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BOUND FOR HOME:
Jennifer Matthews reviews Nell Regan & Monica Boyle's
collaboration for the Fort Camden Commission
Jennifer Matthews was born in Missouri (USA) and has lived in Ireland since 2003. Her poetry has been published in Mslexia, Revival, Necessary Fiction, Poetry Salzburg, Foma & Fontanelles and Cork Literary Review,and anthologised in Dedalus's collection of immigrant poetry in Ireland, Landing Places (2010). She recently read from 'JAM Sandwich', her collaboration with poet Anamaría Crowe Serrano, at the Twisted Pepper in Dublin.
Bound for Home
Poetry by Nell Regan / Artwork by Monica Boyle
(Arlen House / Syracuse University Press, 2011)
ISBN: 978 1851 320295
€15 paperback / €30 hardback (Email email@example.com for free P&P)
Buy from Kennys Bookshop (€17.45 paperback)
Bound for Home was a lovely surprise that rounded out my 2011 poetry reading experience. Although I do my best to read widely, I can be oddly hesitant when it comes to work inspired by history. Rather than looking at it as an opportunity to learn something new, I assume my general ignorance will somehow prevent me from fully understanding the text. It’s irrational, but unfortunately a real influence on how I buy poetry. I bring this up because I’m willing to bet other readers have similar blind spots of their own that should be challenged--that our reading picks are based on a kind of superstition rather than a sense of adventure.
Bound for Home was commissioned by Cork County Council’s Fort Camden Commission, and includes the poetry of Nell Regan and the artwork of Monica Boyle. Fort Camden is a coastal artillery fort in East Cork near Crosshaven, which saw few deaths in its time as a military structure, but later housed a prison camp where the mortality rate of inmates was shockingly high. The contributors used “historical record, personal photographs and … traces in the contemporary site to find inspiration”. They also drew inspiration from each other as collaborators, though not in a “literal translation” approach. (For example, the poet does not simply describe what is happening in the visual artist’s piece, but reacts to the questions and themes that arise from it and vice versa.)
The collaboration includes full colour photographs of Boyle’s shadow-boxes (framed boxes containing artwork built from Fort Camden artefacts). Her work is alluring. Letters, images and documents are hidden mysteriously behind semi-transparent envelopes; elsewhere, pages are cut and assembled into delicate objects. The viewer is invited to consider how memory and history are constructed, and how they metamorphose into Story over time. My favourite piece is ‘A Version of Events’ where tiny clippings of documents are captured in what look like glass slides or test tubes, lined neatly in rows on weathered wood. Each slide is a little mystery in itself; the mind of the observer instantly wants to guess what it is, what function it had and who created it.
Boyle and Regan are well suited as collaborators; both combine deeply considered themes with a sense of humour and joyful discovery. In Regan’s introduction, she mentions she was specifically commissioned to write poetic monologues. Her work, however, takes a much more interesting approach, using a variety of forms and sources of inspiration. The excellent opening poem ‘Tree’ gives voice to the rings of a Monterey Cypress which was planted in the middle of the fort, bringing us through over 150 years of history with sharp, haiku-like three line stanzas. ‘Ring No. 62’ places us in 1916, when:
News from afar floats on the breeze,
the seagulls talk of rebellion,
the jackdaws consider little else.
These concise sketches suggest the spirit of the times and historical events, rather than rolling it out in fact-ridden lines. She trusts the reader to do the math, to meet her with an open mind.
I also enjoyed her found poems which centred around lists and historical records. Take the following sequence from ‘A Little Whimsy at the Heart of Empire (or Cork Harbour Shipping Intelligence)’ :
Kaffirland, Calloa, guano Aurora, Bangor, manure
Onkel, Trinidad, sugar Celesta, Cardiff, coals, to Corfu
Lizzie Anne from Alexandria Flying Cloud from Zalonica
Seagull from Odessa The Exile from Alicante
Helen, for London Dante, for Galway
Like Boyle’s shadow-boxes, the fragmented details are enticing, and beg the imagination to find meaning within them, to create narratives around them.
The voices Regan focuses on are not entirely those of soldiers, which is refreshing. My experience of history as a child was mired in the memorisation of the dates and locations of war, which was of little interest to me. Her poetry is inclusive of not only soldiers, but wives, and even of the sea creatures off-shore. One enjoyably quirky poem brings voice to the fort itself, which is under the scrutiny of a psychoanalyst concerned with how little military action the place saw. In another piece, nature becomes militaristic, and invades the modern site as it goes derelict:
Gorse scrambles up the embankments.
Grass marches over battlements.
Willows mass in the moat.
Although the price is a little bit higher than a typical €12 single-author collection, this beautiful volume contains full colour photos that make it worth the extra couple of quid. A whimsical, enjoyable collection--this collaboration draws well deserved attention to the Fort Camden restoration project, giving new voices to a site which was nearly left to the elements. To learn about the restoration movement, visit rescuecamden.ie. More than this, Bound for Home left me wanting to seek out more work by both of these excellent contributors.
©2012 Jennifer Matthews
Matthews poems at Poetry International Web
Yank Refugee in the PRC (blog)
Other reviews by Jennifer Matthews in Southword