I am honoured and delighted to have been asked to launch Lorna Shaughnessy’s complex and empathetic collection of poetry ‘Anchored’ which is published by my own long suffering publisher Jessie Lendennie. For the week that’s in it, with the theater community up in arms about gender discrimination and the persistence of overt patriarchy in the arts I think it is fair to congratulate and draw attention to Jessie’s thirty years of tireless and groundbreaking work on behalf of women poets. Without a doubt without Jessie and the great women whose work she published it would be far more difficult for all of us working today to have our work reach any sort of an audience.
It is very apt today too, that we are attending what is as well as a book launch a celebration of our community. Given the tragic events of yesterday in Beirut, of last night in Paris and of every day at the moment in places like Lesvos and Syria, it is appropriate to start with a very well known quote from Bertold
Brecht’s poem ‘In the dark times-‘
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times’’
I could also quote Brecht’s comments about why in those dark times the poets were silent, but in fact today we are here to celebrate a writer who is not silent and does not shy away from either dark times or dark places. In Lorna’s beautifully produced collection of poems she delicately interrogates everything from illness to conflict. The book is laid out six sections where the poems are thematically grouped, in the first unnamed section the poems included serve to introduce the reader to Lorna and for want of a better word her sensibilities.
The six poems here are fragile, delicate and intelligent, they are poems that want to find and pinpoint something stable from the fluid and doubt ridden edges of a life, in ‘Looking for Coordinates’ Lorna tells us
‘Morning. The world returns
in the surfaces of things
outlines that help define
the contours of the self ‘
Having convinced us in this first section that she is not a poet of certainties, in the second section ‘Apples Sweeten in the Dark’ Lorna briefly places her memories of her Belfast childhood and adolescence beside her experiences as a parent. Here again she focuses on the uncertainty rather than what she knows. For the reader who reads this collection in sequence from beginning to end her understated and evocative poem about teenage love ‘Moving Like Anemones (Belfast 1975)’ would seem only to briefly engage, as in fact a teenager might, with the fact of living in a war zone. However, the seemingly innocuous placing of that poem in Belfast 1975 is echoed in the next section in the poem ‘No One Saw it Coming (July 1975)’ which deals with the awful murders of the Miami Showband that happened that same summer.
In ‘Anchored’, Lorna seems to manage to place the small miracles, the luminous textures of our ordinary human lives side by side with the brutal ravages and the untruths of conflict. At the same time that she says of her young lover:
‘You were ripe for love and knew it;
I blushed and feared that burning touch’
she makes the reader face up to the fact that
‘deafened by the blast,
the bass player drags himself to the edge of the field.
No one saw it coming.’
Both in the poems themselves and in the careful layered construction of the collection, Lorna is demonstrating to us that in fact there was and always is, to labour the point singing in the dark times.
In the same section ‘The Injured Past’ where she focuses directly on the conflict, Lorna’s writing itself changes tone and form. In an e-mail to me last week she mentioned that she was worried that she had tried to make some poems in this collection do things that the lyric poem is not equipped to do. If you read poems such as the remarkable ‘Tip Off’ (June 1976) you can see that, yes in fact, the neat compactness of her other poems is absent however, she is not alone in this, in one of the most lauded poetry collections this year, Claudia Rankin’s ‘Citizen’, the writer has almost abandoned any loyalty to the shape of what we might call a lyric poem and yet what she and in fact what Lorna has written in these poems here is undoubtedly poetry doing what poetry is supposed to do- getting at something that can not otherwise be expressed.
In all that is not said in ‘Tip Off’ there is without doubt,a poem, but it is not, I think a poem that could have been written directly. There are a whole series of events that Tip Off tells us about, we have the gun, we have an investigation, we have a cover up, but from Lorna’s poem we don’t know anything about what else has happened other than that something has happened to someone. In this way she again creates enough uncertainty and doubt in what seems a newsy and colloquial piece of writing to make it resonate and question, to make it interrogate. Tip Off’s closing lines:
‘In a labelled bag in the fingerprint lab
a pallid strip of tape coils like a shed snake skin’
are a poem in and of themselves.
In the section ‘The Injured Past’ and indeed in the whole collection Lorna demonstrates that on this island there are huge areas of our almost-shared history still left unexplored; if it is not the job of artists and writers to investigate these places then I don’t know who will do it. It will not for sure be our politicians, or our greasy till fumblers.
I don’t know if Lorna is aware or not but in my own first collection of poems I included one called ‘I will never write a Greek myth poem’ so as you can imagine when I came to the section titled ‘Aulis Monolouges’ I had to make my inner resident whiner shut up. I am glad I did though the poems in this section fit perfectly with the other territories covered in Anchored. The distance that the seeming retreat to myth gives Lorna here seems to have freed her to comment more directly on the outer reaches of conflict. The opening lines of the poem ‘Footsoldiers’;
Blame is a coin passed down from hand to hand,
it starts off hidden in the fists of powerful men
but like most things they want to be rid of
it finds its way down to the likes of us
would seem to be just as apt for Ireland as for Troy and I am certain that this, intentionally or otherwise, is the point. In fact coming where they do in the collection I found it impossible to read these poems without the shadows of the conflict in the six counties falling on them. I was particularly affected by the poem ‘Euripides’ which begins;
‘We all know the girl is blameless- whether she meets the knife
in terror or patriotic fervour is hardly the point
she’s the goat Agamemnon sacrifices to escape his own obscurity’
It reminded me of all the voices that we have still not heard from, how in the sullen but welcome peace that was made between fighting men, other voices, often women’s voices, were and are still frequently silenced. Lorna I forgive you your Greek myth poems.
I promise not to go on too much longer but for me the book’s final section, The Dual Citizen, could be a pamphlet or sequence that would entirely stand alone, in poems such as ‘The Dual Citizen’ and the magnificently controlled ‘Pain has a shaved head’ Lorna takes the reader on a journey to the human heart of illness in the face of the dehumanising reality of treatment –
‘Pain has a shaved head
and no eyebrows. It stands on one leg.
one foot, the side of one foot,
afraid to take up too much space’
Lorna closes her collection with a series of poems that meditate on the frailty of the human body. These poems apart from being original and beautiful seem to be an apt way to close the collection which has travelled from the uncertainty of our lives themselves, through the grounding and formative experiences of youth, through the brutalising and dehumanising effects of war on humans and back then to the certainty of the body and its assured fragility. I want to wish Lorna the best of luck with this collection which deserves a great audience and great attention and I want to to thank her for giving me the honour of launching it and to thank her also for making me confront my Greek myth phobia. Now, let there be drinking as well as singing in the dark times.
You can and should probably buy it here….