Is there anything to be said for another poem?
This week the Irish government released a video to promote the 2016 commemorations of the Easter Rising. ‘Remember where we came from’, the captions implore, even though there is no reference to the Rising itself, nor those who took part in it.
The Rising is no longer a political event, but something to do with training children to sit in front of computers and having a multinational corporation as a superego.
If the 1916 protagonists have been kept out of our imagination as ruthlessly as Stalin ever did with Trotsky, other figures of note are still allowed to take their place alongside the Queen, David Cameron and Bob Geldof.
I’m referring to poets. Yeats is there, as is Beckett, as is Seamus Heaney. (Michael D Higgins and Martin McGuinness too, but not for their poems)
Ireland’s elite culture uses poets and their prestige as a kind of fireproof decoration. Whatever it is they have said or written, they are not going to get in the way. Phil Hogan, the mastermind behind Irish Water, even wanted Seamus Heaney to run for President of Ireland. From the perspective of rulers, poets are supposed to be figures of consensus and conciliation, not rebellion and confrontation, and the same should hold for their poems.
I’m not best placed to make pronouncements on what poets have to say about this, either in our outside their poems. I don’t read much poetry. I’d like to do more but I don’t have much time and never cultivated that much of a habit. I don’t really feel that comfortable writing about poems either. I remember reading somewhere that the only true response to a poem can come from another poem. I don’t know if that’s true, but it feels true.
Shouldn’t we worry about the fact that people like me –that is, most people around here- don’t read or listen to or talk about poems? What happens to our imagination, our collective sense of who we are, our historical memory, when literary culture and tradition becomes little more than an elite pursuit of distinction, or part of an elaborate national branding exercise?
It isn’t as if poetic constructions will cease to exist; they’ll just be used by assorted commissars for stimulating our consumer appetites and maintaining our allegiance to the flashing corporate logo above our head as we descend into confused nihilism.
Luckily for us, however, there is Dave Lordan.
In My mother speaks to me of suicide, one of the poems in his vital new collection, Lost Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains, the poet announces he is tired of the ‘public platitudes’ – ‘a plague, a scourge, an epidemic’- used to describe what happens when young people in Ireland annihilate themselves:
[…]Not medicine nor scripture
can explain it; suicide at Irish rates is self-destruction
as mass movement and tells us that the life we live
the all-of-us, here-and-now, has something
seriously wrong with it.
A friend of mine philosopher Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop, writes, after Spinoza, that every suicide is preceded by ‘a murder, by a transformation in the essence of the individual by an exterior cause that destroys him from the inside, like a cancer or an autoimmune disease’. But also, he writes, within the phenomenological description of suicide one can include the choice of death as a ‘lesser evil’.
Suicide is thus ‘the encounter of the individual with a destructive and invincible power’. In which case, he concludes, the option of death itself becomes an affirmation of life.
In this sense, what Dave Lordan names as “self-destruction as mass movement” can be thought of along the same lines as the conservation of dignity inherent in Seneca’s suicide or in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising:
A young man double-barrelly decapitating himself
in a cow shed;
the gun-roar submerged in the chaos of cows and machines.
A young man jumping into a fast-flowing river-
dead-cold-halt after zooming through
a three-day bender.
A young man jogging a dirt track leading up to a cliff,
then lepping off.
Crucial to Dave Lordan’s broader poetic approach to the social destruction told of in My mother speaks to me of suicide is the way he recognises something similar to what Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop describes here:
Though at times the only way of conserving one’s dignity is suicide, there often exists the possibility of rebelling alongside others, of recognising the wrongs we suffer in others. It is what is known as indignation. Indignation is a sadness, but it is a sadness that brings to light our social fabric, solidarity, community, and can even give rise to an empowerment of the individual when she becomes able to fashion alongside others, and in the face of a hostile power, a new reality that makes it possible to live.
Or, as Dave Lordan writes:
young men in Irish small towns and townlands,
suburbs and exurbs, flat-blocks and villages
are going to go right on killing themselves
until this life, this incredible life I adore
and which must not be wasted
be made worth living and living
and living again, for everyone.
It is this all-of-us, here-and-now that confronts certain young people as a destructive and invincible power. But if it is, what can you do about it? More to the point, what can poetry do about it? As Lordan writes in Lost Poem:
Who am I to instruct
a modern professional like you?
I’m poetry. I’m the thick
and endless forest of the lost.
What it can do, in Lordan’s hands at least, is confront this ‘all-of-us, here-and-now’ in its manifold guises.
Discover Ireland, the name for tourist initiatives that enjoin Irish people to get out and about and spend money across the country, is set in a slaughterhouse, in which ‘Ireland’ could be the entire operation itself, or the precarious migrant executioners slitting the cows’ throats on fear of penalty.
Or, it could be the ‘unstunned cow’
kicking and bucking and butting
against the eighteen-inch blade,
even as the blood is being drawn
Spin starts off in polite contrast to the carnage of the abbatoir. Silence personified has taken hold, and it is silence doing the talking:
Would you just shut-up about the budget?
Nice things, why can’t we just talk about nice things?
The lovely hedgerows and lawns hereabouts. Butterflies.
Our far flung children, high achievers all.
Old country recipes. Recent sporting victories.
Weddings we have been to. Other public ceremonies.
But in this version of the all-of-us, here-and-now imposed by silence, we careen towards the social abbatoir where silence holds sway:
I am the broken promises factory skirting every Irish town.
I am the Hotel Empty. My rating is five black-holes.
I host the most magnificent cobwebs, prestigious cracks,
Glittering slug-trails, drafts of international importance.
And into oblivion:
Shhssh! Silence is packing us up in a jar,
Diving us down to her black uninhabited realm,
Roots that throttle us in wrecks, grey silt-weeds
This ‘black uninhabited realm’ sounds like the ideal place for the ‘morbid accountant’ poet of the aforementioned My mother speaks to me of suicide.
She calls and she calls and she tells and she tells,
as if she was the ledger of death self-inflicted
and I – her firstborn, the poet – a morbid accountant
who must reckon the substance, the meaning,
the worth of all this self-slaughter.
Against this silence, against this grim rationality, against a rootedness that asphyxiates, Lordan professes his faith, in the exhilarating title poem, in the realms where the human imagination flourishes, among the traces left by outcasts and rebels and apostates and the shadowy fringes of modern urban life.
It’s so righteous to stray.
It’s so good to abandon.
It’s so just to ascend
With the lost and forgotten
To summits the rooted
Cannot even imagine.
‘The rooted’: those frozen to the spot by the sense of obligation to tradition, convention, and silence. But if Dave Lordan is out to accompany the lost and forgotten to the highest peaks, he is also concerned with seeking them out, gathering them in. The poem Irish history locates those who might have built a different all-of-us, here-and-now:
[…]dying in dark visions and fits
in an abandoned industrial unit
on the outskirts of Manchester
with your rummaging Aberdeen girlfriend,
full of pills made in Hoxley and vintage vomit,
syphillis breeding with TB
inside you like those gigantic
Norvegicus that swam behind you
in the wake of your ferry,
Saint Patrick II.
And yet, despite the vistas of uncompromising cosmological bleakness, there is hope to be found, and Lordan locates it in the strangest and most familiar of places: within ourselves. The poem Hope addresses the reader or listener directly, in the sounds and syntax of a down-and-out, as though the reader or listener were the very personification of hope:
I know yuv a hundurd millin virgin spouses pushin’ up slums
an’ high-tech factories from underneath the battlefields.
Tis tuh the dead we can never repay yud mos jusly return,
them that rose an’ wuz crushed for yer dreamin’, the manygod
that manytimes gave ya generation. But I ain’t ready tuh let ya
go jus yet. So get up. Get up. I said GET THE FUCK UP!
An’ c’mere and give us a hug and give us a peck
on the cheek, and give us a drag on yer spliff.
The final poem in the collection, Love commands the neighbourhood, recalls William Blake’s The Divine Image in its injunction to love the human form in all its diverse states of fracture and disintegration and imperfect beauty.
What commands in the end, above all, is the mutual embrace of all those condemned to oblivion by a system in meltdown.
Love all those with a love like a grieving,
for they too are leaving, they too are going their way.
Close by there’s a man who stole through the barracks
after bombardment, collecting watches and teeth,
and a woman who walked out of a bomb. Love them.
Love as a refusal, love as a form of militant resistance. Perhaps poetry looks puny when considered alongside ‘the DJ’s billion-kilometre tongue‘ on the radio playing in Workmate, the formidable media apparatus that commands ecstatic erotic consent for sadistic violence upon the multitude of the poor. But in Dave Lordan’s hands this poetry raises our gaze, towards the summits to be conquered, where the realm of true freedom lies, an all-of-us, here-and-now of where the ‘everyday holy‘ is worshipped, and where communion is ‘sharing abundance’ . He does it with dazzling technique, accessibility and explosive power, and if you have any sense of humanity, you will read this collection.