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Private Places

Kelly E Sullivan

Northern Irish Poetry and Domestic Space, by Adam Hanna, Palgrave Macmillan, 188 pp, €80.24, ISBN: 978-1137493699

“Buildings, like poems and rituals, realize culture. Their designers … create out of the smallness of their own experience,” writes Henry Glassie in Vernacular Architecture. Adam Hanna’s Northern Irish Poetry and Domestic Space implicitly argues the veracity of Glassie’s claim, showing that domestic spaces in the poems of Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, and Medbh McGuckian reflect the private and the social experiences of the authors. As Hanna describes it, the private concerns of dwelling, so often attested to and described in the poetry of Northern Irish writers, become “entwined with [ideas] that are inescapably political”. Through an exploration of the work of four different poets, Hanna encompasses a range of personal and political inhabitation, much of it bound up with the particular geographical and temporal qualities of Northern Ireland in the mid- to late twentieth century. Hanna’s readings are attuned to the way domestic spaces both shelter and constrict, and to the ways that lyric poetry mimics and draws from the spaces and functions of domestic architecture as a “form that compels by offering a personal space for private expression, but which holds the potential to be a space from which to engage with the world”.

If Glassie’s words seem to describe both poetry and buildings as repositories of experience, Hanna’s astute readings of the domestic spaces in Northern Irish poetry show that such little rooms are not necessarily comforting “safe houses”. Instead, as often as they console and enclose, houses “are testimony to the inescapability of the communal identifications and traumas that exist in the most intimate places, and to the continuing desire to escape these”. Engaging with poetry portraying rural cottages, country homes and childhood farms, Hanna argues that instead of nostalgic longing, the sediment of experience imbued in walls, furniture, and hearths in fact unsettles readings of these poems as retreats from public engagement or politics. In a volume dedicated in particular to the work of poets from the North, the political means, first and foremost, questions of national belonging and civil war. But Hanna does not limit his analysis to such readings; instead, he finds that the public role these writers take on just as often engages with the politics of ecological concerns and of gender roles.

Hanna’s arguments are strongest when he teases out the delicate courtship of the private and public in the work of poets made to be “ambassadors” and public voices during the Troubles. As he explains in writing about the rural holiday homes Heaney, Longley, and McGuckian all describe in their poetry, Hanna shows that these cottages offer spaces away from national politics. Yet such holiday spaces are not, in fact, apolitical retreats, precisely “because national politics has drawn so heavily on imagery taken from the rural and domestic … retreats out of and into issues of national contestation have at times been the same thing”. Thus in these poems, every opportunity to settle into the safety of the domestic in fact raises equal questions of political belonging and affiliation.

The public and private divide manifests itself differently in the work of these four poets, but in all chapters, Hanna insists on readings that uncover issues of surveillance, disintegration, constriction and the presence of historic memory as a driving force in the present. In every instance, domestic space provides both the privacy for revelation, and also, during a time when geography and domestic space were always politically charged, gave poets “a way of considering the relationship between their poetry and the wider social and political conditions of their native place”. In a sense, then, the vernacular and personal spaces described through poetry do in fact offer temporary shelter – a private space from which the poet can publicly address society and politics.

Hanna’s chapter on Seamus Heaney’s poetry could be titled “Thresholds”. In it, he considers the division and connection domestic space provides. Heaney’s childhood Mossbawn, a farmland remembered through many of his poems and particularly those set in the idyllic Wicklow cottage at Glanmore, becomes the earliest testing ground of “neighbourly” relations. As Hanna argues, the term neighbour “exudes a sense of menace” in Heaney’s work. In particular, he teases out the many instances in which neighbours engage in tense and uncertain sparring across literal and metaphoric thresholds. Heaney’s lyric addresses provide a threshold across which we might find different outcomes to private and public politics. In “The Other Side”, Hanna argues that we discover either “guardedness” or “openness” in the conclusion: “both of these facets of the image of the threshold are in play at the close of the poem”. Hanna finds in images of neighbours and thresholds in Heaney’s early work a sustained engagement with the uncertainty of public and private subjects. In poems of domestic space and neighbourly engagement, Heaney “spatialises his own sense of tentatively stepping from the private towards the public sphere”.

In a section devoted to a ubiquitous domestic object, the wireless set, Hanna reads the domestic space of Mossbawn or Glanmore as one of an intimate interior penetrated by the reverberations of the violent and expansive world without. He first explores Heaney’s radios as a weighing up of private interior experience with the opportunities for public engagement. But he also offers the more provocative reading that the radio imposes “unignorable political realities” onto the private domestic sphere. Functioning not as a “metaphor for inspiration”, the radio instead represents “being silenced and made passive in the presence of a distant but pervasive cultural authority”. Hanna finds nuance and even vacillation in some of Heaney’s most politically charged poems, reading the geographically “divided place” the Heaneys inhabit as one the poet, sensitive to the cost of allegiances, treats with ambivalence.

The symbol of the radio in Heaney’s later work, however, comes to represent a level of self-censorship and surveillance: the speaker “learns to keep a watchful eye on what he reveals and to whom”. Hanna finds this particularly true as Heaney recognises himself as a public figure, one whose words might be broadcast on those airways. As a reaction to this “exposure” – often antithetical to the “inwardness, solitude and subtlety that are traditionally understood as necessary for the creation of lyric poetry” – Hanna argues that Heaney’s interest in remembered and current houses focuses on “the things that might threaten his personal enclosure”. Domestic space and a focus on the autobiographical, in this reading, in fact provides the poet with a way of sheltering in place: the intensely personal lyric becomes a way to hide himself.

Although Hanna does not explicitly connect Heaney’s radios to Medbh McGuckian’s inhabitation in Marconi’s Cottage, the sense of penetration from without and constriction from within runs like a current between the poets’ work. In her work set in Belfast, Hanna finds themes of dissatisfaction and confinement, perhaps most emphatically illustrated through McGuckian’s own comments in interviews. In an unpublished interview with the author, she says “I hate the house”, linking a sense of disenchantment with sectarian division and violence, associated, in this instance, with occupying a home – as a Catholic – in a largely Protestant area. McGuckian further affirms that she moved to her home in Belfast at a time when the city was becoming increasingly on edge after the death of hunger strikers in Long Kesh. Thus, as Hanna shows, McGuckian’s poems portray domestic spaces in the city as territorial, violent, malevolent. Yet she treats homes ambivalently, often through gendered language that renders them both complicit and beleaguered.

McGuckian’s long-time summer home was named for its one-time resident, Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of wireless telegraphy. If, in Heaney’s poetry, the wireless represents both penetration of outside news and a warning of the need of self-censorship, the communicative associations McGuckian forges with Marconi’s Cottage are those of freedom, solitude, and in her own words, qualities of the “uncivilised and primitive”. She further associates such “wild and untamed” attributes with the imaginations of women writers she admires, including Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvaetaeva. If close readings of poems themselves seem thin in this chapter, this is perhaps because McGuckian’s poetry also aspires to the untamed state she finds in these poets’ imaginations and in the spaces around Marconi’s Cottage itself.

Hanna offers an important new thesis about the elusive poet’s later works, arguing that her characterisation of houses works to “undermine their power to fix and contain”, and that her unorthodox use of source texts in her poems “performs a similar function”. Drawing on the symbolic domestic spaces in her poems, Hanna sees McGuckian’s magpie-like appropriation and rearrangement of unattributed source texts as a way of destabilising and undermining their power. This is an important reading of the poet’s contentious later work, a thesis first offered in a close reading of the 2008 poem “The Good Housewife”. Hanna picks up on this theme again at the end of the chapter, showing that her emphasis on nest-building, and its clear allegorical and literal connection to domestic space, makes the poems themselves apt representations of “interwoven” experience: the “little rooms” of poetic stanzas are, here, nests built of the bits and pieces of found materials in a process through which she “reimagines someone else’s writing as a place where she feels she belongs”.

Hanna’s approach to the domestic spaces in Derek Mahon’s work takes on a different argument. In these transient, rented spaces, we are given little sense of non-ironic dwelling. Instead, for Mahon, any sense of comfort or security in a home threatens poetic creation. Mahon’s poems evince the paradoxical desire to celebrate and denigrate the middle class Protestant comforts of his childhood: “in his work houses have represented both hindrance and stimulus: a safety and security that might be the antithesis of poetry, but that might also make it possible”. This same antithetical desire to dwell in a place and to turn away from it characterises Mahon’s oeuvre, as Hanna intelligently parses it. Mahon’s ecological and political concerns mean that he seeks to remove himself from stable houses, communities, and even from the lyric poems themselves. In his work, everyday objects become sentient beings with histories and memory, and are “expressive of the combined longing for community and desire to extricate himself from it. The way in which he writes about these objects replicates these conflicting impulses towards, on the one hand, isolation and, on the other, involvement.” This concern for community and for solitude – for political engagement and for personal privacy – seems to link directly to Hanna’s reading of Seamus Heaney’s work.

Domestic Space in Northern Irish Poetry also argues that Mahon’s poems present an ambivalent relationship to what the poet himself terms a “rage for order”. At times connected to his childhood home and his mother’s “ornaments and other breakable stuff” (“A Bangor Requiem”), this order replicates itself in Mahon’s most metrically precise work. Yet he always builds such order so that he can threaten it. In “A Bangor Requiem”, images of “violent” sunlight and references to Dresden figurines recall aerial bombardment of European cities including Belfast in World War II, as well as more recent conflagrations in that city. If Mahon’s poems build delicate structures only to threaten them with destruction, Hanna finds in this process a correlation to the careful work of domestic ordering: “the domestic spaces that were created by the speaker’s mother might, like poetry, shelter something fragile and valuable amid chaos and destruction”.

Ultimately, it is the effort of sheltering the fragile and valuable ecological balance Mahon pursues in his most recent work, where – as Hanna points out – natural forces often destroy the “private habits of consumption” represented through mansions, city accumulation, and rubbish. In his “rented homes”, Derek Mahon seems to say we must value the urge to order and preserve without thinking this private consolation solves our problems.

As in his treatment of Mahon’s work, Hanna finds, in Michael Longley’s poems, that representations of domestic space register permeability, transience and violence. Hanna likens Longley’s attention to intimate details and small, domestic items – the ubiquitous radio, kitchen utensils, carpet slippers – to “rhopography”, an art-historical term for depictions of the quotidian. In Longley’s poems, rhopography helps him engage readerly sympathy for victims of violence: “picturing the material circumstances amid which other people live can be a powerful means of acknowledging common humanity”.

For Longley, domestic space in poetry also calls attention to violations and transgressions of rights to privacy and public view. In much of his work, Hanna suggests private spaces become sites of invasion, suspicion and surveillance. In “The Lodger”, for instance, a novelist-tenant records intimate conversations between the speaker and his wife so the speaker feels “he occupies my mind as well”. Hanna reads this sustained attention to an invasion of the private home as a meditation on the possibility “that publication and privacy are incompatible”. Yet by the end of Hanna’s analysis, he finds that in the domestic spaces of the holiday home Carrigskeewaun, portrayed in so much of Longley’s work, surveillance has shifted so the poet does the watching. These poems pay attention to the natural world within and just beyond the cottage in the West of Ireland, and show a different kind of political writing. Like Mahon’s work, Longley’s poetry highlights his concerns with ecological threats. As the poet himself has said, “my nature writing is my most political”.

In considering Longley as a “poet of marital love” and quotidian pleasures, Hanna acknowledges the long history, in literary criticism, of derogatory associations with the term “domestic”. It has been associated with sexist views of sentimental, “feminized” literature of the nineteenth century, and as a term that suggests “low horizons and limited ambitions”. Perhaps it is Hanna’s impulse to move discussion of domestic space away from limiting interpretations based on gender that prevents the book from including more female voices. Or perhaps it is simply the influence of market forces encouraging publishers to accept books focused only on the most canonical – primarily male – Northern Irish poets. Either way, it would be a welcome addition to this volume to see this critic’s readings of the domestic spaces so prevalent in poetry by a younger generation of women writers like Leontia Flynn and Sinéad Morrissey. A consideration of private lyric and public engagement in twenty-first century work would only enrich these readings of canonical poets of the late twentieth century.

Domestic Space in Northern Irish Poetry offers fresh perspectives on poems long in the public eye, and finds new meaning and nuance in key poems by Heaney, Longley, Mahon, and McGuckian. Yet the real pleasure of this book lies in reading Hanna’s descriptions of domestic spaces and vernacular architecture. The virtue of his writing is its understated, perfectly tuned affinity with the poets about whom he writes. In a section on radios in Heaney’s poetry, for instance, Hanna beautifully remarks on the harmony between tuning a radio and writing: “a process whose conditions of tension and expectancy have certain correspondences with those of writing a poem. … If the suspended moment of the tuning process is a success, the result is that a human voice or music from an invisible source will flood into an enclosed room.” In his description of the way a poem both reveals and conceals its author’s experience, Hanna captures the complex, intimate work of lyric poems that “contain the promise of acting as windows onto the private, internal worlds of the people who wrote them, and deny the same promise”.

Hanna’s description of the tension between the intimacy of the lyric and the public demands on the work highlights the major achievement of this volume: it is a book that in its consideration of domestic space ultimately meditates on the private and public stability of lyric poetry and its vital importance in times of trouble. Domestic space comes to stand in for the contested ground of the lyric: a territory at once deeply intimate and overtly public.

Hanna returns again and again to the seminal work of Gaston Bachelard The Poetics of Space, a book that itself evokes the subtle connections between architectural spaces and private memory. He succinctly describes the key revelation in Bachelard’s work: “reminders of houses left in childhood link to deeply buried memories and, as such, are a means of accessing deeply hidden inner selves”. If lyric poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility”, or even “a momentary stay against confusion”, Hanna argues that it accomplishes this recollection and temporary stability through the evocative connotations of door latches, scullery boards, squared rooms and attic spaces.

Henry Glassie tells us we all begin, as children, “collecting scraps of experience without regard to the segregation of facts by logical class”, so that, free of architectural knowledge, we nonetheless bring to our domestic spaces a long and distinctive knowledge of vernacular and experiential building practice. Places evoke memories. Poetry works in much the same way, signalling for readers their own accumulated experiences, their own lyric “building practices”. For these poets, houses mimic the purpose of a poem, and poems are, themselves, temporary stays. As Hanna eloquently puts it in Domestic Space and Northern Irish Poetry, “a preoccupation with houses is perhaps so often accompanied by an equal one with the past (and vice versa) because, by virtue of their continued existence, places seem to offer eddies in time’s destructive flux”.


Kelly Sullivan teaches literature at Glucksman Ireland House, New York University. Her first chapbook of poems, Fell Year, will be published by Green Bottle Press (London) this spring. 



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