The Yellow River, Seán McSweeney & Gerard Smyth, Solstice Arts Centre, 64 pp, €20, ISBN: 978-0995704107
There is a renaissance feel about The Yellow River. The blue cloth-bound book, substantial to hold, falls open on images of abstract watercolours, pastels and drawings that leap off the page: fields and river; a full moon against an indigo sky, bark of trees that stand sentinel; burnished yellows reminiscent of Rothko, unforgettable greens. Anyone who has followed the work of landscape painter Seán McSweeney, and poet Gerard Smyth, will be startled by the outcome of this collaboration. Anyone interested in the poetry of place will find a rich divagation on place as a source for poetry and painting, in the introduction by Smyth. The book is based on an exhibition of images and lyrics that opened earlier in the year at Solstice Arts Centre. Both poet and painter have ancestral roots in Co Meath. Several of the poems are catalysts for paintings, all photographed for the book by Sheila McSweeney. The project was initiated by Belinda Quirke, director of Solstice Arts Centre, and curated by her and Seán McSweeney. On the title page of the collection, there is an epigram from poet WS Merwin that announces the theme ‑“Youth is gone from the place where I was young ‑”
Though Gerard Smyth was born and grew up in the Liberties, in the heart of Dublin, “summer after summer” he went to Knightstown, birthplace of his mother and home of his grandmother, a small farm near Wilkinstown, in Co Meath.“The place – that house with a roof of straw, the farmyard and its nooks, the pastures, meadow, nearby woods and railway line became my childhood idyll and playground, and later the Arcadia of my adolescence where whatever sensibilities to the natural world that I possess were first incubated.” His mother was taken ill suddenly during the summer of 1957 and died later that year. He continued to return and Meath became a source of poems for him, through a writing life. Eighteen of them are included in his recent selected poems from Dedalus Press, In the Fullness of Time. In contrast, the early death of his father, who was from Clongill in Co Meath, meant that Seán McSweeney spent less time there as a youth.
For the most part in these poems place is an imaginary realm. The lyrics are concerned with identity and kinship, with ancestral connection and rootedness. The tone is often conversational. Though they enter real topographical locations, it is mostly the afterlife of each place that is deeply implicated here. It is the absence of the elm that gives rise to the poem more than the tree itself: “In the days that followed when the tree was gone / I was more aware of it than when / it was there dripping rain, stencilling dapples / across the country lane…”(“When the Elms Died”).
Gerard Smyth traces his family back four generations, through “the plough that my grandfather walked behind” to the grave of his great-grandfather, Michael Bathe, buried at Kilshine in April 1916. On the opposite page, the ink and green watercolour evokes a liminal gate and inscriptions. The keen observation of place is a springboard to roam imaginatively, an attempt to transcend time, to acknowledge a sense of belonging and to rediscover a place called“home”. In sharing the place, there is space for the reader to roam too. The observations convey the detachment of the listening and seeing observer, the facility of place to slip from its moorings. “The gatekeeper’s cottage is gone, no need now / for the gatekeeper’s morning and evening vigil. / The trees are like trees in a Russian novel ‑ ” (“The Blackbirds of Wilkinstown”)
Another lyric evokes the place where the sixteen-year-old found his voice ‑“It was here I first looked for words / to describe the sacred and absurd.”(“The Year I turned to Poetry”). Through the familiar turnpike road, a route is traced back. There is an atmosphere of enclosure and confinement ‑ “the kingdom of cut meadows … the yard / of little windows that rationed the light” (“The Turnpike Road”). John Burnside has written that “…‘poetry of place’ concerns itself with specific locales, not to create a sense of local colour, or for any Romantic effect, but to set up a kind of metaphysical space, which is essentially empty, a region of potential in which anything can happen.” (“Making Sense of a Sense of Place”, The Writer’s Chronicle, March /April 2014.) The emblem for the retrieval of experiences here is the Yellow River.
In the process, the reader is companion to a portrait of poet as young man within a particular townland, community, and literary heritage that was an elsewhere world. There are grandparents, uncles, aunts, godparents, neighbours, shopkeepers, Yanks, musicians, poets writers: “I want to stand in the yard, / alone with the stars of Heaven – / seven of them sisters; / travel the road under rain-rinsed trees / then cross the boundaries / into the field of a thousand thistles.”(“Knightstown”)
The yearning to return is met with a stoic acceptance of dereliction and radical change. “Don’t look for those not here: the people / from the year the willow trees were planted / and another room was added to the house.” The sense of obsolescence and renewal is a constant theme. The field of potato-furrows is now a lawn. The end of summer leads “back to school”.
The journey from country to city is ripe with ambivalence, reflective of Ireland’s transition from a mainly rural population to an urban one, the antipathy between them, and of a teenage boy embarrassed at displays of affection. The sanctuary offered by Knightstown, and the relatives is in sharp contrast to the rough and tumble of the city schoolyard, where rolling with the punches is the only way to survive. Waiting for the bus, he bids farewell to a maiden aunt: “I didn’t want her fuss, her hugs / and not her kisses that drew a crimson blush. // I was returning to a city school / and schoolyard blues: / the spit in the eye, the thump on the back, / the look that said You’re dead.”
The countryside has its ambivalent history too and several of the places are freighted with literary association. Wilkinstown is“where Ledwidge’s blackbird flaunted her song.” The house at Bective, where Tom Lavin once managed the estate, a hinterland that inspired Mary Lavin’s first collection of stories, Tales from Bective Bridge, is evoked in a gothic poem that meditates on silences and mysteries: “We pick a way through tangled bracken. / There are secret places / and sidetracks hidden in the old demesne / that shows a fall from grace, // a shift in the foundations / made by the trammelling of generations. / The tenant shadows of this place are forever trying to escape.”(“Bective”). Laracor, a hideaway that Swift and Stella are known to have frequented fails to materialise and maybe “was a place that disappeared / and took with it Swift’s electric ghost.”(“A Rumour Ran Through Laracor”)
Inevitably, there are many place names. The forts: Dunsany, Dunshaughlin, Dunboyne. The coastal towns: Mornington, Bettystown, Laytown. A spare poem titled “Mysteries”, musing about origins, is an inventory of national treasure: The Tara Brooch. The Book of Kells. The Red Flag. The blind harper. Newgrange. Any wonder the word “museum” derives from the Greek via Latin, “seat of the muses”? As the boy becomes a young man, he travels to the dances and is waylaid by music on the path to poetry. The death of Jim Reid marks time, though it is rock ’n’ roll that becomes the new religion. “Guitar riffs like sexual thrills / when the band played Jumpin’ Jack Flash – / and Jagger did his Shiva dance, sounding a little possessed.” (“Only Rock ’N’ Roll). The magnetism of the concert echoes Patrick Kavanagh’s“Iniskeen Road.” Here the “drummer’s beat and the stomping feet” sound all the way to “the ancient ruins at Monasterboice”.
The poems are accompanied by vibrant watercolours that create a distillation of atmosphere in buoyant line and colour. The medium of watercolour, egg tempera and pastel on paper, facilitates spontaneity, lighter textures and greater openness and freedom in structuring images. The palette has shifted too. The signature blues and greens of bog pools and the horizontal evening skies have given way to storm-tossed beech trees, an iconic white cottage with a tiny lit window, and molten summer meadows. Anyone who has yearned to own a Seán McSweeney painting and not yet managed it, anyone curious about poetry of place, or the royal county, might very well be transported to buy a copy of this book.
Catherine Phil MacCarthy’s collections include The Invisible Threshold (2012), Suntrap (2007), The Blue Globe (1998), This Hour of the Tide (1994), and One Room an Everywhere, a Novel, (2003). She is a former editor of Poetry Ireland Review (1998/99). She won the Fish International Poetry Prize in 2010, and received The Lawrence O Shaughnessy Award for Irish Poetry in 2014. A forthcoming collection, Daughters of the House is due for publication.