A few weeks back the Daily Telegraph had one of those 50 Great Books features and, sure enough, they were all there, all the books we struggled to read and still do but daren’t let on. Middlemarch, the Forsyte novels, Vanity Fair, Ulysses and so on.
It would be nice to think that all the things that influences one in life, especially literature because it such a pompous enterprise, are The Great Books.
But under all of them, or hovering over them perhaps, are all the books that actually make the head burn, mine certainly – A Tale of Two Cities rather than Bleak House; A Study in Scarlet; Treasure Island; Tom Sawyer; all the real Frenchies, The Three Musketeers, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, The Count of Monte Cristo …
… all very boyish, I suppose, but leavened surely by Gone With The Wind, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables. But all the actual greats which actually and in fact build the reading life, ignite the imagination, spark the campfires under the duvet, trigger the hunt for pure, pure story, set the culture rocking.
Which is all by way of apology for the image that struck me when I first saw these poems as they assembled themselves into Moyra Donaldson’s new collection, so gorgeously and tactfully designed and presented by Liberties.
It was those lines intoned by a Shaolin monk over the opening credits of the 70s TV series Kung Fu, starring David Carradine:
‘When you can walk the rice paper … and leave no mark … then … you will have learned.’
Isn’t that about art? Isn’t that about refining one’s imagination, paring it back, so that when one goes on one’s way, the mechanism if you like, the drudgery or the trudgery, is invisible to the naked eye?
The series was full of slightly shabby wisdoms such as that one, a bit mysterious, mimicking I suppose the various Buddhist fads which had a foothold in the west coast, along those old desert regions then and now populated by truly fantastic industry and miracle working – all made, all on screen.
But somehow, somehow, that sliver of wonder inserted deftly even into the most ravenously unscrupulous medium, struck me then and strikes me now as a measure of making in itself.
It’s a version in one tiny, ragged and sorry way, of that genuinely astonishing Yeatsian exhortation in Adam’s Curse:
We sat together at one summer's end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, 'A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.'
. . . . . . . . . And thereupon
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There's many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, 'To be born woman is to know-
Although they do not talk of it at school-
That we must labour to be beautiful.'
All the worrying worried sonnets at work there in that poem as a whole, those broken strange half-rhymes and barely-rhymes, and the rhythm of the couplets, and at the heart of it a choking grief of love lost and the still mortal effort of the creative imagination to shore up the remains.
In these times, as we still acclimatise ourselves to a creative life in literature on this island without the great poet who was among us until so recently, it seems true that the character of poetry is closer to us, perhaps, brought closer to us by death.
We could only be struck by that mortal proximity of the art in Bellaghy and indeed in this 75th anniversary of Yeats’s death, the tussle with age and infirmity and the insistent demands of the artform on the flesh of its practitioners seem more raw, more in the making, more human in a way, less of artifice, less remote and lofty and canonical, and more at risk, more a challenge to the skin and bone we share. I don’t know but I think Yeats’s work also has been opened up by the suction of that recent great imagination from out of our midst.
And every artist, but especially writers and most especially poets, are pulled into that vortex of absence and its strange corollary, persistence.
So, that is the light in which any new collections of poetry appear in this place. It is time to stare these matters full in the face, all the more when, as in Moyra’s case, this is no less than a fifth full collection, and follows on from a startling Selected Poems which she published with Liberties in 2012.
Now, I have known Moyra Donaldson for more than a couple of decades and have been familiar with her poetry in particular both personally and professionally. Her role in the cultural life of the region has been significant, tireless and valuable – such a role is one of the ethical obligations poetry lays down here but which writers are entirely free to exert or abandon. But when it has been exerted with the diligence and exhaustive attention that Moyra Donaldson has exercised over many years it deserves to be recognised in a forum such as this.
And it is important to say this when, though her human life is ringed round by many long and enduring friendships and loyal family ties, I have always been bothered by the true loneliness of the voice and it’s why the volume called Miracle Fruit was such a tour de force in imaginative ally-seeking, forging energetic ententes cordiale with circus performers, giants, freakshow exhibits and all manner of historical anomalies, finding, in short, a way to understand that ‘labour to be beautiful’ in all its ragged-edged truth.
I’d said that her work surprises in its sureness of touch and touchstones and in its denouements, which has that travelling Berber discipline of the old tribe:
I will grow a new tongue,
paint my body with circles
and symbols of strength, mark myself
as one who belongs in the desert.
For a desert-dweller, The Goose Tree is both a departure and a return, like the Magi, by another route. There are themes here familiar from earlier books, as poems talk among themselves often over decades; but there is a new briskness, a new swiftness of attack and an accuracy which is exhilarating:
I knew a woman who used language as a knife
To cut love’s tongue out, to leave love speechless
Except in the bloody bag of its own heart.
In short, a simplicity of expression which is yet charged and electric:
Comb of cockerel,
Oriental poppies, winter
Berries, robin’s breast.
Speck of life in the yolk.
Blood beetle rubies
Crushed for crimson,
Death in it;
Mordant alum fix.
The hand of Ulster,
Hand of history.
Red rag to a bull.
I think that poem ‘Red’ is the character piece of the collection. The courage to say less, the guts to let spare words find their rhythm in association, the accumulation of sensation in language. It’s not my intention here to steal all of Moyra’s best lines before she gets up to read, tempting though that thought is, but it is important to be aware of the virtues of economy won from out the experience of poetry itself.
The context for The Goose Tree is not only within itself, the whispering poems here, or the work of other poets, but the work of this poet herself. We are at that stage where the richest readings of her work today are gained by familiarity with her own heritage now of artistic fidelity which calls for our respect and attention. Respect for a career in midstream.
A writer’s career is a task, a project, a life’s work not accidental or random, a frame of mind, a set of the jaw.
One of the things required to enable such a career in the first instance is an engaged publishing sector prepared to publish work which will make absolutely no profit or anything resembling it.
With Liberties Press, the opportunity of a Selected Poems and its delivery was a refreshment of vision, intent, purpose and context and this new collection is a confirmation of faith in the qualities of this writer. The Arts Council is pleased that it has been able to maintain and grow support for the work of this Press and this poet.
From my perspective, the collective settled determination to write and publish over two decades is a delight, an inspiration and an evidence that our own culture and its small infrastructure, as it were, timely, honourably, generously and reciprocally, can actually sustain imaginative and creative endeavour at altitude.
Of course, apart from the rather doom-laden features which characterise my readings of everything, you will also find a racy energy in Moyra’s poetry, which informs everything she writes, even the most forbidding of themes. Something nerveless also, something candid and comic. Those qualities remain but are joined by a new sense of absurdity, but also by a real sense of coming to terms finally with the past and its long trails.
This is serious work and the care, in the full meaning of the word, given to the making of each poem is palpable, felt, but discreet, in that way urged in Adam’s Curse and implied much less glamorously by the Shaolin monk in Kung Fu: Walk the rice paper and leave no mark.
She’s contented here at last, accepting of the earth
And my father lying beside her, for it’s my story
Now; for a time I am the word and the telling of home.
I will be buried here, in the grave my husband bought.
Belonging sings to me here, and I am singing back.
Ladies and gentlemen, Moyra Donaldson.
Note: This is Damian Smyth's original speech from the launch of The Goose Tree, in No Alibis Bookstore, Belfast, on Thursday 19 June 2014.
The Dublin launch of Moyra Donaldson's The Goose Tree takes place this coming Thursday, June 26 at 6.30pm in Liberties Upstairs, 140 Terenure Road North, Dublin 6W. Gabriel Fitzmaurice, who
has recently published his latest collection The Lonesome Road with Liberties Press will be
launching The Goose Tree. We are delighted that both poets will be
reading their work on the evening. Poetry lovers can look forward to a real
treat with two such perceptive and thoughtful poets.
The Goose Tree is available in all good bookshops and through www.libertiespress.com. Click here to order your copy today!