The Nathaniel Hones, the Caryatids and the Elgin Marbles
During the Good Old Days before Covid19 put a halt to our gallops I attended an exhibition of Nathaniel Hone’s paintings at our National Gallery of Ireland. Nathaniel (1831-1917) was a scion of that Hone family that includes his great grand uncle, the painter, Nathaniel Hone the Elder (1718-1784), and the painter and stained-glass artist Evie Hone (1894-1955). Among the younger Nathaniel’s paintings on show, all of them very engaging, one in particular caught my attention: a landscape depicting the famous caryatid monument in Greece in which the six female figures (the ‘caryatids’) act as pillars to hold up the entablature overhead.
The artist does a fine job in showing the monument in all its ruined beauty. It is indeed a wonderful artifact and makes a compelling subject for any artist, and especially one as accomplished as Hone in conjuring up the beauty of classical Greece. But it was the gallery note beside the picture that arrested my attention almost as much as the painting. It informed me that although Hone had painted six figures, only five were in situ by the time he arrived in Greece. One can only assume that, as an artist, his sensibilities would not allow him to break the symmetry of the classical design and so perhaps that was the reason why he performed this sleight of brush.
But what happened to the missing caryatid? Subsequent excursions on Wikipedia (long may its name be praised!) told me that she had ended up as an ornament in the garden of the Scottish Lord Elgin, having been ‘appropriated’ by him in 1801, the year that he had his men hack off half the frieze from the nearby Parthenon. He claimed he had received permission but that is seriously in doubt. Subsequently he sold the pieces to Great Britain and they were deposited in the British Museum where they have been on show ever since as ‘The Elgin Marbles’.
It is argued that Elgin did us all a favour in removing these ancient artifacts, thereby saving them from the ravages of erosion. Certainly it is true that they had suffered from the weathering of 2500 years. There is also the sad fact that some stonework from the Parthenon and the monument complex around it had been carted away as building material over the long years. The site was indeed in an increasingly perilous physical condition by 1801. However, since Greece has now the ways and means of overcoming these difficulties there should be no refusal to its request (made many times) that these important cultural artefacts be returned to where they belong. Furthermore, the contention that Elgin was primarily concerned about the physical state of these architectural treasures wears thin when we consider that he attempted to remove a second caryatid and, when technical difficulties arose, tried to saw it in pieces. The statue was smashed in the process and its fragments scattered. It was later restored by the Greek authorities.
Elgin’s dreadful act remains one of the most iconic examples of imperial rapaciousness, but is only one in a sad litany. I was stunned when I saw the great ornamental urns in Beijing’s Forbidden City still bearing the marks left by British occupying forces after they had scraped off the gold coating. In fairness, I should add that the British were not alone in having engaged in ‘cultural vandalism’. Think of the depredations inflicted on the Inca temples by the Spanish. And as for the argument that ‘those times were different times, with different attitudes …’ – that ‘excuse’ does not lessen the horror.
But back to Nathaniel Hone. He was a member of a prominent Anglo-Irish family that arrived in Ireland with Cromwell and which over the centuries produced men and women gifted in several walks of life, including the production of fine artwork. But it was Nathaniel’s ancestor, Nathaniel Hone the Elder (1718-84), that came into my mind while I was viewing the caryatid painting. I hurried down to the Irish Rooms to view again his large canvas, ‘The Conjuror’, which he painted in London in 1775, during a period of intense rivalries in the art world (when was there ever a period without?).
‘The Conjuror’ depicts a figure resembling Sir Josuah Reynolds (1723-1792), the famous English portraitist, whom Nathaniel the Elder represents as pointing to prints resembling works by Michelangelo and other famous artists. It is a satirical picture and clearly implies that Reynolds was engaging in plagiarism, as its title suggests. It was a canvas that involved Hone the Elder in a good deal of controversy at the time, not least because by other careful inclusions he managed to cast aspersions on other aspects of Reynolds’ character.
It is obvious that the elder Nathanial was more than miffed at such apparent ‘borrowings’ from the works of others and wanted to make a point about people who might be stealing other people’s work. No doubt the younger Hone shared the strong disapproval of his ancestor in this matter, as would most artists. Perhaps he also may have felt instinctively that he should repair the damage done to the classical Greek monument by restoring the stolen caryatid, thereby rescuing something of its former splendour? An idle conjecture on my part I know, but one which I like to believe. It certainly presents a more pleasing picture than the thought of the Lord Elgin attempting to saw a second caryatid into sections for transport home to sell to the British Museum.
Late that evening and her bus missed
and no lift, she hitch-hiked straight
into oblivion, left no rumour,
clue, no fingerprint, not smallest
faintest trace of her departure.
Unremarkable that day
that dawned like any other but
a mainstay in its superstructure
didn't hold -- a bolt came loose,
a strut, a fret inched out of place
or if it be that happenings
are mapped out for the best beforehand,
something evil intervened
to turn her step out of the path
ordained to guide her safely to us.
Hard the waiting year on year
the doorbell, phone bell, feel the sorrow
welling in the throat until
we come to hope to hear the words
we never thought we'd hope to hear.
And darker still than deed itself
the heart that hides it, will not tell
the how, the where, the when. The where
is all that matters now. What bog?
What brambled mountain side? What fen?
This poem, published by North West Words online in 2017, was written shortly after I read Alan Bailey’s book, ‘Missing, Presumed’ (Liberties Press 2014). Bailey is the now- retired Garda Detective-Sergeant who for thirteen years as national co-ordinator of Operation TRACE (set up in 1998) doggedly pursued enquiries into the disappearance of young women in Ireland in the Leinster area during the 1990s. Cogently written, his book makes for grim reading. It includes a diagram of that fateful area, which has become known as ‘The Vanishing Triangle’, bounded by imaginary lines linking Carrickmacross-Dublin-Wexford-Tullamore. New investigations are now underway (October 2020) by the Garda Serious Crimes Review Team.
Bailey’s book is cogently written and centres the cases of six young women who ‘vanished without a trace’ in the course of their daily lives. However, numerous other cases of young women, who suffered a similar fate at other times, are recounted. That he can list so many cases is a shock. And almost as shocking as the disappearances themselves is the thought that someone (and more than one someone) could live day-to-day having information about any of these disappearances and still not come forward to Garda authorities with that information.
My poem was published in 2017 when there was some talk of a breakthrough in one of these cases. But there was no breakthrough. Since then, now and then, hopes have been raised about the fate of one or other of these women but again and again these hopes have been dashed. And the hope that any of them might still be alive has by now almost completely vanished. In fact, it is the recent determination by An Garda that the case of Jojo Dollard be upgraded from that of ‘missing person’ to that of murder enquiry that has led to renewed investigations.
So it is that there is again hope that there might be some developments about Jojo, who disappeared in 1995 on her way home. There is a detailed treatment of her disappearance, and the disappearances of the other women, in an article by Catherine Fegan in this week’s Review section of the Irish Independent (Saturday 24/10/2020). Sad reading it is, with just a tincture of hope that some new information might at last emerge.
Every time there appears the possibility of new information about these cases, this poem floods my mind again. The absolute horror (and I mean absolute) of this kind of happening defies accurate description, even in poetry. The effect on the families must have been truly awful — and endless. And it must take a lot of courage to face up to the realisation that it is now very improbable that their beloved daughter could still be alive, perhaps one day to return. Worse again is the knowledge that this terrible treatment of women is so well-established in Ireland and worldwide.
It is only right to leave the last word to the late Bernadette Breen, who is quoted in the Independent’s article, and whose daughter Ciara disappeared in 1997: ‘Somebody could be getting up every morning, knowing the truth, knowing that they could end the nightmare of being stuck in limbo, but instead choosing to protect the perpetrator by keeping their silence.’
The Liberation of Tibet
On the streets of Lhasa's New Town,
noisy traffic, glassy shops
and neon signs and all the best
of brands: Bugatti, KFC.
And smiling, helpful people wanting
to speak English. Muffled shouts
of soldiers marching in the barracks
left and right and left and right.
And many more of welcoming Han
than grave Tibetans until New Town
fades to narrow lanes and stalls
and coloured flags that wave above
the Jokhang Temple where the Monks
chant loud above the megaphones
of earnest tourist guides who try
to summarise the Pratimoksha.
Regal on its clouded heights
the white Potola Palace, splendid
as the days Younghusband pillaged --
as when revolutionary zealots
vandalized its sacred treasures.
Pilgrims in the street below
prostrate themselves, fulfil the Kora,
hand-boards rasping on the pavements.
Minimarkets all agree
that visitors must have Cornflakes,
the bookshops offer histories
of subjugations past. A sculpture
in the central square proclaims
the socioeconomic gains
since first the People's Army wrought
the Liberation of Tibet.
My thanks to Eamon Mag Uidhir, editor of the Dublin narrowsheet FLARE, for including this poem in the no. 15 issue. For full details of how to obtain the magazine, and to see videos of me and other contributors reading their work, please go to the Sunflower Sessions facebook site at http://www.facebook.com/TheSunflowerSessions and remember there are no monthly gatherings at the Lord Edward pub in Dublin at the moment due to the pandemic restrictions. We all hope it will resume its ‘last-Wednesday-of-the Month’ open-mic readings as soon as possible. Sorely missed.
I was all the more pleased that the poem was published because seeing it in print reassured me that the balance that I worked for between appreciation and criticism was successful. Appreciation of a wonderful place side-by-side with a dubious view of what the Chinese are doing there. There are a very few of my ‘political’ pieces about which I can say I got things right. It is so very easy to veer into the denunciatory, thereby forcing the poem to become overly polemical, which in turn tends to obscure its other content. viz., the magic of the experience. There definitely ARE aspects of Chinese government policy towards its ethnic minorities which deserve denunciation, such as its detention of people in high security camps (‘re-education camps’). But there is a time and a place for denunciation and anyway it is a task better suited to prose. This is not to argue that it is a ‘great poem’, just to say that it’s good to be contented that it approaches near to what still I feel about a wonder-full holiday I spent in an extraordinary place: Lhasa, in Tibet, and even with all my reservations about what is happening there. Writing is like that. You have to be content to get as near as possible to what you want to say and not be side-tracked into what you might think you ought to say.
My visit to Tibet (accompanied by wife Kathy) lasted 10 days, In our capacity as ‘Western tourists’, we stayed at a western-style hotel. Shortly after I arrived I was taken ill for a day or two because of the high altitude (Tibet is the highest region on Earth with an elevation of 16,000 ft) but a member of the hotel staff furnished an address in town where I could get oxygen treatment. Thank God (once again) for the kindness of strangers.
China has had an enormous influence of Tobet’s history and culture, and the not just in recent times. The country’s gigantic neighbour has long claimed it as part of its territory (as it does also with regard to Taiwan) . China regards western and central Tibet as an ‘Autonomous Region’ of the Chinese State, while the eastern parts are mostly ‘ethnic autonomous prefectures’ within other Chinese provinces. I am not sure what exactly China means by these these descriptions. Most probably whatever China wants them to mean. My short visit gave me the impression that The People’s Republic is very much in control of everything in Tibet and the history books (published by the People’s Republic of China) on sale in Lhasa’s bookshops underline all the good things that have been done for Tibet since the takeover in 1951
Naturally, more than a pinch of salt is necessary when dealing with communist literature extolling the virtues of its actions (or capitalist literature for that matter) but there’s no doubt that the ordinary peasant-farmers had a hard time of it in past ages. Any changes in the previous feudal life of Tibet’s ordinary people in times past cannot but be welcomed. There is also the Chinese State’s desire to repair the damage done by the so-called ‘Cultural Revolution’ under Chairman Mao (1966-1976), which might be better described as’ The Cultural Vandalism’. Repairs were still ongoing at the Potola Palace in Lhasa when I visited, such was the enormous damage done to its treasures by the revolutionary zealots of The Great Leader.
A cynical view would be that the Chinese are attending to Lhasa so assiduously because they intend to turn it into a valuable tourist destination, a project that will become more a reality when the high-speed train link from Beijing to Lhasa is completed. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on this tourist-industry strategy since the idea of making money by getting people to come to an area of interest is not neglected by our own government. Think of the bus-loads arriving in the car-park for the Cliffs of Moher ‘experience’. My poem tries to convey how the ‘modern’ Lhasa has been appended onto the old in such a way as to provide visitors with all the necessary mod-cons in one area while at the same time allowing them to immerse themselves in ancient culture in the ‘old’ town.
So it is that I am, as our American cousins say, ‘conflicted’. I have read many articles written about how ancient cultures are diluted — even destroyed — by the ravages of tourism. These articles are written by, well, tourists like myself, often masquerading under other titles (explorers, travellers, news correspondents, writers) but all contributing to the levelling effect of globalisation. Perhaps will come the day (soon?) that there will be little to distinguish any one culture from another on our entire planet. The process that television started, and that the internet and mobile phone continus, is gathering pace. And the getting placed on UNESCO’s ‘World Heritage’ list has already proved the ruin of some places, formerly unique but not unique any more. ‘Invasive tourism’ is a serious problem for the local people. Anytime I see an advert for ‘a beautiful, unspoiled, out-of -the-way’ venue, I know that it won’t be unspoiled and out-of-the-way for very much longer.
But back to Lhasa. The sights, sounds and colours of the city will never leave my memory. The pilgrims prostrating themselves before the temples; the beautiful decorations of those temples; the prayer flags fluttering in the surrounding countryside; the rows and rows of monks in the Jokhang Temple sitting in the lotus position … And of course the modern hotel I stayed in and the new shops where I could buy my Cornflakes. OK, OK, yes, I know. But I don’t pretend I was anything other than just another tourist.
The Pratimoksha mentioned in the poem is a list of rules governing the behaviour of Buddhist monastics. The Younghusband mentioned is the Sir Francis Younghusband who commanded a British expeditionary force which invaded Tibet in 1903-4 equipped with rifles and machine-guns and made short work of the disorganised resisting forces wielding hoes, swords and flintlocks; much like the Italians did with the Ethiopians in their invasion of 1935. Younghusband’s was only one in a long series of invasions and takeovers. Discontent and unrest continues in Tibet to this day, though much subdued under Chinese control. Every day of my visit in Lhasa I could clearly hear the soldiers drilling (very) loudly in the barracks. So could everybody else. It was very reassuring, if you were Chinese.
Below are some more photos and after that a video of me reading the poem. Don’t mind my being pictured upside down at the beginning: it’s my usual mental state. Just click and everything will be fine (would that real life were so easy to adjust!).
The Director of the Italian Writers’ Federation (Federazione Unitaria Italiana Scrittori – FUIS) Antonio Natale Rossi recently compiled a series of writings on the situation in which writers found themselves during the Covid-19 pandemic. These he published weekly on the FUIS website under the heading ‘Domenica di Lettura’. I am happy that he selected some of my poetry, including this poem (below) This turning hour and every thing intent, which is followed by an Italian version, Quest’ora di svolta e ogni cosa intenta, which I wrote with the help of Roman poet Anna Maria Robustelli. The original was also published in the Irish magazine ‘Cyphers’
[Il Direttore della Federazione Unitaria Italiana Scrittori (FUIS), Antonio Natale Rossi, ha recentemente compilato una serie di scritti sulla situazione in cui gli scrittori si sono trovati durante la pandemia Covid-19. Questi ha pubblicato ogni settimana sul sito FUIS con il titolo ‘Domenica di lettura’. Sono felice che abbia selezionato alcune delle mie poesie, tra cui questa poesia (sotto) This turning hour and every thing intent che è seguita da una versione italiana, Quest’ora di svolta e ogni cosa intenta, che ho scritto con l’aiuto della poetessa Romana Anna Maria Robustelli. L’originale e’ stato anche pubblicato sulla rivista irlandese ‘Cyphers’.
Fred Johnston is a poet, novelist, literary critic and musician.
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. – 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.
Live Encounters (www.liveencounters.net)
Review by Susan Norton
Susan Norton writes essays, reviews, and literary criticism and is a lecturer of English in The Dublin Institute of Technology
Irish poet Eamonn Lynskey’s volume of verse called It’s Time, published by Salmon Poetry (2017), is self-conscious in literal and beautiful ways — literal in its articulations, beautiful in its aspirations. “All Those Thousand Souls” (p.25) begins, “This poet never had a lump of shrapnel / wedged inside his head or sat bewildered / in the bombed-out wreckage of his home–”. It then guides the reader through the devastating violence and loss suffered by families in Bangladesh to conclude that the poet can and should continue to do what little and whatever he can to assuage suffering, including “check High Street labels carefully, choose / Fairtrade products,” and yes, “compose angry poems.”
Such incantation to power over powerlessness typifies Lynskey’s tone throughout the collection. He is highly attuned to pain and injustice in life, but not at all overcome by it. His poems ask us to ask ourselves questions and thus insist that change is not only worthy of us, but incumbent upon us too. In “Deposition” (24), for instance, an unidentified body is found in the night, possibly hanged, yet the women who come upon it in the morning do not look away. They pray over it and leave behind flowers, human compassion once again lighting the way toward tomorrow.
In “Listening to My Elders” (19), the first-person speaker identifies with those in recent history who have “just followed orders” in carrying out atrocities. By accepting the probability of obedience to maniacal power in times of genocide or brutal colonial expansion, the narrating voice self-incriminates for crimes committed while also rhetorically suggesting the likelihood that many of us would protect ourselves through collusion with evil too. The message? We must guard society against the rise to power of corrupting forces so that none of us will ever find we are about to “machete severed limb from torso.”
Such up-close, at times unflinching and always highly specific language of both ordinary and extraordinary human experience is characteristic of Lynskey’s composition. Read aloud, his lines trip easily off the tongue because his lexicon is so common to the words we use with each other every day. His syntax, while never convoluted, still achieves a lyrical quality. Lynskey’s touch is light, his syllabication deft, and his verse thematically inviting for readers of all kinds who wish to ruminate on life as we know it, in the here and now, because every “going forth” is “a risk,” every “safe return a victory”. And until our “Final Notice” (66), there is still time to achieve a higher purpose.
Brian Kirk is a poet and playwright. His first collection ‘After the Fall’ was published by Salmon Poetry in 2017.
Eamonn Lynskey’s third poetry collection It’s Time opens with the title poem which subtly marks an ending and a beginning at the same time. Winter gives way to spring: ‘…the wheelie bin / has taken on a strange new lustre’ and ‘When I creak the shed door open / shears and spade blink in the corner’. The collection as a whole reflects the turbulent circularity of things in general, the passing of the seasons, the changing of the old order, the past receding, the present stark in its immediacy at times, the future uncertain. But it is also a call to action for us to try again to put the world and the past to rights.
The reader is led along a deceptively straightforward path with carefully controlled poems that exhibit precise use of language and striking images. The poet draws our attention to a variety of concerns as we move through the collection; expansive themes that meditate on how we are failing as custodians of our planet sit alongside accounts of the horrors of the past, political and social. But within the overall tapestry, between the big fore-grounded themes, the poet sews the details of the quotidian with an acute eye for the details that speak to our common humanity.
In Home an Hour the poet, lately discharged from hospital, grateful and filled once again with awe for the wonders of the natural world, finally acknowledges with grim humour:
‘Just home an hour and I begin
to worry about new water charges, am
again become immune to the miraculous.’
There is a real concern for the future of the planet and of mankind in poems such as Down to Africa and Lament, but this is never strident. In the latter, which is concerned with the despoliation of the Great Barrier Reef, he could be speaking of the harm done to peoples as much as that done to the eco-system when he writes:
‘How will you escape, crazed refugees,
the dread bombardments that will crash around you?’
There are many other poems which take on themes of political and socio-political importance, particularly in relation to violence meted out in war or by those in power. Warrior, Civilian Executions, Minsk 1941 and Listening to My Elders all deal with the horrors of war, the latter being most unsettling as it is spoken from the point of view of a collaborator: ‘I would have raped / and plundered, filled mass graves, just following orders,’.
There is a sequence of poems at the heart of the collection that considers the negative effects of religion in general and the Catholic Church in Ireland in particular. An Early Christian employs an extended metaphor to examine the decline of the Church in Ireland in recent decades.
‘And early panics paralysed us, froze us
in our desks the day the priest came,
heard our stammered answers to the questions
from the Holy Catechism,’
The accumulation of detail in the poem creates a potted social history of the decline of the church in a few pages of rhythmically flowing eight-line stanzas. It’s a very satisfying poem. The poem April sees a distinct move away from God to Nature, seeing in her cycle the true mystery of life: ‘…Here is full communion / with whatever is unknown, / unknowable, whatever makes, / unmakes, remakes – Whatever is / that shapes the world’.
Lynskey also displays a real talent for the ekphrastic poem, taking inspiration from paintings and photographs alike in poems such as The Taking of Christ, This Photograph, Miracles and Metsu’s Women. In This Photograph the snapshot becomes a totemic artefact which hold the power that ‘launched us / on this cardboard raft to sail / into innumerable futures.’
Throughout the collection there is a presiding interest in artefacts. Things, particularly old things, are important to the poet and deepen his and our understanding not only of the past but the present and the future too. In The Oldest Man-Made Object in The British Museum he measures man’s attempts at progress in the natural world over time by considering two items, a stone age axe and an even older scalloped chopping tool.
Perhaps the collection’s ambition – and that of all poets – is best described in a short line from the very moving poem of loss, Rachael which seeks to understand a world where suffering and loss exist, ‘to reach behind the words / to understand what happened.’
In this collection Eamonn Lynskey has helped us do just that.
Liz McSkeane, Director of Turas Press.
Liz McSkeane is a poet and novelist and director of the publishing company Turas Press. Website: email@example.com
The title of Eamonn Lynskey’s third collection poetry, “It’s Time,” evokes a sense of meditation – on life, on the urgency of tackling our life’s work, whatever that may be. The reader expecting such reflections will not be disappointed. But from these fifty-two poems, the understated and ambiguous title unravels to reveal a tapestry of interconnected themes that are not only personal, but social and political as well.
The title poem, which opens the collection, conjures a moment of renewal, a spring day in the suburbs when images of dead leaves and a wheelie bin combine to make the familiar strange:
“There’s something sharp
about the sunlight blinds the eye this morning –
stems have straightened up, the wheelie bin
has taken on a strange new lustre.”
The beautiful elegy, “A Connaught Man’s Rambles” distils the harshness of life for Irish emigrant workers in a personal recollection of the poet’s father. A stroll in the country, “Nunhead Cemetery” takes the poet, and us, down memory lane and face-to-face with
“…the narrow span / between the spark and its extinguishing.”
A reprieve from a brush with mortality breathes palpable relief in “That Moment When” and “Home an Hour”. And presiding over all, the shade of that “Thief” who comes in the night and is not just after your money…
“It’s Time” is also a call to action, in the sense that ‘It’s time something was done about’ – what? In “Down to Africa” and “Lament”, the latter an elegy to the lost and disappearing life of the Great Barrier Reef, the poet casts his appalled gaze over the legacy of destruction and environmental degradation our human intervention has wreaked on nature.
He also challenges us to remember the anguish wrought by conflict and wars, past and present. Images here are concrete and often shocking: the voice of a “A Professional in Charge” brings a horrifyingly clinical view of the execution of Anne Boleyn. “Warrior” subjects the skeleton of a slain Neolithic warrior killed in battle to modern forensic analysis. “Civilian Executions, Minsk, 1941” and “Lists” remember the anonymous victims of atrocities and war, bystanders in the drama of history’s disasters. And the great events of history are skilfully intermingled with the minutiae of small lives: “Metzu’s Women” in the past, and the poet’s own life laid bare in the clutter of objects being cleared out by unknown successors in “Day of Judgement.”
Much of the power of this vision is conveyed through the evocation of everyday objects: a stone-age knife, random objects displayed in a museum, a photograph. The poet’s scrutiny has an ethnographic quality that imbues simple artefacts of the past, and the present, with the lustre of talismans. Lynskey is at his best when his insights are mined from these vignettes of shared humanity, evoked through the everyday and sometimes sinister uses of daily objects. These images permit readers space and freedom to make connections, draw our own conclusions. Only occasionally does the poet succumb to the temptation to interpret on our behalf, such as “This Photograph” and “My Song is Simple” which tip over into didacticism.
But these lapses are few. This is a book that disconcerts, not least in tenderness not only for our neighbour, but for the Other, such as
“two English boys who disembark
To angry streets at Eastertime”
“It’s Time” is engaged poetry, imbued with great passion and compassion that smoulders, slow-burning, in the mind of the reader long after the “Final Notice” has been given.
Skylight47, Issue 11 Spring/Summer 2019
Review by David Butler
David Butler is a poet, novelist and dramatist.
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
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.
Orbis International Literary Journal #184
Reviewby David Troman
The blurb on the back of this third collection says that the verses offer questions, not answers. However, it seems to me a partial truth because Lynskey does ask about things, although in a manner which makes the readers think they conceived such questions for themselves. He deals with all aspects of life: faith; conservation; personal relationships. In each case, the answer is inherent in the asking, implying therefore further questions –
do I want to contribute to making an answer a reality, and if so, how and when? For Lynskey, the third question is answered in the title.
The writer clearly feels passionately about his subjects, yet the ‘ordinariness’ of the language is as dispassionate as a barrister presenting a logical case. Often, it’s with a dry sense of wit, for example, in ‘Neanderthals’:
Whereas there is this ‘widespread idea
that Neanderthals had haggard haircuts,
went half-naked. had a wild-eyed stare,
and killed and chopped each other up for food;
… 1 have no doubts at all but they were kind
among themselves and did not soil the ground
where they lay down to sleep, and loved their kids,
and hoped for happiness. And then we came along.
In the latter part of the collection, the focus is on the issues particular to Ireland. In ‘Speaking of the Past’, we find a desire for unity between people, manifested through Catholicism:
It was all a tapestry of love –
divine, not flesh and blood –
with pictures of the Sacred Heart
in every house…
We didn’t have that point of purchase
on which we might step out
and view the whole embroidered cloth
and find it all a work of human hand.
Reading Lynskey’s work, it is impossible remain untouched.
Hard to read the news or watch TV or listen to the radio these days without being inundated by items about COVID-19, non of it too good except for the examples of heroism given by health workers treating the sick in spite of the dangers to their own well-being. Interesting too that for the first time ancillary staff such as cleaners, porters and hospital office staff are being recognised for the essential part they play in keeping our hospitals open for business. Maybe one of the good things that will come out of all this is that in future we might get our priorities right as to which members of the workforce are the more important for keeping us alive and that when they look for pay-rises we will take them more seriously. However, I am not too hopeful about that. I am quite sure that the astronomical salaries paid to talk-show hosts will continue. Tells us something about ourselves.
Yes, the web and social media are full of contributions on the subject of the dreaded virus and I have to say I find some of them a bit dreary and seemingly written for the sake of writing something. I hope my own contribution ‘April, London’ doesn’t fall into the same category and that it offers a ray of hope. I will leave the reader to judge.
In Mile End Park the daffodils
explode again and he's beside me
telling hothey’re good as any
fringed the edge of Ullswater.
He talks about the beautiful,
the way it is inseparable
from the brutal. Think, he says,
the ghostly language of the earth:
its cresting waves: such majesty –
and threat. Its mountain peaks – reminders
of our frailty. And yet –
this splendid, fluttering host!
the splendid, serried ranks that roared
at Nuremberg and prophesied
the bones and blitzmuck of this bombsite
underneath our feet. But yes,
they’re beautiful and good as any
trimmed the banks of Windermere
that spring that year. Or any year,
whatever bad our futures bring.
The other speaker in the poem is of course William Wordsworth, author of a much more famous (and much more accomplished) daffodil poem which he wrote with the help of his sister Dorothy. He is a poet never far from the insides of my writing life.
You can also find a video of my poem in Italian on the Italian Cultural Institute website www.iicdublino.esteri.it where it appears as part of the #WeAreWithItaly campaign organised in support of the Italian people who suffered so much in this unprecedented time of difficulty. The translation was greatly assisted by the Italian poet Anna Maria Robustelli, and I offer it below. And if it is at all possible you haven’t ever read William’s poem (for shame!) please dig out your anthologies and do so immediately!
A Mile End Park i narcisi
esplodono di nuovo e lui è accanto a me
a raccontare che sono bravi come quelli
che sfrangiavano le sponde di Ullswater.
Parla del bello, come sia
inseparabile dal brutale.
Immagina, dice, il linguaggiospettrale della terra: la cresta
delle sue onde: maestosità –
e minaccia. Le sue vette – promemoria
della nostra fragilità. E ancora –
questa splendida schiera svolazzante!
agli splendidi ranghi serrati
a Norimberga che profetizzarono
le ossa e il fango del blitz
proprio sotto i nostri piedi. Ma, sì,
sono belli e buoni come quelli
che decoravano le rive del Windermere
quella primavera quell’anno. O ogni anno,
qualunque male il nostro futuri porti.
Thanks to the generosity of the Irish Writers Centre I was able to partake of a week-long residency in Florence as the guest of St Mark’s English Church in early October 2019. During the week, I gave an evening reading of my work and held a workshop some days later in which I showed how one of my poems progressed from the status of being a vague idea to being a published piece in The Irish Times. I was very taken by the enthusiastic reaction of the participants on both occasions.
Apart from these duties, my days were filled with wandering around this beautiful city and exploring its famous piazze and intriguing narrow streets. The church of Santa Maria Novella was as beautiful as I remembered from twenty-five years ago when I first spent a few days here (and when I could tramp around tirelessly from dawn to dusk. Not so now!). And to make the visit to the church even more exciting, this time it included an exhibition of Leonardo’s groundbreaking experiments — in art and in science – which was so stunningly presented that I am sure the Great Man himself would have been pleased.
The majestic Duomo and the Uffizi Gallery were of course de rigueur. The gallery is a work of art in itself, quite apart from its magnificent contents. Again Leonardo: how marvellous his Adoration of the Magi, which he left unfinished. And here I have to say how much I have always found intriguing an artist’s unfinished works and the glimpse they give into his (or her) ideas and methods of approaching a subject. Think of those unfinished statues that Michelangelo left with the half-formed figures seeming to struggle out of the marble. Marvellous.
Speaking of whom, I made a visit to the Casa Buonarotti in the Via Ghibellina and, yes, I was aware that it was not actually his house (no more than the Dante House in Via Santa Margherita was ever Dante’s house) but was bought by Michelangelo the Younger, himself a man of letters and the arts, who employed many of Florence’s leading artists of the time (including Artemisia Gentileschi) to decorate the building. As such, it is a tribute not only to Michelangelo but to the entire Italian Renaissance as well. Not to be missed by any visitor interested in that great flowering period of the arts in Italy.
When I had mastered the bus routes, I took time to ramble a little around the suburbs in search of second-hand bookshops and to sample something of city life away from the city centre and the Great Sights. I was pleased at the sight of groups of people chatting on their piazzas or sitting out dining in front of their ristoranti. Their casual groupings reminded me of those figures Canaletto put into his painting to make his depiction of great buildings and edifices a little less overpowering. The general air of relaxation and unstressed living was infectious and in great contrast to the trafficy, tourist-crowded inner thoroughfares. I enjoyed the Great Sights as much as anyone else of course, but it has to be admitted that one can tire of Great sights and something in me relished the moments spent reading outside a coffee shop a book picked up from one of the many independent bookshops specialising in used books.
Also somewhat out from the centre of the city is the Orto Botanico (Botanic Gardens) which provided me with a measure of much-needed tranquillity. There are many gardens in Florence but this one happened to be on the itinerary I had set myself for the day. An hour or two of sitting close to Mother Nature is always very restoring. This Orto Botanico (in Via Micheli) does not compare with our own in Glasnevin either in scale or attraction, but is wonderful nevertheless. In fact it is a ‘working’ garden, part of the University of Florence and it was interesting to see students engaged in the sketching and photographing plants, presumably for further study and analysis. It is located in a quiet area and was therefore doubly tranquil. Greenery is always welcome. It’s the Andrew Marvel in me (and I believe in everyone) that loves to retreat ‘To a green Thought in a green Shade‘.
St Mark’s English Church is the focal point for English people (and English-speaking people) in Florence and here I must thank its Chaplain and management personnel for making my stay such a pleasant one. The church is itself is an historical part of Florence, stemming I believe from the era of ‘The Grand Tour’ and is the venue for various cultural events throughout the year. During my stay, no evening passed but the strains of the choir rehearsing for their next event or the soaring notes of opera made their way up to my apartment. During my week a well-attended production of La Boheme was mounted.
What else is there to say about this magical city of the Medici and its eternally courteous citizens? You will get a lot of information from any decent guide book but there’s nothing like a sampling of the real thing. Like taking a stroll across the Ponte Vecchio and down along the Arno in the evening when the traffic has died down. At the Ponte Santa Trinita, you can pause at the corner of the bridge where Dante met Beatrice and was so hurt when she wouldn’t look at him because she had found out that he had flirted with someone else, a moment forever captured in Henry Holiday’s famous painting and one of the many great moments forever associated with this great city. Book your tickets now.
The Narrow Land is really a fine novel. Christine Dwyer-Hickory treats of the relationship between the american artist Edward Hopper and his wife Jo. It is a tense relationship, withe a lot of resentment on her part over the way her own art has been overshadowed by her famous husband. There is also the story interwoven of a refugee boy from Germany taken in after the war on an American scheme for relocating children left orphans after the war. This is a book which would reward a second reading. Sharp detail, psychological insights and very moving descriptions. 9/10
‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney did not appeal to me, probably because, aged 71, the sexual relationships of teenagers do not hold my interest. However, the problem it is not just that: the book is a rather tedious read and centres around two young people, leaving all the rest of the characters making only incidental presences. I suppose one could say the same about Leopold Bloom in Ulysses but … I don’t think so. Sally’s book is boring. 2/10
Richard Russo’s novel, ‘Straight Man’ has its faults (it goes on a little too long and it has jokey situations that do not quite come off) but it’s a great read. And very amusing. Set in the English Department of a University, it has all the evils to be found in an English Department in a University (or in an English Department anywhere): pride, covetousness. lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. The main character is refreshingly cynical. Well-written. 7/10
This month’s Senior Times (Sept./Oc.t 2019) includes an essay from me on the subject of John Henry Cardinal Newman, which senior readers will remember from their Leaving Certificate days (back in the mists of time) as the author of essays such as ‘The Idea of a University’ which they studied diligently for their exam. Stirring stuff indeed, but an interesting man whose views on education I have increasingly identified with over the years. Next month (October) he will be canonised by the Roman Catholic Church.