“For me the main motivator in my practice is, quite simply, communication—and a communication that is as unambiguous as possible. I am not looking for novelty but a straightforward way to express an essence or idea, which I hope will be accessible to most people,” writes Jim Maginn in “Modus Operandi,” a sort of afterword to his photographs of traditional Irish musicians printed in this issue of Irish Pages. Maginn apprentices himself to “the humanist tradition,” where photography is “a continuing and compassionate engagement with people.” That just about sums up this issue of the journal for me; only just about, because I would add that it is also a gorgeous experience.
The poems are disciplined. Sentences are sentences, stanzas are stanzas, more often than not with equal number of lines in each; when rules are broken the breaking is done gently, without calling attention to itself. See, for example, Vona Groarke’s “Music from Home” on New Year’s Eve: “and the fiddle in all its finery / leans into silver promises / it cannot hope to keep.” The familiar pairings (the inevitable “keep” against a “promise,” for example) come arm in arm with surprises that make my heart leap: music described in visual terms and an assignation of color (or sound?) — silver — to a promise, which is an abstraction. The deft positioning of the various e and i sounds, long and short, stressed and unstressed, remind me of Larkin.
Irish Pages features pieces in Irish, Scots, and Scots Gaelic. Here’s the beginning of the English version of Aonghas MacNeacail’s “Am Fìor Ghilead,” or “The True Whiteness”:
because snow arrived
yesterday, with its settling
like linen over every hill and
house-gable, and with its
folding around young eyes,
for which it is perfect proof
that paradise was possible,
Can you say anything more hopeful and at the same time melancholic about snow than that “it is perfect proof that paradise was possible”?
MacNeacail’s Scots Gaelic poems are printed with facing English versions, but the Scots poems had only glosses for the more unfamiliar words and, for the Irish pieces, entire pages without any reference to English at all. On one hand, the choice to leave out English limits the audience and may make some readers feel as if they were being kept at arm’s length. On the other hand, it speaks of the confidence of people who are secure of their place in the world. I am not sure whether people in fact feel secure about the status of these languages and/or dialects (don’t ask me to explain the difference) where they are spoken, but the normalcy of publishing Irish stands as a quiet manifesto: this is not a political rally, but simply how we live.
In Deirdre Mask’s estimation, the Irish are not always aware of the strangers in their midst. Her “Fitting In” reflects on being black and (and/or?) African-American in Ireland: a variation on a topic that has been in vogue for some time, but her essay is still fresh, fun to read, and, on the whole, free of self-pity. I do wonder at a paragraph near the end, where she hopes that the children she may have with her white husband “will not have to choose between black and white,” and that they will never have to feel that “they have to fit in.” They are comments on the world where she grew up and lives—for example, she observes that she has done well in this world in part because she “speak[s] Caucasian fluently”—but, at the same time, having to fit in doesn’t seem to have been so bad for her.
Irish Pages holds other riches. Fans of W. G. Sebald will find Sebald’s same meandering, dreamlike voice in Jonathan P. Watts’s memories of Michael Hamburger, a translator who appears in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Robert Anthony Welch, a longtime professor at the University of Ulster, recounts a disastrous meeting of academics in “The Legion of the Rearguard” involving one Professor Welch; it’s supposed to be fiction, though I rather wish it were not. Timothy Kenny’s portraits of Detroit and Pristina are sober, lyrical, and unembarrassed where the narrative becomes personal.
“The dystopian, misanthropic, sterile, detached or cryptic is now commonplace,” says Jim Maginn. There’s none of that in Irish Pages. It reaches out—it stamps the heart—it’s lovely.