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Best of Irish Poetry 2010
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Songs of Earth and Light
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Val Nolan teaches contemporary literature and creative writing at NUI, Galway. He regularly contributes criticism to publications including Poetry Ireland Review, The Sunday Business Post, PN Review and The John McGahern Yearbook. A poet and a fiction writer, he has been published in Southword, The Stinging Fly, Poetry Scotland, Crannóg, Revival and on the ‘Futures’ page of the science journal Nature. In 2009 he was invited to read on the emerging writer's panel at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature. He is a graduate of University College Cork and of the Clarion writing programme at University of California, San Diego.
Swimming to Albania by Matthew Geden
Echoes and Shadows by Mícheál Fanning
Swimming to Albania
(Bradshaw Books 2009)
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Swimming to Albania by Matthew Geden begins with ‘all that “end of the world is nigh” stuff’, the biblical flood, in fact, and an opening poems which sees Noah ‘wearily waiting for the world to begin again’. Which it does, in a contemplative collection that transcends dry technical dexterity through the transformative energies of land, friends and family. ‘Somewhere down a lonely road / a conifer dreams of resurrection’ and, when it arrives like Noah’s ‘steady rain’, it shows the existence of ‘regeneration amidst decay’, proving to be not the end of the world but the beginning of its transition into someplace new.
Geden himself knows a little bit about transition. Born in the English Midlands, he moved to Kinsale in 1990 where he now runs an independent bookshop. A poet, critic and a translator, he is a co-founder of the SoundEye Poetry Festival and the Anam Press, established to produce short print-runs of speciality editions on subjects of local interest.
Throughout Swimming to Albania, Geden manages to balance the cosmopolitan veneer of his adopted hometown with the wildness of a West Cork shore, a landscape filled with ghosts where one can witness a ‘sea-breeze / swaggering in across the water / changing the course of history’. The fluidity of that medium, its importance for identities both local and national, is a cornerstone of Geden’s work, and a poem like ‘1601’ proves to be a loaded text. Certainly it is daring for an Englishman living in Kinsale to write of the siege that ‘tales told / depend upon selective memory / and the right to publish / the official version’.
History, the poet says, is ‘born of the base need / to make sense, to explain away / the bitter taste,’ and with the Battle of Kinsale foreshadowing the flight of the native Gaelic aristocracy, it is unsurprising that this collection concerns itself with those who filled that vacuum. In pieces such as ‘Winter in Kinsale’ and ‘Blow In’, ‘the old order is on the run’ and ‘some take root here, grow / into the soft skies’ while ‘others tumble on, barley register / their presence’. Conspicuously, Geden is engaged with an influx that continues to this day:
We drink Estonian vodka,
toasting the Czar with glasses
salvaged from the summer palace;
you quell the rain with stories,
keeping alive the age of exile
scanning things I cannot see.
Via telescopic sights and natural light, the poet’s vision strains towards these unseen things, and his renderings of a shared and recognizable experience are both sincere and occasionally beautiful. Swimming to Albania is the work of a writer who is alive to the moods of ‘blue summer evenings’ and the ‘gnashing of breakers on the shore’. The language here is that of praise and contemplation; Geden is uninterested in critique, yet his light touch is appropriate to a poet searching for ‘explanations of where I am’.
©2009 Val Nolan
Echoes and Shadows
(Robert Hale 2008)
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Echoes and Shadows, by Dingle’s Mícheál Fanning, is a different kind of collection. A hefty volume generously illustrated with photographs by John Minihan, the book is halfway between a new project and a selected volume. Echoes and Shadows republishes poetry from the last twenty years of Fanning’s work, pairing each piece with Minihan’s new photographic accompaniment, the culmination of five years the photographer has spent documenting the poet’s life and work.
The book opens with evocations of the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages, the Tuatha Dé Dannan and the legends of Morrigna. The early pieces reflect the dense linguistic and mythological heritage of region in a dizzy onslaught of names and places:
From Com an Áir: Louch Meánach,
Louch Geal and Loch na hAbha, springs
the running Scorid to Loch a Dúin.
Fanning then travels through the Kerry villages and towns so familiar from his childhood. He never strays far, with over half the poems set in Castlegregory and nearby Cahir, the author’s home now a ‘town of ghosts’. While often melancholic, Echoes and Shadows is, in the Kavanagh mould, never in any doubt as to the validity of a parish where ‘the church bell booms over the townlands / to call us from work and preoccupations’.
A doctor and a poet, Fanning was born in Kerry and while he has held positions in England, Wales, Eastern Europe, and Africa, his imagination steadfastly belongs to An Daingean. He is the founder of the multi-lingual Féile na Bealtaine held annually in Dingle town and peninsula, and, often publishing in Irish, he has over a dozen volumes of poetry, translation and criticism to his name.
The poems collected here display the clearly observed detail for which Fanning is known. His Kerry is tribal, and though he foregrounds his own experience throughout, his poetry inhabits the lives of ordinary people. Indeed, the focus and intensity of pieces such as ‘Consolation’ and ‘Rún’ are exemplarity.
The titular echoes of the volume are those of past experience, the shadows are those of people now gone, of ‘imperial Jim Teehan, my teacher / dressed in tweed suit and fisherman’s cap’ or ‘Jimmy Maunsell, a Main Street postman’. Tennyson, meanwhile, is claimed as a ‘Victorian Kerryman’ and Daniel O’Connell is brought to conflicted life again as the poet ventriloquises a series of love letters from The Liberator to his future wife.
The production quality of Echoes and Shadows is high and the photography is strikingly reproduced, but one is left wondering if the collection really needed a Foreword, a Note of Introduction, a Preface and a Welcome to the Reader? Probably not; the delicate rewards of the work here speak for themselves.
©2009 Val Nolan
Video of Nolan reading at the White House in Limerick
Article by Nolan for The Post about Ted Hughes
Nolan on the Gogarty Festival at Poetry Ireland
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