"Where does the pain begin? If there was an archeology of self, a stripping back strata by strata until you could find the root of your sorrow; but there is only the flawed cinema of memory.."
I have no technical knowledge of poetry. Up until very recently I had read no post Yeats Irish poetry. My poets are Yeats, Crane, and Whitman. I am now beginning to think the most intense of contemporary Irish literature may be in the works of the five thousand or so active Irish poets. I have said I find posting on collections of short stories significantly more of a challenge, in most cases, than posting on a novel. A collection of twelve short stories is normally condensed into two or three metaphor laden sentences by most reviewers and they are all seen as expressing an underlying meaning. In the case of a collection of poems, especially one assembled from works published separately without perhaps initially a thought of a collection, the challenge is much greater, for me anyway. In the Library of Lost Objects by Noel Duffy is a collection of forty stand alone works before it is a discrete object. The challenge in posting on it is to look at the individual poems while seeking unifying themes and preoccupations.
I like to read the works of poets whose thought processes can expand the range of my consciousness, who can help me understand myself through their words, Deep poetry seems to arise from a sense of the paradoxes built into the human condition. I like to read works that compress a large amount of meaning in a sparse space. I like to think that an Irish poet should understand why Joyce read Dante and relished the cheapest brothels in Night-town. I enjoy seeing sheer verbal cleverness. I like to sense multifarious high intelligence and an ability to see the mote in one's own eye. I am accepting of darkness and pain as sometimes all we can see. When I walk the streets of a new city, I look at the monuments, the cathedrals, look in the window of fancy shops but I also converse with alley cats, look in the gutters and garbage dumps for rats as a saner person might look for swans. I know Ireland is a place of secrets and I want to penetrate beyond the Leprechaun trail. In a previous collection of poetry i read there were references to women giving blow jobs in dark alleys for heroin. The decent refined sensible part of me thinks, "how terrible", but there is also the urge to ask where? If a writer gets indignant with me and says "I have no idea" I will probably move on to one of the other five thousand Irish poets. I see a deep love in Irish writers of their heritage. It is not easy to live in the shadows of the giants of Mount Parnassus.
A lot of the short stories, novels and the previous two collections of Twenty First century Irish poetry I posted on focused on the "dark streets of Dublin" and are in many ways poems and stories of rage at injustice, partially fueled by the fall of the Irish economy. I am glad to see Noel Duffy has risen above these preoccupations. Most of the other Irish works I have read can be seen as working out the consequences of hundreds of years of colonial rule. Duffy has also transcended this. He does have significant elements of continuity with my reading of Irish literature. Following the lead of Declan Kiberd who takes his clues from Edward Said I did see a preoccupation with the missing Irish father in his poems. He is also very Dublin based, but not obsessively so to the point where outsiders cannot understand his references without a Google search. He is a man of a city. It is Dublin but it could be Paris, Rome, or New York City. He has moved beyond the fetishing of Irish history. I see a literary application of Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty, an understanding of the meaning of Salvador Dali's fluidity of memory, I see someone who is used to not being understood, who knows more than he can explain, who withdraws when he senses he is not understood. He is used to that. There are preoccupations in his poems with bees, other insects, death scenes, partings, decaying cultures, old books and childhood memories. I feel deep aloneness. Deep sadness but I do not feel the anger and bitterness of many Irish writers. I see someone who seeks refuge in absurdity, in beehives (I will talk this more latter), in old books,in people who can talk through the night. I feel a deep treasuring of the poetic tradition of Ireland. There are open wounds in these poems,wounds much loved. I feel the poet cherishes his pain as proof he is still alive.
I read all of the poems in this collection five times, the ones I will talk about individually more. The longest one is three pages. Of course I bring my own preoccupations to the poems. Obviously if i read through The Library of Lost Objects Five times I a greatly enjoyed it, respected the power and felt it over paid back my time. I will talk briefly about some of the poems, partially to help me clarify my understanding of them and also to try to convey a sense of what they are about. In reading a poem, I do not see it as a puzzle to figure out, I try to create in my own sensibility (I know this may sound arrogant) an ability to directly understand what a writer means. Reading poetry is an art, though a private one. Sometimes I just let the waves roll over me. If I get it great, if not, there will be another greater one soon.
"Daisy Chain", the second work in the collection, is the first of the sixteen poems that focus on death. It is about the poets memories of his walks through Dublin with his late father. It is about the nature of memory, one of the deeper themes of the poems. I think it also lets one see how over time with enough death of those you love and enough knowledge of history, Dublin is transformed into a vast necropolis, every thing reminds you of the dead. We see the love between father and son while we see they struggle to find things to speak about. The love of death arises in part from a longing to rejoin those gone and the terrible feeling of incompleteness such reflections can produce. There is a pervasive feeling in The Library of Lost Objects that our relations with the dead are paramount over the living or maybe it is better to say we can complete them in our memories, as we cannot with the living. I also see in these poems a feeling our best days are over, a constant looking back, combined with a sense that there is no present. Reality is created by memory or rather reality is what we remember, until death calls in the cards.
"The Beekeeper to his Assistant" is one of four poems centering on bees, insects feature in almost twenty percent of the poems. I really like this poem. I knew bees are a central image in ancient Irish culture. I see Duffy as partially drawing us into this tradition. This passage I found on bees in ancient Ireland provides some of the details:
"The ancient Irish are particularly noted for their relationship with the bee. In Gaelic, the word for bee is bech, and a swarm is saithe. The hive had many names but was most commonly referred to as a corcog. The gift of a hive of bees was the traditional way to show gratitude or loyalty to the ancient Irish Kings and Queens and as such, their realms were often known as centers of Beekeeping. It’s not surprising, with these facts in mind, that Honey was a staple of the diet of the ancient Irish. It’s believed that everyone present at a royal table was given their own dish of honey, and supposedly each bite of food was dipped in it before eating. Honey was used to marinate meats, particularly salmon, and was drunk in hot milk, as well as used as an offering in religious ceremony. Mead was considered a sacred and ceremonial beverage and was consumed at feasts and celebrations to bring blessings to all present and to lend the event it’s magical properties. Tara had a special residence called ‘The House of Mead Circling".
I also see Bee Keeping as a kind of close to the earth professions that requires specialized knowledge of an arcane sort. Bees are described as "pollen drunk" while functioning with mathematical exactitude. We will come back to bees!
"Vintage-in Memory of Marty Duffy" deals with the memories of his larger than mundane life uncle Marty. He had a big house, loved expensive whiskey and vintage cars. "no room, it seemed, was big enough to hold him". At its core it is about memories of the dead, selective memories of fragments of experience. It reminded me of my late very good American Irish friend Marty Boyle who died way too young.
"The Summer I Mapped the World" is one of the longest poems in the collection. It deals directly with childhood memories. Inspired by a class room globe, the speaker in the poem decides to map his neighborhood. I think this is part of an underlying quest to bring order to experience, part of the reason, as I see it, behind the interest in bees. It also in its reflection causes the speaker to dwell on people from his childhood now deceased. It also forces Dublin into the poem, mapping Dublin is mapping life, the issue is it it changes as you go so you can never capture it. It is altered by the process of observation, another of Duffy's themes.
"Captives- after Muchelangelo" is a very compressed, deeply felt work. I love these lines:
"his mind has become
Impenetratrable as stone
Each thought a hammering
Chisel blow burrowing
For the grain in memory".
This takes us into core issues of Duffy. The creation of reality by art. It also suggests the best days were long ago, we live in shadows of the dead. We have an image of Christ tortured. We see Christianity as a death worshiping creed, a longing for the lifting of pain by death. The central image of Irish faith, not alone in this of course, is a man being executed and achieving ever lasting glory in his death. The goal of life is to join him.
"The Bee King" is a strange poem that puzzles me, a good thing it is to be puzzled. It also deals as do numerous other poems, with childhood memories. The bee king is a boy who placed jam jars on a wall to attract bees so he could capture, kill, and display them. He tortured them. Other boys knew they should look away, understood there is a strange evil in this, but were drawn to it. Bees, death, childhood memories, pathology.
"The Book Collector" is a really fascinating, multifaceted work. It is divided into four segments and I will comment briefly on each. Segment 1, "First Edition" is told from the point of view of a collector of old first editions. They authenticate books by printers errors, it is the errors and flaws that matter. Segment 2, which lends its name to the collection, "The Library of Lost Objects" has an intriguinging opening line:
"the words settle on the page
For the first time, like insects"
Tying in with "The Bee King" the words are pins in a dusty museum. Are they killed by being printed?The words are like a fire fly, holding back the dark for less time than we can articulate. On a personal side note, I think the attitude of people toward books and literary tradition who grew up seeing magnificent old libraries like that of Trinity University (full of books read once a decade if they are lucky) and treasuring the Book of Kells has to be far different from those from essentially library less cities like Manila. The love of books is related to the love of reading but they are not the same thing by any means. I really liked the description of how books end up on market stalls, discarded, gifts no one wanted in the first place. Segment 3, "Inscription" is very moving, even for someone like me who fell in love with reading on an IPAD after about sixty seconds. I have bought old books where someone has given them to another person with an inscription and I did feel a very real connection. Segment 4, "Books" is about the physicality of books, how one enjoys holding them, feeling their weight. I wonder if one day poets will write about Kindles in the same deeply felt way as Duffy and a thousand others have about books.
"Caitriona, had she lived" speaks about a sister, who would now be forty but death took her shortly after she was born. The speaker wonders what kind of husband she might have found, the children she never had. We are presented with a beautiful image of her in some imagined place, "spared the world-injury of those who go on, perfected by absence into the perfect confidant for my thoughts". This relates to closely to my reading of "Daisy Chain".
"Bella" is told in the voice of Marc Chagall (Belarus, 1887 to 1985). I think this poem is central understanding The Library of Lost Objects and I found it necessary to Google Marc Chagall (my culture in the visual arts is very limited).
" Born in Belarus in 1887, Marc Chagall was a French painter, print maker and designer associated with several major artistic styles, synthesizing elements of Cubism, Symbolism and Fauvism. One work in particular, I and the Village (1911), pre-dated Surrealism as an artistic expression of psychic reality. An early modernist, Chagall created works in nearly every artistic medium, including sets for plays and ballets, biblical etchings, and stained-glass windows. Chagall died in France in 1985."
Chagall lived a long time, wevare at the end of his days. . By now, everyone that matters to him was dead, including the great love of life, his fiancé Bella. He speaks of being cursed with long life. Bella has been dead forty years. Here we see the full marriage of Eros and Thanatos.
"I count the silent hours til I give up the ghost. You stand before me,
Again my fiancée in Black Gloves.
My Soul is vivid blue. It will know you."
I am very glad had the opportunity to read The Library of Lost Objects by Noel Duffy. I think Duffy has written poems I will return to over and over. Some of the poems are clearly deeply personal. He helps us understand the nature of memory, of history, of the craving for knowledge for the pleasure of having it. In order to begin to penetrate the meaning of these poems I had to expand my knowledge of the role of bees in Irish and Celtic culture and I learned a bit about a very interesting artist. Duffy has transcended the limiting rage of much of Irish literature. There is a profound preoccupation with death in these poems. I am still puzzled by the insect references.
On May 2 of this year I had the pleasure of meeting and conversing with Noel Duffy, in the company of Shauna Gilligan. I look forward greatly to reading more of his work.