In the editorial of the 2012 summer edition of the Irish literary magazine The Stinging Fly guest editor Dave Lordan reminds us of writing’s inglorious history – its bureaucratic origins in the formation of empire and the colonisers cold administrative pen used to ink the fate of those whose existence impeded accumulation by dispossession:
“the quill is carved from indigenous bones and dipped in the blood of the annihilated; there’s no getting away from it”.
Writing however, can also be an act of resistance, Lordan argues, if only it chooses to embrace the uselessness of art in Wilde’s maxim to turn against the utilisation of literature for profit which merely renders it aesthetically insignificant. But this formulation reminds me of another literary trope of the dispossessed using what is learned from those who are dispossessing them – that of Caliban in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
“You taught me language; and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.”
Caliban is the colonised, the indigenous who is forced to obey Prospero, the foreign administrator. It’s significant that the figure of Caliban runs like a sensitive nerve through the body of Irish writing.
We can go back to Wilde again, who famously referred to him in the preface to Dorian Gray:
“The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass”.
If intuitively it is known that the mirror is the symbol of art, realism is the attempt within the conceit of art, the artifice of the mirror, to reflect reality. The 19th Century vogue for Romanticism, Wilde is suggesting, is the attempt to avoid the human consequences of very real acts of empire as it successfully manages to ensure capital can overcome what David Harvey, following Marx, describes as the ‘spatial fix’ in order to keep those dark satanic mills turning.
It is not by accident that when this line from Wilde is taken up by James Joyce in the first episode of Ulysses, it changes to “the rage of Caliban at not seeing his face in a mirror”, a reference by Buck Mulligan to the failure of the peering, short-sighted Stephen Daedalus to see his reflection in the stately Mulligan’s broken shaving mirror. The rage in the first instance is not wanting to see yourself as you really are; in the second, however, it is rage at not being able to see yourself. The retort from Daedalus is to declare that the “cracked mirror is the symbol of Irish art”.
How common it is as comment about Irish art in the first decades of the 20th century and the position of the Irish still under occupation I am not sure, but it is stunningly accurate. At this time the Irish are the unseen and unrepresented except through the cartoons of Punch magazine and who are involved in a bitter fight to assert an Irish identity, with the complications of rekindled nationalism and the faux Celtic Dawn that Joyce himself was so ambigious about. At the end of Portrait Daedalus declares his intention to ‘forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race’ – to provide the reflection of reality that was missing. But the cracked mirror of Irish art means that Joyce could not resort to realism on its own, although the stories in Dubliners are a perfect accomplishment of that. Rather he chooses to use the fractured nature of Ulysses, with its variety of genres, literary and popular writing styles, gossip, internal monologues, and ancient language fossilized in hand-me-down tales, satire and myth to reveal the reality of Irish people’s lives. The success of this is with us still, as every June 16th Dubliners and visitors to the city celebrate the life of a fictional character and seek out the authenticity of the story that Joyce tried to tell.
One could ask what has happened since Joyce. It appeared that once Ireland gained political independence such ambition and determination to illuminate the reality of Irish people’s lives through art abruptly ended. To use the title of the memoir written by Charlie Haughey’s speechwriter, significant Irish literature since Joyce appears to be dead as a doornail.
But of course its not, even though there are those who seem determined to subdue it with chloroform. The summer edition of The Stinging Fly is proof that there is plenty of life there, and we can be grateful that Dave Lordan also seems to consider that Irish art is a cracked mirror which requires a fractured approach when reflecting it.
In this volume there is great variety of all sorts of different voices and writing illustrating a healthy diversity of imagination, talent and lived experience. Among the many new and recently to emerge is the well establish voice of Desmond Hogan who’s charged prose once again breathes gritty and visceral life into working class characters like Horsey ‘who has a horse and saddle ring given to him by Joker Jewin’. The story reminded me that in secondary school everyone in our class had a nickname, and each name was given for a reason.
While the majority of the contributions are poems, with a smaller number of prose pieces, there is plenty of experiment in terms of style and structure to stimulate the interest of any hungry modernist, although I found that I warmed to some more than others. For example, I have to mention William M. Ramsell’s poem, which would be very familiar to anyone who sat a Leaving Cert English exam paper.
Section 3: The Unseen Poem (100 Marks)
St. Petersburg’s Terrible Plumbing
And without wishing to spoil its wonders I can tell you that it looks more like the unseen prose question than a poem. True to the form of the Leaving cert question, after the section titled St. Petersburg’s Terrible Plumbing come the query:
Do you think it’s reasonable to describe this text as a poem? Give reasons for your answer (20 marks)
But there is also a lyric from the songwriter Jinx Lennon that had me pinned with Owl Man In Bad Form, and Finglas rapper Temper-Mental MissElayneous who we see in a great colour photo on the inside back sleeve astride her horse and below it the lines of Trotting Talisman:
“Feeling, thinking, dreaming stallion
you slip on dew-graced tarmacadam”
There is also the giving voice to the voiceless in Karl Parkinson’s chilling, but wonderful poem She was found, which uses successively indented enjambment on the line ‘Slowly dribbling down’, to cut the words up into descending steps to emphasis the slow careless draining out of life of a 36 year old woman.
One of the deadening things about mainstream Irish literature is its drive to de-politicise writing to ensure its availability for invitations to press-clogged London galas. This is aided and abetted by a patronage system, a crude technocratic polity and is monitored by a conservative press. But this edition has at its heart the determination to show our reality as it is now and although not directly political, it’s all about giving voice to our obvious difference in terms of class, gender or experience and not being shy about the consequences. Lordan flags this pushing back against the normative in the editorial with his reference to lobbing back tear gas canisters and seeing our apparent Endtime as a moment of Carnival with its Bakhtinian potential to invert power. Kit Fryatt’s poem Sirventes, after Peire Lunel (1326- 1384) is the only one I noticed which directly addresses the current economic and social crisis:
Jesus, what did we do ever
to deserve crucifixion?
Was it just to make the picture
when traders on the floors
One anxiety I had about reviewing The Stinging Fly is my guilty lack of critical engagement with new writing. Sitting down to write a review made me like feel one of those ‘holders of the critic’s one-day travel pass’ that Don Paterson shouts out to in his poem The Talking Book. However, there are three review essays at the end that provide a fascinating guide to recent Irish poetic writing, and which reassure us that there is plenty of fresh new blood pumping through the veins of Irish literary culture. Perhaps the one to shine the greatest light for those who normally wing it, ‘mapless and alone’ is Kit Fryatt’s initial survey of Irish poetic activity as a prelude to her review of the recent work of James Cummins, Anamaria Crowe Serrano, (who has a poem Clay in this edition with the great line: “what the American woman/called shit with such disgust/her face imploded to half its size”) and David Toms.
An early citing of Beckett’s review of Irish poetry in 1934, in which he was “confronted with a space so bleakly, hilariously empy you could set Endgame in it”, made me laugh, but it is followed by mention of the various groups and individuals who have tried to keep Irish writing experimental and challenging along the way. Indeed it’s a small miracle given the lack of support that events such as Soundeye get that they continue to exist. “Irish poetry’s left field is, or should be, its middle ground” she suggests. It would be in other countries.
The guidance continues in Philip Coleman’s characteristically superb review of Leland Bardwell’s Different Kinds of Love and Kevin Higgin’s recently published collection of prose pieces Mentioning the War. While familiar with Higgin’s work (he’s a frequent contributor to ILR after all) I was unaware of Bardwell. But reading Coleman’s review I seem to be missing something essential:
“Throughout Different Kinds of Love Bardwell does as much if not more to expose the different kinds of moral violence and corruption that have bedevilled the Irish state since it foundation than thousands of pages printed in recent years by the Moriarty and Mahon Tribunals.”
He also sees a continuity in Bardwell as part of the 60’s Irish beat literary renaissance with poets such as Pearse Hutchinson and Patrick Galvin, Macdara Woods, Michael Hartnett, James Liddy and Paul Durcan whose “attention to the experience of marginal identities and various forms of political oppression” links up with more recent poets such as Lordan, Elaine Feeney, Kevin Higgins and Sarah Clancy.
These latter poets, Coleman argues “are inheritors of this extremely diverse and largely non-academic Southern Irish poetic culture that has developed over the last few years”.
In her essay Kit Fryatt make the point:
“If all poetry is conservative, there’s still no denying that some poems and poets are more conservative than others, and Irish poetic culture more conservative than most”.
However, as this edition of The Stinging Fly indicates, that does not always have to be the case. That is, once there are those willing to trick the gatekeepers so as to reach an audience who need their confidence now more than ever, to teach them how to lob back the tear gas canisters and curse at power.
For more on Accumulation by Dispossession See David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford University Press 2003) and Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing (Verso 2009).