From an evening of "Four Irish Poets," Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin reads a translation of "Just That" by Romanian poet Ileana Mălăncioiu and her own "Stabat Mater."
Erica Wright, author of Instructions for Killing the Jackal and poetry editor at Guernica Magazine, attended the reading and wrote:
Sometimes I kill time on public transportation by making lists; I see how many diseases, Olympic sports, or bands beginning with “The” that I can name (silently) by the time I arrive at my destination. On my way to 92Y on October 31st, I tried Irish Poets in honor of the event I was going to see. The game didn’t last very long, especially if I eliminated the dead ones. Partly, this increased my anticipation. By night’s end, I would be familiar with the work of at least four more. On the other hand, what if I ran into one of them in the ladies’ room, and she wanted to know my views on writers who, say, use Gaelic vocabulary words like pog and slainte? Okay, so this scenario didn’t seem likely, but city-dwellers have a knack for dread.
It was fast apparent that a confrontation with one of the evening’s stars wouldn’t happen. The Weill Art Gallery was packed, and all but the last row of seats were occupied. I sat down behind my least favorite type of reading attendees—the P. D. A. couple—and reprimanded myself for lollygagging on my walk to the venue. Fortunately, Nick Laird’s thoughtful introduction soon distracted me.
Laird (make that five new Irish poets to add to the list) provided detailed praise for each poet. Leontia Flynn was heralded for her “poetic shards,” Rita Ann Higgins for her “depth charge,” while Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin was credited with “rebuilding language” and Caitriona O’Reilly as being “detached but seek[ing] attachment.” Despite Laird throwing me off the scent by highlighting what makes each unique, the poets did have something in common besides their nationality. Their work was imbued with gravitas.
There seems to be a growing appreciation of frivolity in contemporary poetry, not wit or humor—for which there will always be a place—but art for art’s sake with its roots in that towering Irish figure of Oscar Wilde. Even with his green carnations and memorable one-liners, Wilde was still the same man who wrote, “Some kill their love when they are young, […] The kindest use a knife, because / The dead so soon grow cold.” Which is to say, his position as an icon of poetic joie de vivre (craic, perhaps more appropriately) seems a bit easy.
It was refreshing to hear poems that tackled the big subjects of family, love, and death in sincere (but never sentimental) terms. Early on in the evening, Flynn read a poem about airplanes in honor of the book tour. (New York City was the women’s fourth stop in promotion of The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry: 1967-2000.) It ended with the line “We rock, dry-eyed, and we are not at home.” In a way, the four-member covey of Flynn, Higgins, Chuilleanáin, and O’Reilly presented a stand-in for the poetic community, its writers and readers who suffer a little less because they suffer together. Often the actual poems read were about isolation—O’Reilly’s evocation of a mermaid, Chuilleanáin’s of a witch—but the banter between the four demonstrated intimacy.
The event was co-sponsored by Imagine Ireland, and the intent was, I assume, to increase awareness of the Irish arts. And yet despite the lilting accents and occasional glimpses of unfamiliar terrain in the lines, the poetry was more universal than not. And perhaps that’s what I mean by gravitas. The subject matter need not be about prisons; Flynn’s vegetables do just fine. But something must be risked, for example, a trying to get at what it feels like to be human. The couple in front of me agreed, I think. They cuddled in a way that cried out for shared experience.