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Parables of Intimacy

Ben Keatinge

Blue Sandbar Moon, by Chris Agee, The Irish Pages Press, 240 pp, €26, ISBN: 978-0993553219

Chris Agee’s most recent collection, Blue Sandbar Moon, extends the imaginative compass of this most transnational of poets, geographically and formally, in ways that affirm the book’s concluding quotation from Paul Celan, which asserts that language is what survives, a medium which remains “reachable, close and secure amid all the losses”. Designed as a “micro-epic”, Blue Sandbar Moon is made up of short, elliptical poems, impressions garnered in a dizzying array of locations almost as a notebook sequence threaded together by grief, intimacy and wonderment. “These whispering poems” resemble: “an unravelling / skein of travelling / consciousness / friable as its earthed / lightening”.

The title emerges from a poem situated in Agee’s home from home, where he spends a good deal of time in the village of Žrnovo on the island of Korčula in Croatia while travelling extensively, especially to Bosnia and Herzegovina. “Neretva Restaurant” evokes “the high heat of Central Europe, with the “dazzling Neretva . . . / white conical minarets and strip fields, the Yugoslav pylons” below. The Neretva river is so clear that a “submarine sandbar” is clearly visible beneath the flowing water. The sickle moon of Islam features in the adjoining poem, “Lightscape: Aftermath” as a residue, an historical metaphor for the “final dismantling” of “Jugoslavia at heydey” and of the Ottoman empire before it and of the pied or “speckled” beauty of southeastern Europe past and present. These are fragile poems and “the blue sandbar / moon” (“A space”) is a fragile but lucent way of signalling incompletion and fragmentation, a recognition that few lives or locales are “round and whole” (“Heaney’s death”).

In her discussion of “Northern Irish Elegies for Yugoslavia”, Margaret Greaves has argued that the “Experiments with intimacy” occasioned by the lyric voice can accrue “ethical potential” when confronting violence and conflict of the kind witnessed in the Balkans and in Northern Ireland, the two regions Agee knows best aside from his native North America. He has written extensively on the “ethical imagination” of essayist Hubert Butler and is editor, with Jacob Agee, of Butler’s Balkan Essays, a landmark volume from Irish Pages Press published in 2016. The Agees, père et fils, are thus uniquely qualified to elucidate the intimacies of hospitality and of hatred that have characterised these locales and it may not be surprising that acts of mourning and commemoration in Blue Sandbar Moon are conspicuous and deeply felt. Personal grief spills over from Agee’s preceding book, Next to Nothing (2009), which was written “In memory of Miriam Aoife Agee”, the poet’s daughter who died on April 4th, 2001. Poems often “happen” on Miriam’s birthday or “deathday” and the personal loss of Miriam sensitises the poet to other losses in such locations as Sarajevo, Dubrovnik, Belfast, Glasgow and The Hague, where Agee attended some sessions of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

It is commonly remarked that Yeats’s “Easter 1916” achieves its elegiac power because of the poet’s  intimate acquaintance with the protagonists and his personal involvement with Ireland’s revolutionary generation. Such a situation may bear comparison with the poetry of the Northern Irish Troubles, but for former Yugoslavia a more distant relationship obtains. And as Greaves observes, elegising victims of the wars in former Yugoslavia is almost by definition transnational because, “any form of national mourning is rendered either impossible – for the state no longer exists in its old form – or morally suspect” (let us not forget that Radovan Karadžić was a minor Serbian poet before becoming a major war criminal). Again, celebrating human dignity and mourning victims without intrusion is a delicate art, one that is very different from the “evidential rules” of the International Criminal Tribunal (“In the Hague”). In this regard, the contemplation of the poet’s family tragedy alongside the fate of victims of war amounts to a plangent thread of personal and historical pain running through these poems. Elsewhere, the book rejoices in the generosity of neighbours, even of comparative strangers: “People in the village are always giving each other little gifts. It is a kind of barter of goodwill and neighbourly feeling” (“Parable of a Summer”). The “always evolving” energies of the sequence thus keep personal and public losses and gains in fluid equilibrium.

“There it is”, a speculation dated February 16th, 2013, acquires the status of prophetic accuracy in our Covid-19 world as the poem foresees “the plagues and epidemics / that will surely come”. More generally, these poems’ authority springs equally from the not said, what Agee terms in an essay from the mid-1990s the “scoring of language and reticence”, the “‘off-stage’ reverberations” of words (“Poetic Silence”). At the Hugh Lane Gallery on May 21st, 2010, Agee joins “10 Poets” observing a silent vigil, “for sound depends / on silence / for / its form” (“In”). The volume benefits from its splendid layout, high-quality paper and design, a strength of Irish Pages Press books. Each poem is framed by ample white space to articulate the silences between and behind the words. Like Butler in his searching historical essays, Agee freights his poems with the “nearly invisible, nearly wholly unsaid” so that their reverberations can be felt by the reader in the interstices of the text.

In this sense, the concept of the “micro-epic” gains credence as a way of conceptualising and working in a panorama of language and reticence. Susan Gubar has argued that poets responding to the Holocaust faced a dual dilemma after World War II, “a confounding perplexity about their own medium”, language. It is the same dilemma that Agee confronts in such poems as “In the Marches” at Jasenovac, site of one of the largest concentration camps in Occupied Europe where countless Jews, Serbs, Roma and other minorities perished at the hands of the Croatian Ustaše regime. Like other poets of the Holocaust, Agee seems propelled “towards ellipses, fragmentation, in short poems”, which Gubar sees as characteristic of post-Holocaust poetry and which leave much implied that is not stated. The stutterings and silences of Samuel Beckett’s prose and drama proceed in similar ways. Blue Sandbar Moon is Homeric in its recognition that, from a “local row”, as Kavanagh’s “Epic” reminds us, the tides of history can be unleashed. But it is Beckettian in its struggle to give voice to loss and grief.

1/11/2020

Ben Keatinge is a visiting research fellow at the School of English, Trinity College Dublin. He taught English literature for nine years at South East European University, North Macedonia and he has travelled widely in the Balkans. He is editor of Making Integral: Critical Essays on Richard Murphy (Cork University Press, 2019).

 

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