Thursday, October 29, 2015

Gearóid Mac Lochlainn

[A couple of years ago, this encyclopaedia-like piece was commissioned, and subsequently rejected for unknown reasons, by Poetry International. I’m posting it now because I think Mac Lochlainn’s work is engaging, important, and indeed joyful.]

Gearóid Mac Lochlainn
(Ireland, 1966)  

Gearóid Mac Lochlainn was born in Belfast in 1966 and thus is of the generation in the Six Counties which has grown up with the Troubles. Mac Lochlainn’s gritty urban outlook is in marked contrast to most of the previous generation of Northern poets. An Irish-speaker from West Belfast, he was steeped in the atmosphere of the armed struggle and is overtly aware of the disjunctions which stem from being bilingual in such a highly-politicised society, a part of Ireland where national sovereignty is still contested. Thus, Mac Lochlainn cannot help but be confronted by questions of cultural and linguistic identity, and this is reflected in his work. The poem ‘Teacht i Méadaíocht’ (translated as ‘Rite of Passage’) describes the first time its speaker is stopped by a British army patrol: ‘– Keep yer fucking ’ands on the wall, Paddy! // I heard my details passed over the radio / to another stranger at base, / my Irish name now unrecognisable, / carved up by the crackling blades of English and static.’  The British army occupation of the North is here analogous to the often antagonistic relationship between the two languages, the indigenous Irish and the colonising English. 

Mac Lochlainn’s first two collections, Babylon Gaeilgeoir (An Clochán, 1997) and Na Scéalaithe (Coiscéim, 1999), dealt with such issues through the medium of the Irish language only. However, his breakthrough collection, Sruth Teangacha / Stream of Tongues (Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 2002), is bilingual and includes translations of some of his earlier poems. It could be argued that it is in the interplay between the different versions of Mac Lochlainn that he becomes especially interesting. As he writes in the notes to Sruth Teangacha, ‘In the original poems sound shaped syntax to a large extent and for this reason I believe it is impossible to really “translate” Irish poetry’. Mac Lochlainn (with his co-translators) often departs from his own original versions, sometimes significantly. There is a destabilising effect in regard to language, and the author himself speaks of ‘a playful jibe thrown out at the monoglot who seeks truth in translation’. Sruth Teangacha in this way is a type of meta-work, composed not just of Irish poems and English translations, but of the interaction between the two.

The result of this, though, is that neither the originals nor the translations can necessarily be considered authoritative in their own right. While each comments on its counterpart, it also undermines any claim that the other might have to being the ‘real’ poem. Certainly this is what Mac Lochlainn intends in regard to the translations; he is cognisant of the danger of allowing the English versions to ‘gain an autonomy of their own and eclipse the Irish’. What is more problematic is the effect on the original poems. The fact that a parallel version exists destabilises the authority of the original just as much as vice versa. However, given that only a small percentage of people will be able to read the originals, the troubling contradictions inherent in Mac Lochlainn’s work could be lost on many. It is likely that certain of his readers do not fully grasp the deeper implications being made about language, both as a cultural manifestation and as an entity unto itself, and instead take him as an energetic, Beat-influenced performance poet. Well, that is fine too.

A handful of poems in Sruth Teangacha are centred around the character of ‘Mo Chara’, a dishevelled busker who is ‘in a bad way’, and these form the basis for Mac Lochlainn’s next book, Criss-Cross / Mo Chara (Cló Iar-Chonnacht, 2011). Where the previous collection included Irish-language poems and their translations on facing pages, Criss-Cross / Mo Chara mixes things up both in regard to translation and to literary form. A number of poems are translated (again, usually in significantly different renditions), but many are not. Irish and English often intermix to create, as Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill has blurbed the book, ‘a creole or macaronic language which closely embodies the experience of many on this island of being literate (and sometimes illiterate) in two languages at the same time’. Further, given the sustained focus on the character (who is at times cynical, even about the Irish language itself, but who always maintains the characteristic Belfast irony), the poems in this volume have to be read as linked. A narrative develops, and so Criss-Cross / Mo Chara becomes a sort of novel-in-verse.

Mac Lochlainn has held writer-in-residence posts at Queen’s University, Belfast, and at the University of Ulster, and was a fellow at the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He has performed his work at numerous festivals and readings and is also a musician. Indeed, his two volumes with Cló Iar-Chonnacht are accompanied by CDs that combine poetry and music, adding a further layer to his challenging and original project.

– Michael S. Begnal

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Tribute to Steve Mackay

Steve Mackay (with Ron Asheton in the background), 1970
Many years ago, long before the transformation of the Stooges’ reputation and their election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Stooges fans were rarities.  Aside from those with specialist knowledge of music history, or perhaps someone aware of the Stooges as one of the progenitors of punk, few people had heard of them.  You’d have to first determine whether a person had at least heard of Iggy Pop, and then explain that the Stooges were his band before he went solo.  So when you did meet a Stooges fan, there was a kind of immediate camaraderie, a mutual recognition of something important.

I remember in the 1990s, in San Francisco, there was this guy I worked with, a bit older than me.  I got to talking to him about music, and he told me this story about how, once, when he had this job working second shift at a factory or a warehouse or something, he’d get off of work late, after a long, tough night, get a six-pack of beer, go home, and put on the Stooges’ Fun House album.  Now, as many will agree, this album is the greatest rock album ever recorded, when all is said and done.  But it wasn’t simply the fact that it’s a great album and the Stooges were a great band — it was side two that this guy was really waiting for.  Because, halfway through the first song on side two (“1970”) is when Steve Mackay appears, blowing his tenor sax with the heaviest, most brilliant tone you could imagine.

Mackay plays out the album from there, on three tracks total.  “1970” is a hard-driving, up-tempo song of desperation, exhibiting the Stooges’ proto-punk qualities.  Mackay’s tenor comes in at the 3:30 mark, with a blistering solo riding over Ron Asheton’s expansive bar chords.  The album’s title track, “Fun House,” a groove based primarily on the rhythm section of Dave Alexander and Scott Asheton, has Mackay soloing throughout, to the frequent cries of Iggy Pop: “Blow, Steve!”  The last track is “L.A. Blues,” in which the band eschews linear time and Mackay’s presence further pushes their sound into the realm of free jazz.

“That squawk!” I remember my former co-worker practically shouting to me, and I of course was equally as enthusiastic about Steve Mackay, because that moment when his horn appears on Fun House is one of the best moments in musical history, on the greatest rock’n’roll album of all time.  And it never lets up.  I remember also telling him, “If you like Mackay’s playing, you should also check out John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp. . . .”  And certainly it is from these heavyweights of the free-jazz movement that Mackay must have gotten his sound.  How a young guy working in the Detroit rock scene in 1970 could produce a performance up there with these aforementioned jazz innovators, I don’t know.  But he did.

Mackay’s playing on Fun House is both brutal and magnificent, and added something to the Stooges that they would never be able to duplicate without him (though he did later appear on the more recent albums The Weirdness and Ready To Die by the re-formed band).  Mackay also played with a lot of other groups and put out his own material, which I certainly don’t wish to minimize, but for me his playing on Fun House is the equivalent of a “master work.”  And if any artist — a musician, painter, poet, or what have you — can create even one work as great as this, then, wow, he/she has in some way got it made.

Mackay’s work on these Stooges songs can be further heard on 1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions and Have Some Fun: Live At Ungano’s.

R.I.P. Steve Mackay, who died 10/10/15.