Review by Isaac Dwyer
IRISH MONASTIC POEMS
Tr. by Richard O’Connell
1984, 40 pp., Out of Print
Unassuming, quiet, silken to the touch, empowered, deeper than the rocks beneath your feet, sarcasm so sharp it cuts the air, buzzing in your ears, calling back the memories of the times you never new, crisp with the breeze: these are my words for Richard O’Connell’s translations of Irish monastic poetry.
In reviewing this collection, I find myself performing both a necessary duty—to draw more eyes to its plain, manila cover—but also, unfortunately, de-valuing it by adding more words. Despite only being forty pages, I delved into this collection only a verse at a time, in no particular order, over the span of two weeks. Every time I closed the pages, I was left with the sounds buzzing in the crevasses of my face. It was similar to the feeling I got after setting foot into the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris for the first time, closing my eyes—the space is sacred, the silence to be treasured, the sound empowering. It is with that delicacy of power that I approach discussing this text.
The poems within the collection range between those composed at the turn of the 8th century to those scribed in the 18th, and for the most part, the authors are anonymous. Over a thousand years of a people’s literary history contained within a slim chapbook—but still time passes fluidly. I never once felt disoriented parsing through the pages. In fact, the range of centuries further colors the representation of Ireland and its people being a solid and pervasive force. We begin with the Vikings assaulting the isle:
Night Off From the Viking Fear
Wind black and blowing fierce,
It shakes the sea’s white hair;
No fear tonight of the dragon ships
Burning my bones here.
—Anonymous, 7th or 8th century
The “7th or 8th century”—the time when things rang deeper; the time of the myth, the epic. In my mind, this was the epoch when odysseys were the lifeblood of the people; spoken word catalyzing the mystery, commonplace. I revisited this quatrain over and over, the sounds of the syllables enchanting upon the tongue. Moving through the centuries, foreign dominion and attack upon the island continues, ending with the English:
The world levels all, the wind blows away
The dust of its Caesars and kings;
Tall Troy is no more and Tara is grass
And the English—they too shall pass.
—Anonymous, 17th or 18th century
The presence of attackers is a common thread throughout the collection, and because of their rhythmic reappearance, the poetical observations of them become more of an observation of nature: foreign fingers outstretching themselves to the shores are viewed the same as crashing of the waves, far in the distance. The more I read of them, the less I worried for the poets.
But, of course, the Irish monks and scholars, being of a people who name whiskey among their greatest accomplishments (whiskey is an Anglicization of the Irish “uisce beatha,” which literally translates to “water of life”—leave it to a land of poets to name its creations so perfectly), the monks’ verses in O’Connell’s collections oftentimes carry notably bawdy affectations. Take this quatrain:
A strapping girl—
No gossamer thing.
She lets fly farts
Like stones from a sling.
—Anonymous, date uncertain
Naughty, indeed. Charming and en-pointe. I chortled cacophonously. I believe its efficacy lies in its length. The wit continues:
The Goldsmith’s Wife
Wife of the goldsmith
But blacksmith bred.
No wonder her face
Puffed white and red!
—Anonymous, 9th century
I must confess that my knowledge of the Irish language and history is a limited one, as are my abilities to compare the manuscript writings in the original language to O’Connell’s translations. However, I can state confidently that every page, every poem, every line of this chapbook is endearing, and most importantly, honest. It is a treasure-trove of delicate delights that bring the reader to appreciate the smallest details in grand ways. This is achieved through naming of the ethereal powers that be (the wind, the sea, the shore, darkness, birds, beasts, and enemies), through humor, and through careful observation.
There is one couplet in particular that I believe embodies the greater spirit of the collection:
Pleasant the sun’s glittering
as it flickers on this page.
—Anonymous, 9th century
As I sit in my study, treasuring the daylight receding fast beyond my windowsill, the sun’s disappearance gives the couplet resonance, deep inside my bones. That is the spirit of this collection—if you are looking for an unassuming treasure, one can be found amongst these pages.
Isaac Dwyer enjoys existing perhaps far too much. He attends an institute of higher learning in Bennington, Vermont, where he stuffs his brain full of things that he’ll probably never need to know, but he hopes he will. His favorite things include intercepted love letters, sending packages of peculiar items to unknown addresses, and unprecedented baked goods (the more chocolate the better). He is more than happy to read all the poetry you are embarrassed about, as it will most likely bring him immense joy, and if not, at least a few chortles. Oh yes. He also writes things.