Friday, December 12, 2008

Bettie Page, 1923-2008

Bettie Page died yesterday. I suppose there’s not much I can say, except that I liked her as an icon, and that her look appealed to my personal aesthetic and I think defines a certain major axis/image of beauty in our culture. I have previously already written a “tribute” of sorts to her — my poem “Bettie Page” is published online in Free Verse and can be read here.

It’s interesting that Page’s death has made so much news, since she was or at least seemed to me to be such an underground or subcultural figure. News stories mention that she appeared in Playboy and that she helped lay the groundwork for “the sexual revolution.” From what I have read, the Playboy appearance came about not because she specifically posed for the magazine, but because Hefner later received pictures of Page and liked them. Her centerfold depicted her in a Santa hat. They certainly didn’t use any of her dominatrix poses.

The photo currently being used on CNN and elsewhere shows Page on a sunny beach — a nice picture to be sure, but far from the darker image she usually portrayed and which is her signature style. Given that that is possibly the only one most people will see of her, it seems as if the media is trying to whitewash her, or to portray her something like a brunette Marilyn Monroe, which is really doing her a disservice. Don’t get me wrong, Marilyn Monroe was great, but Bettie Page was completely different and completely original.

As far as the “sexual revolution” stuff, yes she was known as a pin-up in the 50s, but she didn’t really resurface as an icon until the 80s or so, and then in a very underground, non-mainstream kind of way. She herself didn’t seem to want the spotlight at all, though in 2006 she did say in an LA Times interview: “I want to be remembered as the woman who changed people’s perspectives concerning nudity in its natural form.” In any case, I guess it’s good to see her getting her due in her time of death, even if the media wants to pretend they were there all along.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely

I saw Harmony Korine’s newest film, Mister Lonely (2007), which recently came out on DVD. There have been some bad reviews, some mixed, some good, but I really thought it was a great film. Diego Luna plays a Michael Jackson impersonator who meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (played by Samantha Morton), who takes him to a commune of other impersonators. This storyline is juxtaposed throughout the film with images of nuns jumping out of an airplane as an act of faith, and surviving unharmed. There are some great scenes of the nuns plummeting through the air. Werner Herzog is amazing in this section as a German priest. Seemingly, the two parts are unrelated, yet both have to do with communal living and the sense of being alienated or separated from mainstream society. Both storylines end tragically.

The reason why some people may not have liked this film, I am guessing, is that it works more on images and associations, rather than on plot. However, there is a narrative, especially in the impersonator section. The commune is defined by a very weird interpersonal dynamic, dominated by a controlling Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant). The group puts on a show to display their talents, which almost no one comes to (the location is rural Scotland). There is a sense of doom hanging over the whole situation, as their sheep have come down with a case of foot-and-mouth disease and have to be slaughtered (the Three Stooges do the shooting). In a couple of signal moments, we discover Chaplin’s cruelty toward the Marilyn character. A possible love story between Michael and Marilyn is unrealized in the turn of events. The Michael character will go on to find himself, in a sort of twist — you might have initially thought the message was that he already had. Questions of identity are oddly subverted.

I liked the fact that this film brings back together Anita Pallenberg (playing the Queen of England impersonator — kind of ironic, no?) and James Fox (impersonating the Pope). Both starred in Nicholas Roeg’s Performance (1970), and there are similar themes in Mister Lonely of identity and alienation. Their presence is a clever allusion.

What I liked best about Mister Lonely, though, were its standout scenes and images: a manic version of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” with a whacked-out Lincoln (Richard Strange) shouting the piece while spinning a basketball on his finger under harsh lights, the opening sequence of Luna on the mini-bike with the strange stuffed monkey trailing behind (vaguely reminiscent of the bike-riding scenes in Gummo?), the verité stuff outside of the convent, the later scene of the dead nuns floating in the water, etc. The images are constructed almost like images would be in a poem. These are the building blocks, not the storyline/s. And only with Herzog is the emphasis really on dialogue. In the “making of” feature included in the DVD, Korine mentions that a lot of the images originally came from dreams. These are what resonate, and I think are the real point of the film. Korine approaches film as a visual art firstly; it is thusly that his themes and ideas come across.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Begnal in Google Book Search

Google Book Search’s preview of Ancestor Worship includes maybe about half or so of the collection. (Not sure what that does for sales of the book, but the online thing somehow seems to work for music. Some bands are even putting whole albums on MySpace now, and I guess if you really like it you’ll still need to have it....)

Google also gives selections from the Salmon anthology, Salmon: A Journey in Poetry, 1981-2007, including my three anthologized poems.

Strangely, brief snippets of my poem “The Conquest of Gaul” appear in the Google preview of Poetry Wales issue 38.3 (2003). They look like someone has torn thin strips out of the magazine’s pages and pasted them into a notebook.

Something like that is going on with the shredded version of my chapter in Louis Armand’s Avant-Post: The Avant-Garde under “Post-” Conditions. See for yourself.

You can also get a glance at Honeysuckle, Honeyjuice: A Tribute to James Liddy (which I edited). It looks like somebody similarly ripped out a piece of the cover, and highlighted my last name with a yellow marker....

(A collage function would be an interesting addition to that site, allowing the user to create Dadaist cut-up poems out of the scraps....)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

3 Poems in Otoliths

I have three new poems in the online journal Otoliths. They are entitled “Angles,” “Poem Written in Red Ink on Fluorescent Yellow Paper,” and “July 12.” A couple of them might be called political.

This is a very good journal, with lots of textual and visual experimentation and kicks.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

James Liddy, 1934-2008

James Liddy died yesterday in Milwaukee. He was a great poet, who for me was also a great personal and poetic friend. This is sad news. I send my condolences to his friends and family.

James Liddy was born in Lr. Pembroke St., Dublin, Ireland, in 1934 and lived in Coolgreany, Co Wexford, intermittently from 1941 to 2002. He taught in San Francisco; Binghamton, New York; Portland, Oregon; NUI Galway (Ireland), and since 1976 in Milwaukee where he passed away after a short illness. His parents hailed from the cities of Limerick and New York. Over a literary career spanning 50 years he published widely and to great acclaim. His many books include among them Blue Mountain (Dolmen, 1968), A Munster Song of Love and War (White Rabbit, 1971), Baudelaire’s Bar Flowers (Capra/White Rabbit, 1975), Corca Bascinn (Dolmen, 1977), A White Thought in a White Shade (Kerr’s Pinks, 1987) Collected Poems (Creighton University Press, 1994), Gold Set Dancing (Salmon, 2000), I Only Know That I Love Strength in My Friends and Greatness (Arlen House, 2003, which included my Afterword), On the Raft with Fr. Roseliep (Arlen House, 2006), Wexford and Arcady (Arlen House, 2008), and The Askeaton Sequence (2009). With Paul Vogel he has published two books of Mandelstam versions, Sophias and Death Row.

Liddy had a long and prestigious career as a professor and critic in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee teaching creative writing and Irish and Beat literature. James Liddy: A Critical Study by Brian Arkins was published by Arlen House in 2001 and Honeysuckle, Honeyjuice: A Tribute to James Liddy, which I edited, appeared from the same publisher in 2006. The first volume of his memoir, The Doctor’s House: An Autobiography was published by Salmon in 2004, with volume two, The Full Shilling, forthcoming from Salmon.

His work continues to have a deep and long-lasting influence on a number of generations of Irish, American, and international writers and readers.

I measc laochra na nGael go raibh sé.

Two from James’ book Epitaphery (White Rabbit Press, 1997):

“Translate into Triestino for my Epitaph”

I was bad as I lay back in my mother’s womb,
moreover she was a bad Catholic:
one of the kings of the fairies is dead,
in the suburbs the wives finish wine.


“Translate into Hebrew for my Epitaph”

I wake up drunk in the morning
and want to write in praise of Christ
but I grow sober and cold: May I
be able to mount the church steps
without a premonition of apocalypse,
may I hire enough moonlight for myself
so a star floats out of a chalice,
be ready to return to my mother’s womb
for more.


The Irish Times full obituary
The Irish Times short obituary
Poetry Ireland notice
The Irish Arts Council notice
David Chirot’s piece
Karl Saffran’s piece
Philip Casey’s piece
alt.obituaries piece

Friday, October 24, 2008

Why I Am Voting for Barack Obama

Before I get into it, I have to say that I am not a member of any political party, and there’s probably no single politician I could believe in completely, not quite even Barack Obama. There’s something about that line of work that diminishes even the best of them to some degree or another. Everybody knows that, I guess. So in approaching politics, Presidential campaigns especially, I am fighting an ongoing battle against cynicism. At the same time, it has become clear that this election is of the utmost importance to the future of the United States and therefore the whole world. For me, disengagement from electoral politics is not an option in 2008.

Why such an important election? There are numerous reasons, one of the main ones being the precarious state of the economy. This is something that directly affects me and most of the people I know, given my own economic status (below the poverty line). In fact I have already felt its effects. And it doesn’t take an economist to figure out who is primarily responsible for our current woes. We note who has been in the White House for the last eight years, and despite his attempts to peel off the stigma of G. W. Bush, it’s pretty obvious that John McCain offers the same failed approach to these issues that Bush and his cohorts have taken. McCain’s previous involvement in the Keating Five scandal ought to be a clue to his relationship with wealthy special interests. Imagine, furthermore, what could be in store for Social Security if it were to be privatized and tied to the markets (as McCain wants), the same markets that have recently hung on the brink of failure. For those of us without the luxury of a personal retirement fund, it’s a scary prospect.

But as important as the issue of the economy is, there are even greater dangers in store for us if McCain and Sarah Palin were somehow to slip through the net of the current poll numbers and be elected. McCain has already disgraced himself in this campaign and is now but a shadow of the semi-respectable figure he seemed to some in 2000. He and surrogates on his behalf have stooped to the basest Rovian mudslinging. His pandering to the Right, and embrace of extreme fundamentalist Christian oligarchs like John Hagee and Rod Parsley (both of whom he was eventually forced to repudiate when it became clear how offensive their views really were), were of course transparent political moves designed to make himself more appealing to the conservative base of the Republican Party. Despite being smeared by the Bush campaign in 2000, McCain has wholeheartedly supported the Bush administration since 2004, as symbolized in their famous hug. Any shred of self-respect was surely out the window from that point on.

All of this shows that McCain is now prepared to do anything to get elected, including embracing the socially conservative agenda he stood against in 2000. Far worse than the association with fringe fundamentalist ministers, however, is Sarah Palin herself, who McCain cannot at this point repudiate even if he wanted to. Leaving aside Palin’s own apparent extremist religious views per se, and her own political corruption scandal (Troopergate), her extremist right-wing political views are quite shocking in themselves. Incredibly, she may be even more extreme than George W. Bush, and of course given McCain’s age, she could be a hair’s breath away from the Presidency if elected.

Palin has links with the Alaskan Independence Party. Indeed, as has been reported, her husband Todd Palin was a member of that party for seven years and Sarah Palin herself addressed the party’s conference just this year, telling them to “Keep up the good work.” It might be interesting to discover what kind of work the AIP is up to. It was founded as a radical right-wing secessionist party, and remains about the same today with only slightly less emphasis on the secession part — but still attracts the sympathies of neo-Confederates and white supremacists. (There’s a good article on which goes into greater detail regarding the activities of the AIP and Palin’s links to the party.) While Republicans have been trying to hype Obama’s supposed link with William Ayers, the ex-Weather Underground member, Palin’s current connections should be far more alarming than a retired 60’s radical like Ayers.

Of especial note, the AIP is affiliated with the overtly theocratic Constitution Party. Claiming that the U.S. Constitution “established a Republic rooted in Biblical law,” the preamble to the Constitution Party’s platform states: “This great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.... The goal of the Constitution Party is to restore American jurisprudence to its Biblical foundations and to limit the federal government to its Constitutional boundaries.” It’s one thing to hold religious views, whatever they may be, evangelical Christian or otherwise. It’s another thing to want to impose them on the whole country in this manner. Palin’s association with the AIP, and therefore the Constitution Party, makes her not very dissimilar to the Taliban, for example, or to any other Islamist group which wants to impose sharia law.

Palin in my view is a crypto-fascist demagogue, and represents a dangerous Trojan horse to American politics. We have seen her rallies (and even McCain’s) turn into anti-Obama hate-fests, with CNN reporting (on Oct. 11):

One member of the Palin audience in Jacksonville, Florida, Tuesday shouted out “Treason.” And at another rally in the state Monday, Palin’s mention of the Obama-Ayers tie caused one member to yell out: “Kill him” — though it was unclear if it was targeted at Obama or Ayers.

At several recent rallies, Palin has stirred up crowds by mentioning the “liberal media.” Routinely, there are boos at every mention of The New York Times and the “mainstream media,” both of which are staples of Palin’s stump speech.

Some audience members are openly hostile to members of the traveling press covering Palin; one crowd member hurled a racial epithet at an African-American member of the press in Clearwater, Florida, on Monday.
We have also seen the authoritarian Lee County, Florida, Sheriff Mike Scott, in full police uniform, whip up the crowd at still another Palin rally with these words: “On November 4th, let’s leave Barack Hussein Obama wondering what happened!” Clearly his use of Obama’s middle name in this context is meant to identify him as “other” and therefore suspect.

While there are undoubtedly many, many decent people at her rallies too, Palin has become a lightning rod for the undercurrent of prejudice and fear that still exists in American society. Playing to it in this way is how the Nazis were able to come to power. Indeed, the McCain-Palin campaign has opened the door for other Republican figures to exhibit their own crypto-fascist tendencies. In televised comments reminiscent of the McCarthy era, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann recently called for a media investigation into how many members of the U.S. Congress hold “anti-American” views, which she also accused Obama of holding. Rep. Robin Hayes of North Carolina told a McCain rally that “Liberals hate real Americans that work and achieve and believe in God.”

Palin herself has actually referred to “pro-America areas” of the country, saying, “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.” While this raises the question of how sympathizing with an Alaskan secessionist party can possibly be “pro-America,” the further irony is that, according to the 2000 census, 79% of all Americans live in urban areas, while only 21% live in rural areas. 58% of Americans live in urban areas with populations of 200,000 or more. In other words, a clear majority of Americans live in big cities, with a further 10% living in urban areas with populations of 50,000-199,999. So this notion that the “real” America is to be found in small towns is nothing but wishful thinking. The real America is wherever Americans live, and more often than not it’s in a city.

Palin and the others were forced to apologize or otherwise back away from their comments, but nonetheless I think this probably reveals the deeper thinking behind the McCain-Palin campaign. Their strategy is to demonize anyone considered “other,” or intellectual, who lives in a city, or who somehow deviates from their idealized fantasy of a white, rural, conservative, Christian America — indeed anyone who disagrees with them on a whole range of issues. When even a noted conservative thinker like Peggy Noonan (Ronald Reagan’s and George H. W. Bush’s former speechwriter) writes that “the Palin candidacy is a symptom and expression of a new vulgarization in American politics,” you know something is wrong.

Up until this point, I have essentially been putting forward a “vote against” argument. But the case for Obama is a substantial one. Aside from the fact that he is generally closer to my own positions on domestic politics and international issues, he is also an important figure on a symbolic level. Colin Powell recently said that he is a “transformational” figure, and while I think that may be a little bit overly optimistic, Obama certainly is an inspiring figure who is capable of bringing about at least some degree of change in the political landscape. And I admit I have been inspired at times watching Obama’s speeches. To me he represents a breath of fresh air, relief after eight too-long years of the Bush administration and all the problems it has created. It is time for a new generation to take over, as it must every so often.

This is not to say that Obama will make everything great, or that he will single-handedly eliminate poverty and injustice. And probably he is in the pocket of someone, like all politicians are. But he is a far better choice than McCain, whose campaign is being run by corporate lobbyists. Far better than McCain, who would stock the Supreme Court with yet more conservative judges. Far better than McCain, who wants free trade with questionable regimes like that of Colombia. It was heartening to see, in the third Presidential debate (Oct. 15), Obama disagree with McCain’s suggestion that we initiate a free-trade agreement with Colombia. When Obama questioned the morality of such an agreement with a country in which labor leaders and trade unionists are presently being assassinated, McCain rolled his eyes in indignation, seemingly livid that anyone would dare to oppose him on this issue. For me, it was a signal moment. In his reaction McCain looked like a crazy old man all of the sudden, while Obama remained cool, refusing to let a cranky McCain knock him off of a principled stand.

We are faced with two choices. One is an outmoded world-view based on an unrealistic vision of the make-up of the present-day United States. This is the backward world-view of McCain, Palin, and their surrogates, which sees anyone who is not like them as suspect or “anti-American.” It is the failed policy of trickle-down economics, of tax cuts for the rich, of war for oil, and “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” It is an extremist vision of “pro-America areas,” of “a Republic rooted in Biblical law,” and also of using your political office to harass whoever you may have a personal vendetta against (Palin) or to do favors for your rich friends (McCain). It is the tactic of attacking the messenger, the media, when they call you on your shit.

The other choice is the world-view represented by Obama. Obama’s vision is forward-looking and embraces the America of the future, including people from every background be it urban or rural, religious or not, “intellectual” or not — in other words, an inclusionary and heterogeneous vision. Given his own cultural background, Obama realizes that the hostile homogeneity espoused by McCain-Palin is not a realistic template for this country. Obama understands what it’s like not to come from a privileged upbringing. Obama is focused on the middle and working class, not on the super-rich. Again, no, he’s not going to suddenly wave a magic wand and solve all of our problems, but America needs the opportunity that Obama embodies in order to seize a new political direction for itself.

Going down the McCain-Palin path would be no different from and probably an even bigger disaster than Bush, in my view. While in troubled economic times some might be tempted to cling to the old certainties, the fact is that these are nothing but the certainties of the last eight years — cronyism, financial crisis, and a hopeless war. Obama represents the possibility of renewal through change, the only way renewal can truly come about. And so his slogan of CHANGE is not merely a campaign slogan but is in fact packed with meaning and hope. Of course the symbolism of Obama getting elected won’t count for much if he can’t somehow foster improvement in people’s real lives. Time will tell if he, or for that matter if we the voters, can bring this vision of change to fruition. I hope we can.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Fifteen Project, number 10

I have guest-edited the current edition (number 10) of the online journal The Fifteen Project. It contains poetry by Maurice Scully, David Stone, John Thomas Menesini, Karen Lillis, Alan Jude Moore, Kevin Higgins, Shannon Ward, David Rowe, Patrick Chapman, Todd Swift, Emily Rutter, Liam Mac Sheóinín, Keith Gaustad, and Nigel McLoughlin, and prose by Thomas E. Kennedy.

Some of the contributors are Irish, some are Irish-American, and some are neither of the above. I liked this non-connecting connection in putting the thing together. Much of the work included expresses a similar disregard for traditional boundaries, I think. I explain it all in my preface.

My thanks to the producer and usual editor of The Fifteen Project, Pat Lawrence, for (among other things) helping to make this edition’s color scheme look something like a Powers whiskey bottle.

[Update, 2/09: Sadly, The Fifteen Project has gone offline, and the above links to it will now take you nowhere. A pity, but I guess these things happen. Thanks again to everyone who was involved in issue 10.]

Thursday, September 25, 2008

2 Poems in An Sionnach

I have two poems in the new issue (4.1) of An Sionnach: A Journal of Literature, Culture, and the Arts (which is an Irish Studies journal published by Creighton University). They are entitled “Samhain” and “Grab the Polaroid.”

“Samhain” is something of a long poem — four-and-a-half pages as printed here.

There is a lot of other worthwhile material here as well, from the painting on the cover of the Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn, by the Irish and American painter Elizabeth O’Reilly (click above for the large view), to the poems of dual-language poet Gréagóir Ó Dúill, to James Liddy’s review of Kevin Kiely’s biography of Francis Stuart, and much in between.

This one is worth buying.

University of Nebraska Press Subscription Services

An Sionnach is published twice yearly, in Spring (Bealtaine) and Fall (Samhain). A yearly subscription includes two numbers of the journal.

U.S. individual subscriptions are $25/one year and $45/two years. U.S. institutional and library subscriptions are $40/one year and $72/two years.

Non-U.S. individual subscriptions are $45/one year and $81/two years. Non-U.S. institutional and library subscriptions are $60/one year and $108/two years.

An Sionnach is distributed by University of Nebraska Press.

To request more information, email the editor at:

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Blackbird 9

The new issue of Blackbird is out, number 9, which contains poems and artwork, with a particular emphasis on mail-art and collage. Editor David Stone (a considerable poet in his own right) collects some very interesting artists from all over the world — Serbia, the US, to Japan, to Finland, and on. Many of the poems and artworks actually use the blackbird as symbol or subject, but not all. This is a quite unique publication. And I have two poems in it myself.

For orders, allow 4-6 weeks for shipping. Price: $25.00 (US dollars), postage paid. Make check or money order to David Stone. Send order to: The Blackbird Institute, P.O. Box 16235, Baltimore, MD, 21210, USA.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Ancestor Worship review in Irish Literary Supplement

Ancestor Worship has been reviewed in the latest issue (Vol. 28, No. 1, Fall 2008) of The Irish Literary Supplement, a review of Irish and Irish-related books published by the Irish Studies program of Boston College. For those somehow unable to obtain a copy, I reproduce the piece, which appears on page 24 of the issue, below.

Ancestor Worship by Michael S. Begnal (Salmon Poetry, 2007, €12.00)
Reviewed by Pat Lawrence

I received my copy of Ancestor Worship from Begnal in a darkened poetry bar in Manhattan. The publisher, Salmon, was celebrating the release of its new collection, and while grey-haired Irishmen read sentimental verse following Begnal’s opening recitation of his own, sharper poetry, a steady bass began to insinuate itself between lines and stanzas as the dance club next door swung into the full flush of its evening business. It was a curious and funny experience: a quaint syncretism made more striking by the culturally-assumed dischord between its notes. I left not only with a smirk at the gag (and a smile at the reminder that poetry need not always exist only in hushed and proper coffee houses or raucous slam halls), but with this modest-seeming little monograph in my back pocket.

Weeks later, when the memory of the bass had faded, and the Irishmen had all returned home, I was pleased to finally crack it open during a lull in my academic and editorial responsibilities. I found it well-designed as a book of poetry ought to be, in its off-white pages and inauspicious formatting, a sophisticated minimalism pointedly refusing to distract from the thoughtfully ascetic poems it contains. This pleasant reserve finds itself expressed in those poems as well, though its “pleasantness” is only for the reader. By contrast, the protagonist of these pieces is often mournful, self-mocking, rueful, melancholy. These blue emotions mimic and are mimicked by the landscape of Galway, its inhabitants, its visitors. Beautiful, novel images underpinned by clever rhythms appear and fade, their poignancy lingering with the reader as the poem seems to cast them about like so much chaff — it is a rich verse that can so carelessly treat its heirlooms, but these are the hallmarks of an experienced poet who knows better than to grandstand.

In terms that seem both accessible and exotic to American ears, Ancestor Worship is an attempt at reconstructing an obscured heritage, imagining it in the roads and rivers and shops and people of a land both foreign and familiar. Over the course of its roughly three-dozen poems, Begnal drafts an Irish ancestry through its traces in the present in Galway, in its politics and its nationalism, in its decrepitudes and triumphs. And yet, there is an American-ness to it as well, in its trans-Atlantic focus, in its tourists, in its references to the U.S. as other, outside, used-up, in its desire to root in an ambiguous space of something that is not-as-it-once-was. It is this ambivalent, and yet searching, tone that dominates. These poems are sometimes fleshy, sometimes cerebral. Both are managed eloquently, and their intermixing keeps either from being superfluous or daunting. Some are coyly self-conscious, displaying an ironic distance from the materiality they describe and inhabit. It is this irony, verging on self-parody, that allows the poems to stand as more than mere musings. Instead, they represent a consciousness prudently wary of the false promises of both American and Irish culture as it is manipulated by those who vehemently claim them.

Especially in “Madrileños” (for obvious reasons), but elsewhere as well, there are undertones of The Sun Also Rises and its desire to find more durable significance beneath the attractive veneer of dazzling images and irreverent adventures in which it revels. This, again, is its ambivalence, its cynicism and faith. In this way, it goes beyond those poets who flaunt their rebellion, their outsider status, their drug use, their drinking, their philandering, or, conversely, those who drown in the flood of their credulity, obsessed with metaphysical “truths” they see behind every surface and in the face of every old woman they meet. Ancestor Worship, rather, sees its hero entwined in a mesh of contradictory threads, some leading to transgression (of law, morality, fidelity), others to recuperation (in knowledge, pleasure, genealogy); this balanced voicing reflects a developed perspective that makes few promises, but convincingly keeps those it does.

Still sometimes (“My Role in Society”) it is quaint, quizzical, laughing at and with itself, positively upbeat and lighthearted. It is here that it comes close to euphony, with beats and syllables coinciding, sounds more prevalent, more evident. Even in these moments, so hard to pull off for otherwise-cerebral poets, AW manages to seem unaffected and still meaningful, reasserting the fact that no-one and no search, however vital to its hero’s identity, is entirely morose or entirely serious. There is also, even in more somber poems, the realization that the philosophy of aestheticism, the position of the aesthete (as he is referred to in “From Great Height”) is hamstrung by its solipsism, by its tendency towards self-aggrandizing.

And then, there is sometimes a blending, rather than ambivalence, recognition of a new hybrid space, rather than an inability to choose one state over another. This is “There’s No Present,” a bodily philosophy in a present-past. This poem bears the simultaneity of Begnal’s cult of ancestry, reminding us that it is not only time, but form that submits to this new mode, a mode subtly salted between images and rhythms, rather than declared, paraded, humiliated on ostentatious display. These poems fulfill double functions (or myriad), then, too. They are simultaneously atmospheric and metaphysical, and, here and there wary of metaphysics or longing for its exhausted promises, they cover all ground, creating the jumble of cross currents that send the protagonist’s boat adrift on his journey from and to America and Ireland.

“Ancestor Worship,” its pivotal and titular piece, deserves special notice for its striking insight, certainly something meriting the subtly transformed attention it receives in the pieces that surround it. It is traipsed across by departed icons treated philosophically, rather than elegiacally, inserted into a stream of cultural figures stretching its long fingers into the sedimentary rock of human existence. It is also aware, in a Historical Materialist sense, of the use of the past by the present, of history’s weight always being a relative burden. It is a poem with relevance in the now for our treatment of the “then” (and of the “them”).

It has its weak moments as well, of course, moments that are slightly indulgent, or that lose direction (ironically, this is never the case for the longer ones, and its presence in short poems is a sort of accomplishment, perhaps — in some cases, it decidedly is: just as questioning is the ambivalence of faith, so wandering is the ambivalence of homes). There is, perhaps, also an absence of the otherwise-effective critical self-reflection in the derisive stance some poems take towards the American tourists who appear from time to time (“shorts-wearers,” they’re called). Their foreign-ness could act as a foil for Begnal’s own imperfect belonging, and yet, affinity is rejected in favor of a somewhat-exhausted derogation of the bourgeois.

The arrangement of the monograph is strategically adroit, and manages these less sympathetic moments well. Front-loaded, the book’s more striking imagistic pieces and the more startling insights occur in the beginning, taking hold of the reader and encouraging him to be generous. Afterwards, though the themes of ancestry and ambivalence remain strong, their development coherent throughout, the book seems to limp along for a bit late, then recover itself to finish with whispers of thunder both achingly doubtful and bitterly confident (“New Year’s Day 1999” and “Another Exile”).

There are six in Irish, a pleasure for those who can read it, or for those who simply find significance in its presence, or even those who are forced because of its foreign-ness to learn to read around the words, read all the materiality of the page that falls silent behind sentences. Still, I have to admit I cheated. Begnal was gracious enough to answer my query with English translations, which equaled the others, but on which I will reserve the majority of my commentary for the appreciation of the above-mentioned pleasures.

The Irish poems and the exclusion their inclusion suggests (both the exclusion of the non-fluent reader and the exclusion of the Irish language from Irish culture their presence protests against) remind the reader that language and its use is always an act of affiliation, and that it can never be apolitical. That being said, the content of the poems themselves traverses the same thematic ground as the other poems: geography and the body as expressions of cultural belonging or the failure of it. These poems tend to linger in cold shadows or under grey skies, however, and the almost-cheery self-mockery that pokes its head in some of the English poems is entirely absent. Rather, they are mournful. Not dreary, but melancholy.

These poems, then, offer a new paradigm of heritage as a function of place, of body, of language. Interwoven as the tangled sinews of belonging grappling with history and dispersal, the threads of Ancestor Worship tie a complex knot. But it is a knot that binds us, ties us to our families and homelands. Moving forward from the unmoored civil society of the twentieth century, this gnarled and ambivalent filiation is incredibly timely, and Begnal’s poetry makes a fit vessel for it.

(The Irish Literary Supplement, ISSN 0733-3390)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Begnal reviews Trevor Joyce’s What’s in Store

My review of Trevor Joyce’s collection What’s in Store: Poems 2000-2007 can be read at the site of Free Verse, a very good online journal edited by Jon Thompson at North Carolina State University. Please click the first link to go directly to the review, or the ‘Free Verse’ link to peruse the whole number.

Incidentally, Free Verse also previously published my poem “Bettie Page”, and the supplement of contemporary Irish-language poetry which I edited.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Ancestor Worship reviewed at EYEWEAR

Ancestor Worship is reviewed at Todd Swift’s blog, EYEWEAR. The review itself is by Toronto-based writer Craig Saunders, and features not only my book but fellow Salmon poet Susan Millar DuMars’ as well.

Do please check it out (at the link on the word “reviewed”, above). I liked Saunders’ characterization of AW as a “challenging set of psychogeographic explorations,” and his emphasis on displacement and the blurring of lines.

Go raibh maith agaibh.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Why I Refuse to Watch the Olympics

In the middle of the 8th century AD, the Chinese poet Li Po wrote a poem about the ill-advised Chinese military campaigns of the time, entitled “Fighting South of the Ramparts.” It ends,

Crows and hawks peck for human guts,
Carry them in their beaks and hang them on the branches of withered trees.
Captains and soldiers smeared on the bushes and grass;
The General schemed in vain.
Know therefore that the sword is a cursed thing
Which the wise man uses only if he must. (trans. Arthur Waley)

The present Chinese government, unfortunately does not appear very well-versed in the poetry of Li Po, and seems only too willing to use force to stifle political dissent and to put down the initially non-violent uprising in Tibet, for example.

All of this, and much more, is well-known. Even as the world press was descending on Beijing over the past week or so, there were news stories of the Chinese government restricting reporters’ internet access in order to keep them from reporting on issues the government may not want to have discussed in public. But because of the incredible amount of broadcast and endorsement money involved in the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee and most governments are only too happy to turn a blind eye. Nothing unusual about that, sadly.

For its part, it seems pretty clear that China wants to use the Olympics to present a happy image to the rest of the world. Meanwhile it cracks down on protesters of various stripes when no one is looking too closely. I don’t mean to pick on China, since oppression is something that occurs all over the globe. And there are many great things about China, its poetic tradition being but one. However, I personally wouldn’t feel right indulging in “Olympic fever,” watching so-and-so win enough gold medals to get a Wheaties deal, knowing that all this is window-dressing covering over the fact that Tibetan protesters are simultaneously being tortured in Chinese jails. Sorry, just can’t do it.

I would’ve liked to watch some international baseball at least, but there will have to be one less viewer adding to the networks’ advertising revenues. I know I probably add to a lot of crap in my regular viewing and purchasing habits, but the Olympics are often symbolic (remember 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute), so I’m boycotting. There's nothing particularly original in this, and there’s nothing especially “poetic” about it either, I guess, except that poets have often been at the forefront of protest.

Writing in yesterday’s Irish Times about the opening Olympic ceremonies, Keith Duggan said, “For almost 20 years, Beijing has had to live with the image of a lone man standing in Tiananmen Square in front of an army tank as its abiding metaphor. Today has been promised as the new face of an ancient city. And if the infernal Beijing fog would only clear, we might just see it.” This seems to miss the point entirely. That lone man in front of the tank was quite possibly executed or killed on the spot, and not much has changed in China except that its economy is now awash in capital. So let that image stand as the abiding one, and the Beijing Olympics be seen as the exercise in propaganda that it is.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tim Miller, The Lit World

Tim Miller’s poetry collection The Lit World (S4N Books, 2008) is a compact little book (52 pages), concise and honed. Subtitled “Poems from History,” it intends to inhabit the minds of numerous personages throughout time, and succeeds nicely. Beginning with the Hebrew creation myth, and including other Biblical tales (thus making “Poems from History” something of a misnomer, perhaps), Miller’s accomplished prose-poetry ranges across vast swathes of time.

An intriguing early poem here is “Beginning to Paint,” which references the date 18,000-11,000 BC. The ritualistic nature of early cave painting is explored: “as my fingers move, more of him appears: hooves: horns: full body & dark nose—& all smelling of juniper & sweating walls & unforgettable song.” Miller also mentions flutes, the subject of “On Making Flutes (40,000-28,000 BC)” (appropriately enough), thus creating a nice intertextual symmetry.

To my mind, one of the best pieces of the collection is “Those in the Jebel Sahaba Cemetery (10,000 BC),” which is also printed on the book’s back cover. It describes the victims of a 12,000-year-old battle, and insightfully intuits the mindset of those people who buried their dead “in pits with slabs overtop to protect them.” Miller continues, “& you find us all on our left sides: our heads facing south: our hands in front of our faces—you find us all arranged, arrayed, observed.” The slant rhyme of “arranged, arrayed” lends a musical quality to the conclusion, which seems to accord somehow with the reverence imparted to the ancient people with whom the poem engages.

“Trajan’s Bridge (c. 105)” is interesting on a couple of different levels. For one, it is actually written from the point of view of the bridge itself, an inanimate object. Also it addresses the reader, creating a kind of sudden postmodern awareness of this book as book: “I am only two stadiums long yet my length extends to your reading eyes.” The tone is accusatory, indicting the putative reader as shallow, concerned with commerce and transitory pleasures. It ends, “Even the Dacians knew of more than their senses. Consider them, or yourselves—you who are more submerged than me.” The reader of course is invited to see him- or herself here to one degree or another, or may also decline said invitation altogether.

Many of the poems in The Lit World are a comment on genocide and oppression, as for example “The Bulgarian Town of Batak (April, 1876)” deals with one of the various genocides committed but denied by the Turks. “Tecumseh (1811)” delineates a particular response to the genocide committed by the American government against American Indians, while, conversely, “William Tecumseh Sherman (October, 1868)” seeks to explore the viewpoint of a perpetrator. The collection ends with a sequence set in Hitler’s bunker, 1945. So, though Miller’s assessment of human history is ultimately a bleak and at times off-putting one, his poetry itself is absorbingly well-wrought, stripped and direct.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Louis Zukofsky, Selected Poems

Part of the Library of America’s American Poets Project, Louis Zukofsky’s Selected Poems (ed. Charles Bernstein, 2006) is quite a cool and, if I may say, important book. Leaving aside its content, which I’ll get to in a second, it is also a nice little book-as-object, with an embossed cover designed by Chip Kidd and Mark Melnick. I think it’s fitting to mention this, as Zukofsky, being the Objectivist poet and Marxian materialist that he was, would probably have appreciated the attention paid to the volume’s physical characteristics, not only regarding the cover art but to the typographical layout as well. As for the selections herein, Charles Bernstein does a very good job of presenting an overview of Zukofsky’s immense and sprawling body of work, and Bernstein’s introductory essay seems extremely percipient. What follows is not really a review per se, since the book has been available for two years now. It is simply a personal reading of a great and sometimes overlooked poet, with the caveat that others have probably written about him far more knowledgably than I.

In the early part of the twentieth century (long before postmodern theories of language came to prominence), a colleague of Ezra Pound’s in the early Imagist group, T.E. Hulme noted that

language is by its very nature a communal thing; that is it expresses never the exact thing but a compromise – that which is common to you, me and everybody. But each man sees a little differently, and to get out clearly and exactly what he does see, he must have a terrific struggle with language... Language has its own special nature, its own conventions and communal ideas (Hulme, “Romanticism and Classicism”).

While other, more contemporary, linguists and philosophers have elaborated on these ideas, Hulme’s formulation is succinct and useful to a discussion of Zukofsky, not only because Zukofsky was initially influenced by Pound and Imagism, but because his own poetry elaborates it in its own way. Zukofsky’s work preeminently reflects an awareness of the socially-constructed nature or “communal” aspect of language. He allows it to take center stage, rather than trying to make it bend to his will. He “struggles” with it, in the sense that he disbelieves in language as direct representation, but is nonetheless concerned with what and how it might signify in other ways, and how it relates to the realities of the material world.

At the end of “A”, section 7, Zukofsky writes, “words, words, we are words...” (Selected Poems, 90). This statement is meaningful on many different levels, but one thing Zukofsky is suggesting is that human consciousness creates itself, or is at least partly created, through language. There is the sense in his work of a mind (or minds) being enacted through the medium of poetry. His poetry is correspondingly self-reflexive and overtly aware of itself as language, concomitant with the poet’s awareness that language is an entity unto itself rather than a neutral medium. For Zukofsky, if language is socially-constructed and relational, it is therefore beyond the full control of any one individual: “we are words,” he says in this poem, not “I am words.” What it implies is that language can only represent tentative versions of reality, reflecting subjective and evolving perceptions through time. And so Zukofsky’s poetry reads something like a graph of consciousness in action. Broadening this viewpoint outward, his work implies that the nature of reality itself is a kind of Heraclitean flux, eschewing fixed certainties and embracing change. Thus, while language cannot fully represent the world, in Zukofsky’s work it is capable both of suggesting this state of flux, and of enacting its own materiality through the act of writing. This is where the fun part comes in.

Language can be crafted and constructed into poetry, but for Zukofsky it will always be something other than what it purports to describe. This is clearly exemplified in “A” 7, where he in a sense lifts the veil on representational art. He does not pretend to describe a real horse here (ostensibly the subject of the poem), but rather offers a meditation on the ways in which the poet will struggle (as Hulme describes it) with language in a poem. The section begins with a question: “Horses: who will do it? out of manes? Words/ Will do it, out of manes, out of airs, but/ They have no manes...” (Selected, 86). Quickly the reader realizes that Zukofsky is not talking about real horses at all, but the words used to refer to them – like “manes” – and that the horse in this case is actually a mere wooden sawhorse, a blatantly hollow representation of a “real” horse. He plays on the notion that the poet can make words be something more than they are:

Trot, trot—? No horse is here, no horse is there?
Says you! Then I—fellow me, airs! we’ll make
Wood horse, and recognize it with our words [...]
For they had no manes we would give them manes,
For their wood was dead the wood would move—... (87)

The only thing is, he’s already undercut the whole venture, and knows full well that these assertions are wholly unbelievable.

There is no way to make wood into a horse, just as there is no way to make words into a horse. What Zukofsky, as a poet, is capable of doing is exploring the nature of language, which after all is his medium, just as a sculptor or a carpenter might use wood. Therefore, much of this poem is taken up with word- and sound-play – it’s “Not in the say but in the sound’s—hey-hey—” he writes (88). Instead of trying to force the poem to describe a horse, Zukofsky is content to let the sounds of the words interact with thought, and lead him where they may. Language is capable of signification here, but not of the thing directly. For Zukofsky, what it represents is a world in continual flux. A further conclusion that his explorations lead him to is that individual identity is also in flux, and that consciousness is not necessarily composed of a single willful voice, but can embody the voices of many: “Two ways, my two voices.../ ...And the seven came/ To horses seven.../ Spoke: words, words, we are words, horses, manes, words” (90). Implicit in these lines, again, is the conception of language as socially constructed, “a communal thing,” as T.E. Hulme says. It embodies the multifarious versions of reality of the illimitable number of people who have contributed to its formation over time.

Section 9 of Zukofsky’s poem Anew is another example of his poetic, a poetic which sees language as a fluctuating entity. It employs stream of consciousness and sound association, which prevails over any possible closed or prescriptive meaning in the poem. Anew 9 begins with the programmatic statement, “For you I have emptied the meaning/ Leaving the song” (23). Logical meaning, then, is not the focus for Zukofsky; instead it is the material aspects of language – the sound sense of the poem. That is not to say that the poem is devoid of all meaning, however. After the compact manifesto of those first two lines, Zukofsky then humorously suggests that if he’d wanted to he could have posited, for example, a mythological theme: “Or would a god—a god of midday/ Have been brought in by the neck/ For foes to peck at”. But he does not want to impose a tidy mythological structure onto his writing – a strategy utilized for example by modernists like T.S. Eliot – and thereby assign a prefabricated solution for the reader. The imposition of such a mythological structure would be artificial, a reaching after some kind of all-encompassing, explanatory paradigm. Such a paradigm would not be reflective of the nature of reality which, as Zukofsky perceives it, is continually changing and is composed of multifarious voices.

As Charles Bernstein writes in the introduction to Selected Poems, “these poems are not representations of ideas but enactments of thoughts in motion, articulated as sound” (xvii). This statement encapsulates Zukofsky’s view of language. On the one hand it implies that language and thought are in flux (“motion”) – a continual process of becoming. At the same time, it deemphasizes the representational capabilities of language, emphasizing instead its ability to “enact” thought materially, as sound. Sound-play in Anew 9 comes to the fore predominantly in the way the poem’s stanzas relate to each other. For example, the beginning of the second stanza echoes the first in rhyme and rhythm: “For you I have emptied the meaning” / “God the man is so overweening”; “Leaving the song” / “He would prolong”. These two stanzas are connected by sound even as they diverge in logical meaning. Linear logic is not evident, which forces the reader to attend to the material aspects of language separate from what it may or may not signify. In the third stanza, Zukofsky presents an image of sunset and coming night, the world in a state of change, moving from light to dark, existence seemingly captured for a brief moment in this state of change, yet poised to move continually onward. He thereby implies that if there is any sort of pattern at all, it can only be one which reflects the nature of reality as he sees it – the world turning, continual flux. Human consciousness for Zukofsky too embodies such flux, and therefore so does the function of language in the poem. His poetry can exist only in relation to the reality of the world, and to the reality of human consciousness in that world, which is created in the action of language itself.

In Anew 12, Zukofsky is concerned with the ways human consciousness might be accurately described. This seems to be what he’s writing about in the lines: “It’s hard to see but think of a sea.../ And there are waves—/ Frequencies of light,/ Others that may be heard” (24). As Hulme reminds us, language has a social component; there are always other viewpoints from which we might see or hear. The nature of life and language both, Zukofsky suggests here, is relational: ultimately we exist only to the degree that we are capable of interacting with the material and social world around us, and we do so through language. As in A” 7, Zukofsky posits many different voices, a multiplicity lying behind the speaker of the poem, rather than one unitary ‘I’. The poem is where these other voices interact, combine, or play off of each other. This multiplicity of voices is also evident toward the end of Anew 12:

...Which is a forever become me over forty years.
I am like another and another, who has finished learning
And has just begun to learn. (25)

These lines suggest that the self is continually undergoing change, always being created afresh. At the end of “A” 23, Zukofsky writes that “, thought, drama, story, poem/ park’s sunburst—animals, grace notes—/ z-sited path are but us” (151). Just as language, according to Hulme, is communal, a product of all who have spoken it up through the present moment, so is the human mind a product of what has come before, of those who have come before, in turn interacting with the things of the material world. But at the same time, language is capable only of representing perceptions of the world which are subjective and evolving through time, not, for Zukofsky, any fixed or determinate meaning. In other words, language is fluid because material reality, at least as perceived by the human mind, is fluid as well.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Ancestor Worship reviewed in Irish America magazine

Ancestor Worship has gotten a review in Irish America magazine. In their latest issue (June-July 2008), Tom Deignan was brief but very flattering. Here is his piece:


Formerly the editor of the Galway literary magazine The Burning Bush, Michael S. Begnal is an accomplished poet, whose new collection Ancestor Worship has just been published. Though American-born, Begnal mingles the Irish and English languages in his work, which reflects on ancient history as well as pop culture. Take, for example, this sample from the title poem, which recalls Frank O’Hara: “It’s like when Lennon laid / his New York album on you, / and appeared in pictures / in his new image – / Revolutionary, / sudden Irishman, / Manhattanite.” Begnal’s poems are filled with similar humor and the joys and anxieties of living in the shadow of those who came before us.

(12.00 euros, 80 pages,

Monday, June 23, 2008

PIG: a journal, Issue One

The first issue of PIG: a journal was launched on Saturday, June 21st, in Asheville, North Carolina. This is a great little poetry magazine, which is hand-produced by editor Jennifer Callahan utilizing some very impressive book-arts, silk-screening, and letter-press skills. Not only does it look nice, but it contains some really good writing as well. On a first reading, (and first listening, at the launch), a few standouts for me were Jaye Bartell, Hope Rinehart, Stephen Kirbach, Mark Prudowsky, Mara Leigh, Joanna Furmann – well that’s one-third of the roster right there, and frankly I was impressed in some way or another with just about everything here. I have a poem in it too.

For more info on PIG: a journal check out the above link. For ordering information, contact the editor at (also, a note on the title page says that submissions are being accepted through 12/1/08 for the next issue, a themed issue “on the topic of adolescence and childhood”).

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Death of the Lisbon Treaty?

On June 12, 2008, Ireland voted in a referendum to reject the European Union’s Treaty of Lisbon. The margin was 53.4% against, to 46.6% – a clear margin of victory. The turnout was 53%, which is quite high by Irish standards. All in all, it added up to a resounding defeat for those unelected Brussels bureaucrats and the Irish political establishment, who wanted to push this undemocratic treaty on an unsuspecting European public.
That is a good thing. Make no mistake.
The Lisbon Treaty, though portrayed by its supporters simply as a means to streamline the workings of the EU, was really about moving toward a European super-state. It included many aspects of the failed 2004 EU constitution (which was rejected in 2005 by France and Holland), as if they thought they could sneak the constitution in through the back door. As Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, president of the Convention on the Future of Europe (which drafted said failed constitution), wrote in the London Independent:
The difference between the original Constitution and the present Lisbon Treaty is one of approach, rather than content.... They have taken the original draft constitution, blown it apart into separate elements, and have then attached them, one by one, to existing treaties. The Treaty of Lisbon is thus a catalogue of amendments.... In terms of content, the proposed institutional reforms – the only ones which mattered to the drafting Convention – are all to be found in the Treaty of Lisbon. They have merely been ordered differently and split up between previous treaties.... Otherwise, the proposals in the original constitutional treaty are practically unchanged. They have simply been dispersed through old treaties in the form of amendments. Why this subtle change? Above all, to head off any threat of referenda by avoiding any form of constitutional vocabulary.... But lift the lid and look in the toolbox: all the same innovative and effective tools are there, just as they were carefully crafted by the European Convention.... When men and women with sweeping ambitions for Europe decide to make use of this treaty, they will be able to rekindle from the ashes of today the flame of a United Europe.
Thankfully, Ireland, out of all the EU countries, was bound by Bunreacht na hÉireann (its own constitution) to hold a referendum on this perfidious document, and thankfully the result was a good one. If instead the Yes campaign had won, it’s quite likely that this would’ve been the last Irish referendum on any EU matter, since Lisbon, Article 48, would have made it possible for the European Council to amend existing treaties by majority vote, without the need for an intergovernmental conference or further treaty – and without a treaty, thus nothing for Ireland to be obligated to have a referendum on.
Lisbon would also have cut Ireland’s voting strength on the European Council by more than half, as the Treaty changes the already complicated qualified majority voting procedure. In addition, it would have definitely ended Ireland’s automatic right to a Commissioner (something already presaged in the 2001 Nice Treaty). This means Ireland would have been without a Commissioner for five years out of every fifteen. Inexplicably, the Irish political establishment was trying to argue that this loss of representation in Europe would somehow be a good thing; again, that it was merely a streamlining measure. But why anyone who purports to have Ireland’s best interests at heart would argue that Ireland should accept a reduced position in the EU, is beyond me.
Another dangerous aspect of Lisbon, at least from the Irish perspective, was that it threatened Irish neutrality, since it would have created a common defence and possibly obligated Ireland to increase military spending. Article 11 says “The Union’s competence in matters of common foreign and security policy shall cover all areas of foreign policy and all questions relating to the Union’s security including the progressive framing of a common defence policy that might lead to a common defence.” While it may have been possible to receive some sort of opt-out allowance, there is no doubt that Ireland would come under increasing pressure from its bigger bullying partners to go along with the “common” EU defence policy.
It has become obvious now that the dominant larger European countries see the EU as a rolling process, leading to further and further integration, until such time as a federal and constitutionalised Europe is merely a fait accompli. The rest of Europe is in a sense being led down this dark corridor, guided by the driving forces of France, Germany, Britain, and Italy, unaware of what truly lies ahead yet willing to be cajoled further. Each new treaty takes them another step closer to the EU super-state that these former colonial powers dream of.
We have gone from the Maastricht Treaty to the Nice Treaty to the Lisbon Treaty, each time being told that this is it, and that it’s merely procedural, just to make EU structures function more smoothly. However, it is clear now that those who feared rolling integration have been proven right. We have already seen an attempt to impose a constitution, and now with Lisbon we have seen the attempt to sneak the same failed constitution in through the back door. Happily, Ireland has at least for a brief moment put an end to that venture. EU citizens should be insulted at the way that these unaccountable bureaucrats blatantly tried to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. At least Valéry Giscard d’Estaing is honest about his United Europe ambitions – most of the Irish political establishment tried to lie to people about the true nature of Lisbon.
Let me say here that, despite the foregoing, I am not at all suggesting that Ireland should withdraw from the EU. I have no problem with economic and structural cooperation where it benefits everyone involved. There are many positive things about the EU, and it has certainly helped Ireland emerge from its previous status as an economic backwater (a hangover from its up-until-recently postcolonial situation, “Northern Ireland” notwithstanding), enabling it to lessen its dependence on the British market (though Britain naturally remains Ireland’s largest trading partner). It has broadened the Irish consciousness and in certain ways helped the country to modernize itself through the wider exchange of ideas. And of course there were EU Structural Funds in the mix as well. Some have actually suggested that Ireland “owes” the EU because of this, and should have passed the Lisbon Treaty for that reason if nothing else, so as not to appear “ungrateful” to our European benefactors!
However, the suggestion that a country’s sovereignty can be bought off for cash is, or certainly should be, ludicrous. Ireland rose up in 1916, beginning a successful War of Independence from the British Empire, but also one which resulted in the deaths of many Irishmen and women in the process. Exactly what would be the point of this, if Ireland were now going to give away its sovereignty to another even larger empire? Yes, I said it: empire. Is it any accident that the countries driving these moves toward integration are the former big colonial powers? After World War Two, Germany could never attempt to rule over Europe again on its own – but it can through an EU super-state. The sun may have set on the British Empire, but not quite, if it’s a major player in the EU. Etc. Meanwhile, the small countries like Ireland would be the ones getting screwed. If the EU were to ratify Lisbon, countries like Ireland would see its representation diminished to the point that Germany, France, and Britain would be able to push through any measures they wanted, with very little opposition from the rest. The vision embodied in the Lisbon Treaty therefore is undemocratic, neo-colonialist, and exploitative.
Ten years ago, I published a letter to the editor in The Irish Times about the EU and the then looming introduction of the euro currency, in which I asked, “Isn’t anyone bothered that we’ll be giving up that particular Irish sensibility that sees fit to put animals like the horse, the salmon, and the bull on the country’s coins in exchange for utterly characterless maps of Europe?” I might also have mentioned trading writers like James Joyce (formerly on the 10-punt note) for those bland gestures to European architecture (but not any actual, real buildings) that were soon to grace the euro notes.
For me, the issues which surround the EU are not only political, they are cultural. Concomitant with European political integration is the homogenization of culture, symbolized by the loss of Celtic art on the Irish currency, but played out in many different arenas. Which is one of the reasons why a poet such as myself would bother to write a piece like the one you are presently reading. Politics, art, culture, language, identity (both personal and national) – they are all bound up in this debate. I am for a Europe, indeed for a world, where all people and all cultures are respected, tolerated, and coexist side by side, but not one in which some are dominated by or subsumed by others in order to bring about a European hegemony, or forced to conform to the artistic banality exemplified by the euro currency. There is a cultural emptiness at the heart of the EU; could it be any different? As the French used to say, vive la différence.
I would like to think that the Irish rejection of Lisbon has put an end to the notion of further integration. But for all the pro-Lisbon side’s pretense to democracy, they are already mobilizing to circumvent the voice of the Irish people as expressed in a free and democratic referendum. Where we were told during the campaign that there was “no Plan B”, and that an Irish “Yes” vote was needed or else the whole thing would be derailed, now all of the sudden EU politicians are urging the other countries to ratify Lisbon anyway, and continue on as if nothing has happened. This, despite the clearly-expressed will of the Irish people, and despite the fact that under current EU law, all countries must ratify the treaty before it can come into effect.
Yesterday’s Irish Times quotes French President Nicolas Sarkozy as saying, “The others must continue to ratify – that is also the intention of (British Prime Minister) Gordon Brown, who told me so on the telephone yesterday – so that this Irish incident does not become a crisis.” In the same article, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier seems equally dismissive of the “incident”, saying, “(The question is whether) Ireland for a certain time can clear the way for an integration of the remaining 26 (member countries).” (It’s also quite interesting that everyone is now openly calling it an integration treaty – they all wanted to keep quiet about that particular detail during the campaign.)
So it seems as if the EU establishment is prepared to do everything it can to ignore or even overturn the Irish referendum. This means that the coalition of progressive political parties such as Sinn Féin, groups like the Peace & Neutrality Alliance, and many others, needs to continue on in order to fight whatever measures may be taken to subvert this referendum result. (Although Libertas was also an instrumental part of the No campaign, I feel the need to point out that they are coming at it from something of a right-wing perspective.)
The Irish government shamelessly and cynically re-ran the 2001 Nice Treaty referendum until they got their desired result. It seems like it would be a risky proposition for them to try it again this time, given that the reasons for a No vote on Lisbon were much more varied than they were on Nice (where most people’s objections could be dealt with by a hastily arranged clause on Irish military neutrality), and that the No campaign is now much more organized and motivated. But I have no doubt that something is up the sleeve of both the EU and the Irish government, so the No side needs to be prepared.
What the Irish government should do now, is go back to Europe and robustly explain that the Lisbon Treaty is dead, and that therefore a new one needs to be negotiated which actually increases democracy in the EU instead of centralizing power in Brussels, views every nation as equal, does not diminish some countries’ representation while increasing that of the bigger countries, does not obligate sovereign nations to a common defence and foreign policy, and does not attempt to secretly embroil them in an increasingly integrated super-state. It should tell them that only then will the Irish people be able to vote for it. It should put forward a vision of the EU as something other than the out of touch bureaucracy that it has become.

Unfortunately, Taoiseach Brian Cowen seems ready to kowtow to his European counterparts, meekly planning to go to next week’s European summit to, as an RTÉ story has it, “see if there is a consensus on the way forward,” and refusing to rule out a new referendum. According to The Irish Times, Cowen told the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, “that the referendum result was clear but that he also believed the treaty was not yet dead.” It is, or should be dead, and Cowen and the rest of the EU ought to be looking for a new and different way forward. The fact that they are not doing this has to be worrying to anyone who cares about democracy and the future of Europe.