Breaking the Skin:
Twenty-First Century. Volume Two: New Irish Poetry

by Irish Writing. Edited by Nigel McLoughlin, Matthew Fluharty and Frank Sewell
260 pages,
ISBN: 0953757021

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Ireland's "Superhighway Poets"
by Todd Swift

Breaking The Skin is an anthology of "an emerging generation"¨in this case of poets from the North and South of Ireland, born between 1957 and 1975, who have published no more than one collection (most since 1999). These new poets write mainly in the English, although there is a brief selection of work translated from the Irish at the back. The editorial constraint favouring single-volume poets means that the opportunity for a more comprehensive survey of Ireland's post-Muldoon generation has been lost: work by David Wheatley, Patrick Chapman, or Vona Groarke¨to name only three fine younger poets¨is excluded.
Nonetheless, there has been an urgent need for such an anthology for some time. Urgent because, while Ireland has, for a nation of fewer than five million souls, produced more than its quota of "major" poets of international range (Heaney, Muldoon, Mahon, Boland, and Longley come to mind immediately) the publishing situation at home has been somewhat dire of late.
Few presses are currently well-funded by the respective Arts Councils on the island (much less so than in Canada), and fewer still, have, until recently, paid much attention to poetry by women (Salmon being an exception), younger poets from the South (being less newsworthy), or linguistically innovative poetry (like that of Maurice Scully). Smaller presses and magazines have, instead, emphasized work which is lyric, and, by North American standards at least, quite traditional. One of the last "good" anthologies, Modern Irish Poetry, edited by Patrick Crotty, was published in 1995, and represents no poet now under thirty-nine. Clearly, the editors, and no doubt the poets included in Breaking The Skin, might have felt there was something of a backlog waiting to be processed.
This sense of seizing the moment comes across in the introduction, which admits to a "sensitive stage in careers" that the editors (themselves poets) and the anthologised are facing; the book is, for them, seen as a watershed event. This shift in the designation of a poet's work from aesthetic or spiritual "vocation" to potentially pragmatic "career" is indicative of the general change in Irish cultural, religious, economic and political life in the last decade or so, with the rise of the secular Celtic Tiger and peace agreements in the North. Irish people, long used to an exodus in search of jobs, returned home en masse in the 90s boom. Cell phones replaced the tin whistle on Grafton Street, and Martinis were downed more often than Guinness.
The introduction sees these exuberant socio-economic factors as actively under-writing current poetic trends. Thus, this generation is (somewhat embarrassingly) described as being "superhighway poets": global in location, outlook, and reach, as if Internet access or air travel to Ibiza were special to the Irish experience of the last decade. Poetry is not necessarily (or at least simply) shaped by armistices or housing prices; but there can be content creep, and it shows here.
Still, the three editors have done a good job, within their mandate, of pointing in the direction 21st century Irish poetry is going. There is an across-the-board interest in sustaining the first-person lyric mode, a general adherence to formalist strategies, and a reliance on elegy and nostalgia, giving the impression of a uniformity of tone (with a few delightful exceptions). These boundaries are stretched beyond the recognisable Heaney dimensions by an awareness of Medbh McGuckian's rich, opaque feminist writing or Paul Muldoon's presentable post-modern playfulness.
Surely, it's rare in one (non-thematic) anthology to find so many poems with eerie radio broadcasts, flickering TV screens in shabby housing, and childhood funerals recalled in unquiet mid-life. There is also a tendency to explore themes and situations best described as banal or sad: boredom, accidents and failed marriages. It seems that, for some of these poets, upbeat celebrations of life's little pleasantries are far less compelling than caustic recitals of the bad news. This edgy, in-your-face exploration of the Irish underbelly is something of a shift from the writing of the generation before (and one we've been seeing in the fiction), which often avoided catastrophe and local squalor, fearing an attendant loss of control and clarity; and when they did deal with terrorism and low-rent suffering, they often did so recalling the cold distance of Japanese or Classical poets.
This no-hope position is well caught in Ger Reidy's powerful "Lame Dogs", whose protagonist is "sharing this appalling beauty with himself." At its best, this can be a necessary curative for the high purpose and portentous claims of Heaney and Co. Kevin Higgins, born in London but raised in Galway City, is a master of the grim and bearing it. A clutch of his poems, "By Five O'clock", "Knives", and "A Brief History Of Those Who Made Their Point Politely And Then Went Home" are among the funniest, and darkest, in the anthology. Higgins could be Ireland's contemporary answer to Larkin.
So, there are some truly exciting discoveries to be had here. Of the dozen or so stronger poets (out of about 24), more than half are women, a good sign. On the long-list for special notice would be the off-handed style of Nessa O'Mahony's "Venice Postcards", Katherine Duffy's riddle-like "Transaction", and Mary Montague's "First Day In Cape Breton", in the Elizabeth Bishop tradition.
But four women stand out. Colette Bryce has a superb sense of form and music, as in "Footings" and "Form"; Yvonne Cullen's long love sequence "Invitation To The Air" is exemplary in its innovative fusion of language play and lyricism, and has a hint of Rilke about it. Catrfona O'Reilly's "Sleep And Spiders" is great fun, its macabre imagery calibrated just so. Mary O'Donoghue, the 2002 Hennessy winner (best new writer in Ireland), is clearly a poet to look out for, as an heir to McGuckian's rewarding multi-layered texts. O'Donoghue's witty, complex poems thrive on surprise and linguistic nuance, as in the aptly-named "The Textures", or in "The She-Machines".
Two more poets make their presence felt in this collection, with particularly impressive flair. Aidan Rooney-CTsepedes is a poet who eats The Anxiety Of Influence for breakfast. His poem "Lynx" is lithe and smart. "Francis Bacon And The Hen" tackles the elegance of Mahon and doesn't look inadequate in the process. His coy "Why Muldoon" is titled and written to stake a claim on his generation's pole position. But that position may already be taken.
Tom French, a Forward winner in 2002 for his debut collection, Touching the Bones, is capable of offering poems sleek and hip, or strangely resonant. His poems here are not the best from his book, but the discomforting "Blood" (its slinky waitress kissing the "vein" in a blood donor's "forearm better") could be the signature poem for the anthology as a whole. With French's "dark red pearl from the identical finger" we see the skin has been broken, the new poets presenting the ambiguous signs of their times. ˛

Todd Swift's latest collection of poems is CafT Alibi (DC Books, 2002). He lives in Paris.

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