Contemporary Poetry
from Northern Ireland
edited by Chris Agee
Wake Forest University Press ($19.95)

edited by Remi Kanazi
Al Jisser Group ($16)

by Tim Keane

At first glance, the label “the New North” seems an appropriate title for this anthology of contemporary poetry. Since 1998, aside from infrequent killings by marginalized factions, Northern Ireland has put its era of violence behind it and settled into a post–Good Friday Agreement peace. But how “new” is this New North? The question hovers over the anthology so insistently that it’s disappointing that an otherwise current compendium of poets “born between 1956 and 1975” nevertheless includes six established older poets as punctuation, so that “Classic Poems” loom in the text like roadblocks: there’s Seamus Heaney on the bogland, Derek Mahon in the churchyard, Paul Muldoon contemplating the hay. These famous figures are seminal Northern Irish poets––still active, influential, innovative—yet they are so familiar that their presence undermines the book’s cutting-edge aspirations.

American-born editor Chris Agee, who has lived in Northern Ireland for decades, provides a meticulous introduction with judicious context to explain the convoluted motives and historical betrayals that forged contemporary Northern Ireland, suggesting as he does that the “creative interaction” of poets working in a “damaged, and damaging, society” has freed a previously “hidden” and therefore distinctive contemporary “Ulster” poetics set in a “post-imperial” climate. Agee’s own poems are here, too—elegant meditations on a Europe of Sebald, Sarajevo, Srebrenica, hinting that the recuperations of any “new” Northern Ireland must have something to gain from the similarly shattered legacies of a not-so “old” Europe.

Though the boys outnumber the girls, women’s voices are better represented in The New North than in any previous collections spotlighting Northern Irish poets published on either side of the Atlantic. Jean Bleakney’s poems veer from dry feminist aphorism to an account of a languorous train ride in Hungary. Moyra Donaldson’s elliptical poems scrutinize the technical marvels of everyday life in order to grant a necessary precision to the personal, even if it means facing how “the cell can mutate, / brakes fail.” Another poem celebrates the ritual of tying fishing flies, where “the body is hare’s ear, spun on orange silk / and ribbed with gold wire.” Leontia Flynn’s formal experimentations attend to the process of poetry writing itself, with its “quick jab of the X key” and the “clerical temp capitalising on his caesura / in his working day.” In her “Perl Poem,” a speaker studies that computer programming language and finds corollaries between its code and the aesthetics of a poet “turning the lines most perfectly to their function.”

Throughout the volume, the poems project a mainly urban, ruminative, and present-oriented ordinariness. Despite startling poems by Damian Smyth and Andy White that speak to paramilitary terrors, life in the North resembles life in other parts: poems record people watching TV, studying chess moves, grading papers, attending football matches, getting laid, and getting screwed—and in the flux and mess of their relatively peaceful dividends, the poems deliver more meaningful mythologies from the mundane, as Matt Kirkham does in his “museum” series, in which a city’s ephemera are transmuted into linguistic relics, poems in which “You may be able to reconstruct / lost communities from clay-pipes, hog-gut / condoms,” even if it means—as it does in the “Museum of Censorship”—the collapse of belief after religious conflict, “in a cathedral after the civil war, / counting our places, in the absence of saints.”

The gunfire and bombings are fading in these poems, but cultural troubles linger. These resonate with the most acute psychological complexity in the bilingual poets, from Cathal Ó Searcaigh’s “Caoineadh” (“Lament”) which (in its facing-page English rendition) tells us, “To-day it’s my language that’s in its throes, / The poets’ passion, my mothers’ fathers’ / mothers’ language, abandoned and trapped,” to Gearóid Mac Lochlainn’s “Aistriúcháin” (“Translations”), which (with its built-in devastating contradiction) refuses to convert its Irish original text into “hub-bubbly English / that turns the ferment of my poems / to lemonade” to be condescended to by Anglophone readers who would “love to have the Irish” but prefer the laziness of “‘café culture’ and ‘Seamus.’”

Taken as a cultural gesture, The New North breaks with the habit of categorizing Northern Irish poetry under the rubric of either “British” or “Irish” verse. But it is only a hesitant start toward the “third generation” beginnings which certain individual poems more aggressively initiate, summoning discourses more carnal than historical, like Sinéad Morrissey’s wonderfully existential poem “Genetics,” where the verse yields to a newer now and to a tomorrow that can’t arrive too soon, as her speaker calls to her own body to “take me with you / take up the skin’s demands / for mirroring in bodies of the future.”

Today, the turmoil of Catholic-Protestant Ulster seems simpler than the unresolved and ever-worsening Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the gloomy post-Oslo period. Poets for Palestine, Remi Kanazi’s compact and unashamedly political anthology is not a poetry collection in the service of canon formation. Here politics is personal and unrelenting—and more blunt and more recent than The Troubles that mostly just echo into the poems of The New North. This eclectic “coalescence” of mostly free-verse poets, occasionally translated from Arabic and French, includes “poets, spoken-word artists, and hip-hop artists,” and seeks to shift the conversation from “pro-Palestinian” to “anti-oppression” even as it refuses to be confined within those borders that aggressively expand and continuously displace the Palestinians.

The volume includes poets ranging from the ten-year-old Palestinian student Hamida Begum (“My home isn’t my own you say”) to the late Palestinian master Mahmoud Darwish (“Another day will come, a womanly day / diaphanous in metaphor”) as well as a dizzying parade of American poets with figurative and literal sympathies for the cause, including, among others, Amiri Baraka, Pierre Joris, Marilyn Hacker, and Melissa Hotchkiss. Interspersed among the poets are black-and-white reproductions featuring expressionistic portraits, surrealist collages, and other graphics by leading Palestinian visual artists.

Reading Poets for Palestine sways the reader’s attention from East to West, and from word to image and back to word, amounting to an unsettled cacophony, alive with bittersweet memories and exhausted restlessness that reflect the titular homeland. Against long odds, exiled identity is trying to become, through the poets’ words, the distinct and inhabited nation it once was.

The Lebanese poet Laila Halaby weaves together the Middle East and the Midwest with an Edward Hopper–like sadness in her poem “a moonlit visit,” suggesting the nomadic essence of all identity, an essence that eludes the anchor of names like “Pakistani” and “Jewish.” Fady Joudah, a physician who works for Doctors Without Borders, is represented by a poem in which a groom blames soldiers for his missing shoe and settles into the feminine embrace of “Tea and Sage,” his inside warmly at odds with a dangerous Palestinian outside. This often ironic contrast between a comfortable intimacy and cold-blooded political oppression enlivens the whole collection.

There is news here, too. Some of it might even stay news. Suheir Hammad chooses the least subtle but telling metaphor for Israel when he writes, in his poem “break (bas),” of “occupier vampire / tell like is.” And, in case anyone in the West takes the time these days to wonder what happened to the so-called “peace process,” these poets remind us. The Iranian-born poet Sholeh Wolpé studies Americans from a Starbucks near Disneyland on the morning of the U.S.’s illegal invasion of Iraq. Activist J. A. Miller finds a useful conceit from the Fox network’s The Simpsons in her poem “Saudi Israelia,” while Ibtisam Barakat describes her childhood in Ramallah, hunkered in “War Layers” as she lies in bed trying to read away “the sounds of gunshots” that “scatter as hail.”

Voicing the diaspora of the greater Palestinian region is the collection’s only consolatory note, as families cultivate peace in homes near and far. Marian Haddad recalls learning to speak Arabic while making coffee with her mother, Naomi Shibab Nye’s father chants Arabic songs as he tends to his orchard in Dallas, and Nathalie Handal tenderly recalls the persistence of a besieged olive tree farmer.

Immersed in or driven from homelands made famous by barbed wire and bulldozers, bombs, and burning flags, the poems in both anthologies allow us to cross into these territories freed from media-manufactured lies and sensationalism so that we can tune into ambitions and experiences more multifarious and nuanced than the cable news report from Gaza or the quickly faded headline about Belfast. At times, these collections trace a new poetics more inherently polyglot and expressive than the blunt instrument of a global English language can properly accommodate. More painful still, they will remind American readers that poets far from our shores know well how a given territory remains elusive to occupier and to inhabitant alike.

Click here to purchase The New North at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Poets for Palestine at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010