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GHOST ESTATE:

Philip Coleman reviews William Wall's newest poetry collection

 

 

 

 

Philip Coleman review in Southword Journal


Originally from Cahir, in Tipperary, Philip Coleman graduated from UCC with a First in English and Philosophy in 1995. He is a Lecturer in English in Trinity College Dublin. His reviews on contemporary poetry have appeared in The Edinburgh Review, Poetry Ireland Review, The Irish Left Review, and The Irish Times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ghost Estate reviewed in Southword Journal

Ghost Estate

William Wall

(Salmon Poetry, 2011)

ISBN: 978-1-907056-70-3

€12 paperback

Buy from Salmon

 

 

Poems ‘for something instead of nothing’

 

 

In an article published in last Christmas Eve’s edition of the Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole selected work by a diverse group of artists to illustrate the ways in which 2011 may be described as a "year of haunting and ghosts in Irish art". In relation to visual art, Anthony Haughey’s Settlement project was presented by O’Toole as one of the most potent works to engage with what he calls "the liminal spaces at the edges of towns and cities" to be produced in the year. Patricia Burns’s Hinterland: the Glen Paintings was also signalled for attention. Turning to poetry, O’Toole’s article concluded with a note on Derek Mahon’s New Collected Poems. Of particular interest to O’Toole was what he called the "prescience" of certain lines in Mahon’s poem ‘America Deserta’, from section 16 of his long poem Decadence (previously published in 1997 as The Yellow Book). Here Mahon describes the "long decline" of "the great money scam" that lead "to pot-holed roads and unfinished construction sites", an image that seems analogous to the depictions of post-Celtic Tiger social decay represented so poignantly in the work of Burns and Haughey. Mahon’s poem, however, begins with an epigraph from the writings of Zelda Fitzgerald, which suggests that it has an earlier twentieth-century context very much in its sights. ‘America Deserta’ also reflects on "the death of the boom", to use a phrase the American poet John Berryman coined when writing about another economic catastrophe, the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which brought about the end of the Jazz Age and heralded the beginning of the Great Depression. What O’Toole discerned as a prescient image, in other words, has less to do with the gift of prophecy than it has with Mahon’s acute historical consciousness and his awareness of the inevitability of economic catastrophe for any society where the accumulation of wealth is celebrated above all else, whether one considers the United States of the 1920s or Ireland in the first decade of the millennium.

The "year of haunting and ghosts" might then be considered in terms of a much longer time-span, even further back than the 1920s, to the time including what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously termed "the history of all hitherto existing society" in the first chapter of their Communist Manifesto; that is, "the history of class struggles". While it is difficult to say where some poets stand in relation to certain kinds of political questions, William Wall is a poet whose work speaks clearly to the particularity of his ideological outlook. As he puts it in a piece entitled ‘Poem on the anniversary of Gramsci’s birth’:

 

we are free texts

the billboard says to me

I say you never heard

of Antonio Gramsci

 

Here and throughout the poems of Ghost Estate Wall declares an interest not just in Gramsci – described by Richard Kearney as "one of the first critical thinkers of [the twentieth] century to reread Marx in the light of changing circumstances of industrial capitalism" – but also in the broad contexts of Marxist and neo-Marxist thought. The book includes pointed references to figures such as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht and Marx, and the collection’s epigraph (from Brecht’s Svendborg Poems) answers the question "In the dark times, will there also be singing?" with the reply "Yes, there will be singing / About the dark times." This then is a substantial collection of poems – seventy-nine in total, many of which are themselves divided into several sections – where Wall engages not just with current Irish economic and political crises but Ghost Estate is also a book that explores the larger, darker contexts of our contemporary historical climate. In this regard the ‘note on the title’ included in the volume is somewhat misleading. There the poet states "the ghost estate is a fitting metaphor for our failed republic" – referring specifically to Ireland – but the book’s cartography of failure is far greater than the immediately Irish cry of its occasion and the range of reference signalled above confirms this.

            In an online interview on www.upstart.ie in March 2011, Wall described the Upstart project as a way "to get people to reframe the way they think about politics and society. So they encounter a simple phrase or image and it jolts their imagination. They get on their bus thinking. It may or may not affect them". In the same interview he said that "One of the highest functions of art is to make people reconsider the reality of their lives. [...] Language has, indeed, the power to make and remake worlds. I’d argue that we can only understand the world through language, so the people who control how we understand language, or what terms we use to describe something, can partially control the way we think." Ghost Estate begins with a poem in which these ideas about language are teased out, but it does so by drawing particular attention to the nature of poetry by quoting Theodor Adorno’s famous claim that "To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric":

 

             after Abu Ghraib he says

             for others it was Auschwitz

            what can I say

            art is in the unimaginable

 

             & nevertheless necessary

            two sweet bodies lying down

            the sweat the smell

 naked

 

sated or dead

figures of speech

we say what we’re told

the unsayable unsaid

 

A Beckettian inflection here and throughout the collection (most explicitly in ‘On a line of Beckett’s misheard’) augments not just Wall’s concern with language (and its limits) but it also goes some way towards explaining the often ominous atmospherics of his lyrics. This is as one would expect in a volume of poems concerned in a very central way with ideas of haunting and the ghostly, but the "miserable souls who made the mistake of buying their new homes on the cusp of the housing bubble" are not in fact the central figures of dispossession in Ghost Estate. While the refrain of the volume’s title poem ("if you lived here / you’d be home by now") may on one level be read as an intractable reminder of the delusion that fed the Celtic Tiger, it is also resonant with ideas of displacement and homelessness that pertain in a more profound sense to larger historical crises such as the Holocaust and the so-called War on Terror.

This is not to underestimate the impact the economic crisis is having on so many lives in Ireland and elsewhere, but Wall’s Ghost Estate does serve to offer a larger perspective within which it can be understood. In this respect, then, he seems to exemplify the figure Antonio Gramsci described as the "organic intellectual", as opposed to the "traditional intellectual" who often appears to be "divorced from the immediate social struggles of history" (as Kearney puts it). Even in Wall’s most ostensibly personal poems – the book contains many moving elegies as well as love lyrics – there is always a keen sense of the interrelationship between private and public spheres. The imagery and symbolism of domesticity and familial relationships are shot through with ideas of broader significance, as in ‘Clearing my aunt’s house after the funeral’, ‘What will become of our children’, or ‘Flying towards a funeral’. Flight, in fact, and travel, are recurring motifs in Ghost Estate, but they cohere in a way that reinforces the general sense of displacement in the collection, as if to say that the poet’s restless spirit cannot find peace at home no matter how closely he identifies with his homeland. Wall’s closeness to Ireland is in evidence in a number of poems here, but so too is a generous internationalism that accounts for a large proportion of the book’s poems written after, to, or for various non-Irish, often Italian, figures, including Carlo Levi, Eugenio Montale, Giovanni Nadiani, Salvatore Quasimodo, Daniele Serafini, Maria Luisa Spaziani, and William Stabile. In this regard, Ghost Estate might have been structured as a book in a slightly different way, with the translations and ‘Italian poems’ in a separate section, but one can see too that Wall’s arrangement of Ghost Estate reflects his commitment to a world without borders. Indeed, the mania for bordering, monitoring, and securing people as they move around the world is the subject of one of the longest pieces in Ghost Estate, ‘Job in Heathrow’, in which Wall describes in often darkly comic terms "the guards [who] wear spectacles / a society of spectacles as the man said / like the dark ground of a cameo / except in reverse". As in the writing of Brecht, however, the "comedy" never lasts for long, and ‘Job in Heathrow’ also contains images of shocking brutality:

 

that girl bled to death

a million tiny wounds

& everyone said how well she looked

jammed against the partition

her pants still around her knees

 

Here and throughout Ghost Estate Wall is uncompromising in his depiction of different kinds of violence and loss, and in poems such as ‘Behind a hospital somewhere in Italy’ he shows that such acts of barbarism are often closer to "home" – wherever that is – than we might like to believe.

            Ghost Estate is a deeply political book, but it also articulates a profound interest in and engagement with questions of aesthetics and poetics. Its opening poem, as mentioned already, addresses the propriety of poetry in the face of terrible acts, and several others challenge us to think about the idea of artistic responsibility—the extent to which, if at all, the artist should or can respond to events of public concern. Having said that, it is important to highlight the ways in which Ghost Estate is also concerned with the art of poetry itself, and to the many Italian artists referenced in the collection another list can be compiled which includes some of the most significant Anglophone writers of the last two centuries, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge (in ‘The frost performs its secret ministry’) and Edgar Allan Poe (see ‘In memoriam David Marcus’) to Robert Frost (in ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’), and Ezra Pound. The allusions to Pound are particularly interesting, given the complicated and at times abhorrent politics of the American poet compared with the presiding intellectual spirits of Ghost Estate.  But on two occasions in the collection, in section viii of ‘Job in Heathrow’ and again towards the end of the book in ‘Meeting at evening’, references to the figure of "friend Elpenor" (the same phrase is used each time), seem taken directly from Pound’s first Canto:

 

           Dark blood flowed in the fosse,

             Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides

           Of youths and of the old who had borne much;

           [.........................................................................]

I sat to keep off the impetuous dead,

Till I should hear Tiresias.

But first Elpenor came, our friend Elpenor,

Unburied, cast on the wide earth,

Limbs that we left in the house of Circe,

Unwept, unwrapped in sepulchre, since toils urged other.

 

Of course Wall may not have taken the story of Elpenor from Pound at all, but from Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey, where Pound got it, but what matters, in any case, is not the source of the sailor’s story but its meaning. The figure of Elpenor in The Odyssey is not missed by his comrades when he falls to his death while climbing drunkenly down a ladder from ‘Circe’s ingle’ until he appears as a ghost to Odysseus. ‘Friend Elpenor’, then, in terms of his positioning in Ghost Estate at either end of this long collection, may be said to illustrate both the complexity of Wall’s poetic vision and his engagement with tradition, but he (Elpenor) is also a casualty of war who was almost forgotten. His presence is just as important to Ghost Estate as the ‘miserable souls’ mentioned in the note on the collection’s title because he reminds us that the spectres that trouble our world are not only local but global and we ignore them at our peril.

            In terms of his poetic methods a word should also be said here about the way in which Wall appears to have stripped back his poems so that they read, at times, almost like Beckett’s later poems in their pared down fragmentariness. Largely unpunctuated, except for ampersands and an occasional full-stop, the lines of Wall’s poems do not contain initial capitals and at times may also remind readers of the poems of W.S. Merwin in their formal open-endedness and syntactic fluidity. This strategy presents certain difficulties for the reader – how and where to place pauses, how to gauge rhythm – but Wall’s poems are not as lacking in metrical or sonic exactitude as they might appear. Consider, for example, the music of the following lines from ‘The house of the customs men’ (‘after the Italian of Eugenio Montale’):

 

              a southwesterly beats the old walls

            & your smile has lost its lightness

            the compass swings wildly

            & the dice fall against us

 

Or attend to the play of rhythm, assonance, and half-rhyme in ‘Nice’:

 

             the gulls pick over

            the scrofulous sand

            & the beery moon

            rises on Americans

           intent on experience

           before turning in

 

Here and elsewhere throughout Ghost Estate Wall’s lines and verses turn and turn in on themselves with carefully crafted mastery, but for all of the obvious interest in the mechanics of writing he is also a poet who takes his political responsibilities seriously. As he puts it in ‘Spiders’, a poem no more about cobwebs than Frost’s ‘Design’ is about arachnids:

 

these tiny cantilevered stanzas

are declaratory

 

           the fragile sign

           of intelligent design

           a subtle anathema

 

             against sceptics

           or reason enough

           for something instead of nothing

 

Elsewhere, in ‘The time I spend’ he echoes W.B. Yeats’s ‘Adam’s Curse’ in his description of "the time I spend / making something / feel unmade" but in the best poems of Ghost Estate Wall’s "making" serves the dual demands of engaged art truly and well.

            Ghost Estate is a long collection, Wall’s third, and some of the poems in it might have been excluded. The closing group of prose poems (flash fictions?) ‘Travels in an Italy of the mind’ might have formed the basis for a separate book, while certain shorter pieces seem oddly misplaced (‘The sexuality of women in cinemas’, in particular). In several ways, however, Wall’s work is informed by a belief in what Antonio Gramsci described as "the greatest danger"—the danger of "ossified thinking". Formally adventurous, politically engaged, historically and culturally alert and open-minded, the poems of Ghost Estate attest to the mind of a poet for whom the possibilities of poetry as a way of responding to and describing the world are excitingly alive and poised for action. His poems ultimately posit what in ‘Something there is that does not love a wall’ he calls "a version / of the future / that is not the past":

 

              though we have burned

             away the rain

            & a hole in the world

            directly above our heads

            lets the stars in

            not everything goes

           

              a wishbone in the ash proves

            that wishes

            are impervious to fire

            though the breast is not

            where hope propagates

            like poppy-seeds

            red flags waving

            on every waste

 

©2012 Philip Coleman

 

 

Author Links

 

Philip Coleman at Trinity College Dublin

Articles by Coleman in the Irish Left Review

Times reviews by Coleman

 

 

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