plays both Dan Junior and his partner Michelle, as they work through the emotional climax of their relationship. A simple change of body stance with a slight shift in lighting indicates that they are talking in her car one moment and sitting up in bed the next, while a subtle facial gesture  enables him to move effortlessly into the character of Dan Senior. Throughout the play, he keeps the stage alive with these characters allowing us to feel their pain, their frustrations and their hopes. 

The intimacy of the venue helps bring out all these things in Fight Night. In the ring there is nowhere to hide and on this sparse stage, Dan Junior cannot hide from the audience which he addresses directly throughout the play, any more than he can hide from himself.  

This is a brilliant show from Rise Productions and I look forward to their next play, Two//Stroke, which is currently in development.  

I also look forward to my next visit to Theatre Upstairs @ Lannigans, a vibrant venue founded by Karl Shiels, Andy Cummins and Paul Walker. I won't have to wait long: Donal O Kelly's Alliliu Fionnuala kicks off there on Monday next, 5 November. 

In the meantime, there are two performances of Fight Night before Aonghus Og hangs up his gloves: Friday 2nd and Saturday 3rd November at 1pm. Be there.