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.

SHIFTING STONES

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’: “...like 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

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