Collected Poems, by Pearse Hutchinson, The Gallery Press, 294pp, €17.50,
At Least for a While, by Pearse Hutchinson, The Gallery Press, 69pp, €11.95, ISBN: 978-1852354480
I navigate against the current.
When the rest are coming back I’m setting out.1
The Spring 2009 issue of the literary journal Cyphers contains three separate contributions from Pearse Hutchinson: a prose poem in two short parts called “Near the Grand Canal”, dedicated to Patrick Galvin (“that gallant man”, born in Cork in 1927), a translation into English of a poem in Catalan by Manuel Forcano (born 1968), and a series of six haikus from the Portuguese of Brazilian poet Alice Ruiz (born 1946).2 Three short poems – or eight if “Haikus” is taken as six individual poems – composed in and through three different languages, representing Hutchinson’s engagement with a wide range of poetic cultures and contexts, from the local/Irish to the Iberian and then extending across the Atlantic and beyond through Luiz’s Latin American experiments with a form that originates in ancient Japan. Taken together, they represent a snapshot of the poet’s project and vision going back over sixty years – his first published poems (“Water” and “The River”) appeared in The Bell in 1945 – a project, indeed, that has over six decades evolved into a vision of poetry’s possibilities beyond the confines or contours of national cultures or contexts.3
This is not to say that Hutchinson has not written about Ireland, Dublin, Irish culture, politics, or society – he has, of course, written about all of these concerns in compelling ways on several occasions – but it is wrong to think of him as a poet whose achievement should be judged solely in local or, indeed, national terms. It may in fact be worth considering him as a “transnational” poet insofar as his work exemplifies the kind of “poetic transnationalism” that Jahan Ramazani has suggested “can help us both understand and imagine a world in which cultural boundaries are fluid, transient, and permeable”.4
Not all poetry imagines such a world, and a great deal of Irish poetry may be said to fixate on the idea of place in ways that make it difficult to think of the writing outside of its local contexts. The pull of home is perhaps always present in poetry, but in Hutchinson’s work the attraction of what Gerald Dawe once termed a “real life elsewhere” seems to exert a greater force over his imagination than it has over many poets of his own and later generations.5 The work of his contemporaries John Montague (born 1929) and Thomas Kinsella (born 1928) certainly engages with “elsewhere” at important junctures, but they are ultimately poets of particular places and their Irish origins (even in Montague’s case – he was born in Brooklyn) have had a pervasively powerful effect on their work’s thematic development. The identifiably Irish element in Montague and Kinsella may account in part for their popularity among critics and scholars of Irish poetry. By the same token, the fact that his work has been more attracted to non-Irish contexts than either of these contemporaries may explain the Irish critical establishment’s almost total lack of interest in Hutchinson’s work over the past number of decades. Unlike Montague and Kinsella, Hutchinson has not yet been the subject of a special issue of the Irish University Review, nor has his work been the focus of any book-length scholarly monographs or essay collections. Compared to these poets the critical response to his work has been muted to say the least, even in Ireland, apart from a few brief discussions in larger studies of the field and the advocacy of a handful of admirers in academia and the arts.
In response to Dennis O’Driscoll’s question about his first encounter with The Dolmen Miscellany of Irish Writing in Stepping Stones, Seamus Heaney recalls getting his “hands on a copy of the Miscellany very early on”: “It was a marvellous thing to behold” he says:
It marked a moment. It was the right treatment for the generation who came into their own in its pages – [John] McGahern had an extract from The Barracks, [Richard] Murphy had “The Cleggan Disaster”, [Thomas] Kinsella had “A Country Walk”, [John] Montague had a long essay on Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village” – readable now as a premonition of The Rough Field. You also had Pearse Hutchinson, James Plunkett, and a strange, outsiderish piece by Brian Moore.6
The Dolmen Miscellany was published in 1962, the same year Hutchinson’s first book appeared (with Dolphin Books, run by Joan Gili in Oxford), a selection of translations from the work of Catalan poet Josep Carner. His first book of original poems in English, Tongue without Hands, was published by the Dolmen Press in 1963, but in retrospect it seems clear now that the Carner book is the true starting point for a consideration of Hutchinson’s achievement. The peripatetic course of Carner’s career – he was born in Barcelona in 1884 and died in Brussels in 1970 – must have struck a chord with the young Hutchinson, who was born in Glasgow in 1927, moved to Dublin at the age of five with his parents, but then spent his twenties and thirties mainly living abroad, first in Geneva and then in Barcelona, where he was based more or less permanently until 1967. If Brian Moore’s work seemed “outsiderish” to the young Heaney in 1962, what must he have made of Hutchinson? He had been “outside” Ireland for well over a decade at this point, learning the languages of greater Europe – Catalan, Galician, Galaico-Portuguese, as well as French, Dutch-Flemish, and Italian – and forming his poetic identity in relation to poets such as Carner and other Catalan figures like Pere Quart (1899-1986) and Salvador Espriu (1913-1985), to name only a few of the non-Irish and non-Anglophone writers whose work had a major impact on the development of his distinctive poetic voice in the early decades of his career. Patrick Kavanagh and Louis MacNeice were certainly there in the background – Kavanagh in particular – but they were less important to the development of Hutchinson’s poetry and poetics than they were to his contemporaries Montague and Kinsella or, indeed, to Heaney and others after them.
Reading through his Collected Poems (2002), it would be hard to miss the extent to which writers and literatures outside of the Irish scene impacted upon both the course of Hutchinson’s career and the character of his writing. The first poem in the book, dedicated to Huyck van Leeuwen and the Dutch poet Judith Herzberg, describes an encounter with racism and anti-Semitism in Paris in the 1950s, where the poet saw the words “Mort aux noirs, comme aux juifs!” “scratched on a urinal”.7 Throughout the six earlier volumes assembled for his Collected Poems and the selection of New Poems (1995-2001) gathered there, and in At Least for a While (2008), the memory of that encounter combined with a more general sense of what the American poet John Berryman once called “the evil waste of history” has pervaded Hutchinson’s poetry, particularly in poems such as “Odessa”, “Ostfriesland”, and “Judengasse”.8 His engagements with the memory of the Holocaust in these and many other poems are a major part of his work’s thinking about modern European history and culture, but he is also a poet for whom language, no matter how much it has been debased in the service of hatred, may become a source for spiritual self-replenishment. This, surely, is one of the reasons why Hutchinson has been drawn to so many languages in addition to his native English and Irish, and his revelatory reclamation of words in and for their own peculiar sonic uniqueness and power is evident throughout his Collected Poems, where individual phrases and names are often teased out and tested for the sheer joy of the sound they make as much as anything else – from “Galinsoga: beautiful nine-letter name” in “A Rose and a Book for Sant Jordi” from Watching the Morning Grow (1972) to “Enriqueta Bru” and her “lovely name” from Barnsley Main Seam (1995).9 Only a poet with such a sense of language’s sovereignty – who can conjure an image of “Flemish words on horseback” – can seriously claim that “To kill a language is to kill a people” as Hutchinson does in his poem for Michael Hartnett, “The Frost is All Over” (the title poem of his 1975 collection).10 Only a poet with such an understanding of the intricate and intimate relationship between language and humanity – never mind nationality – can really lay claim to the resources that survive even in languages assumed to be already “dead”. Beyond the local/national politics of his poetry’s consideration of the Irish language, then, lies a belief in language’s agency in itself, a belief which allows Hutchinson to claim (not just of Irish but of any language) that: “To kill a language is to kill one’s self.”11
While it is tempting, and to a certain extent necessary, to read Hutchinson’s poetry in terms of its national/Irish contexts, in other words, it is just as important to keep a broader framework in mind. The Irish story has a place, certainly, in his work and readings of it, but it is not prioritised by the poet when one considers the range of his interests over the last few decades. In a recent essay in The Irish Times under the title “After Ireland?” Declan Kiberd described what he calls “the tragedy of many contemporary artists and intellectuals” who “have declared their embarrassment in the face of simple-minded notions of nation, faith and fatherland”.12 Hutchinson has always confronted such notions directly, even when he has written about them from abroad, but his aesthetic and political integrity as an artist have not been determined or compromised by narrow national determinations of what he should or should not say in his art. Rather, like his great Catalan exemplar Carner, he is a poet whose calling has always been writing itself first and foremost – language before it enters the political arena as the first point of departure even if, as the poems take shape, they come to speak to questions of ideology and public critique. As he puts it in “At Nightfall” (a translation from Carner), in lines that might be read as an endorsement of the poet’s primary responsibility to his own craft:
The lamp on the table summons me,
so does a fleeting thought,
and the old worn chair,
and, malcontent, a sheet of paper.13
Of course there are times when he doubts language’s power, and in “Diptychs for the Living”, a poem translated from the work of Salvador Espriu, he writes: “Perhaps a line will save me from the sea / a few clear words” – but only “if […] they can stretch their value / over an entire life.”14 Hutchinson is willing to credit that “a few clear words” can “stretch their value / over an entire life” and the canon of his published poetry to date in and from over a dozen languages confirms his belief in their sustaining (staying) power. As he puts it in the recently published haiku translated from the Portuguese of Alice Ruiz: “against the red / a small boy crosses / still writing verses”.15
If Irish critics have not engaged with Hutchinson’s work as much as they have with some of his more well-known contemporaries, poets and translators from a wide range of cultural backgrounds have been busy over the past number of years with his poems – as busy with his work as he has been with theirs. His work to date includes collaborative ventures in translation with Melita Cataldi, for example, and the poet has also translated his own poems in Irish into English, as well as versions of poems in Catalan, Spanish, and Italian into Irish. Hutchinson’s Anglophone audience might not be familiar with the following titles of his works that have been published by various poets, scholars, and translators over the past number of years: El Alma Que Besó Al Cuerpo (1994), L’anima che bacio il corpo (1999), Achnasheen: Corenta e catro poemas irlandeses (2002), Cîtec de cimpoi (2003), Lenda (2004), Poèmes (2008).16 The latter volume is a “trilingual” production (“édition trilingue: irlandais, anglais et français”), overseen by Pádraig Ó Gormaile and Bernard Escarbelt and involving a team of translators from two French centres for Irish Studies (the Centre d’Études et de Recherche Irlandaises at the Université Charles de Gaulle in Lille and the Université de Paris-Sorbonne Nouvelle). In his introduction to that book Ó Gormaile writes that Hutchinson “speaks from within both a bilingual tradition […] and a multilingual European tradition rich in surrealist imagery, without describing either but by adopting the idiom of both to express his own particular view of man and reality.”17 Hutchinson’s interest in surrealism began during his first extended period away from Ireland, in the 1950s, when he got to know the French writer Claude Tarnaud in Geneva, but if the surrealist element is not always obvious in his work Ó Gormaile and Escarbelt are certainly right in their observation that his poetry gives voice to “a multilingual European tradition” – not just because he has done so much to introduce many of those languages to Irish readers in his translations but because many of his poems are meditations on the richness of Europe’s linguistic heritage in itself.18 And the work continues: 2010 will see the publication of a selection of his poems rendered into Dutch by the poet Joris Iven (whose work is represented in Hutchinson’s Done into English by “The House on the Lake”), and a collection translated into Spanish by Dickinson College scholar, editor, and poet Jorge Sagastume will also be published next year.
In addition to these new books of translations of Hutchinson’s work, the Irish Academic Press will publish a collection of essays and reflections on the poet that will include contributions by a wide range of scholars, a long interview with Hutchinson and a bibliography compiled especially for the volume that will allow readers to appreciate for the first time the full extent and range of his career to date as poet, translator, editor, critic, reviewer, and broadcaster. When that volume is published it will provide readers with a resource through which the biographical, bibliographical, and contextual details of Hutchinson’s career can be more fully understood, and it will also throw light on areas of his work that have long needed to be examined in a critical light, from his engagements with Irish and European history to the claim made at the start of this piece regarding the possibility that he might be considered a “transnational” poet. On the basis of his published works to date and, indeed, considering the example of his most recent collection in English, At Least for a While, Ramazani’s claim that a “transnational poetics” allows us to “read ourselves as imaginative citizens not of one or another hermetically sealed national or civilizational bloc” seems to make clear sense in relation to Hutchinson. Poems such as “Cockney” and the wonderful triptych “Memories of West Cork and Limerick” point to Hutchinson’s abiding concern for the Irish language and cultural politics, but the poems of At Least for a While more frequently take us outside Ireland, to Rotterdam (in “A Man Goes for a Walk; Runs the Gauntlet; and Finds Beauty”), Amsterdam and Barcelona (“Perfection in Amsterdam and Barcelona”), Lisbon (“Senhor Mascarenhas”), Milan (“Midnight”), Venice (“Calder”), Stockholm (“A Bowl of Red Cherries”), Savona and Compostella (“Crucifixions”), Seville (“The Three-Cornered Hat”), Rome (“A Roman Piazza”), Lugo (“Believers in a Possible Freedom”) and Lübeck (“Lehmbruck in Lübeck”), to name only the places that are named in his most recent collection. There are also poems in which specifics of place or time are not given – such as “Ivy and Bay” and “Irises”, poems in which Hutchinson’s eye fixes on isolated details of the natural world around him – but naming a place beyond one’s own nation (wherever or whatever that is) does not necessarily make a poem “transnational”. With regard to Hutchinson, it seems to me that the term makes sense simply because he is a poet who has refused to be hemmed in by what might be termed the expectations of local or national culture. Always his own man, writing against the grain, he has made a body of work over the last sixty years and continues to make poems that reflect an ease with elsewhere that is not always popular in contemporary Irish writing. Moreover, reading his poems of those “other” places one is allowed, briefly and provisionally, to become what Ramazani has termed an “imaginative citizen […] of intercultural worlds that ceaselessly overlap, intersect, and converge”.19
Perhaps that is what all poetry aspires to give its readers – a temporary passport to the forbidden zone, the place you always wanted to visit but by going there you would have to forgo the comforts of home. Maybe the best poets take us out of ourselves by revealing something previously unforeseen in the homely. However one thinks about the relationship between poetry and home, art and the familiar, the extent to which Hutchinson has worked and reworked these terms in his writing is undeniable, and he has accomplished this in part by embracing the “transnational” not just as a way of living his life but as a way of writing poetry. In a remarkable tribute to the poet published in her most recent collection Pure Lizard (2008), the Indian poet Sujata Bhatt – another writer for whom the idea of a “transnational poetics” seems to be of profound relevance – concludes her poem with the following lines:
Pearse, that summer I read
your poems for the first time –
Entered your Dublin, your Barcelona.
Your 1950s echoing with Gaelic,
with Castilian and Catalan –
That summer I kept
returning to your words.
And always, in the background:
Thetis sleeping, Thetis awakening,
Neptune in love – Ebb’ und Fluth,
Ebb’ und Fluth, Neptune in love –
And always, love.
Always, the aching pull of it –
An unknown creature grasping the soul.20
Bhatt’s lines remind us that Hutchinson’s “Dublin” or “Barcelona” will always be his cities, the particular poet’s memory and representation of those places. At the same time, however, his poems take us to these “other” places and in those journeys, as Bhatt records, echoes of various languages resound against a background of music and mythology that extends from the anonymous poets of Ancient Greece to Georg Philipp Telemann’s Hamburg. Through each journey the common theme is love – “Always, the aching pull of it” – and it is this, finally that has compelled Hutchinson to range across cultures throughout his career as a poet. He has never written simply as a tourist or as a passive observer of life as he witnessed it in Franco’s Spain or anywhere else, but as an artist with a firm belief in art’s relation to the world.
Writing “from / Findrum” – the house where he grew up in Dublin and to which he returned in the late 1960s, and where he now lives – “to / Fisterra” – on the Costa da Morte or “Coast of Death” in Galicia – Hutchinson’s explorations of place ultimately transcend national and cultural particulars to invoke what he calls “‘the best-loved space’” in “Black Tide”.21 The poem (written in response to a photograph taken by Xavier Rodríguez of ten people lying naked on a beach in protest against oil pollution), begins in the contemplation of the actualities of an ecological disaster but ends with an invocation of the perseverance of the human voice in art that speaks across boundaries of space and time:
This is no fun, no self-indulgent freak
but a bitter shriek of anger, even despair
These gallant bodies are hope – of a kind.
Is there any other kind?
Their silent nakedness cries to the sky.
Made for loving they scream outrage
But each one with breast, nobilities,
‘the best-loved space’, with beauty,
cleaves through the black ugly dreck of greed
to love the beautiful insulted land, and people.22
The land loved there is not just Spain, or Galicia, and the “gallant bodies” protesting in Rodríguez’s photograph are representative of women and men everywhere who take a stand against “the black ugly dreck of greed” and dare to love through art. In their gestures and performances, and in Hutchinson’s poems, hope and love reside.
1.Pearse Hutchinson, “Game”, translated from the Catalan of Pere Quart, in Done into English: Collected Translations (Oldcastle: Gallery, 2003), p. 151.
2. Cyphers (Spring 2009) 40-42. Hutchinson has been a contributing editor to Cyphers since it was founded by him with Leland Bardwell, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and Macdara Woods in 1975.
3. The Bell 9.6 (March 1945) 472-3.
4. Jahan Ramazani, “A Transnational Poetics”, American Literary History 18.2 (2006) 332-359; 355.
5. Gerald Dawe, A Real Life Elsewhere (Belfast: Lagan Press, 1993).
6. Seamus Heaney in Dennis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), pp 51-52.
7. “Changes” in Collected Poems (Oldcastle: Gallery, 2002), p. 15. Two of Hutchinson’s translations of poems by Judith Herzberg are included in Done into English, pp 94-95.
8. Ibid., pp 228-230; 231-233; 262-263. Berryman’s phrase is from the poem “Winter Landscape”, collected in Charles Thornbury, ed. Collected Poems, 1937-1971 (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), p. 3.
9. Ibid., pp 125; 256-259.
10. Ibid., pp 172-173.
11. Ibid., p. 173.
12. Declan Kiberd, “After Ireland?”, The Irish Times (29 August 2009). Available online at: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2009/0829/.
13. Done into English, p. 134.
14. Ibid., p. 179.
15.Cyphers (Spring 2009) 40.
16. El Alma Que Besó Al Cuerpo, translations by Pilar Salamanca (Madrid: Hiperión, 1994); L’anima che bacio il corpo / Pearse Hutchinson; poesie scelte a cura di Melita Cataldi; traduzioni dall’irlandese e dall’inglese di Rosangela Barone, Melita Cataldi e Marco Sonzogni (Torino: Trauben, 1999); Achnasheen: Corenta e catro poemas irlandeses, translations by Kathleen March and Luis Martul (Santiago di Compostela: Noitarenga, 2002); Cîtec de cimpoi / Pearse Hutchinson; traducere de Christian Tămaş (Iaşi, Romania: Ars Longa, 2003); Lenda, translations by Robert Neal Baxter, (Santiago di Compostela: Amastra-N-Gallar, 2004); Poèmes / Pearse Hutchinson, edition trilingue irlandais, anglais et français, présentés et introduits par Bernard Escarbelt et Pádraig Ó Gormaile (sur CD version sonore en irlandais par le poète lui-même (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2008).
17. Pádraig Ó Gormaile, “Introduction”, Poèmes, p. 15.
18. On Claude Tarnaud see http://claudetarnaud.com/.
19. Ramazani, p. 355.
20. Sujata Bhatt, Pure Lizard (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), pp 37-39; p. 39.
21. Hutchinson, At Least for a While (Oldcastle: Gallery, 2008), pp 54-55.
22. Ibid., p. 55.
Philip Coleman is a Lecturer in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, where he is Director of the MPhil in Literatures of the Americas and Head of Sophisters. With Maria Johnston he is editing Reading Pearse Hutchinson, a collection of essays and reflections on the poet, for the Irish Academic Press. He has edited collections of essays on literature and science and on the poetry of John Berryman. His book John Berryman and the Public Sphere: Reception and Redress will be published by UCD Press in 2010.