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VOICES AT THE WORLD'S EDGE:
James Harpur reviews an anthology edited by Paddy Bushe.
James Harpur has published four volumes of poetry with Anvil Press, including his latest, The Dark Age, which won the 2009 Michael Hartnett Prize. Anvil have also published Fortune’s Prisoner, his translation of the poems of Boethius.
He lives near Clonakilty in West Cork.
Voices at the World's Edge: Irish Poets on Skellig Michael
Paddy Bushe, editor, with photographs by John Minihan
ISBN: 978 1 906614 35 5
Buy from Dedalus
It’s strange how an iron-age barrow, a stone bridge, a ruined abbey or some other venerable human-made edifice can transform a landscape in the eyes of the visitor or viewer. The existence of tangible remains of human ancestry, of civilization and history, immediately make otherwise undistinguished hills or fields enchanted. Skellig Michael is one of countless rocks jutting out of the sea around the coast of Ireland. Its shape is distinctively jagged, and it is the home of sea birds. Yet in the imagination it rises above the thousands of other similar marine rock-islands because it was inhabited by Christian monks from the sixth century onwards: it has become a survivalist’s fantasy and a day-tripper’s world of questions—how did the monks live, what did they eat, what did they wear to keep out the batterings of rain, wind and snow, and what did they do all day.
And why were the monks there in the first place?
Christians increasingly sought out deserted places to live and worship during the early fourth century after the Roman emperor Constantine I made Christianity the most favoured faith in the empire. As the church became part of the political establishment, many Christians rejected life in the world, with all its material distractions, and journeyed to desert places in Egypt and Syria to pursue ascetic lives dedicated to God. The impulse behind the movement has been characterized as a desire for ‘white martyrdom’, a dying to the world at a time when ‘red’ martyrdom – death at the hands of the government – was no longer an issue in the new Constantinian dispensation. The Skellig monks were part of this tradition: the remoter the place, the better the conditions to worship God, an impulse that feared the corrupting effect of worldly distractions and pleasures. It was the same impulse that led the famous Syrian pillar hermit Symeon Stylites to live on top of a column for more than thirty years.
Voices at the World’s Edge is based on a very good idea: take a dozen poets, let them stay overnight on Skellig Michael (a privilege usually confined to archaeologists), and get them to record their experiences. Add to their accounts images taken by the literary photographer John Minihan along with a foreword by Marie Heaney and you have a book. It works beautifully.
The poets did not arrive in one fell swoop like the gannets many of them describe. A dozen rhymers might have neatly mirrored the twelve monks who were thought to inhabit the rock and who utilised the six beehive cells and two oratories. But that was impractical. Instead, Paddy Bushe, the editor and mastermind of the venture (a veteran of Skellig Michael, who gazes at it from his Waterville house), organized groups of four writers to come over at a time. The venture was protracted by stormy seas and inclement weather, but in the end the poets came and saw and wrote.
The writers range far and wide in their experiences of Skellig Michael as well as in their literary styles and approaches: together the different tesserae make a fascinating mosaic, Skellig rising up from the sea of a collective imagination fed by a dozen different rivers. It is difficult to summarise the variety of subject matter, form, tone and so on. But the following is an inkling of what the book contains. Paddy Bushe, for example, delivers exquisite miniatures of Skellig bird life including choughs ("Shrieking a cancan/ They display their scarlet legs/ To the whole wide world.") and reminds us that Christian piety, awe-inspiring in its asceticism, was also the flip-side of "Holy Rule and Inquisition". John F. Deane memorialises the rock with the soft, alluring lyricism and sense of the marvellous with which he has described Achill Island and other landscapes, combining personal memory with landscape and history to describe "the ongoing/ ministrations of gravity and grace, of fall and lift, of doubt". Theo Dorgan brings his great affinity with the sea to make the actual voyage to the rock a wholly lived experience as much as his arrival and stay—"We land on the surge, the boatman wrestling the wheel,/ the mass of rock looms over us, solid and black"; while Kerry Hardie prefaces her delicate lyric poems ("Wind hones their crosses cut from standing rocks—/ stone blades that slice the sunlight, slice the sky.") with a thoughtful essay on the nature of the monastic temperament, solitude and the miraculous.
The writers of course include a group of distinguished Irish-language poets. Paddy Bushe has two Irish poems of his own, and Biddy Jenkinson, Nuala Ní Dhomnaill and Cathal Ó Searcaigh all make their own contributions (most of them with English translations made by Bushe). Jenkinson includes with her two poems the fascinating traditional story (recounted in English) of ‘The Last Holy Woman of the Sceilg’ and the adventures of Colmán, Bric, Lugh and Cormac. Nuala Ní Dhomnaill, like Bushe, is fascinated by the Skellig birds and also, in ‘Díseart na Sceilge’, questions the mentality of the monks:
An rabhadar uile ar mire
le grá Dé is fuath don duine
imithe le haer an tsaoil
nach é an saol seo é amháin?
(Were all their wits astray
in loving God and hating their own,
gone with the wind of a world
not this world only?)
Ó Searcaigh prefaces his poems with an account of a visionary dream in which a poet named Tuathal Mac Liag speaks to him and inspires the verse—a mixture of lamentation for a lost lover and a rejection of institutional religion: "Ár n-athair atá ar Neamh/go ndearmadfar d’ainm is nach dtaga/do ríocht" ("Our Father, who art in Heaven,/ forgotten be thy name, and never may thy kingdom come.").
Elsewhere, Seán Lysaght is bewitched, too, by the Skellig birds – the gannets and storm petrels – and bewitches us with his descriptions ("He had little dancing shoes for the sea,/ Little black webbed feet,/ And each beaded eye of Biscay/ Shone with its original star"). Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin delivers a six-part piece called ‘Vertigo’, which mediates topography with common and personal history and ends triumphantly with the figure of a mother ("Shaped like a barrel with asthma") braving the harsh terrain to honour her spiritual longings ("Her daughters like armed angels guarding each side/ Of the path to the edge, where everything pours away"). Bernard O’Donoghue brings his medieval scholarship and inquiring mind with a customary lightness of touch, reminding us of the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Seafarer’ and the etymology of ‘petrel’ (from St Peter), a bird he describes in ‘The Skellig Listeners’ (‘every gap in the Beehive walls/was filled with the sound of petrels,/disconnected from their vocal chords’). Macdara Woods reflects far and wide in his lyrical poems and prose pieces, now mentioning "Puffins/ With the faces of Marcel Marceau", now marvelling at Skellig Michael’s stone steps, and now examining the font of poetic inspiration ("the path to any poem can be more zig-zag than the steps on that extraordinary rock, the point of arrival the same").
Lastly, there is the contribution of Derek Mahon, whose poems begin and end the book, and who never actually reached the rock because of bad weather. Instead, he is represented by his translation of ‘Maidin Bhog Álainn’ by the Iveragh poet Tomás Rua Ó Súillebháin, which tells how a group of pilgrims nearly drowned en route to the rock; and also by a poem about not getting to Skellig,
the last rock of an abandoned civilization
whose dim lights glimmered in a distant age
to illuminate at the edge
a future life.
With the poems and prose pieces complemented by the photographs of John Minihan, the thirteenth poet, whose lens penetrates the harsh, grey rockiness and steepling contours of Skellig Michael, Voices at the World’s Edge is a guide book with a difference, one that glitters with poets’ imaginations and which will endure like the rock it honours.
©2010 James Harpur
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