Wednesday, November 14, 2007

NHI review of Ancestor Worship

New Hope International has reviewed Ancestor Worship. This interesting piece, by Gwilym Williams, can be read here (scroll down that page), and I have reproduced it below. My thanks to Williams and NHI.


Man’s best friend may be his dog but in Michael S. Begnal’s case it’s his ancestor.

The Irish-American Mike Begnal, as his blogspot calls him, has been rummaging around in his ancestry in various places including naturally in Ireland. Half a dozen of the poems in this publication are in the old tongue. And intriguingly the book’s cover shows an ancient document listing the death of an abbot of Kells in the year 1128.

The place to start then would appear to be with the 14th poem in the book, the title poem, ANCESTOR WORSHIP. This one might provide an insight into what it’s all about, this book of 70 or so pages containing “some of the poems” published in publications such as Poetry Scotland, Poetry Wales, Poetry Cornwall, Poetry Ireland Review, Electric Acorn, The Blue Canary and many more; some 3 dozen publications in all.

ANCESTOR WORSHIP is the basic starting point for it is, whatever your point of view:

the only religion

truly compatible

with the fact

of evolution.

Its a brutal acceptance of the then and now:

the faces look the same

in rain

Begnal asks, demands to know:

who burrows into your eye

and says, "Who're you?"

Other variations on the theme can be found in poems like IRISH CITIES. In his Derry hotel room Begnal is in a reflective mood. On the face of it a simple matter of nostalgic pondering:

like Waterbury, Connecticut,

where not I'm from

but my father

and all his fathers

since famine time

Note how Begnal suddenly slips in his justification there. The stay-at-home slouch must plainly starve or eat humble pie. Begnal’s ancestors are nothing if not adventurers. No further justification for upping sticks is required. But it comes anyway. And with a star and stripes flourish:

like wave-battered Brendans

and populated,

planted the system within


the Go Nation

I could now go to some poetic place like Prague with its 4 poems but I settle for Paris and MONTPARNASSE CEMETERY. Begnal invites me as his reader to:

think of all the bridges on the Seine

that melancholy snake,

men and women have jumped off,

insignificants splash

in the green murk,


and having considered this and other Parisian matters I’m eventually taken along to the cemetery to discover the final furious truth:

cemetery toilets smell

like fermenting forest piss,

and flies congregate in gangs,

waiting to eat your shit

It matters in the end not one jot that in the first line of the first poem in the book that:

blue sky envelopes Galway

for like the old abbot from Kells we’re all going to the same place as our departed relatives.

This is an intriguing collection to discover, unearth, and to contemplate. The poems can safely be read in any order and it's probably a good idea to do so. I tried jumping about at random from one to the other building and demolishing connections. It was great fun if fun is the right word. Like a favourite bone I suspect it’s something that can be constantly returned to and chewed on with familial contemplation. The only disappointment I felt was that Bagnall couldn’t see his way to translating those half dozen Irish poems of his:

agus Joyce bainte den tenner

-- Gwilym Williams

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Fred Johnston reviews Ancestor Worship

A review of Ancestor Worship has come out, from the Irish poet and novelist Fred Johnston. It appears on the site of The Western Writers Centre in Galway, Ireland, of which Johnston is the director. The piece is quite favorable, and much appreciated. It can be found at this link (scroll to the bottom of the page), and I also reproduce it below.


ANCESTOR WORSHIP. Michael S. Begnal. Salmon Poetry. ISBN 1 903392 54 3. Pbck. €12.00. 70pp.

Of the most recent brace of poets to emerge from Galway, Irish-American and Irish-language enthusiast, Michael S. Begnal is by far and away the most accomplished and the most interesting. During his time here he edited the enthusiastic magazine, The Burning Bush - where some have tried to shift heaven and earth (and every inch of newsprint in the region) to ‘confirm’ themselves as writers, Begnal has simply worked at his task. His work has appeared widely; a first collection appeared in 2003, The Lakes of Coma, while some other work appearing in Galway at the same time and after was likely to induce one. He has written on the writer James Liddy and Liddy, naturally, returns the favour with a fulsome jacket blurb. He credits the Galway Advertiser’s Markings page, once edited by this writer and cancelled because it was too, eh, racy for local cultural consumption. Like most young American poets, he has pilgrimaged to Prague. Seven poems as Gaeilge appear here, if you don’t count the as Béarla ‘Burned Hut,’ which echoes the Irish-language An Teach Dóite, which in English is the name (‘The Burned House’) for Maam Cross, outside Galway; one has to praise the remaking of language in such a word as ‘gorted,’ created into English from the Irish ‘gort,’ a field, or even ‘gorta,’ famine (to my mind there is a connection linguistically between the two words) in the line of his first poem, ‘Expatriation’: “ the oblivion of Boston,/cast from your gorted land...” Begnal is no bauble-eyed romantic seeking some preposterous ancestral ‘truth’ in Erin the Green, though he is ardently nationalistic, or was, an echo of which can perhaps be heard in his ‘The Conquest of Gaul’ or in ‘Black, White and Green,’ and his translation, ‘To The Gaelic People’; these poems travel, to Mexico, Paris, and elsewhere, seeking to put down roots like some mediaeval Irish wandering mendicant “...suffering the slings of myself,/ my vast torpidity/and inevitable disgust/at the exclusion practiced [sic]/by myself/and others...” (‘Water Cress’) Note to Salmon proof-reader: this is not the US. ‘Practice’ is a noun, not a verb; the verb-form is ‘practise.’ One’s hat is off to Salmon and Begnal for publishing his Irish language poems sans traductions into English, as so many Irish language poets seem to have a need to do - and by so doing, merely point up the dependence of Irish upon English. Irish poetry could not survive, one would think to read them, without the English language. Begnal seems to offer the poem and leave the interpretive work up to the reader bare-facedly, which is fine. With the occasional shortness of breath, these poems are wonderful, experimental, courageous, in-your-face, melancholy, lyrical, all by turns. The collection in full is a voyage of personal and imaginative discovery - circumnavigating identities. The production of the book is equally gorgeous with the ‘manuscript’ for cover by Siobhán Hutson. More will be heard from Begnal, there can be little doubt of that. Meanwhile Galway’s scribes will continue, some of them at any rate, to scratch and scrape at the remaining stony grey acres of imaginative creativity. Excellent. Salmon Poetry at her best.

-- Fred Johnston