For a long time it seemed that Irish poetry could be about anything from pisspots to pig-slaughtering but it could not be about politics. There were notable exceptions of course – John Montague’s magnificent Rough Field, for example, and Thomas Kinsella’s savage Butcher’s Dozen both grew out of an entirely anti-eirenic response to the developing troubles in Northern Ireland, Kinsella’s, in particular, to the shooting dead of thirteen unarmed civil right’s marchers in Derry. There were others before them, of course, Padraig Fiacc ploughed a lonely furrow, for example, and further back in time political activism was commonplace among Irish writers. But the lark-rise of Seamus Heaney began the reign of polite irony. The result was a kind of middle-class poetry that your granny could like if she read poetry, beautifully expressed and about things like potatoes and priests and spades and high-crosses and things we don’t have anymore.
Then the spoken word scene came along. Poetry readings took place in pubs and festival tents where before they happened in libraries and lecture halls. And with this came a directness and flexibility that my generation had failed to appropriate, though it was available to us in the model of the Beats. Poets of my generation, including myself, are all fatally marked by the polite irony brand. But politeness is not called for at a time of political and economic crisis when whole nations are impoverished by the ‘reaction of the markets‘. The times, as I have remarked before, are not tidy.
The first such writer I became aware of was fellow-Corkman Dave Lordan. His Boy In The Ring was explosive, angry, directed by an acute political consciousness, and, not by coincidence, brilliant poetry. He followed this with Invitation To A Sacrifice and is a force to be reckoned with on the spoken word circuit as well as on the printed page. Sarah Clancy too began in that proving-ground.
So let me begin by dispensing with the false objectivity cultivated by reviewers. Sarah Clancy is a friend. We became friends through poetry, through a mutual liking for each other’s work. I am an admirer of both her work and her politics and this article is, unapologetically, more of an appreciation than a review of her first book Thanks For Nothing, Hippies.
She has been a political activist for many years and much of her writing springs from personal experience in places as diverse as Mexico and Galway. Of course, politics is not her only subject: I once described her as ‘our poet of love’ because of the beautiful, tender, ironic love poems she writes, and she replied that she would prefer to be the ‘poet of the revolution’. Alas, love only needs a person and poems can make love, but a revolution requires a people, and poems do not make a people, though they may help in its formation.
She comes ‘from a long line of robber barons’, she says, threatening to lay waste to both a real and an emotional landscape in which the robber barons are a kind of resistance, a force of nature that is both exhilirating and destructive. This poem serves as a kind of epigraph for the book as a whole. The poems that follow take no prisoners except hearts. It is not without significance that the next is a love-poem in which she deftly blends the drug-mule and the lover swallowing ‘condoms full of this starry sky’ to smuggle home to the beloved. The shadowy presence of this or other lovers is everywhere in the book, met when ‘I was bored’, someone who needs to be shaken off, someone remember for ‘kisses fit for a sailor’, loved and slept with in Mexico, in Spain, in Rome:
deep in the hold of Friday’s
mid-afternoon where nothing has gravity
we floated, confessed nothing to no one
and look where it got us.
Love-poems or loss-poems they may be, but they take place within a context. At the back of each is the presence of the dead, the lost, the forgotten, the disappeared and the ‘lines of union workers singing The Internationale in the dead heat of a random Sunday in two thousand and eleven?’ There are many kinds of love, the poems sing, and solidarity is one of them.
Disappearances can be Deceptive
In memory of Mariano Abarca, RIP 2009, Chiapas, Mexico
At ten past six here
you’ll be able to mourn
the disappearance of the tropical sun that baked your hairline
at ten to,
two hundred whole languages
and the people who objected are invisible
at city junctions.
The virgin of Guadalupe though appeared
as if from nowhere in 1531
and 1910 had every appearance of a revolution
but Blackfire Exploration can show up from Canada
to atomise a mountain and its villages in six months and though
there is no apparent
department for state disappearances Mariano Abarca
no one saw anything
and the raped virgin soil said: nothing.
‘Truth is finished in the spectacle’ she says, at one point, while simultaneously declaring that ‘every single thing is true’. Sarah is widely read in political philosophy, so we can be sure that ‘spectacle’ here has its provenance in Situationism with it’s insistence that we live within a ‘spectacle’ without authenticity and that all we can see and feel is the products of that spectacle. But, her work is a declaration against that very spectacle, a resistance to the simpifications of the cultural propaganda of the marketplace. One of the things that is truest about Sarah Clancy’s poems is her committment to the dignity and complexity of people:
fishermen with thick hair full of salt
dealing men,‘living on their wits
and getting pretty thin,’ men
with codes no bank has ever
heard of for behaviour
and weird ethics no judge
could hope to understand.
So love takes place in a political space and vice-versa, people inhabit both a nostalgic authentic past and a place where they ‘ripped one another to shreds in a conflict as reason-less… as any’. The continuance of daily life despite all the atrocity of economics and revolution is rendered with beauty, irony and, dare I introduce the word in a different sense, economy:
but all I’ll say is that day, in hot sunshine
an old man, skin brown from exposure,
swam by a bridge, in a fast flowing river,
and you can decide if it was
or Afghanistan, no matter,
all I’m saying is:
Resistance is important to Sarah Clancy. Many of the poems speak directly or obliquely of it – the dead of Mexico who died for resisting the ‘mass-graves/and countless faceless rapes’; the debts ‘paid in spades’; the trivialising of the ‘lonely-planets’ in ‘the most bombed place on earth’; Ireland’s cultural industry (‘this is Ireland, welcome/and have you met our children?’). As she says in a beautiful and philosophically powerful analysis of the purpose of protest:
for Tadhg McGrath
When the dust has settled
I’ll be put to death with the well fed
that’s the way it is and I’m not sorry.
At the barricade brute truth is in the bullets, not the Molotovs.
At the ballot the answers are in the batons sheathed, not the boxes.
the marches the purpose is the provocateurs not the speeches.
The point is not causing conflict or trouble-making
it’s about forcing the gate keepers to expose the real rules
of this game we’re entrapped in.
It’s about displaying who calls the shots, who fires them
and who feels them.
Here, at this point of inflexion in the history of capitalism, when we see like never since the nineteenth century the real purposes of the police, the politicians, the media, the banks, the advertising agencies, the so-called ‘markets’, and the so-called ‘international community’ all of which are dedicated not to some nebulous democracy or the ‘greater good’ but to the preservation of the power of an elite, such poetry is both beautiful and necessary, or perhaps even beautiful because it is necessary. If there ever is anything approaching a revolution, and day-by-day it seems more and more likely, if not here in Ireland, then elsewhere in Europe, Sarah Clancy will be one of its poets – I say ‘one’ because of all things she would not want to alone in the reading-room on that fateful day.
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