Seamus Heaney's presence in the pages of Garm Lu is obviously a coup for its editors, who open their brief editorial with the word "Excitement!" This journal, published out of St. Michael's College, at the University of Toronto, has performed a considerable service in the last few years by featuring, in addition to essays and short stories, works by Canadian poets who write in an Irish or Celtic tradition¨Beryl Baigent, Carleton Wilson, Lucy Brennan, and Colin O'Cairbre to name a few.
Heaney's contribution is a translation of the ninth century Irish poem, "The Blackbird of Belfast Lough":
The small bird
from Belfast Lough's
Ann Dooley, in a brief but helpful commentary, advises that this "exquisite little piece" is taken from an eleventh century tract on metre, in which it exemplifies "snam suad" or "poetic floating." The three syllable, eight-line form suggests the rhythm and duration of a blackbird's song. The range of Heaney's gifts is once more made apparent in that the translator of Beowulf is able to turn his hand to a composition so delicate.
Garm Lu contains another treasure: three superb poems in terza rima by Kildare Dobbs, an essayist and travel writer whose prose has won a Governor General's Award as well as representation in The Norton Reader and countless other anthologies. Dobbs wrote poetry as a young naval officer in the Second World War, but published little of it. His first collection, a remarkable volume aptly entitled The Eleventh Hour, did not appear until 1997. But then, long stretches of time are a specialty for Dobbs, who in these new poems revisits his childhood in Ireland. In "Villagers" he depicts, among others, two sisters and a brother who sold tobacco and spirits; the Garda Nolan who gave nightly chase to lightless cyclists, and a blacksmith who pulled teeth at the forge. Every one of these persons float above the earth in the realms of memory¨indeed, two of them, the Brophy brothers, tip their hats in mid-air. They are all neighbours "in the galaxy/of dear spirits summoned up from childhood scenes." In "Harness Room," a farm-hand ventriloquist tries to convince a young boy that there is a parrot in the chimney:
Yet once more from the chimney the voice is heard,
The rain's after stopping, the sun's come again,
As sure as Christ's in his heaven, I'm a real bird!
These poems are very much about the poet's own ventriloquism, his attempts to recapture the personalities and the lost voices of a time that seems ever more remote. The third poem, "Magic Lantern," gives us one face after another of a family flourishing in the early 1900s, some of whom were dead long before the poet's birth in 1923. The young men and women are busy with croquet, tennis, and picnics. Indeed, the images from the magic lantern represent the privileged life of the Irish gentry, which was even then facing its demise as the First World War and the Irish Civil War loomed just ahead. Only one member of the family lives out his years as a country gentleman:
He and that old world have gone down to defeat.
Sometimes we think of them, knowing that everyone
Will be as they when fortune and clocks repeat.
The Preacher says, Nothing new under the sun.
But maybe he's wrong, maybe everything's new,
Over and over and only just begun.
A world of constant changes is not without hope, and, for Dobbs, that awareness makes a paradoxical bond between the living and the dead.
These autobiographical poems follow on the heels of Casablanca:The Poem, which Sheldon Zitner judges the most original work of recent Canadian poetry. Based on the Bogart-Bergman movie, this sequence explores the role of illusion in art, love, war, race, and politics:
The screen is there to mark the frontier of dream:
we, here in our seats ű the plebs chewing popcorn,
the elect making clever phrases ű on this side;
on that, fantasy
In Casablanca, there lies the imagined scene,
world war, Nazis, refugees, black market and
a marvelously beautiful heroine.
Begin it, Sam. Play.
Following Umberto Eco, who claims that "Casablanca is not just one film. It is all films," Dobbs gently unwraps the modern myth of Rick, the oddly sanctimonious American, and Ilsa, "the girl who told me lies." Deception and misfortune in love are a timeless theme, but the poem is set in the midst of the Second World War, the central historical event of modern times. Dobbs reaches out from the story to engage in argument with Andre Gide, who spoke of the "incurably frivolous people of France" and their downfall caused by too much liberty. Dobbs also writes of the subtle inhumanity of the left, personified in Victor, Ilsa's honorable but faintly calculating husband: "If she has to give herself, no one objects./Compared with the great Cause, how trivial is sex!" In "The Poet in the Picture" we glimpse the war at sea, as the poet's ship is nearly blown apart by a hurricane, until, amusingly, an image of "Ingrid incandescent" appears above the stacks: "Some thought she was the Virgin, and blessed themselves/others denied the apparition or failed /to recognize herÓ." In the end, Dobbs is not certain how to interpret the myth:
Was it merely the clash of fierce opinions,
fascist and communist, or something less grand,
and yet of greater weight, the same old story,
love in the desert, cigarette smoke and merde,
as time went by, as time goes by once more?
The insufferably melodious refrain
Breaking your broken heart all over again.
When the lights come up bright and the curtain falls,
you will remember this, and remember all.
Casablanca is a work of superb intelligence exercised both upon historical particulars and upon perennial human struggles. The technical prowess and the sheer musicality of Dobbs's verse are altogether extraordinary, as he absorbs into his own distinctive voice some of the most distinctive voices of the century. ˛
Richard Greene is a poet and an Associate Professor of English at the University of Toronto.