Sunday, June 11, 2006

Catherine Walsh, City West (Shearsman Books)

Catherine Walsh’s City West (2005) is one long poem, composed of three sections. Before turning to the book itself there’s some background which I’d briefly like to discuss. Recently I was pleasantly surprised to see that my article about “the Wild Honey poets” was hyperlinked in a post on Robert Archambeau’s blog. Archambeau has written about certain experimental Irish poets, Catherine Walsh among them, in his essay Another Ireland (1997). My piece (which I published in The Burning Bush 5, Spring 2001) dealt with many of the same writers. Archambeau’s recent blog post challenges the myth that British poets are generally conservative and eschew experimentalism, and he also here mentions “a similarly pervasive myth about Irish poetry.” I published my article over five years ago, at a time when Irish experimental poetry was really not as well-known as perhaps it may be today, and I was to an extent echoing Archambeau’s own Another Ireland article where he identified a conservative Irish “nationalist-regionalist tradition” and wrote that “Irish experimental poets...have survived in the shadows of near total obscurity, with virtually no support from the institutions of Irish literature...” Before Trevor Joyce’s with the first dream of fire they hunt the cold was published in 2001, and almost universally fêted, a majority of readers in Ireland were still largely ignorant of any such experimental movement, though it has been there for a long time, as both myself and Archambeau before me wanted to show.

Catherine Walsh is one of the loosely associated group referred to above. Her earlier work, Idir Eatortha & Making Tents (1996), is much heralded in certain circles but probably less well-known to a wider audience. The new book, City West, is a powerful confirmation of her talents, yet the current blurb on the hardPressed poetry site (a quote from Tim Allen of Terrible Work) still kicks against the pricks, the pricks in this case being the “institutionalised avant websites etc.” more than the mainstream institutions that Archambeau was concerned with. Perhaps, as with Trevor Joyce and Randolph Healy, it will take a “Collected Poems” before Walsh becomes more widely read even by “avant” audiences. But to be honest, her poetry is probably not for everybody – it can be difficult and obscure. Too many people are afraid of obscurity, apparently don’t have confidence in their own powers of cognition, and shrink from the work involved in trying to read someone like Walsh. So I wonder if maybe the attempts to popularize “experimental” poetry in this day and age, be they Archambeau’s, mine, or anyone else’s, are ultimately limited by this fact. Should anyone be worried about it at this point?

In any event, you certainly can’t approach Walsh the same way you would a lot of familiar, (let’s say) lyrical poetry. She works in long, open forms instead of self-contained poems. Rather than declaiming, she constructs her work as if with building blocks. Except these blocks are not physical objects, but words which represent ideas or syntactical units of language. Not unlike Healy in this sense, Walsh’s poetry is scientific, a poetry of inquiry. This is most evident in the second section of City West, “Tangency,” in which for example she writes,

      problem thinking

      due process leading circulatory
      thought deemed consequential

      grinding halt

      should one place be better to stop
      than another [...]

      why should stopping
      not involve another part
          of due process...

Other times her writing is a dense wordscape, approaching the way that an abstract filmmaker like Stan Brakhage might employ quick cuts and flowing successions of images:

      arresting thought forensic
      pile         glitter far out
      on ocean                   migrating
      dissolution       removal       resolution
      placement       sensational fare
      on             ah here get off of that
      arrested       thought       frantic
      pine       bitter forgotten

Sometimes Walsh strips it down to a series of single words whose relations to each other are not immediately apparent, and where the real purpose might be in the patterning on the page, the effect gleaned in the act.

“City,” the first section of the book, I found to be somewhat more immediately accessible, you might even say playful. On p. 10 she juxtaposes two columns of similar but slightly different poems, versions implying other versions, also implying that other sections could equally have their own alternate (but here unwritten) versions. Finitude is undermined. Elsewhere (pp. 17-19, for ex.) rhythm is to the fore (it would be interesting to hear this section read out loud), and the reader will also discern scenes of teenage revelry and the stark underside of the city. But more so than the actual scene or remembrance, it is the process of perception and memory that concerns Walsh: “static unreal knowing / another memory linking / experiencing dreaming no / knowing knowing knowing...”

Section three is “Plane,” where this process of perception is further scrutinized, an overt awareness on Walsh’s part of the book medium:

      the time I really thought I was writing
      ‘a book’ that got to me more than any of the
      knowing full well who knows I thought

I really liked pages 66-69, about the city and the night – the phrase “anarchy of the flesh” is great – and then the overheard fragments of speech and the unmistakable Dublin accent: “hey you how woz?...” A passage in Irish which comes toward the end, apparently co-opted from elsewhere, seems to be an ironic statement of intent: “léiriú atá I [sic] gcuid de na scealta seo ar / an teannas idir an seandearcadh / dúchasach agus an meon nua-aoiseach...” (“many of these stories focus on the / tension between traditional native ideas / of the world and more modern ways...”). As City West closes, the tension between the writer and a putative audience surfaces with Walsh jokingly imagining the compliments – “(we liked your story so / much” – and then proceeds to sign off: “had a lot of fun / but it’s time / to go...” The little interplay of voices here is a nice touch. What a great book. I look forward to her next release, and hopefully someday that “Collected.”

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