Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Brink Of The Evening Light - Exploring the Poetry of Nuala Fagan

It was a privilege to host Nuala Fagan and her wonderful poetry at the debut evening of Poetry At The Blue Teapot, the events I am co-ordinating at Mytholmroyd's Blue Teapot vegetarian cafe as part of my Poet Residency there.

Nuala read from her two collections - Not All Birdsong, which I published last year, and also Cimmerian Garden (Wellhouse Publications 2010), her debut book and one I have been getting to know in more depth since we decided to feature it at the event.  Indeed, I introduced the evening with a poem from the collection called All Souls Night, which begins bewitchingly:

You will be ready
like Eurydice
to walk the wordly night
you will collect 
the ions you need
from your Cimmerian garden
solicit the special amino acids
you will need for your trip
will gather
strings of sugar for your heart

I love the way the reader's comprehension of the narrative hinges on line-endings which could go either way, the isolation of secretly, lending its application to both the line preceding and following, and the visual quality depicted by these deceptively straightforward lines.   Anyone familiar with Nuala and her work can see how these fabulously expectant words distill virtually the whole thematic span of her poetry, with their emphasis on the interweaving corporeal and incorporeal, the idea of seeking out new paths, escapes, or promises, and the irresistible strings of sugar with which the Eurydician protagonist completes their inventory.  Indeed, the list of ingredients might almost be said to comprise a roll-call of the quintessential elements nestling within Nuala's books, waiting to be collected by the reader.  Wordly, yet other-wordly, charged with pivotal moments which impel the imagination like ions, a trip through secrets and histories, sometimes spiked with the acids of pain and loss, but ultimately a glimmering garden of special truths and meanings, infused with a sweetness which will illuminate the heart.

 Nuala was born in Dublin in 1929, and grew up in Donegal, where as part of her education she learned many of Shakespeare's sonnets by heart.  The other predominant poetic influences of her early life were the national Irish poets, and the works of WB Yeats, and though she also discovered a love for the poetry of the English Romantics.  Though Nuala did not begin writing and publishing poetry until 2003, these influences undoubtedly laid the foundations of what was to come. With a degree in Pyschology, her writing delves deep into the human psyche, while, as we shall see, the time that she has lived in the North of England - Nuala moved to Halifax in 1961 - is strongly reflected in her writing. Nuala's poetry inhabits a sphere of thought and emotion in which the everyday realities of life are played out in slow motion, in which painful events and memories are recalled in sharp focus fragments, yet in which an undercurrent of history is also ever present.  Both Cimmerian Garden and Not All Birdsong share these concepts, and are similar books in many ways.  Yet they are also very different animals, each embodying a variety of themes and presences.

Cimmerian Garden begins with broken bits of memories, faded photographs and the corroded cogs of good intentions / scattered on the tarmac, exposing from the very off this powerful sense of melancholic retrospection, of taking leave and considering what might have been, or of moving stoically onwards and refusing to be cowed.  Turn away, the poet tells, us, for this is a wasteland / and you will find no buried treasure here.  In All Souls Night, Nuala expresses the intention to search the edge of the Stygian night, and from there the collection broods through galleries of sad images, of subterranean demons and hostile harpies, birds dead in dustbins, and cans stored for a holocaust. The death of scientist Dr David Kelly is examined in David and Goliath, while in Time Gapes we see how:

Time is a snake
that gobbles events

as we enter the territory of poems like Midwinter it does indeed feel like a step beyond the precipice, into a dark side tinged with irony:

Our speech is laced with mildew
damped with mould
and cold has rooted in our eyes
until the festive season bursts 
like a premature demanding birth
saying celebrate 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "Cimmerian" as  Noun: 1. a member of a nomadic people who overran Asia Minor in the 7th Century bc ; 2. a member of a mythical people living in perpetual mist and darkness near the land of the dead.

Living "near" the land of the dead.  This is highly significant, for though the Cimmerian tribe has no contemporary presence in the world,  this definition situates the Cimmerians as both close to, yet distinct from, the dead - and emphasizes their "living" status.  In his poem L'Allegro, published in 1645, Milton introduces the Cimmerian element early in the text, to differentiate its nature from that of the poem's theme of jollity and joy:

HENCE loathed Melancholy
    Of Cerberus and blackest midnight born,
In Stygian Cave forlorn
    'Mongst horrid shapes, and shreiks, and sights unholy.
Find out som uncouth cell,
    Where brooding darknes spreads his jealous wings,
And the night-Raven sings;
    There, under Ebon shades, and low-brow'd Rocks,
As ragged as thy Locks,
    In dark Cimmerian desert ever dwell.

The "Stygian" tone ends at this point, exchanged for the jocund imagery of Venus, Bacchus, nibbling flocks and country dances.   It is the only mention of the word "Cimmerian" in all of Milton's poetry, and indeed of any poetry I have found with the exception of that of Nuala Fagan, though the name has been appropriated in various forms by poets and writers of fantasy and science fiction, such as Robert E Howard, whose poem Cimmeria, a doomy depiction of Fredericksburg, USA, in midwinter rain, imagines the Cimmerian land as a land of Darkness and deep Night, a gloomy place with dark woods, dusky silent streams and a leaden cloudy sky. 

And yet for Nuala Fagan, this dark territory has yielded not a night of gloom, but a garden of poetry.  How was this so?  It is worth turning to the words of the poet herself, who explains her interest in the term:

Milton used Cimmerian as an adjective.  The Cimmerians were thought of by historians as an obscure race who were found in historical records only briefly.  Nobody knew where they came from or where they went.  So knowledge of them was obscure.  

Indeed, she is keen to point out:

They were not Summerians.  So the pronunciation is different.  The accent is on the last i .       

As for the title of her book -

 I called it Cimmerian Garden because I do not know sometimes where my poems come from.  Like most poems they come from an obscure place  in the mind. 

This misty obscurity, this embrace of the mysterious and unexpected, is equally evident in Nuala's second collection, Not All Birdsong, which I published in November 2015, and which again finds its author searching and attempting to assess the transient pleasures and long-standing pains of both the historical and personal, but in this book her gaze is turned not so much on the mythical or spiritual, but more on the temporal and everyday.  Where Cimmerian Garden tracks Ancient woods of primitive gods, its successor volume focuses on the grittier images of  derelict mills, dishcloths, Blackpool carved on a rock and the sound of Yorkshire goodbyes.  And yet, there is the same reverberating undertone of history, as in Living in the Song:

When the song calls me
I am in the song,
I am come back to Erin
and I am called Mo Chusla.
I am called Mavournin,
I am handsome, I am pretty,
I'm the girl from the golden city.

The above poem clearly takes inspiration from the traditions of Irish folk with which Nuala, growing up in the Irish Republic, could not but have been familiar, and although the treatment is almost diametrically different, the two books also share this aspect of Irish history as an undercurrent.  I am interested in the Anglo-Irish dynamics at work in Nuala's poems, especially in the context of Irish poems published by an English press, and also from my own perspective of being English but with Irish relatives: the cultural interplay between the two countries is of lifelong interest to me, and I am greatly moved by the stark elucidation that this history receives in a poem like St George's Day where

As April blows the snows away
the sun is pearl in the grey midday 
the flickering flags glow red on white
on rain-washed spires and speeding cars
and I think of St George and chivalry

These lines from Cimmerian Garden have a Shakespearean quality - but the imagery of blood and violence is then exacted to the full when, having observed the modern anarchy of populous bars, Nuala then describes how

...the petrol rainbow stain
becomes a dragon once again
conjuring allies out of the rain
Nemain, Morrighu and Badb.

The theme is revisited in  Not All Birdsong, yet for once it is the second collection wherein the writing becomes more multi-faceted and less direct - the Irish Potato Famine is recalled by the spectre of the old woman in her Galway shawl / whose bony hand holds a black potato, and are the scars of war, such as in the poem History House, where a bruised sketch of Irish history is transposed into the form of the house, opened at last, the contrasting opulence of The October orchard ... with its rowan reds, / yellow pearls and

...the freezer. 
Slices of green?
The jacket.
Mixes of red and white?
A swathe of red silk?
Spread on the road.

Cimmerian Garden is also echoed by its predecessor when it comes to observing the psychological.  In the former, depression is outlined by jagged trees, black horizons and a drowning sun, while the poems Dining with a Psychiatrist and Freud with Mushrooms both transpose their characters into surreal environments - a hungry shrink rejecting the skeletons, moths, silver foil, corks and skewers he is offered, and a nocturnal feast with the in/famous psychoanalyst, at which the idea of Civilisation proffers only discontentment. In the latter book, the poet again places her assessment of psychiatry or its offshoots within a culinary frame - in Secret describing the poem's central character as a can of fruit cocktail being devoured by a counselor or doctor hungry for tittle-tattle.

Despite its more realist settings, the deep-seated themes of Not All Birdsong do seem like that of Cimmerian Garden to locate themselves within the abstract, shunning linear timescales, as in Keening:

a high thin note which reaches far back 
to your ancestors 
to your very roots,
and every bad thing that ever happened.  

Or in poems like Finding Him, where:

She found he was a house
made of bricks and iron shutters

If only he was a house made of glass
she would pull apart the shutters
and plead with her open palm.

The uncertainty at the heart of much of the collection is perhaps best executed in Dementia:

Time you are a wrecker.
She was beautiful as a church.
You made her an avalanche of distorted parts 
like broken pews 
like splintered views

But Not All Birdsong, in which the poet is found looking at the moon / and remembering the sun, it is sometimes the joys, rather than the regrets, of memories which shine back at us:

He made me feel like Beethoven's piano
gently exploring my finer notes.
But oh those chords, evoked without notice,
making his thoughts my doing, my undoing,
making me a stormy night, a rough sea,
a patriot's passionate shout.
He made me stop like a thudding hoof.
He made me moonlight.


Not All Birdsong starts and ends on a note of leaving, of turning away from the debris and seeking out a kinder destiny.  All Souls Night begins with an entreaty to explore, to take a trip and go forth into a new world, equipped with an armory collected from a mysterious, dark, but sweet and secret garden, but goes on to unveil the promises of what might be found:

you will bind yourself
with chains of protein
to hold you
and you will approach 
the brink of the evening light 

Nuala Fagan's is a poetry of pain, addressing time's bitter twists and turns, the injuries of history and the losses of the heart, but also the longer perspectives afforded us by the passages of time, the unexpected joys and happiness that can be grasped even upon the wastelands of the night, and the inner strengths which might propel us to the discovery of beauty amid darkness, provided we are willing to undertake the journey.   


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