Billy Mills. A Small Book of Songs. 1998.
Trevor Joyce. Syzygy. 1998.
. Without Asylum. 1998.
Pete Smith. 20/20 Vision. 1998.
Robert Archambeau. Citation Suite. 1997.
Randolph Healy. Arbor Vitae. 1997.
(All books published by Wild Honey Press, 16a Ballyman Road, Bray, Co Wicklow, Ireland.)
These six small volumes show how, in a country like Ireland, a tiny publisher can redefine what a national poetry means. In the past couple of decades, much has been made of how Irish poetry has gained an international, and especially an American audience. The most interesting and demanding Irish poetry of this half century, however, is found not on the lists of Faber and Faber, Norton, and FSG, but among the Irish small presses. Presses like Dolmen, Gallery, Peppercanister, and Salmon each changed the course of Irish poetry. Now Wild Honey Press, with its beautiful limited pamphlets, is poised to do the same.
Its not likely that the books under review here are going to transform minds en masse. Only one (Billy Mills Small Book of Songs) was published in an edition of more than 200. And even in Ireland, Bray, County Wicklow (where Wild Honey is located) is the literary equivalent of the wilderness. Taken one at a time, each of these volumes is compelling in its own way. Taken together, they leave the distinct impression that Wild Honey is playing a prophetic role (John the Baptist, remember, came eating locusts and wild honey). And the future of Irish poetry is song.
I wish I could think of a better, less tainted word. Its important to stress what song, in this context, is not. Were not in the realm of the peasantry or the hard-riding country gentlemen Yeats urged his fellow poets to sing. Neither the lyrical sequences of Seamus Heaney nor the snaking lines of Ciaran Carson (ostensibly derived from the rhythms of Irish traditional music) provide models here. There is no Wild Honey signature style. Nevertheless, the songs scored here, as in the work of Billy Mills, often reach close to poetrys musical upper limit:
This is from the first of Billy Mills songs, Alba: In the Park. The admonition to follow / the content reads like Charles Olson, but the lineation and punning music are information-age Zukofsky. Song here is an effect of temporal and spatial arrangement, the melody and harmony of the written page, both of which are used to great effect throughout the book as phrase fragments are repeated, drawn together, and rearranged.
This is clearly an internationalized Irish poetry greatly indebted to American (and British one thinks of what Bunting wrought) models. Its Irishness remains in subject and tone. The park of Alba is of course Phoenix Park in Dublin. Our chief literary memory of Phoenix Park probably comes from James Joyce, who rewriting history as usual made it the site of an indefinite scandal in Finnegans Wake. More recently,
Thomas Kinsella made the park the subject and site of a long poetic meditation on exile and return. Mills idiom occasionally achieves something of Kinsellas bitter strength: a monument to mutual incomprehension / wings spread bird rises hollow music / intersect the great figure recumbent / grass damp (be near where?) here. But Mills draws from non-Irish models without Kinsellas sense of guilt; his is a national poetry beyond nationalist anxiety.
Billy Mills assembles his poems in a manner that some would critique as artificial; this assembly could itself be read, however, as both an affirmation of song and a critique of the natural voice. In the work of Trevor Joyce, the most aggressively experimental of these poets, the commitment to assembly can be total. Joyces Syzygy is comprised of two poems: The Drift, in twelve short-lined, unpunctuated stanzas; and The Net, in twenty-four long-lined tercets. The Net is made up entirely of the rearranged contents of The Drift. A syzygy refers to the conjunction of the paths of sun and moon, as in the new moon; it also has a meaning in ancient prosody for the combination of two feet in one meter. In a note, Joyce also provides the additional antecedent of the medieval cancrizans, a palindromic form of music: In the present instance, the drift having been established, the identical voices are intermeshed to weave the palindromic net. And so the phrase noise of concerns sequestered in The Drift disperses into the red noise of bones, fish that concerns, and a leaping meat sequestered in The Net. It is almost impossible to explain the effects of Syzygy without extensive quotation. But it is worth noting that for all his scrambling, Joyce retains a compelling lyrical gift that occasionally addresses the whole of Ireland:
in three quarters now you lie
lacking a fourth
of your voice that flew at once away
not a tremor breeds within the marble orchard
and is it that this simply is either finished or not
or not yet begun
perhaps not truly begun
twig of bone empty still
until there come the words
now quite forgotten whats the air
the sun leans down
and lifts the sea
In Without Asylum, a shorter poem, Joyces voice is more compressed but no less utopian: how everything broken / / so they say points / to the unbroken / forgetful is it of what did / the breaking as I witness / / my own loathing / and desire walk / through the dreaming / labyrinth of my child the understood hood that follows remains unwritten, an index of Joyces lexical and syntactic compression.
Pete Smiths 20/20 Vision and Robert Archambeaus Citation Suite are closer to speech than the work of Mills and Joyce. Smiths twenty poems, twenty lines each, are little bricks of received and reshuffled public discourse; instead of recycling words and phrases from within poems, as in Mills and Joyce, Smith opens his poems to the prepositional demotic. His liberal use of cliché is reminiscent of Ashbery: Where theres a will theres a fisticuffs; Scepticism makes the heart ground foundling. / There you go a-sloganning; they died with their / screen-savers on; the poet is a creep in waifs clothing. At other times he reminds me of Paul Muldoon, as when he half-rhymes down and dawn and then remarks I half-doubt Thomas would have rhymed that. But like these poets, Smith uses humor to serious ends: At the heart of every slogan a slip-knot of words, he reminds us, and the humor is these caroming, channel-surfing, Tourettic poems is a serious investigation of this duplicitous heart, which turns out to be the brain. Originality is endlessly elusive: One time he held an opinion then found out it was someone / elses so he lost interest in it. But the final promise of these poems is a deal struck with the postmodern community:
Once poetry was a mole now its all antenna, a raw nerve
flicked on by every shifting wave: reflections for fuddy-duddies.
A two-inch flame: he didnt flinch; I did and do, who am his ward.
A man and his language being moved from the authorial plank
into the rough and smooth joins of the prepositional demotic:
over there; to that; within him; against such; for us; for you; for them.
Like Smith, Robert Archambeau writes a sentence-based poetry that is in constant dialogue with the world of discourse. But for Archambeau, an American, this world is mainly literary-philosophical, ranging from Plato through Shelley, Woolf, Forster and Richard Rorty. Citation Suite is a postmodern realization of modernisms unreal city, with the poet modeled on the subway graffiti artist: What god do you pursue in cities? / Do you see him, briefly, from inside a moving tram? // There is that his name, those spray paint letters? / Is that him, broken, crazy, speaking tongues? The obvious objection to this kind of work, elegant and fully formed as it is, is that its particular form of international glossolalia is the product of a shifting (though mainly American) globetrotting postmodern academy. In return, it challenges us to trace the ruins of literature. Mr. Ramsay, who in Woolfs To the Lighthouse is presented with a distraught wild gaze which was yet so penetrating, as if he saw you, for one second, for the first time, forever a modernist vortex of a gaze if ever there was one is rendered in Archambeaus telling in a Shelleyan pastiche: Mr. Ramseys visage, shattered, broken, crazy, / his wrinkled lip, his sneer of cold command. This is an image we better get used to.
Randolph Healys Arbor Vitae is a long poem in three sections detailing, in part, the suppression of one language by another. Surprisingly, the language in question is not Irish, as in John Montagues The Rough Field, but sign although obvious underground parallels exist between the two events: Why learn a sign when they might learn a word / question mark. In Arbor Vitae the integrity and validity of sign is challenged by education, the Catholic Church, the invention of the telephone, and the more recent invention of the cochlear implant:
A two point two centimeter bit is used
to drill into the temporal bone.
The facial recess is opened and enlarged.
A one millimeter diamond burr is used to drill
a nine millimeter hole into the cochlea,
into the basal turn of which eight electrodes are inserted.
The most historically focused of the poets considered here, Healy traces sign back to early forms of writing and drawing. The self-disciplinary command of the speaker to use your voice turns out to be the correspondent breeze of sign:
Place the right hand in front of the left
with the left pointing right and vice versa
palms toward self
rotate the front hand forward from the wrist.
The sign for door
represents the door as opening.
Along comes the wind.
Arbor Vitae reminds us of the chaos that lies at the edge of order anagramatically in the poem as Acosh, sacho, ohacs and so on and of the grounding of poetrys song in the written sign. Wild Honey Press shows that simply pitting the local against the international is as pointless as opposing song and script, and it helps point the way beyond.