Reading Pearse Hutchinson. From Findrum to Fisterra, ed Philip Coleman and Maria Johnston, Irish Academic Press, 286pp, €45, ISBN. 978-0716530831
By way of introduction to the personality of Pearse Hutchinson I am prefacing my review of the first ever Irish collection of critical essays on this leading Irish poet with my translation of extracts from a recently published book on Connemara by the Gaelic-speaking Austrian writer/artist Richard Wall which offer a vignette of Wall’s encounter with Hutchinson in the year 2000.
“Years ago I discovered the poetry of Pearse Hutchinson, including a poem called ‘Gaeltacht’ which was embellished with Irish-language quotes. The irony of these lines makes itself felt only to those who are acquainted with the mentality of the inhabitants and the situation of the Irish language in a societal context and who know about the contempt and arrogance of many city-dwellers and nouveaux-riches in relation to the ‘backward’ Gaelic-speaking farmers and fishermen. The title as well as the content of the poem relate to the Connemara Gaeltacht; the localities Carraroe and ‘the sunny quartz glory of Carna’ are mentioned by name. To make the stanza which I quote below more comprehensible let me offer some information on the traditions and ‘philosophy’ of the population of the West of Ireland: the unconversant stranger might wonder about the negligence or ignorance with which people allow empty houses or boats that have to belong to someone or other to rot away. Even if the heirs omit to intervene to stop this decay and deterioration or the owner seems to ignore the condition of his boat and the effects of the climate, it will not occur to anyone living nearby to take anything from the house (‘to rescue it from going to ruin’ etc.), or to use planks from a boat no longer capable of floating as firewood. These relics are, as it were, sacred, no-one touches them; they are someone else’s property until no speck of dust is left over from them. In Hutchinson’s poem a Dubliner turns up searching for firewood who begins to take a rotten boat apart, whereupon an old man from the locality shakes his head and calls to him: ‘Oh, son, don’t be breaking the boat!’ The original text reads as follows:
A Dublin tourist on a red-quarter strand
hunting firewood found the ruins of a boat
started breaking the struts out – an old man came
he shook his head, and said:
‘Áá, a mhac: ná bí ag briseadh báid’.
Over and over again Hutchinson, who always champions the cultures that are forced to the edge by the centres of power, makes the disappearance of the Irish language his theme. In the same poem an old man points to his glass filled with stout and says: ‘Is lú í an Ghaeilge ná an t-uisce sa ngloine sin.’ – ‘Irish is worth less than the water in that glass:’
And in his poem ‘Achnasheen’, which once more treats the murdering (his friend Ray calls it ‘bastardisation’) of Gaelic placenames, there are the lines:
You’d almost think the conquerors thought
Gaelic was God:
Its real name unnameable.
The Gaelic names beating their wings madly
behind the mad cage of English;
the new names half the time transparent, but half the time
silent as the grave
English would bury Irish in.
I wanted to meet the author of these verses. I got hold of his address and wrote him quite a long letter in which I described which poems and which aspects of his writing I valued particularly. Hutchinson responded by return post, already addressing me intimately, as is customary in Ireland, by my first name. A date for a visit was arranged: the 21st of August of the year 2000. […]
After about an hour I stood on the threshold of the house given in the address on Rathgar Road in Rathmines, once a suburb on the south side of Dublin. After I, as agreed, had rung the bell three times, the door was carefully opened slightly by a man of frail appearance with a full grey beard and a black beret on his head. In a whisper he asked my first name, and I said: ‘Yes, that’s right’. Only then did he ask me in. He wore an olive-green overcoat that reached to his calves, apparently already put on in readiness to go out. The beret was perhaps in reminiscence of his years in Catalonia. He walked in small steps; I can’t recall whether he used a stick or not.
He led me into a dilapidated room furnished only with some chairs, a table and innumerable boxes. It was agreed that we would go to a pub, but first he had something to show me. He placed himself beside a framed oil painting that stood on the floor leaning against a chair. It was immediately clear to me that it had to be a portrait of him from days long past. He explained that it was done about 30 years previously by a Dutch painter (he gave his name but I have forgotten it). He got it back only recently because the painter had borrowed it for an exhibition. [This was a false memory on Wall’s part. The painting was, in fact, the same portrait of Pearse by his friend Paul Funge that adorns the cover of Reading Pearse Hutchinson.]
Although we had conversed only a little we understood each other after a few sentences, also on a level that expands beyond a reality created by words. When he spoke, one noticed his sensuous lips despite his full beard of hair that seemed more white than grey. I listened keenly to what he had to say, which added up to a short account of his life. Born in Glasgow in the year 1927, he grew up, as he told me, in this house. The room where we were had been his mother’s bedroom. After secondary school he studied Spanish at UCD, after which he travelled a lot and spent some years in Catalonia during the Franco Period. Without any inhibition he told of his partner Alan, to whom, as I had noticed, he dedicated many of his poems. They had lived here together for 20 years until Alan’s death – some years previously he died of cancer. He met his life companion in Leeds, where he had lived and given instruction for a year as “writer in residence”. Alan’s parents, like his own, had come from Ireland. He was so interested in Irish culture that he even learnt Gaelic.
I still recall a coloured poster on the wall which displayed the most famous wine-growing areas of France.
An early portrait by an Irish female artist, a friend of his youth, was not much to his mother’s taste. Later, before she died, she explained to him why: “It was too prophetic – you looked too sensual!”
If these living conditions testify to his financial situation, I thought, he seems not exactly to be swimming in money. To be honest, his house had a depressing effect on me. One of the best poets of Ireland, who writes both in English and Irish and has translated and published poetry from the Catalonian and Portuguese, living in such a ramshackle dwelling? Or is the outer condition of the house misleading? Is this just a stage-setting? No, Pearse is not the kind of person who stages situations; I feel I can make such an assertion on the basis of the poetry which he has written and is still writing – no, these two things don’t fit together. It was more likely that it had to do with a certain negligence, an indifference towards things earthly or materialistic. Perhaps loneliness played a role, the death of his beloved partner, the melancholy that underlay his life.
Before we set off I showed him the two poetry volumes that I had brought with me. Not only did Pearse sign them but also wrote extensive dedications in a somewhat playful but tidy handwriting that stood in contrast to the shambles of his house. After that he handed me a volume of the literary journal ‘Cyphers’ containing a translation of his into Irish. Then he expressed the wish with some urgency that we should go to his local. We strolled slowly down the street and talked about his time in Catalonia, about Dylan Thomas, about nationalism and socialism. He felt that Ireland had been colonized for a second time by English tabloids like ‘The Sun’ and ‘The Daily Mirror’. In Murphy’s Pub on Upper Rathmines Road we were greeted personally by the head barman and guided to Pearse’s regular table. He ordered ‘Heineken from the shelf’. As he explained to me, he only drank beer from the bottle and not out of a fridge. Even draught beer was too cold for him and too hard on his stomach. After the head barman had brought us the drinks we ordered, we continued our conversation. We had a lot to say, and were in many matters, if not always of the same opinion, then of a similar one. Again and again we returned to social developments and also the topic of Neoliberalism, whose true face Pearse, too, had come to recognize. He was only once in Vienna, he said suddenly, in the year 1952, ‘and do you know what impressed me most there besides the historical buildings? – a dish called Reisfleisch!’ He really remembered the sound of the word so precisely that I immediately understood what he meant. At some stage it occurred to him that he was to give me Vincent Woods’ regards. Suddenly he asked me if I knew who used the word ‘fuck’ for the first time in a BBC interview, it was an Irish writer … I thought for a moment and said ‘Brendan Behan!’, which was the right answer. He had often encountered Behan, he added. Once even in Paris. He, Pearse, was totally down-and-out, had no longer enough for the journey home, and so he turned to the Irish Embassy. There they handed him out 500 Francs, a handsome sum in those days; he could even recall the name of the official (perhaps, I thought, because it was not only once that he had to deal with him). Afterwards he was immediately in the bar opposite the Embassy. The 500 Francs, which were only borrowed, as he emphasized (whether he ever paid them back, he didn’t say), enabled him to buy his ticket as well as to stay one more week. He was only a short while at the bar when Behan came in – they greeted each other. Pearse told him that he had just received 500 Francs. Behan retorted that he was also on the way to the Embassy and that he had better get something – Pearse should wait till he was back, and if he, Behan, didn’t get anything, then Pearse would have to fork out the half of his. After some 15 or 20 minutes Behan appeared in the bar beaming with pleasure and boasting that he, too, had got the same amount. The result was – who would have guessed it – an extensive carousal.
When I asked Pearse if he had anything against a third person taking a photo of both of us together, he thought he would first have to consider it. I removed myself discreetly for some minutes to the loo. On my return he said quietly to me, as if he were letting me into a secret, that he had decided in favour of a photo, but that he would like to choose who should take it. He called over the owner of the pub, who very politely agreed to carry out Pearse’s request. To the chosen one – Vincent Murphy was his name – I entrusted my Nikon. Unfortunately he knew little about photography, so that the result was pretty mediocre. What was not to be overlooked, however, was the status that Pearse enjoyed in this pub. His every wish was fully attended to in his “living-room”, which, he told me, he visited every day; he was treated like an ambassador. Which, of course, he was – an ambassador of literature, of poetry.”
From Richard Wall, Connemara. Im Kreis der Winde.[Connemara. In the Whirl of the Winds] Wels: Mitter Verlag, pp 83-85, 88-95.
The collection of essays Reading Pearse Hutchinson should assuage Wall’s bewilderment at the state of Hutchinson’s home, particularly the lovely essay “That Small, Vast Space. Minute Details and Brief Moments in the Poetry of Pearse Hutchinson” by the fellow-poet Ciaran O’Driscoll, which points out that there are far more important things for Hutchinson than domestic orderliness or a well-appointed household, for instance the “bringing to awareness and celebration [of] the small things of life, the minute in size and significance, the ‘small beer’ of the taken for granted and the ordinary”. “He lives in rooms,” O’Driscoll says,
in a large house with untended gardens, and one of his joys at the approach of summer is the sight of the dandelions. He admires dandelions because they are beautiful, they are like the sun, and when he sees them […]
The dandelions remain,
Bright in the proud earth,
one matching the sun.
The simple pleasures celebrated in Hutchinson’s poetry have their source in a very deep appreciation of existence – deeper perhaps than most people have, the sense that it is ineffably magnificent and joyful to be alive, to be able to put one foot in front of the other, admire magpies and wear a cap, but also that this ineffable moment of life is provisional and passing, as the title of his collection At Least for a While confirms.Take the poem “Simple Pleasures” and ask yourself who else but Hutchinson could have written it:
Glad to escape the weather
he relapses into his armchair –
neither too deep nor too stiff-backed,
then whisking his dark-blue German seaman’s cap off
he flings it across like a quoit or a skimming stone
to four-and-a-half paces away
a low and armless chair piled high with books
where it lands on the top and settles down for the night.
This gives him pleasure.
A quite inordinate pleasure
Each time he gets home from the weather.
Wall experienced, as Eva Bourke and I have too, the delight and privilege of conversing at length with Pearse Hutchinson. It is the first thing that his friend Macdara Woods alludes to in his foreword, namely that he was fortunate “to be one among the very many who have been led, and divagated, down errancies and digressions, through canyons of reference and remembering, through subsidiary narratives leading into other narratives.” Robert Antony Welch puts it as follows:
To talk with him is not ever to engage in a semi-commercial and perfunctory exchange of intellectual or informational goods. It is never a transaction of this sort. Talking with him is to enter a domain of variation, splendour, often difficulty, pondering, wondering. The readiness […] to entertain new thoughts, and to re-examine old ideas; the panoptic majesty of his range of reference; his learning; his wit; his openness to hilarity; that superb infectious laugh. All these things make his conversations wildly exciting and extremely rewarding.
To that one might add Hutchinson’s eagerness to listen and his own delight at being introduced to new avenues of thought. His love of both witty and in-depth conversation and meaningful, explorative inter-communication has a bearing on his writing, in his intense receptiveness to the world around as well as his frequent employment of the vernacular in his poetry, his love of what Benjamin Keatinge calls “language as lived experience: language on street corners, in bars and cafés, words spoken between lovers, never the language of
bureaucracy and officialdom”.
The essays elaborate on points touched upon by Wall, celebrating again and again Hutchinsion’s polyglottism and empathetic engagement with other cultures. Philip Coleman is quoted as asking whether there is “a contemporary Irish poet who is as completely and seriously immersed in the languages and literatures of modern Europe as Hutchinson”, and the Galician scholar Martín Veiga answers “I believe there is not” and places emphasis on minority cultures. Hutchinson despises bullying of all kinds, whether in personal, social or political interactions, including that of hegemonic cultures over minority cultures. “His poetry,” says Veiga, “carries forward a resolute defence of minority cultures and languages, often exemplified in Catalan situations, but which could also be applicable, directly or indirectly, to Irish culture and society.” Benjamin Keatinge lists the languages from which Hutchinson has translated into English or Irish: Galaico-Portuguese, Galician, Italian (including the dialects of Milanese, Furlan, Venetian and Triestine), Dutch/Flemish, French, Castilian, Portuguese and Catalan, “all of which Hutchinson has mastered”. One should perhaps add his interest in Yiddish, that ancient mixture of medieval German, Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic languages spoken by the most consistently persecuted group in European history, the central European Jews. The self-identification that Hutchinson manifests with that culture in much of his poetry is entirely in keeping with his general outlook on society, Andrew Goodspeed quoting him as having stated “I have always been angry about prejudice and oppression”. “This attitude,” Goodspeed adds, “is, in essence, humanism: a true individualist rarely seeks to suppress or reduce the individuality of others”, and Lucy Collins speaks of Hutchinson’s enduring commitment “to a tolerant and inclusive world, where different needs are respected and held in delicate balance”. In his writing, says Benjamin Keatinge, “Hutchinson is never a neutral observer; he always sides with the underdog and […] is ever alert to the oppressive or liberatory potential of seemingly small incidents.”
A very important essay by Vincent Woods, “Óró Domhnaigh. Pearse Hutchinson as Journalist, Broadcaster and Critic”, reminds us of another dimension of the author’s output, and one that again relates back to what the editors term the “profoundly conversational aspect of Hutchinson’s own poetics”, showing him as the great raconteur that he is and quoting the opening passage of the first script for the first programme of January 2nd, 1977 to demonstrate the freshness and lightness of touch of Hutchinson’s broadcasts. While reading it one hears Hutchinson’s sonorous voice with its ever so slightly Scottish ring:
More books than ever are nowadays beyond the reach of many of the people who might best appreciate them, which is bad not only for the impoverished would-be reader but also for the author. Nor does it make it too easy for a broadcaster to recommend a book that he or she got for nothing. I often feel like saying: “This book you must read; if you can’t buy it then beg, borrow or steal it.”
I once knew a man who made quite a habit of stealing books from bookshops, frequently very pricey books. At last he was caught and was up before the judge. But the culprit had as great a gift of the gab as any of the writers he’d purloined, so he dazzled the court with his life story – how he’d been born on the wrong (that is, the poor) side of the tracks, had it hard always and always cherished a great grá for literature. By the time he’d finished the judge was in tears, the attendant gardaí were manfully suppressing manly sobs and the bookseller came up to him wiping his eyes and, clasping his hand, said: “If only you’d told me I’d have given you the book.” So mo dhuine sauntered out of the courthouse a free man, though whether he ever got the book is not recorded. Perhaps I should say, ever got the book back.
Finally, the book is rounded off – fittingly enough – with “Pearse Hutchinson in Conversation” in an interview recorded in the poet’s home that gives insights into Hutchinson’s own trains of thought and reminiscences of his own multifarious experiences. For an academic publication the contributions rarely lapse into that tone which often typifies such collections and which gives one the impression that the scholars are speaking over the heads of the immediate readership to an in-group of academics beyond them in an attempt to impress these latter with a dazzling display of intellectual acrobatics. This tendency to mystify rather than to clarify would be particularly inappropriate in the case of a writer who, although in his own words he has “always hovered or kind of wavered between directness and obliquity”, has never taken flight into hermeticism but has rather always set great store by accessibility, even in complex contexts. On the whole, the essays in this book are, while learned, also warmhearted; they are characterised by an affection for and a personal appreciation of the wonderful man and poet “whose critical day in the sun is long overdue”.
Eoin Bourke is Emeritus Professor of German Studies at National University of Ireland, Galway. His book publications include Stilbruch als Stilmittel (1980), The Austrian Anschluss in History and Literature (2000), as well as the forthcoming “Poor Green Erin” – German and Austrian Travel Writers’ Narratives on Ireland from before the 1798 Rebellion to after the Great Famine (2011).