Interestingly, though unexpectedly, both of these collections by Niall McGrath reference me. Treasures of the Unconscious (Scotus Press, 2009) contains a poem titled “To Michael S. Begnal Founding the James Liddy Society of America,” which, though not stated here, I happen to know is written after a poem by Liddy himself titled “To Joan Navarre Founding the Oscar Wilde Society of America.” Thus, McGrath, who had published both Liddy and me in his journal The Black Mountain Review, humorously notes certain poetic connections. Who I Am (Lapwing, 2009) is a poetic treatment of McGrath’s family history, the concept of which, as the author explains in the notes that appear at the end of the volume, “originally…centred around the idea of ‘Ancestor Worship’, but as others (most notably Michael S. Begnal) have used that title, I searched for another.” One poem in the sequence nonetheless retains the “Ancestor Worship” moniker, and if I have in some small way inspired something here, then I am quite pleased for McGrath to run with it.
I have been aware of McGrath since we were both editors of separate Irish literary journals about ten years ago or so now. We appeared in each other’s magazines, and I was included in the anthology Breaking the Skin which McGrath’s Black Mountain Press published. I don’t know if all this means I can still be an “impartial” reviewer, but who cares; let’s just call this something else if need be, a response from a long-time reader and occasional associate. While we probably have certain philosophical differences, McGrath is an interesting poet to me, and I also see certain commonalities. But to these books.
In both of these volumes, McGrath is sure-handed and at home in the tradition of Northern Irish lyric poetry but is more than willing to extend it or to try other things. Much of his work is focused on the crisply observed details of his rural upbringing, as in the title poem of Treasures of the Unconscious, or in “A Farmhouse Kitchen in Country Antrim.” But then he occasionally presents something unexpectedly crazy, like the poem “2012,” a fantastical portrait of the North post-apocalypse. There are deft formal poems, such as “An Ulster Nativity,” alongside funny formal poems, such as “The Prince of Outer Baldonia and the Pepsi-Cola Kid,” alongside the surreal, television-inspired “Diabolical,” alongside elegiac poems of death. The humour and occasional weirdness leavens the often heavy tone of this collection, not that heavy is a bad thing in itself.
One aspect of McGrath’s work that does really interest me is his treatment of political and cultural identity in Ireland. In previous works of his, it appeared to me that identitarian politics was something he wanted to avoid, though the six-county focus could be seen as political in itself. McGrath, though, it often seemed , wished to rise above the fray of the North’s cultural divide. In Treasures of the Unconscious, the Troubles are briefly referenced as “a feud/ that made international headlines” (“Botanic”) (perhaps with an echo of Paddy Kavanagh’s poem “Epic”), while “Elder” justifiably affirms those Protestants who eschewed bigotry, even while their position in Northern society made them seem complicit in it to some. “Covenant,” which appears in both of the two books (in fact several poems occur twice in these overlapping collections) is about a grandmother who signed the Ulster Covenant, yet McGrath complicates the statement that signing the Covenant embodied: “she’d…learn/ other shades of green;/ and that pledges made in the heat/ of the moment don’t always ring true.”
Such muddying of the waters in regard to Irish identities and even family connections comes to the fore in Who I Am. On one level, this book is intended to solidify poetically the writer’s position in history and genealogy by exploring his family history and personal roots (which comprise both Protestant planters and native Gaelic Irish) — indeed the ancient Gaelic poets were practically obsessed with genealogy, and so this endeavour in itself helps situate McGrath in Irish tradition, if nothing else. However, despite the bold proclamation of the title, Who I Am ultimately seems to me to result in more of a sense of indeterminacy than certainty. One of the poems that perhaps best sums this up is “Name Calling,” wherein the writer, Niall McGrath, a Protestant with a Gaelic name, reflects on “growing up during the Troubles,/ one side suspicious because of the name,/ the other at first open, then clamming up/ on discovering you weren’t ‘one of them’.” But it isn’t even simply a North-South thing or a unionist-nationalist thing — the poem goes on to discuss a sister-in-law from the South whose parish priest refuses to call her by her given name (Deirdre) because it’s too Gaelic and thus pagan-seeming.
In the notes that appear at the back of Who I Am, McGrath states that “the experiences of forebears shape the individual as well as our own experiences.” This is true, I think. Yet, as in my own experience also, it would ultimately appear that assertions of identity can only be partial, contingent on many things beyond ancestors and family lore (as much as these things may touch us, and they do). McGrath himself is aware of this, of course, and this collection sees him opening up to the rest of Ireland, while rejecting the Catholic/Protestant divide that has plagued the country for hundreds of years now (McGrath posits a personal “Vaisnavist perspective”). The final few poems look boldly toward the future. I still couldn’t help but notice an interesting mistake in the text. The title heading on the verso pages of the book reads, “Who Am I,” instead of the intended “Who I Am.” From the author’s perspective this is probably an annoying error, understandably, but the question in a way is maybe just as interesting as the answer.