Following my exchange visit to Rome last September 2018, I have written a number of poems inspired by the experience. FUIS (Federazione Unitaria Italiana Scrittori), the Italian Federation of Writers, has kindly published some of this work on its website http://www.Fuis.it/residenza-letteraria-penne-in-irlanda/articoli4561 You may view these poems and their translations below.
More poems are forthcoming. My thanks FUIS and the Irish Writers’ Union in Dublin for enabling this exchange to take place and to Sig. Simone di Conza for his work as facilitator.
The first poem here published concerns a visit to the Church of San Stefano Rotondo, where its ‘martyr murals’ had much the same effect on me as they had on Charles Dickens when he saw them and wrote about them in his travel essays in ‘Pictures from Italy’ in 1846. I have allowed the torturers to speak for themselves.
The second poem was inspired by a visit to the famous ‘English Cemetery’ on the outskirts of Rome, properly known as the ‘Non-Catholic Cemetery’, which is the charming final destination of many a famous literary name who happened to be not of the Roman Catholic persuasion. The voice in the poem is that of one of the foremost English ‘Romantic’ poets.
This series of poems will be titled ‘Voices from Rome’ (‘Voci da Roma’) and, with the help of my exchange colleague Anna Maria Robustelli, I provide Italian translations.
The murals in the Church of Saint Stefano Rotondo, Rome
This poor wretch we break with stones,
this woman we dismember live,
this one we stretch until his bones
crack open. Crowds have gathered, gape
at trees we’ve hung with chopped-up torsos,
lopped-off limbs. No pleas, no groans
deter us, no imploring cries –
we’re limited as to instruments,
employ the means we have, devise
whatever tools we can. We’re skilled
in fire and water but the future
lies in methods more refined.
Despite our arrows, here’s a one
still prays and gazes skyward. But
it’s Jupiter and only Him
we’re told to worship now. For now.
We have our orders: ours a trade
must heed today’s doctrinal whim,
but future days may dawn the hour
these followers of the holy fish
are fated to come into power.
It’s then the rack will creak afresh
and bodies bleed. It’s then the cries
that rise to heaven will be ours.
I dipinti murali nella Chiesa
di Santo Stefano Rotondo, a Roma
Questo poveretto lo frantumiamo
con le pietre, questa donna la smembriamo
viva, questo lo allunghiamo
finché le ossa non si spezzano.
Folle con occhi spalancati guardono
i torsi e gli arti appesi agli alberi.
Nessun grido o lamento ci scoraggia –
i nostri strumenti sono limitati,
usiamo tutto ciò che abbiamo,
proviamo a concepire nuovi mezzi.
Siamo abili con il fuoco e con l’acqua –
più raffinati i metodi del futuro.
Nonostante le nostre frecce, ecco
uno che prega ancora e guarda al cielo.
Ma è Giove, solo Lui, si adora –
per ora. Abbiamo i nostri ordini:
il nostro mestiere si deve prestare
al capriccio dottrinale del momento,
ma un giorno nel futuro potrebbe vedere
i seguaci del pesce santo destinati
a venire al potere. È allora che
scricchiolerà di nuovo il cavalletto
e i corpi sanguineranno. È allora che
le grida verso il cielo saranno nostre.
Tradotto dell’autore con l’assistito dalla dott.ssa Anna Maria Robustelli
In the Company of Poets at the Non-Catholic Cemetery,
On a beach near Viareggio,
wife and friends surround the pyre,
my boyish face defies the flames –
so tells the legend. Not my body
sea-wracked, friends departed long
before I crackled into ash.
This grave a narrow place, the spirits
spurred me into verse dispersed.
A plaque nearby commemorates
the cinders of a New World scribe,
and everywhere eroded stones
show broken lyres. Stone angels weep.
No angel weeps for me, no urns
stand draped in funeréal folds,
no elegant encomium
ignores my faults. Along the path
that skirts these vaults and monuments –
my modest tablet. Unadorned.
Beyond our strict confinements rears
a giant pyramid born of pride –
but turn, remark the simple headstone
of the one – our frail colossus –
who demanded it be chiselled
that his name was writ in water.
Water ferried me ashore,
and fire reduced my frame to dust.
I share this crowded charnel yard
with jugglers of words, with those
who found their poetry in music,
those discovered it in prose.
So far from all the hurried clamour
of our lives, this field affords
a brooding quietude is bred
of whispering trees and falling leaves.
And silence – like the silence follows
when a final line is read.
Nella compagnia dei poeti
nel cimitero acattolico di Roma
Su una spiaggia vicina a Viareggio,
moglie e amici circondano la pira,
la mia faccia da ragazzo sfida le fiamme –
ecco la leggenda. Non il corpo
sconvolto dal mare, gli amici andati via
prima che diventassi cenere.
Questa tomba è un posto stretto,
gli spiriti che mi hanno spronato a scrivere
dispersi. Una lapide vicina commemora
un poeta del Nuovo Mondo, e ovunque
steli mostrano le lire rotte.
Gli angeli di pietra piangono.
Nessun angelo piange per me
non ci sono urne in pieghe funeree,
nessun encomio elegante
ignora i miei difetti. Lungo il sentiero
che corre accanto a questi monumenti—
la mia modesta targa. Disadorna.
Oltre i nostri confini rigorosi
una piramide nata dall’orgoglio –
voltati e osserva la lapide modesta
dell’uno – il nostro fragile colosso –
che voleva fosse inciso nella pietra
ch’l suo nome era scritto nell’acqua.
L’acqua mi ha traghettato qui,
il fuoco ha ridotto il mio corpo
in polvere. Condivido quest’ossario
con giocolieri di parole, e altri
che hanno trovato la loro poesia
nella musica, o in prosa.
Lontano dal clamore frettoloso
delle nostre vite, troviamo qui
una calma pensierosa, nutrita
di alberi sussurranti e foglie cadenti.
E un silenzio – il silenzio che segue
la lettura di un verso finale
Tradotto dell’autore, assistito dalla dott.ssa Anna Maria Robustelli
My friends at the Lucan book club make the last Wednesday of the month a pleasant experience. It’s always good to talk to people who like reading. ‘A Keeper’ (by Graham Norton) turned out to be rather a flat read. Most people thought it a competent work, which engaged the reader’s curiosity to the end, but did not consider it a very good book. For my part, I found the plot improbable and the characters poorly drawn. The book’s chapters alternate between ‘Now’ and ‘Then’ and so one has two stories popping up and down as one goes along. I find this construction confusing, since I prefer a story told straightforwardly without this kind of to-ing and fro-ing. All in all, I would give it 4/10 and would recommend it to anyone only if they had absolutely nothing else to read. To be fair, it would pass the time. Lukewarmly recommended.
When one reads Christine Mangan’s ‘Tangerine’ , one’s immediate thought is: come back Graham Norton, all is forgiven. This is a hopelessly tangled story that goes nowhere, with two main characters that are almost indistinguishable: ‘Alice’ and ‘Lucy’. Separate alternate chapters are given to each. and again this kind of structure does not appeal to me. Maybe it would work if the two women were drawn in a way that they appeared different as people. The only difference I could see is that one is silly and the other sillier. A silly book too, and most other people at the Book Club thought so, though a few were inclined to be less harsh than I. I give it 2/10, 1 because it’s always a success to have a book published and. 2, because I do not doubt that a lot of work went into it. There a ‘puff’ on the cover from Joyce Carol Oates extolling the book’s virtues. Oates is such a great writer herself that I will find it hard to forgive her. Not recommended.
Eva Dolan’s ‘This Is How It Ends’ is streets ahead of the above two. Again, there’s a lot of jumping around with chapters dated before and after and before again, which I found confusing. Fortunately, being confused as to when things were happening in relation to other things didn’t impair my reading too much because there is a definite plot-line and very good characterisation of the book’s people. There’s a very good description of a woman who has spent a lot of her life ‘protesting’ (on the Greenham Common demonstrations, for instance) and now finds herself aged and alone. And the other characters are also very well drawn. I thought it a good read and would give it 7/10. I took off 3 for it being a bit long-drawn out towards the end. 3? Oh hell, I’ll give it 8/10 and recommend it.
The Lucan Book Club meets in Lucan Library every last Wednesday of the month. Free admission
Richard W Halperin is an Irish-American living in Paris and has four Salmon collections to his name, his latest being Catch Me While You Have the Light; and also, eight chapbooks with Lapwing, the most recent, Tea in Tbilisi, both 2018. His works are included in the UCD Irish Poetry Reading Collection Archive. He is currently working on a new collection called Luna Moth.
A review by David Butler of Eamonn Lynskey’s third poetry collection ‘It’s Time (Salmon Poetry, 2017)
In an epigraph to his 1914 collection Responsibilities, Yeats famously asserted ‘In dreams begins responsibility’. To modify the phrase, for Eamonn Lynskey, in poetry begins responsibility. A retired teacher, his third collection addresses a number of issues that should be of concern to all of us, but with a sense of doubt as to the efficacy, and even the ethics, of assuming a poetic stance. ‘This poet never had a lump of shrapnel / wedged inside his head’ begins All Those Thousand Souls, a poem empathetic to the airstrike victims euphemistically referred to by the military as collateral damage. If the poem’s grief were to explode, he continues, it might leave ’empty slogans / twitching in their helplessness’. The poem concludes: ‘He vows to do everything he can / check High Street labels carefully, choose Fairtrade products, compose angry poems.’ It is a refreshingly honest position, akin to Auden’s assertion, in an elegy composed on the occasion of Yeats’ death, that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’.
Angry poems (and there are more than a few in the collection which excoriate mankind’s various depredations) are not necessarily the most effective. Perhaps the only responsibility of art is to permit us to look again and, looking, reconsider. In Metsu’s Women, Lynskey surveys the series of female subjects engaged in mundane tasks presented by the seventeenth century Dutch Master, the poem culminating in a delicate portrait of lonely old age:
The hearth is swept now, pots hang on
the chimneybreast. She eats alone.
As is the way, her man is gone
this several years before her. Shadows
touch her dress and nestle in its folds.
An equally delicate meditation on the absence occasioned by the untimely death of a young student, ‘Rachael’, drawn one assumes from Lynskey’s years as a teacher, acts as a fine counterpoint.
The title poem, a catalogue of spring’s foison which opens the collection, is an invocation to the poet (from garden shears and spade!) to ‘come, the world must be newmade. It’s time’, while the collection’s last poem, ‘Final Notice’ closes the cycle with an image of a return to ‘weeds everywhere, / the hedge grown wild, / the lawn luxuriantly / overgrown.’ In the body of the collection, there is a strong sense of revisiting images and objects from the past to renew or reconsider them. Several for instance deal with the spectral art of photography Civilian Executions, Minsk 1941, Arthur Advises (in memory of photographer Arthur Fields) and This Photograph, the last of which is a meditation on the ‘innumerable futures’, ‘endless possibilities’ and ‘the ocean of what might have been’ suspended in an old, rediscovered photo of a New Year’s party — ‘gli atti scancellati pel giuoco del futuro’, in the epigraph of Eugenio Montale. Other points of departure for Lynskey include gallery paintings and items encountered in museums — the British Museum, the Lincoln Town Museum, the National Museum of Finland.
Religious imagery is another strain running through the collection, with Speaking of the Past imagining the poet’s Catholic upbringing as an all encompassing Bayeux tapestry. April recycles a lot of the language of scripture to suggest the transformative power of nature, while Deposition reimagines this staple of Christian iconography as the removal of a dumped corpse by ambulance, the deposition witnessed, as Christ’s, by reverent women. Calvaries remembers the trauma of school-bullying and corporal punishment in the imagery of the Passion and the unrepentant thief, while in The Taking of Christ, which responds to Caravaggio’s great picture in the National Gallery of Ireland, one suspects Lynskey understands the artist’s compulsion to include his own portrait amidst the throng that ‘irrupts into Gethsemane tonight.’
If, as the All Those Thousand Souls cited in the opening paragraph above perhaps hints, some of the poems of It’s Time push a little too easily and insistently in the direction of declamation, repugnance or outrage, there are plenty too that urge us to see again and, seeing, reconsider.
David Butler’s most recent novel, City of Dis was published by New island. His second poetry collection, All the Barbaric Glass, was published by Doire Press in 2017.
I was the recipient recently of a bursary from the Irish Writers Union for a one-week visit to Rome (9th-17th September 2018), with a stay at the Hotel Diplomatic. This central location allowed me to make a number of visits on foot or by bus to noteworthy sites such as the Pantheon, Chiesa San Stefano Rotondo, Piazza Novana and the Spanish Steps (with a visit to the adjacent Keats-Shelley House). I also visited the non-catholic cemetery which contains the graves of many leading literary figures, including the aforementioned poets.
I was also able to take in places away from the usual tourist itineraries through the generosity of my counterpart in this year’s 2018 writers’ exchange project, Anna Maria Robustelli, who had been to Ireland some weeks earlier. I was fortunate to have with me a knowledgeable person prepared to go to considerable lengths to ensure a well-rounded Rome visit. I take this opportunity to express my gratitude to her.
My visit was also facilitated by Mr Simone di Conza of FUIS (Federazione Unitaria Italiana Scrittori), the Italian counterpart of our IWU who arranged an event at the FUIS centre, at which I was able to read some of my work in English and in my Italian translations, with which I was greatly assisted by Anna maria. The FUIS president Natale Antonio Rossi chaired our meeting and several Italian writers and a number of writers/translators attended and contributed to the discussions regarding my work and the Irish/Italian writing scene.
My visit to Rome was a rewarding experience and provided several new ideas for my writing, as well as reviving several older ones which I can now look at afresh. Inevitably, writing is a solitary activity and it helps greatly to be in touch with other writers, in my case especially with Italian writers, given my long-term interest in the literature and music of Italy. I have no doubt but that my contact with Anna Maria and the other writers will continue and once again I wish to express my gratitude her and to the IWU and FUIS for a fruitful and very enjoyable week in Rome.
A review by Fred Johnston of Eamonn Lynskey’s third collection ‘It’s Time’ (Salmon Poetry, 2017)
The language of Eamonn Lynskey’s poetry is of a sort that invites one into the core of the poem as through an open door. Yet it is only when one has begun to read and contemplate what is behind the door that one sees incredible simple horrors; of violence, neglect, deep injustice, and a calm nobility under pressure.
The human condition in the twenty-first century is not a pleasant one and it is precarious. Lynskey is to be congratulated for reminding us that, in some instances, our own small personal injustices and injuries are often microcosms of big ones and our moral impotence in the face of them. The title poem introduces us, through a door pushed open into a shed full of garden implements, to the underlying tone of those that follow:
… When I creak the shed door open,
shears and spade blink in the corner:
come, the world must be newmade. It’s time.
In ‘Down to Africa’, Lynskey suggests that, ‘Earth will clothe herself afresh, the way / she greened the terraces of Angkor Wat’; and when this process is complete, it’s back to the possibility of new human beginnings in a natural circle back in the cradle of Africa. There’s an odd comfort in that. But murder and destruction is not a new thing: ‘Warrior’ conjures up Ötzi, the mummified remains found in the Dolomite Alps some years ago, which bear indications of death by a fired arrow; the narrator in the poem, with professional detachment, proclaims that …
We have that unfortunate
and not infrequent military
occurrence: death from friendly fire .
The camouflage phrases ‘friendly fire’, along with ‘collateral damage’, must be two of the most obscene creations of the military mind. If one were Catholic in Ireland, one was at war from childhood, in constant danger of attack from a vague but savage foe, and the enemy was always at the gates:
I try explaining to a grandchild
how we were conscripted in the war
against an enemy determined
to destroy us. – (from ‘Speaking of the Past’)
Our banners were ‘pictures of the Sacred Heart’, and our propaganda press comprised ‘…The Messenger / brought home from school each month’. How many of us, one might ask, were victims of ‘friendly fire’ or merely ‘collateral damage’ in this invisible struggle?
A quite beautiful poem, entitled ‘Metsu’s Women’, is a reflection of the paintings and short life of Dutch painter, Gabriel Metsu, a Baroque painter whose father was a painter and tapestry worker, and who died aged 38. His works, depicting mainly individuals at work or playing instruments, hunting, or writing, can be seen at Dublin’s National Gallery, one of which is Man Writing a Letter:
Young blades write letters, cavaliers
press their attentions on young maidens,
huntsmen rest long-barrelled guns
at doorways, trade their fresh-skilled spoil
of birds and hares with servant girls,
More than a contemplation of the painter’s work, it has the quiet quality of a lament in which Metsu’s early demise is a poignant reminder of the lasting virtue of art over uncertain life itself. Fine poems throughout this collection ought to reinforce Lynskey’s reputation. As a stylist, he could teach our younger catch of poets a thing or two. And he is never dull.
Poetry Ireland Review #125 is on sale in bookshops or order from Salmon website or Amazon.
Fred Johnston (born 1951) is an Irish poet, novelist, literary critic and musician. He is the founder and current director of the Western Writers’ Centre in Galway. He co-founded the Irish Writers’ Co-operative in 1974, and founded Galway’s annual Cúirt International Festival of Literature in 1986.