January 27, 2008

Aeneous, erythraean, aphotic Napaeae: On some poetry by the new Irish Poet Caoilinn Hughes


Most poets and poet-critics would agree that reading a poem aloud is probably the best measure as to whether or not it has its own life. Sounding the music and precision of language against and within the ear returns the poem to its roots in speech and in the sharing of the spoken word with others - your audience, your community even. While we are writing that audience is of course invisible; a conductor shows his or her back to it in order to give their best.

For a new writer like Caoilinn Hughes, the invisibility of audience matters less than what is before her in the orchestra of language - at least for now, as she makes her way: A lot of imaginative electricity courses across the lightning-gap between the realities these poems present and the alternate reality of their language. I predict Caoilinn Hughes’ poems will create their audience because they are so wonderfully sounded for the ear:

And so Fir Bolg may have stood there too,

in the Wiley Woods, weeping pine-needles for his daughter

like a calving glacier, looking on at two young girls, outwitting drivers,

breathlessly laughing on their hunkers by their grandfathers’ heels.

But her ear also delights also in a dissonance of association, in the possibility and even scarcity of words and their meanings. The reader is required to be on their toes as a listener and a witness because, although word by word the language is scrupulously performed, line by line there are abysses across which the reader must tread on their own. Caoilinn Hughes sprinkles sparseness into her final text - she edits her poetic language (she clarifies it, boils it) to the bone.

So: her poems grow elliptic, viewless, kinetic with possibility. As the American poet Mary Kinzie once commented, ‘The reader follows…the many paths that were not taken by the author, but whose possibility leaves a shadow like a crosshatching on the paths that remain. To read this way keeps a poem always provisional and still in the making...’ Readers stitch those bridges for themselves, writing themselves into the poems, creating a personal fifth dimension. See where you end up as you read the last two sentences below:

It is the first of spring and things are seemingly diminishing:

Brazilian grey-winged continga, the African gray parrot,

clouds, pencil lead, simple concrete—possibly all greynesses.

They say pyramids are resilient, so we make turf tents for Napaeae.

Such young plums are picked at home. I see the crows are panicking.

Influences? There is a glimpse of Elizabeth Bishop’s precise eye behind the natural observations, not only the birds of course but also the style of stating - or should I say (since all is in semi-state) her style of semi-stating:

…clouds, pencil lead, simple concrete—possibly all greynesses.

They say pyramids are resilient, so we make turf tents for Napaeae.

There, you could say, is the Bishopian noun queue; her rapid but muttered ‘aside’ of an em-dash; the vulnerable potentiality of ‘possibly all’; and finaly an inclusive but plural and including abstraction of greynesses. But where oh where do those little nymphs, those Napaeae spring from? I think Hughes may one of the few new writers who have taken Medbh McGuckian as an enabling model.

How so? It is not just that her work, like McGuckian’s, is a concentration rather than a collection of poems requiring total concentration from the reader. It is because she surprises herself out of any sense of verbal safety; she is surprised as to where her poems and revisions take her, where language removes their nets of sense with its spell. There is some minded but not mindful line between the verbal invocations of Napaeae, the atrous-with-ice road, the carpet of autumn—aeneous, erythraean, and the aphotic sea-depths. It is not alliteration; it is alteration. It is also alternation - poems as the makers of alternate universes Caoilinn Hughes says:

I’ll never forget writing the poem—my first real poem. I remember the adrenaline, the extraordinary closeness I felt to the minute, and the engulfing realness of everything… the remarkable thing happened: he possessed my pen like some swelling shadow and wrote himself with the pelt of sleet’.

I believe her every word of this account of composition. As exhibited in this book, her mature writing is vertiginous and exciting: it invokes and evokes some strange, invisible but necessary worlds. The Napaeae have their messenger and champion.

In the end, her poems are distinctive because they dare to be completely outside reality. That is partly the reason I see in them a far larger potentiality than might be suggested by simply the precisions of image and sound, and the verbal and sensual earth-slides of expectation and perception. Wallace Stevens once attempted to construct the ‘figure of a poet, a possible poet’, arguing that such writers must write outside of time and audience. They must be knowing and unknowing and be capable of resisting or evading the pressure of their inherited and current reality. Stevens went on to say, ‘…in speaking of the pressure of reality, I am thinking of life in a state of violence…physically violent for millions of our friends and for still more millions of our enemies and spiritually violent, it may be said, for everyone alive’. With that in mind, read over her poems and look especially closely at the final quatrain of ‘Suspension’:

The oxygen tank gave off like a python when I opened

the curtains: beach leaves gave way and an ambush

of curious light spilled in, calculating his leadenness.
I wanted to cling to the bloodless shoulders too many times to say.

Too many times? Too many times to say? Caoilinn Hughes’ poetry seems to me to be poised under the pressures of various realities – the appearances of quotidian reality, a sliding political reality and her own memory’s constructed reality. There is a deleted phrase in John Keats’s notebooks that captures the attitude of these poems more precisely than I ever can, ‘The feel of not to feel it’. The poetry’s poise under those pressures is the poet’s triumph; her poetry seems not to feel them—or need them:

She demonstrates by drenching narrow ink

into rice-paper, by-passing leaf remnants.

It is not with a cold heart or colder eye but with a sure sense of sound and subversion balanced by her negative capability that Hughes has written herself into being the ‘possible poet’ of the sort Wallace Stevens would have recognised and, I think, admired:

since there is as much loss in the unseen

as the leaden unsaid; the gutless words we never impelled,

colours never crossbred. ‘You must push sentences

in the face of scorn, bare mettle with lettering’, she says.

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