An Irish-American Poet in Galway
By Kevin Higgins
I FIRST met Pennsylvania-born Michael S Begnal 10 years ago at an open-mic poetry session at Apostasy Café on Dominick Street when readings often went on towards midnight.
Mike was a Sinn Féin supporter with a big interest in experimental poetry, especially the Beats; I was a recovering Trotskyist who had just discovered TS Eliot. They weren’t exactly idealistic times. However yesterday always seems less cynical than today.
Later we launched The Burning Bush magazine, harbouring illusions of overthrowing the ‘literary establishment’ (I have since realised that the literary establishment exists mostly in the minds of unpublished poets and old men on park benches). The hoped for revolution didn’t happen; our exact aims were rather vague!
Yet The Burning Bush created a space where people could disagree without descending into crankiness. Mike, in particular, used the magazine to open up Irish poetry by promoting linguistically radical poets such as Alan Jude Moore, Trevor Joyce, and Randolph Healy.
It is fashionable to complain about America, but the American influence on the Galway poetry scene — from Jessie Lendennie to the late Anne Kennedy to Mike Begnal to North Beach Poetry Nights — has been profoundly positive. Mike’s contribution, from the Apostasy days to his return to the US in 2004, was important, making the publication of Ancestor Worship (Salmon Poetry) a cause for celebration.
As the title suggests ‘Irishness’ is one of its big subjects. From Expatriation: “I too’m ‘American’ now,/sauntering the local lanes,/land of ghostly progenitors,/cold stone,/bitter defeat”. Begnal is not any old Irish-American; he’s acutely aware that he is addressing an issue about which the greenest clichés are forever being spoken. His interest in his Irish roots is altogether more profound than that of the typical elderly Bostonian in golfing trousers boarding a tour bus outside Jurys.
A number of the poems here are written in Irish. And in the title poem, Ancestor Worship, a distinctly separatist — almost supremacist — tone is struck at the end: “like LeRoi Jones’s move to Harlem,/broke with his white friends,/changed his name://ancestor worship/is the only religion/truly compatible/with the fact/of evolution”.
The three-page The Conquest of Gaul successfully combines the political and the erotic: “breasts still sway and shake and/bodies soak in camaraderie/the soaked flesh intensely perishable/lust lush will outlast the brick/of the industrial estate”.
The weaker moments in Begnal’s poetry are when concrete images give way to too many abstract concepts. He is at his best in View from a Galway Window: “the faint smell of sewage,/some girl ditches her dog/and a fat woman/heads for the beauty parlour,/open for Saturday business/this Bealtaine,/but all I see are/Mormon missionaries/sent severely from Utah.”
This is not an easy, crowd-pleasing, collection, but then it is not trying to be. It is though, often witty, often caustic, and for me evokes the recent Irish past in a starkly unsentimental way.