Want an extensive selection of Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry? It’s here. Want an overall view of contemporary poets writing today? That’s here too.
Eileen Casey’s dedication to poetry is well known. Besides being a fine poet herself, she has contributed enormously over the years to furthering the appreciation of the craft through her critical articles and essays. Many poets owe much to her advice and support, including the present writer.
In this volume she has taken on the herculean task of collecting the responses of more than seventy contemporary poets to the poems of Patrick Kavanagh. The book includes a fine essay from Gerard Smyth, and Dr Una Agnew — who collaborated in the production, writes: ‘The poet Patrick Kavanagh would take enormous pleasure in having a standing army of poets and writers pay tribute to his work …”. Indeed he would, and this is a fitting tribute. The front cover is designed by Eoin Flynn and the very evocative portrait of Kavanagh is by artist Paul McCloskey.
Apart from mentioning the above names, such is the wide range and type of the responses that it would be entirely unfair to single out particularly for remark any of the contributors. Emerging new poets are included, as well as … er … old stalwarts (no offence intended).
The book is published by Fiery Arrow I SBN 978 1 999636807 and is available from Dubray books and other outlets.
My local Book Club in Lucan Library regularly blasts me out of my comfort zones and into the world of the Modern Novel. So it is I read ‘We Were the Mulvaneys’ (1996) by Joyce Carol Oates and found it a really good book.
It is written in that ‘tumultuous’ style of many American novelists (Saul Bellow comes to mind) where there is so much information constantly thrown at the reader that it is a dizzying experience at times. It is tempting to say that there is often just too much to take in and that such an amount of tiny (and great) detail interrupts the flow of the narrative. However, it is this ‘overflow’ that is very much the style of the novel and gives it its momentum and its charm. And these details do indeed contribute to a very rounded description of the characters and provide information for the reader on the kind of people they are reading about, and also without that annoying method of halting everything so that a (sometimes rather lengthy) ‘descriptive paragraph’ can be inserted. Corinne, for example, the mother who is at the heart of the book and its concerns, is conveyed as the kind of person who could be described as ‘scatty’, but who also has a business sense which stays with her despite the demands of raising a family of five. One does not find out about these facets of her personality in a couple of descriptive paragraphs but from her words and actions throughout the book. This is rather like the way one finds out about people in real life.
I do have one difficulty with the book and it concerns its central event. This event occurs when one of the family undergoes a traumatic experience. I do not want to say any more and ‘spoil’ the book for a future reader, but I will say that I am not sure that the ensuing effects of this event on the family would necessarily be as great and widespread as Oates depicts, even though they are so serious and, indeed, devastating.
But of course I could be wrong. Trauma affects different families in different ways. On a personal level I know that a tragic deed can have far reaching consequences because when I was very young, there was a terrible event involving a young woman who was a namesake of mine. Subsequently and all through my youth I was constantly asked if I was related to her (because of our slightly unusual surnames. I am not directly related, as far as I know). The resonance of the event has died down as the years have passed and as I have grown older and yet just recently a stranger, somewhat older than I, surprised me with the old question: ‘Are you at all related to that unfortunate girl in that dreadful case some years ago?’ I was really taken aback at the way that event is still rippling outwards and so it is that I am very aware that the depiction of the long-term effects of the event at the heart of the Joyce Carol Oates book could be entirely true.
There are the usual conjectures on the cover as to whether this is finally ‘The Great American Novel’ we have all been waiting for. Maybe, maybe not. But it’s certainly a great novel. And it’s not just another ‘entertaining’ work. It really strikes into one, and makes one think about things.
The same is true of ‘A Book of American Martyrs’ (2017), which I have just today (31.01.2017) finished. Over 700 pages long, it is a gripping novel, and a riveting read throughout. However, the last 100 pages might have been cut, I think, because they seem like something of an ‘add-on’ and the final pages seem a bit like a search for that ‘closure’ that we all seek after some horrendous event in our lives. However, it is my experience that, frequently, there is no closure possible and so this part of the novel does not ring entirely true to me.
Nevertheless ‘A Book of American Martyrs is a really fine novel, carefully structured and meticulously written about a subject always controversial: the right to life. It did not change my views on that subject (nor does Oates set out to do so) but it did soften my view of the ‘the other side’.
A great time was had by all at the pre-launch of issue 7 of Skylight47 at the public library in Clifden on Thursday 15 September as part of the Arts week. The magazine is the result of some very hard work from the Clifden Writers Group and the accomplished poet Robyn Rowland was at hand to officiate. A number of the contributors attended and read out their pieces. I was very taken with Anne Irwin’s‘Omey Island Races 2015’ with its vivid description of the event; and ‘Elegy to Some Mysterious Form’by Ria Collins was quite a moving and unsettling poem on a very personal and traumatic decision that had to be made. Indeed all the contributors must be congratulated on a very fine selection of poems. There are prose articles too in the magazine on topics ranging from poem-writing itself (Kim Moore’s ‘Poetry Masterclass’) to reviews of recent books published.
The venue of Clifden Public Library contributed enormously to the cordial atmosphere of the proceedings, especially the three skylights overhead which, Tony Curtis assured us, were put in specially for the occasion and at great expense! Congratulations to all the Skylight Team on such a fine magazine and compliments to the library staff on the wonderful venue.
As mentioned, Australian poet Robyn Rowland did the honours and I was pleased to meet up with her again. I remember well her reading from her collection ‘This Intimate War’ recently in Dublin at The Sunflower Sessions in Jack Nealon’s (Capel Street, every last Wednesday, 07.30pm. Come along!). It is a most impressive book dealing with the terrible Gallipoli engagement in WWI and is a hard read since it eschews any self-serving attempts at ‘glorification’, and conveys much senselessness and absurdity of war. Robyn gets down into the dirt and blood with the soldiers and the sense of verisimilitude is stunning. Extra-fine poetry, then. And what a great writer she is and what a great thing to meet her … twice within a very few months!
My poem, Day of Judgement, was the last to be read out, and just as well too since it is a poem about ‘last things’. Not the kind of poem one would like to hear at a Christmas party (or any party!) but poems like this do have their place in the Great Order of Things to Come (but not to come too soon we hope!)
Day of Judgement
They who come to clear this room
will show a ruthlessness unknown
to me. The histories of my books
and how they came to claim a space
along these shelves will be unknown
to them. The brush and vacuum cleaner
will probe every corner, frames
will leave rectangles on the walls
and files of half-formed poems will bulk
black plastic sacks. This desk and chair
and radio/cd/clock will find
our long companionship concluded.
Half an hour will be enough
to sweep away a life, to feed
the hungry skip, allow the skirting
run around the room again
unhidden; there will be no mercy
for old pencil stubs, news clippings
yellowing in trays. Each spring
I tried, but never could be heartless,
emulate that day of judgement
when my loves must face the flames
or crowd the local charity shop,
forlorn— hoping for salvation.
Single issues of Skylight 47 are available at €5.00 plus postage, from skylight47.wordpress.com or come to the launch in Galway City Library at 6.00pm on Thursday, September 29 and pick up a copy.
Submissions for Skylight 47 issue 8 (Spring 2017) will be accepted between 1 Nov 2016 and 1 Jan 2017. See skylight47poets.wordpress.com for details.
Before Baghdad was bombed that fateful evening in 2003 I saw a TV report in which Baghdadis were demonstrating against the imminent war. Prominent among the placards was one which depicted the US Secretary of Defence with horns added to his head over the slogan ‘Devil Rumsfeld’. We are always cautioned against demonizing the enemy but maybe we can say in this case the Baghdadis were right.
I’m still not clear which of the Imperial Triumvirate at the top of the American Empire (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld) was most responsible for the Iraq tragedy but Andrew Cockburn’s very detailed book makes a good case for Donald. His book is rampacked with so much information about Rumsfeld’s dogged pursuit of position and power – including a stab at running for President – that this reader was somewhat overwhelmed. It is a book in the tradition of every minute detail being laid out … in detail, and is therefore something of a tough read. After all, when one has been led through half a dozen highly questionable wheelings and dealings one tends to fast forward through the next dozen or so. In defence of this ‘fault’ I have to admit that I did not need much convincing that Rumsfeld was – as the subtitle has it – a ‘disaster’ for America. My prejudice against the man is quite strong.
Apart from this suffocating welter of information the book is a very good read and exposes, once again, how a nation was misled into one of the most dreadfully mistaken foreign policy ventures in all history, and for which we in the ‘West’ are now reaping the whirlwind and will continue to reap for the foreseeable future. If, unlike me, you need to be more persuaded about Donald’s miscalculations and pig-ignorance about Iraq and Iraqis, you should read this book.
[By the way, Donald’s observation that ‘there are known unknowns. That is to say there are things we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know’ is a surprisingly profound insight and has, before reading this book, acted as something of a brake on my outright prejudices against the man. Not any more. Cockburn asserts that ‘old Pentagon hands recall it circulating in the Office of Defence Research and Engineering in a xeroxed compilation of similar maxims as long ago as the 1960s’.]
The problem with reading the history of American Native Peoples and their virtual annihilation by my European ancestors is that one can become very depressed at the horrors they endured for centuries. From the initial deprivations under the early settlers, on through the ‘opening of the West’, and well into the last century their story is a heart-breaking one of mass extermination amounting to genocide. And so, to read a book that has a happier tale to tell about Native Americans is something wonderful. Charles Wilkinson describes a resurgent Native American movement intent on reclaiming its rights and on bringing an end brutal and degrading treatment (the book is subtitled ‘The Rise of Modern Indian Nations’). It is not at all an unqualified success story. There is still a long way to go and of course entitlement to the full extent of the lands which were stolen from them (i.e., all of North America!) can never be adequately addressed, but this book gives an account of the many successes Native American tribes have had since the middle of the last century in reclaiming at least some of their heritage, both in terms their traditions and of their lands, and this has had the effect of restoring confidence in themselves and in their efforts to assert their rights.
The question of when began this rowing back of age-old mistreatment is a bit clouded, but Wilkinson locates it somewhere around the mid 1950s. The burgeoning civil rights movement was a big influence, although it seems that there was a somewhat uneasy relationship between the black people and native Americans despite the ill-treatment they suffered in common. Black/coloured people had been forcibly removed from their homelands and shipped to America, where as the Native Americans were forcibly deprived of their (sovereign) homelands in America by the various means of fraudulent treaties and genocidal massacres.
The resurgence of the Native American movement to assert this sovereignty was greatly helped by the returning Native American war veterans who had put their lives on the line for their country and expected better treatment at home than had been afforded their parents. Many of these men and women used their education grants to study law and then to use their skills to further the cause of their people, many of whom were still living in the reservations they had been forced into long ago and in which they were also still enduring appalling conditions.
Other books I have read have gone into considerable detail about these conditions and the assaults on the dignity of these ancient and civilized peoples and, quite rightly, the tone has often been one of sincere regret and severe condemnation. Wilkinson eschews a ‘horrified’ tone and allows the facts to speak for themselves. In so doing, he lays bear in a matter-of-fact way the unspeakable injustices of expropriation wreaked on these aboriginal peoples in the fevered days of the white man’s land-grabbing in the ‘New World’. The book is not just another denunciation of the white man (indeed there is mention of white men and women who have fought the Indians’ cause along the way). It is a reasoned and factual account of what was lost and the relatively recent efforts to turn the tide and make better the life of today’s tribes. The successes are enumerated along with the future difficulties. Furthermore, most of the accounts and narratives are given by Native Americans themselves, with Wilkinson adopting a facilitator’s role.
Recent events that mark this change in attitudes towards the Indian Peoples can be seen in the return of many lands important to the tribes culturally, for example the return of Blue Lake and its surrounding forestry to the people of the Taos Pueblo by President Nixon in 1970. There had been a long road to travel through red tape and bureaucracy before this happened, but it did happen in the end. Like in other instances, the persistence and resilience and courage of native Americans, coupled with dedicated legal know-how, finally won the day. The American Indian always had plenty of courage, but legal know-how is a more recent acquisition and has made all the difference.
This book also has the advantage of being one more deadly blow against the self-serving notion which has it that Europeans found their ‘New World’ virtually devoid of people and with vacant land there for the taking. I find this still a commonly held view here in Ireland. In fact, as this book shows conclusively, the array of nations and cultures present when the white man arrived was widespread over the entire continent. Wilkinson also provides maps of Indian reservations which show their present lands and what has been gained since the more recent affirmative actions of the tribes. The comparisons of their present holdings with what was the extent of their original territories says it all, as is evident in the Taos Pueblo map (above) of the 1970s returned lands.
The best thing about this book, apart from its being a scholarly but eminently readable achievement, is that – like I said at the start of this piece – its message is positive. There’s a lot to be done yet, but the position of the American Native Peoples is improving, even though the progress is slow and the road ahead anything but easy. And because 10 years have elapsed since its publication I am driven search out news of developments since then.
About the author:
Distinguished Professor at the University of Colorado, Charles Wilkinson is the author of twelve books, including American Indians, Time and Law and Crossing the New Meridian. A former attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, he has travelled to more than one hundred Indian reservations. Peterson Zah, former president of the Navajo Nation said of him: “Of all the students of American Indian law, Charles Wilkinson is the best. He is down to Earth, loves the people, and appreciates the beauty of the land.” Wilkinson currently resides in Boulder, Colorado. (2005)
I enjoyed Ronald Skirth’s book ‘The Reluctant Tommy’because the direct ‘on-the-spot’ experiences of an ordinary soldier in 1914 are always welcome as a counterbalance to the preponderance of accounts from the officer and political class. However, my enjoyment was rather soured when I found that the book, while purporting to be an a first-hand and honest account of war experiences was in fact largely a work of fiction.
The dubious nature Skirth’s narrative was brought to my notice by a reader of this blog whose personal interest in his story led her to do some extensive research into this edited account and to conclude that, even though he was a soldier at that time and was indeed involved in at least some of the events he describes, his involvement in these events was significantly altered by him. As well as this, she found that there were other events in which he was probably not involved at all.
Skirth wrote his memoirs some 60 years after the first world war and his journals form part of the archive of the Imperial War Museum. They comprise an impressive five binders of meticulously ordered accounts of war-time experiences in neat hand writing, accompanied by photographs, drawings, maps and other miscellaneous material. When perused in the museum’s reading room they certainly have an aura of an unquestionable authenticity. Until, that is, someone starts questioning them, as did Ms Ruth Ward, who contacted me after reading my review of the book.
It was Skirth’s description of his treatment at the hands of one of his officers, a man whom Ward immediate recognised as bearing a close resemblance to her grandfather, that drove her into her investigations. The portrayal of this officer was an extremely negative one, going as far as to imply dishonesty and cowardice. There is a copy of her research paper included with the original Skirth materials in the museum and the inconsistencies with actual military records are clearly exposed, as are his downright fabrications. She is not alone in questioning the factual basis of Skirth’s account. Among other negative reactions, a review in the BBC’s Who Do You think You Are magazine remarks on the disparities between official war records and his version of events:
‘He movingly describes two friends and an officer being killed on Messines Ridge on 8th June 1917—though the unit war diary notes no casualties and the named officer isn’t on the Commonwealth War Graves Register. In November 1917 he says his battery was so far forward they were ordered to withdraw and his insane CO refused to leave—Skirth claims to have disobeyed his direct order and fled with his pal Jock Shiels—yet according to the CWG Register John Shiels of 293 Battery RGA was killed on 18th July 1917. When the battery is later sent to Italy Skirth is quite clear that it was without guns as late as April 1918 yet the war diary records them firing numerous bombardments. […] The overall impression he gives of the tiny scale of one man caught up in a huge and apparently indifferent military machine in a war like none previous is impressive – but should be treated with great caution as factual history’.(Source: Wikipedia)
These inconsistencies (and the many more throughout the book) were all rather a shock to me. Perhaps an even greater shock was to find, on going back to the book, that some rather ‘big names’ had been similarly misled. In a lengthy introduction, full of caveats, evasions and special pleadings, the book’s editor, Duncan Barrett (a well-known and experienced editor, writer & etc.), gives it as his view that ‘the tenor of Ronald Skirth’s memoir is one of honesty and truth-telling … even if he does deviate from specific facts in order to craft an engaging story’. (!) Elsewhere he admits that ‘Skirth often chooses to fictionalise, or at least work up his material for dramatic advantage. He clearly felt that this was his story and that he had a right to make whatever changes he saw fit’. (!!) He concludes, rather lamely, that ‘you should read the memoir for yourself, and make up your own mind about who to believe’. Well, no. There are such things as established historical facts and one is not at liberty to believe or disbelieve them. This book would fit comfortably in that curious (and very popular) hybrid-genre known as Historical Fiction, but that is not what Duncan Barret is endorsing in his introduction (or Jon Snow in the Forward). And the book is clearly described on its cover as ‘Non Fiction’.
The publication of ‘The Reluctant Tommy’ as a ‘war-memoir’ raises some important issues. I will mention just one: Skirth is profoundly disgusted by the realities of death at the front and this is a reaction most people will find very understandable. However, he goes on to make much play of his making a pact with God not to engage in killing people, so disgusted is he by what he has seen of these dreadful realities. Again understandable, but I think that most people will be uneasy about this attitude because of the obvious implications it could have for the safety of those fighting alongside him. It is an unfortunate fact that war often involves situations of ‘kill or be killed’ and the fact that the chap beside you isn’t keen on killing the enemy is bound to have implications for your safety. Furthermore, and because of this ‘resolve’, Skirth considers himself to be a ‘conscientious objector’, although he decides at the same time to keep quiet about it. I believe that the many who have suffered greatly at the hands of society because they have declared openly their ‘conscientious objection’ to war would not readily admit him as one of their number.
And I cannot forbear but mention what I consider another important issue raised by the way this book is presented. Duncan Barrett informs us that Skirth had been in touch with the Imperial War Museum before his death in 1977 and that in 1999 his daughter decided to donate his journals to the museum. The fact that these documents are in the keeping of the museum seems to confer on them an important status. And of a later TV documentary on Channel 4 ‘Not Forgotten, The Men Who Would Not Fight’,hosted by Ian Hislop and in which Skirth’s ‘memoirs’ feature, Ruth Ward remarks in her research paper that ‘the narrative’s credibility seems to rest almost entirely on the fact [that] Skirth’s journals are held at the Imperial War Museum’. Readers of this the book or viewers of that TV programme would most likely conclude that this mention of the museum means that they are dealing with material authenticated in some way by that institution. Not so. The museum is acting merely as a depository for Skirth’s journals, which it describes as a ‘… very interesting but anecdotal and disjointed ms memoir’. This rather ‘sleight of hand’ method of implying a museum’s approval might lead many to question in future the authenticity of what they read or view, even when the accompanying endorsements come from seemingly scholarly and impeccable sources. Certainly for this reader, Ronald Skirth’s historical novel, masquerading as a war-memoir, was a wake-up call.
Ruth Ward’s in-depth study of Ronald Skirth’s original
memoir can be accessed at the Imperial War Museum’s Department of Collections Access Library. The link is http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/search?query=skirth_per_page=10 although it cannot be read on-line. However, one can view all these materials by making an appointment with the reading room of the museum whose staff are most courteous and helpful.
CAUTION: Doubts have been raised about the authenticity of the material in this book, especially in the description of military events and actual persons.
If, like me, you are very tired of the commemorations / glorifications of the Great Futile War (1914-1918) which have plagued 2014 and 2015 (and there must be still more to come until the end of 2018!!!), then this is the book for you.
Ronald Skirth was born in 1897. He left home to fight as a volunteer when he was nineteen years old and served on the Western and Italian fronts. His book (edited by Duncan Barrett) tells of the experiences of a man who came to hate the killing and who came to find mechanisms for frustrating it, and to write about why he was driven to such actions. He saw close-up the real horror and futility of what was happening around him and witnessed the appalling unconcern shown by the officer class for the men who relied on them for leadership.
One particular incident soured his view of war forever – the sight of the dead body of a teenage German soldier. “There was no bloodstain, no bruise visible on his person or uniform. Leaning back his helmet had been tilted upwards revealing his face. It was the deathly pallor of that face which shocked me beyond my powers of description. Part of a lock of blonde hair was resting on his forehead above the two closed eyes. I thought Germans wore their hair closely cropped, – but not this one. There was the suggestion of a smile on the pale lips, – a smile of contentment.” That was the moment he resolved he would never again help to take a human life. The many other bodies he saw which, unlike the young German, were mutilated beyond recognition, only strengthened his hatred for this organised orgy of mass-murder and his contempt for those who directed it so incompetently.
The process of the actual writing of the book is a story in itself, not least because Ronald meant at first to write a love story about his courtship of the girl who was to become his wife after the war. However, the act of writing revived his war-memories and so he ended up providing the material for this fine book. He had kept a diary at the front and used it as the basis for several folders of recollections. He kept on revising and adding to these memories for some years afterwards, even after suffering two strokes. When he died in 1977, all these writings passed to his daughter, but she did not read them until two decades later. She then handed them over to the Imperial War Museum where they remained until discovered by Duncan Barret, again some years later, who edited them into this book.
Interestingly, one of the ‘blurbs’ on the cover of the book, supplied by Richard Holmes of the Evening Standard, reads as follows ‘An important contribution to the literature of the war … whenever I get too misty-eyed about officer-man relationships I shall reread it to remind me of how badly things could go wrong’.I do not think that Holmes will ever re-read this book. Having nicely filed it away as ‘an important contribution to the literature of the war’ he will continue to enjoy his ‘misty-eyed etc., etc.’ He really has not understood what Ronald Skirth is saying. It’s not that things went badly wrong. Skirth is saying that the whole business was rotten from the start. I suspect that Holmes did not read the book entirely, or if he did, I am amazed he missed its main thrust.
Or am I amazed? No. When I see the present officer class (and political caste) laying wreaths at memorials for those who died in foreign wars I realise how far we have come from the time so many fine young men and women were sacrificed as cannon fodder. That is to say, we have not come very far at all. And I wonder how those American war veterans of the recent Iraq wars feel when they see on TV those towns that they ‘liberated’ which are now in the hands of ISIL (or whoever). And please do not misread me. I am appalled by what happened to these men and women and the wounds they suffered … and for what? It doesn’t help my mood to hear that many of them were badly treated when they arrived home.
If you harbour any notions about war being glorious, and that it is a duty to go killing people in other lands and other than in self-defence, and for the freedom of one’s own country, then you should read this book.