Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros49-1Forms of Resistance: Witnessing V...

Forms of Resistance: Witnessing Violence in Recent Experimental Irish Poetry

Formes de résistance : être témoin de la violence dans la poésie irlandaise expérimentale récente
Ailbhe McDaid
p. 47-60

Résumés

Le mode lyrique n’offrant guère d’espace aux perspectives marginales et dissidentes, la poésie irlandaise a toujours trouvé des moyens subversifs pour témoigner de la violence. Certaines œuvres récentes situent la résistance dans l’innovation formelle, comme moyen de rendre témoignage d’actes de violence institutionnelle, raciste et structurelle qui défigurent la société irlandaise. Comme Carolyn Forché le note dans Poetry of Witness, cette esthétique est souvent située dans la sphère sociale, entre le personnel et le politique, et cherche des techniques de représentation radicales pour recentrer ceux soumis à des procédés d’invisibilisation par la violence. MOTHERBABYHOME de Kimberly Campanello, Dubh de FELISPEAKS, « Exile » de Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi et Famished de Cherry Smyth sont étudiés afin d’esquisser les contours des formes de résistance à l’œuvre dans la poésie irlandaise innovante. L’article explore les implications idéologiques et politiques inhérentes à l’éthique d’un témoignage poétique qui condamne l’État et ses instruments.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

Rupturing the lines of communication: experimentation and Irish poetic tradition

  • 1 For some accounts of Irish experimental poetry, and its varying reception, see Irish University Rev (...)
  • 2 David Lloyd, “Introduction: On Irish Experimental Poetry”, Irish University Review, vol. 46, no. 1, (...)
  • 3 Ibid., p. 16.
  • 4 Alice Feldman, Anne Mulhall, “Towing the Line: Migrant Women Writers and the Space of Irish Writing (...)
  • 5 Fran Lock, “Thinking the Working-Class ‘Aven’t Gard”, Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetr (...)

1The experimental impulse in Irish poetry tracks a paradoxical narrative throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. The modernist, avant-garde and international qualities of early and mid-20th-century poets such as Denis Devlin, Thomas MacGreevy, Brian Coffey, amongst others, have long been trumpeted as an alternative tradition, and yet it is curiously understated in canonical accounts of the evolution of modern Irish poetry.1 As noted by David Lloyd, Samuel Beckett anticipated this aesthetic digression, and the emergent poetic preferences of the Irish literary palate, in his early book review “Recent Irish Poetry”, in which he “distinguished between a poetry of convention and a poetry of the actual, the latter having apprehended ‘the new thing that has happened’, that is, ‘the breakdown of the object’ or ‘breakdown of the subject’ and the ‘rupture of the lines of communication’”.2 This rupture has been seen by some critics, including Lloyd, as an enabling device that indicates the regenerative and capacious possibilities inherent in Irish experimental poetry, one which “has shown itself capable of inventing forms and languages adequate to Irish conditions a century after the nation’s partial decolonization”.3 Indeed, given the formal conservatism of the Irish poetic tradition, coupled with the restrictive publishing landscape in Ireland, as elsewhere, communities of experimentation and innovation offer more open space for minority and subversive voices to find amplification.4 It would, however, be over-simplistic to suggest that experimental poetry is a blank slate with no inherited prejudices; beyond the literary ghettoisation of experimental poetry, which requires consideration from an intersectional perspective, the foundational premise of experimental poetry that sets out to de-lyricise poetry is itself an act of erasure that gives cause for pause. Interrogating the affect of experimental work, Fran Lock’s question is pointed and pertinent: “Does experimental poetry’s decentring of the lyric ‘I’, simply compound and complete a project of erasure already at work within wider society?”.5

  • 6 Lyn Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure”, in Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art o (...)

2It is with these tensions in mind that this essay considers a selection of recent experimental Irish poetry that has, at its core, an ethical imperative towards the act of witness, and towards a recuperation, of sorts, of those historically (and more recently) affected by the processes of colonial, institutional and racial violence in Ireland. In examining Kimberly Campanello’s MOTHERBABYHOME, FELISPEAKS’s Dubh, Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi’s “Exile” and Cherry Smyth’s Famished, this essay explores how innovative poetics offer subversive ways of addressing contentious and troubling topics, and open possibilities away from the restrictive lyric “I” that traditionally dominates the Irish poetic tradition. The textual strategies active in these works seek to destabilise the normative poetic expectations of the Irish canon, thereby fostering new forms of resistance on both stylistic and thematic levels. This resistance is cultivated through a specific kind of textual openness that refutes the repressions of the archive and of formal conservatism. As Lyn Hejinian writes in “The Rejection of Closure”, the open text “invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies”.6 In this way, this essay shows how these experimental texts play host to the conditions and implications of the repressions at hand without resorting to the resolutions of the lyric. By restaging the “project of erasure” that has occluded the lived experiences of individuals through gender, class and racial prejudice, this vein of Irish experimental poetry offers a formal challenge to the notion of poetic recovery – one that demands its reader sits with the uncomfortable truth of the impossibility of restitution.

Carceral Aesthetics: Kimberly Campanello’s MOTHERBABYHOME

3Structures of containment are familiar tropes in Irish society, extending across gender, race and class categories to enact ongoing violence on the most vulnerable. As Clair Wills observes:

  • 7 Clair Wills, “Architectures of Containment”, London Review of Books, vol. 43, no. 10, 20 May 2021, (...)

Given Ireland’s long history of confining “problem” citizens in institutions, the emphasis in Irish historiography on containment makes logical sense. But it may also blind us to the underlying logic of the system – one the comparison to asylum seekers reveals. Unmarried mothers and their children were not, or not only, kept in, but cast out.7

This dialectic of exclusion and erasure underpins Campanello’s MOTHERBABYHOME, which seeks to depict the particular cruelties experienced by those who lived and died in the institutions charged with their care.8 Furthermore, and at least as pressingly, MOTHERBABYHOME is concerned with the afterlives of their experiences – asking: What happens to the stories of those without voices? How can poetry carve out space for those who have been removed from sight and from sound? The innovative poetics of MOTHERBABYHOME, described by the author as a work of “conceptual and visual poetry”, explore the possibilities for representing those underheard voices, through the multiply-constituted texture of the poem, which functions on textual, material and performative levels.9

4Ailbhe Darcy notes that “MOTHERBABYHOME is not so much about Tuam Mother and Baby Home as it is about the public conversation around that subject”, indicating the nature of innovative poetics, and this work in particular, to intercede in (rather than merely record) discourse.10 Although the publication of the long-delayed final report by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes did not finally take place until 2021, the Commission was established six years earlier, and some seven interim reports were produced in the period.11 MOTHERBABYHOME was published in 2019, well in advance of the final report, and yet it foreshadows much of the resulting criticism as well as anticipating the culminating violence of the final report for many of the survivors. Campanello’s robust engagement with a range of source materials delivers the first line of resistance, then, of MOTHERBABYHOME, incorporating extracts from legal documents, health inspector reports, council minutes, witness statements and personal testimony that are crosscut and juxtaposed throughout the text. The author’s note to MOTHERBABYHOME states it is an “excavation of voices, the poems are composed entirely of text taken from historical archives and contemporary sources related to the Home”.12 Darcy suggests that

  • 13 Ailbhe Darcy, “Recent Documentary Poetry in Performance”, p. 43.

One characteristic of the documentary poem is that, although it is a carefully-curated act of rhetoric on the part of an author, it tends to mimic an archive, presenting itself as a collection of pieces of documentary “evidence”, which readers themselves must actively piece together.13

In recruiting the reader to the task of archival re-assembly, Campanello implicates them in the process of narrative restitution – an impossible act given the extent to which MOTHERBABYHOME is fragmentary and incomplete. Nevertheless, in “assembling absences”, Campanello confronts the violence of the archive and challenges it, by diffusing the illusion of completion conjured by the official report. The specific formal possibilities realised through the experimental approach of Campanello’s work allows her to reinsert the historical gaps as integral to an account of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, a feminist practice that is a deliberate act of resistance. And, for Eleanor Careless,

  • 14 Eleanor Careless, “Assembling Absences: Anna Mendelssohn, Jennifer Moxley, and the Transnational Ca (...)

The practice of assembling absences is a belated counter to disconnection and loss; it is a form of feminist practice, a recuperation of forgotten histories and voices; and it is also a practice which might counter the practices and institution of the modern prison – a place where presence is a form of absence, where being kept apart from the world outside is understood as a form of rehabilitation.14

The experimental timbre of MOTHERBABYHOME does not offer easy narrative comfort by filling in those absences; rather, in foregrounding the porosity of the past, it refuses the consolations of lyric poetry entirely. The narrative incoherence of the piece points the reader to the essential crux of poetic witness – what kind of art can be made from overwhelming violence?

5From a structural perspective, MOTHERBABYHOME proposes a gesture of self-assertion by offering a page per person – 796 in total – for each of the infants and children who died in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. In its most fundamental of formal decisions then (its length), the poem undertakes an intervention; it carves out individual space for each individual, space which was denied to those individuals in death via their burials in unmarked graves or septic tanks. Simultaneously, and somewhat paradoxically, the page per person further serves to emphasise the binding tension of Campanello’s work – that the effort to reinstate those names only underlines the impossibility of ever fully restoring their stories. The names are scattered erratically across the pages in noticeably shrunken typescript, far smaller than the dominant font on the page. At times the names sit alone on an almost-completely blank page – “Murray James 04/11/1925 4 weeks” – while, on other pages, appearing almost as an afterthought to the very end of the page – “Griffin Matthew 18/10/1925 3 mts”.15 Some names and ages are semi-occluded, to beyond recovery, by other textual material, while still others come as an unwelcome interruption to a smooth archival extract:

Mr. Mannion enquired if members of the visiting committee were allowed to visit Tuam Home now. Wade Mary 05/04/1926 3 yrs 3 mts
Mr. T. King suggested that because of the chicken pox outbreak a meeting might be held at another venue in Tuam apart from the Home.

This vulnerability evoked here through the relative typographical subordination of the names via a range of experimental devices serves to showcase the fragility of each life and the flimsiness of what is left behind in the face of the erasures experienced via the archive. While on the one hand MOTHERBABYHOME reinstates those forgotten names, the very act of attempted restitution highlights just how profoundly eroded the victims must remain. Although the lyric “I” is completely eschewed through this mélange of source materials, there are glimpses of subjectivity, reached for here in the shifting pronouns of the survivors:

future generations
are elderly and want
answers her childhood
was one for public scrutiny
if you managed to survive
they were ashamed

Moving from “her” to “you” to “they” brings the reader through different degrees of intimacy and identification, but ultimately renders the subjective ground extremely unstable – a reiteration, perhaps, of the destabilising of the archive that is simultaneously taking place in this work.

  • 16 Kimberly Campanello, MOTHERBABYHOME, available from the Irish Poetry Reading Archive (https://libgu (...)

6A full performance of MOTHERBABYHOME is available on the Irish Poetry Reading Archive, and it is an invaluable artefact in the interpretation of the work.16 Watching and listening to Campanello perform the poem reminds the viewer of the materiality of the work, which itself obliges reflection on the materiality of the official archive versus the ephemerality of lived experience. As Campanello shuffles pages of this enormous 796-page poem resting in a wooden box, and as the pages accumulate on the floor of the reading room, those lurking questions of the limits of poetic witness surface once again in terms of materiality, accessibility and remembrance. When the poet makes her choices about how to read the text that refuses to be read – through black-out, overlaid typescript, erasure and blank spaces – we are reminded of the ways in which experimental poetry is, by its very nature, an act of resistance, and of how each engagement with a work of this innovative quality demands individual negotiation. Perhaps that is the ultimate restitution of a work like MOTHERBABYHOME: that each act of reading is an act of radical recognition.

“The cultural side of politics”: poetries of protest17

  • 17 Interview of Linton Kwesi Johnson by Sarah O’Reilly for the National Life Stories oral history proj (...)
  • 18 Clair Wills, “Architectures of Containment”.

7As noted earlier, the connection between carceral practices and Irish societal responses to demographic diversity delivers unsettling commonalities.18 In resisting racial violence, Black poets of various literary cultures have initiated experimentation as integral to the act of dismantling repressive structures, both on and off the page. As Linton Kwesi Johnson remarks, poetry is not separate to activism, but rather it is woven into the very fabric of resistance:

  • 19 Interview of Linton Kwesi Johnson by Sarah O’Reilly.

Poetry has always been a way of articulating anger, and ideas about injustice and the struggle against it. It was always the cultural dimension of what I was doing on the streets, the demonstration, the picket line. It was always the cultural side of politics.19

  • 20 Linton Kwesi Johnson, “Writing Reggae: Poetry, Politics and Popular Culture”, Moving Worlds: Journa (...)
  • 21 Sandeep Parmar, “Still Not a British Subject…”; Anne Mulhall, “Arrivals…”; Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi, Emm (...)
  • 22 Unapologetic, online: https://www.unapologeticmag.net.
  • 23 Ola Majekodunmi, “An Duine Anaithnid”, Unapologetic, no. 1, 2021, p. 9.

Now widely critically acclaimed and identified as instrumental in the formation of a Black political consciousness in the 1970s and 1980s, the style and delivery of Johnson’s work have not always attracted support from the British literary establishment; as he notes himself, he was often met with disdain “from the arbiters of British poetic taste”.20 This notion of “taste” is bound up with ideas of quality and literary value, and is deeply inflected by racial and classist biases, as discussed in the British context by Sandeep Parmar, and in the emergent Irish context in research by Anne Mulhall, Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi, Emma Penney, and myself.21 Recent scholarship on Irish literary culture highlights the ways in which Black Irish poets have cultivated networks that circumvent the need for approval from literary gatekeepers, by instead instigating alternative modes of production. The magazine Unapologetic, established in 2021, is one such example of a multidisciplinary literary publication that seeks to centre voices from minority and diverse backgrounds in the discourse on contemporary Irish cultural identity.22 The opening poem in the first issue of Unapologetic is entitled “An Duine Anaithnid” by Ola Majekodunmi, a meditation on vexed questions of language identifiers and who is allowed to decide the descriptors by which they are known: “I’m a ‘duine gorm’ but I’m not ‘gorm’. / I say ‘dubh’, they say what / I’m not diggin”, / Ní thuigim”.23 In an accomplished act of code-switching and bilingualism that retains a sonorous poetic quality, Majekodunmi interrogates the highly-specific question of linguistic self-identity in an Irish-language context. Majekodunmi’s assertion of cultural authority that is entwined with racial identity is characteristic of the resistive pulse of much work emerging from Black Irish writers, work that deliberately courts stylistic hybridity through genre-slipping cultural production spanning digital, spoken-word, hip-hop and performance pieces that might each be categorised under the broad tent of contemporary Irish poetry. The experimental formal timbre of much of this work that seeks to refuse conformity in poetic terms is a deliberate act of self-determination for those writing from minority and under-represented perspectives.

  • 24 Conor Gallagher, “George Nkencho Shooting: Racial Tensions in Dublin’s Suburbs”, Irish Times, 9 Jan (...)

8It is, however, a number of poetic responses to the killing of George Nkencho on which I wish to focus as a means of highlighting the ways in which formal innovation can foment resistance. Nkencho, a 27-year-old Irish-Nigerian man from Blanchardstown in Dublin, was shot dead in December 2020 by armed Gardaí. The event was a catalyst for widespread protests amongst the Black Irish community in Dublin and served to highlight the racial prejudices experienced by many Black Irish people at institutional levels.24 Following shortly after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and in the context of international Black Lives Matter protests, the death of Nkencho, who was shot on his mother’s doorstep while suffering from a mental health crisis, has been the subject of numerous creative responses by writers within (and beyond) the Black Irish community. Following influential poetic acts of commemoration for victims of police brutality by poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson (“Sonny’s Lettah”; “It Dread Inna Inglan”), Claudia Rankine (Citizen, specifically “February 26, 2012 / In Memory of Trayvon Martin”; “June 26, 2011 / In Memory of James Craig Anderson”; “August 4th, 2011 / In Memory of Mark Duggan”) and Danez Smith (“Not an Elegy for Mike Brown”; “Don’t Call Us Dead”), Black Irish poets situate themselves in a global tradition of using innovative poetics to reshape the elegiac mode through the prism of political protest.

9First performed at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2021, FELISPEAKS’s Dubh is a performance poem that integrates elements of theatre, dance, iterative poetics and spoken-word poetry to deliver an extended meditation on the killing of Nkencho, and on the wider cultural contexts of the black body in hostile spaces.25 Extending to almost twenty minutes, the poem moves through three acts, with Part 2 – “Eating Concrete” – narrating Nkencho’s death through a poetic invocation that begins assertively against the sonic backdrop of a pulsing beat, but soon breaks down as the violence unfolds. In FELISPEAKS’s unmistakable tones, the act opens with the line “Boys’ bodies eat the streets in D15”, indicting the precise intersection of race and class that renders male black bodies as particularly vulnerable to structural violence. Accompanied on stage by performer Andrea Williams dressed in white while in the background a hooded male figure stands in the shadows, the punctuative choreography of Williams’s dance underscores the accelerating anger of FELISPEAKS’s performance-poem, reiterating the collective fury of protest in the aftermath of the event:

  • 26 Ibid., 7:05.

The sun didn’t visit
It left the pelting for the
Rain of bullets on Boy’s body
The week before.26

The theatrical qualities of the work, including the set design, lighting, three-part structural device and the physicality of the performance locate this piece as generically fluid, a hybridity that is courted by the artist themselves. Commissioned by Poetry Ireland and Dublin Theatre Festival, in FELISPEAKS’s own hashtagging of the piece, both poetry and theatre are afforded equal status.27 However, it is clear that the roots of this piece are firmly in the poetic genre, evidenced by the linguistic craft of the work which continually resites the piece as performance poetry. Grounded in syntactic devices that ebb and flow, and characterised by powerful imagery, wordplay and repetition, Dubh is a hybrid performance poem that leverages multiple cultural codes to skewer racial violence and resist generic conformity.

  • 28 FELISPEAKS, Dubh, 7:35-8:17.
  • 29 Toby Rollo, “The Color of Childhood: The Role of the Child / Human Binary in the Production of Anti (...)
  • 30 FELISPEAKS, Dubh, 8:23. D15 was also the location of the murder of Toyosi Shittabey, a 15-year-old (...)

10As in other works under examination here, the vulnerability of subjectivity is particularly striking. While the context is unmistakeable (invoking protests at the Garda station in the aftermath of the shooting), George Nkencho is not referred to by his name but rather as “Boy” when seen through the eyes of the authorities: “almost climbing Boy”; “almost running Boy”; “they followed Boy home”. When the perspective shifts to that of the protesting community, the single use of his name is enunciated: “We stood on the street that ate George / like wounded chess pieces”28 – before returning to the anonymising, universalising descriptor of “Boy”, a descriptor that also invokes racialised hierarchy through black infantilisation and degradation.29 In stripping away George’s identity by repeatedly using the moniker “boy” in place of his given name, Dubh formally reiterates the motivating ideology of the performance-poem: an act of indictment of the institutions and society that facilitates these kinds of acts of violence. Ultimately, this section of Dubh breaks down: firstly, into a furious looping lament at the lack of care afforded to black bodies (and minds) in distress, and finally into a song, Horatio Spafford’s “It Is Well with My Soul”, a religious hymn offering some version of solace. The closing line of “Eating Concrete” returns the audience to the protest vein of the poem, reminding us of the particular textures of racial structural violence as it applies in Ireland, and specifically in Dublin 15: “Another chest full of dust / in D15”.30

  • 31 Kevin Higgins, “The Case of George Nkencho”, in Ecstatic, Cliffs of Moher, Salmon Poetry, 2022; als (...)
  • 32 Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi, “Exile”, Studi Irlandesi: A Journal of Irish Studies, vol. 11, June 2021, p. 4 (...)
  • 33 Michel Delville, The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of the Genre, Gainesville, (...)

11The significance of the suburb is noted in other poems on the topic too: Kevin Higgins’s “The Case of George Nkencho” is written in the poet’s characteristic satirical tone, and while Higgins is clearly writing from outside the Black Irish community, he nevertheless targets the hypocrisy of the Garda response that values lives differently, contingent on race, class and connection.31 For those with the right accidents of birth, “another way would’ve been found” but for George Nkencho, with “a totally inappropriate / post code”, not only is the “sentence” inevitable, but the “report is already written”. Likewise, Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi’s “Exile” reflects on the reverberations experienced in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in May 2020, as she perceives contagion in racial violence, “migrating from Minneapolis / to a Dublin suburb”.32 In her prose poem, Enyi-Amadi moves from collective gratitude through to shared outrage and ultimately to localised grief, as she narrates, without mentioning, the killing of George Nkencho and its impact on the Black community in Ireland. The stylistic preference for the prose poem style is a gesture of defiance – flouting the expectations of poetic tradition in favour of a conversational piece that is nonetheless carefully constructed.33 American poet Charles Simic describes the prose poem in the following terms:

  • 34 Charles Simic, “A Long Course in Miracles”, in Pretty Happy!, Peter Johnson (ed.), Fredonia, White (...)

[…] an impossible amalgamation of lyric poetry, anecdote, fairy tale, allegory, joke, journal entry, and many other kinds of prose. Prose poems are the culinary equivalent of peasant dishes, like paella or gumbo which bring together a great variety of ingredients and flavours and which, in the end, thanks to the art of the cook, somehow blend.34

12In Enyi-Amadi’s “Exile”, this sense of accumulation brought about by the formal choice is undercut by the imagistic erosions exacted during the poem. This tension is evident in the visuality of the poem in print: while the paginated impression of the prose poem invites assumptions of uncontrolled articulation, in fact “Exile” is tight and precise, comprised of three tonally formal and syntactically deliberate stanza-paragraphs. The opening phrase of each of the stanza-paragraphs sets out an exact context: “After a year-long exile”; “While we ached for brighter days”; and “Grief is a ravenous animal”, thereby curating a journey through a clear timeline. Beyond the temporal control, the poem’s language is also highly coiled, as the poem progresses with simmering anger that is pierced by the pervasive vocabulary of loss. “sweat-drenched”, “determination” and “outrage” sit uneasily in a “near-barren year” and a “parched wasteland” as the poem wrestles with these conflicting responses to the “decades of systemic oppression” that the poem attempts to resist. The opening lines of the final stanza-paragraph pinpoint the poet’s dilemma:

Grief is a ravenous animal, rabid and roaming around a parched wasteland; the poet is a fly perched on the tail of that wild, wounded thing.

In the careful vowel slippage between “parched” and “perched”, the poet as witness is obliged to find a way to represent and, as seen in these works, to resist that which they encounter. As members of the community directly affected by the structural and institutional racism made manifest in the Garda killing of George Nkencho, both Enyi-Amadi and FELISPEAKS seek poetic forms that might enable some kind of ethical response. In doing so, both poets engage widely differing strategies to expand the genre of protest poetry within which their work very definitively sits. Watching “the old world burning to our rear”, Enyi-Amadi proposes that the morning will bring something new and, as yet, uncertain: “a familiar song sweet as a nursery rhyme, / or perhaps an ancient battle cry”. There are no easy resolutions here, and no way back from the catastrophic circumstances of racial violence – ultimately, all that “Exile” and Dubh can offer is resistance in the form of collective action, and resistance in the action of poetic form.

“We’ve made it lovely: / the haunted; what was emptied”: the ethics of recovery35

  • 35 Cherry Smyth, “The Holloway Road, London 2017”, in Famished, Glasgow, Pindrop Press, 2019, p. 95.
  • 36 Cormac Larkin, “Famished: A Historical, Musical and Poetic Account of the Irish Famine”, The Irish (...)
  • 37 Famished was toured in Ireland and the United Kingdom in 2019. A recorded adaptation of the full pe (...)
  • 38 Cherry Smyth, “In Conversation: Emer Lyons and Cherry Smyth”, Cardiff Review, 30 March 2020, online (...)
  • 39 Jacob Edmond, Make it the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media, New York, Colombia University Pr (...)
  • 40 Anne Mulhall, “Contemporary Irish Women’s Poetry, beyond the Now”, in A History of Irish Women’s Po (...)

13Described as “a sprawling, open-textured dossier, part lyric poem, part documentary”,36 Smyth’s Famished is another genre-slipping piece of literary production. Published by Pindrop Press as a relatively conventional page-based poetry collection, since its publication it has moulded into a performance piece that engages musical composition, sonic experimentation and spoken-word poetry. In its stage-based incarnation, with singer Lauren Kinsella and composer Ed Bennett, Famished fully inhabits the stratigraphic contingency of recovering histories.37 The various lines of music, voice and narrative flow in and out of audibility, at times competing for space while at other moments disintegrating under the pressure of the past. Smyth has commented on her desire to site “rupture in the lyric wholeness”, noting that the “right-alignment of prose” brings “a visual dissonance” to the work on the page, which intersperses historical quotation from a range of sources (newspaper reports, Punch magazine articles, private letters and other archival materials) with contemporary literary and cultural commentary from feminist, Black, migration and climate crisis scholars.38 This incorporation of iterative poetics makes “generative use of existing text”39 in its recitation and integration of other sources. In contriving these deliberate contextualisations through the experimental form, Smyth’s Famished reaches beyond the immediate subject-matter of the Great Famine to forge links with other oppressions and deprivations. As Anne Mulhall notes, Famished dwells on the “resonances between the deaths and suffering of people seeking refuge at Europe’s blood-soaked borders and detention camps and the coffin ships and workhouses that condemned so many to death during the Irish Famine”.40 These connections with contemporary crises bring the events of the Famine into stark relief, bridging the gap between past and present through the patchwork of poetry, as in “War Crimes”, where an epigraph from Speranza’s “The Famine Year”, dated 1847, is placed alongside an extract from a Vietnam veterans’ report from 1971. The distance between these sources is visualised in the gapped lines of the poem itself, lines which trace the fracture as well as the bind between these historically remote events.

  • 41 Cherry Smyth, “War Crimes”, in Famished, p. 91.

It has lost count
Of the stitched-up          the limbs and lips
Of the torn                                        the tears and tears41

  • 42 Jacob Edmond, Make It the Same…, p. 119.
  • 43 Angela Bourke, “More in Anger than in Sorrow: Irish Women’s Lament Poetry”, in Feminist Messages: C (...)

14In Famished as in other experimental poetries, “iteration can enable an open-ended form of both textual practice and cultural identity” wherein the poet carefully curates their networks of transmission and influence.42 The influences and allusions of Famished are multiple, reaching beyond local and national traditions towards landmark contemporary works of experimental poetics: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Jay Bernard’s Surge and Caroline Bergvall’s Drift are each present in varying ways. There is tradition here too, however: as a performance piece, Smyth’s poetry underscored by Kinsella’s vocalisation conveys the reader into a keening space, familiar in the Irish female folk tradition, as a “traditional, shared mnemonic of resistance in its collective performance and transmission”, in Angela Bourke’s words.43 Famished is perched on this tightrope of tradition and experimentation, taking its performative power from a familiar well of female oral tradition while engaging docu-poetics and sound poetry as innovations to open into a new space of representation.

15Famished is comprised of three numbered sections, the opening two concerned with representing historical detail leading up to and throughout the Famine period while the final section moves into the present and cultivates connections with contemporary catastrophes. Notably, Sections I and II refuse the familiarity of the lyric “I”, offering instead a destabilising cacophony of clamouring voices interspersed with repetitions and silence. While in its textual presentation, the narrative authority of the opening sections nevertheless remains robust, if fragmentary, generating an affective tension between exposure and erasure. The enumerative detail of two early poems in Section I, “The Potato, Every Tillable Acre” and “The Parish Inventory, Gweedore, Pre-Famine, 1837”, are weighted with more information than the poems can aesthetically shoulder:

  • 44 Cherry Smyth, “The Parish Inventory, Gweedore, Pre-Famine, 1837”, in Famished, p. 19.

1 cart, 1 plough, 20 shovels,
32 rakes, 7 table forks,
93 chairs, 243 stools, 2 feather beds,
8 chaff beds, 3 turkeys, 27 geese, 3 watches,
No looking glass above 3d in price,
No bonnet, no clock.44

  • 45 Cherry Smyth, “The Potato, Every Tillable Acre”, in Famished, p. 20.

In burdening these early poems with an abundance of found detail, combined with the absent lyric “I”, Smyth expertly delivers the ethical crux of Famished, and works of its nature – the dilemma of how to recuperate what is lost when the remaining fragments are gathered. The final line of “The Potato, Every Tillable Acre” recognises the futility of the poetic act – “Dead at sea: too many to know”45 – and yet the collection continues, through its incorporative techniques, to piece together a story of sorts.

  • 46 Cherry Smyth, Famished, recorded for 2019 S. W. Brooks Public Lecture: “Famished” by Cherry Smyth.
  • 47 Cherry Smyth, “In Conversation: Emer Lyons and Cherry Smyth”.

16In the performance-piece, these opening sections of Famished are reordered and interspersed with an at-times animalistic vocalisation that darts in and out of the printed word. Moving from guttural growling to melodic prosody, and accompanied by nature soundscapes, the effect of the sound poem is particularly unsettling. Much of the verbal vocalisation is concentrated on the appendages on the printed page, such as the “one potato, two potato…” nursery rhyme that recurs in receding quantity until it ultimately fails (“one potato”) towards the end of Section II of the printed collection. On the page, the failure of the potato, indicated by the typographical strikethrough, instigates the shift to emigration in the thematic thrust of the volume, as the experimental techniques of Smyth’s style facilitate the more-conventional elements of the work. Other moments stand out as hinge-points in the performance-piece, namely the extended exposition of “N.I.N.A. followed them where they went: / No Irish Need Apply”.46 Alternately haunting and harrowing, Kinsella probes the limits of the acronym for almost two minutes before settling on an assertion: “No”. Within this intense performance-poem, this vocal experimentation is analogous of the textual experimentation at play here. Furthermore, it serves to highlight the ways in which innovative modes of artistic delivery can facilitate the stratigraphic impulse inherent in much experimental poetry: while on the page, the “N.I.N.A.” section is not particularly noteworthy, during the performance piece it is climactic. Obliging the listener to stick with the permutations of the word before ultimately regaining autonomy in its refusal, the extended meditation functions to reinstate a collective subjectivity in Section III. As Smyth herself observes, “It [the lyric ‘I /eye’] is strictly absent from the first two sections of the text and then enters through what is witnessed and ingested, carried through the descendant’s body and allowed to open into ‘we’”.47 As for the other works discussed here, Smyth turns to a collective resistance that is realised in the ensemble dynamic of the performance-piece, as well as in the ideological and ethical values conveyed through the formal innovation of Famished.

“There is an energy / required for loss, / for singing loss”: insistence as resistance48

  • 48 Cherry Smyth, “Plague-Breath, Everywhere”, in Famished, p. 50.
  • 49 See Fran Lock, “Thinking the Working-Class ‘Aven’t Gard”.
  • 50 Ailbhe Darcy, “Recent Documentary Poetry in Performance”, p. 41.
  • 51 Lyn Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure”, p. 368.

17Experimental poetry is often interpreted as elitist or exclusionary, exclusive to those with the training to engage with particular poetic devices deployed in the service of innovation.49 But, as this analysis of recent experimental works (which vary in the extent of their experimentation) shows, innovation is also an act of resistance that is sourced in the communal rather than the elite. The responses to moments of cultural significance ranging from institutional, racial and colonial violence locate their power in the wellspring of collectivity, which is realised in the decentring of the lyric “I”. These works by Campanello, FELISPEAKS, Enyi-Amadi and Smyth highlight the different forms of resistance mobilised through poetic form, and showcase the “cultural work poetry can do and […] the strategies available to us when we harness the body or the voice in poetry’s service”.50 Perhaps most pressingly, the urgency of these works in intervening in conversations that directly affect those least-often involved in their discussion is realised in the careful crafting of unconventional poetic works that confront readers, and demand to be read, listened to and watched with openness. By rejecting the “coercive, epiphanic mode” in favour of insisting on the open text which unfolds in different ways on each encounter, these contemporary Irish poets offer new forms of resistance to poetic, cultural and historical structures that demand reconsideration in our current moment.51

Haut de page

Notes

1 For some accounts of Irish experimental poetry, and its varying reception, see Irish University Review, vol. 46, no. 1, May 2016, Irish Experimental Poetry, David Lloyd (ed.); Eric Falci, Continuity and Change in Irish Poetry, 1966-2010, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012; Will Fleming, “‘It isn’t race or nation governs movement’: New Writers’ Press and the Transnational Scope of Irish Experimental Poetry in the 1960s and 1970s”, Humanities, vol. 8, no. 4, 2019, 178, DOI: https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.3390/h8040178.

2 David Lloyd, “Introduction: On Irish Experimental Poetry”, Irish University Review, vol. 46, no. 1, May 2016, p. 11; quoting Samuel Beckett, “Recent Irish Poetry”, in Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, Ruby Cohn (ed.), New York, Grove Press, 1984, p. 70-71.

3 Ibid., p. 16.

4 Alice Feldman, Anne Mulhall, “Towing the Line: Migrant Women Writers and the Space of Irish Writing”, Éire-Ireland, vol. 47, no. 1-2, 2012, p. 201-220; Anne Mulhall, “Arrivals: Inward Migration and Irish Literature”, in Irish Literature in Transition: 1980-2020, Eric Falci, Paige Reynolds (eds.), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2020, p. 182-200; Ailbhe McDaid, “‘Dubh’: Poets of Color and New Irish Poetry”, in Race in Irish Literature and Culture, Malcolm Sen, Julie McCormick Weng (eds.), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2024, p. 259-280; see also Sandeep Parmar, “Still Not a British Subject: Race and UK Poetry”, Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, vol. 12, no. 1, 2020, DOI: https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.16995/bip.3384.

5 Fran Lock, “Thinking the Working-Class ‘Aven’t Gard”, Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, vol. 13, no. 1, 2021, DOI: https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.16995/bip.4372.

6 Lyn Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure”, in Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry, Dana Gioia, David Mason, Meg Shoerke (eds.), New York, McGraw-Hill, 2004, p. 369.

7 Clair Wills, “Architectures of Containment”, London Review of Books, vol. 43, no. 10, 20 May 2021, online: https://0-www-lrb-co-uk.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/the-paper/v43/n10/clair-wills/architectures-of-containment.

8 Kimberly Campanello, MOTHERBABYHOME, reader’s edition, Manchester, zimZalla, 2019.

9 http://www.kimberlycampanello.com/motherbabyhome

10 Ailbhe Darcy, “Recent Documentary Poetry in Performance”, Poetry Ireland Review, no. 132, June 2020, p. 41.

11 Interim reports are available here: https://www.gov.ie/en/collection/d06c0-reports-of-the-commission-of-investigation-into-mother-and-baby-homes-and-certain-related-matters; the final report can be accessed here: https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/d4b3d-final-report-of-the-commission-of-investigation-into-mother-and-baby-homes.

12 http://www.kimberlycampanello.com/motherbabyhome

13 Ailbhe Darcy, “Recent Documentary Poetry in Performance”, p. 43.

14 Eleanor Careless, “Assembling Absences: Anna Mendelssohn, Jennifer Moxley, and the Transnational Carceral Poetics of the 1990s”, College Literature, vol. 47, no. 1, 2020, p. 126.

15 The examples used here are available to view on: https://zimzalla.co.uk/056-motherbabyhome-kimberly-campanello.

16 Kimberly Campanello, MOTHERBABYHOME, available from the Irish Poetry Reading Archive (https://libguides.ucd.ie/ipra/readingsatoc): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gvi8TnLw8X8&feature=youtu.be.

17 Interview of Linton Kwesi Johnson by Sarah O’Reilly for the National Life Stories oral history project Authors’ Lives, 2015, online: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/linton-kwesi-johnson-on-poetry-as-the-cultural-side-of-politics.

18 Clair Wills, “Architectures of Containment”.

19 Interview of Linton Kwesi Johnson by Sarah O’Reilly.

20 Linton Kwesi Johnson, “Writing Reggae: Poetry, Politics and Popular Culture”, Moving Worlds: Journal of Transcultural Writing, vol. 6, no. 1, 2006, Telling Stories / Telling Lives, p. 2.

21 Sandeep Parmar, “Still Not a British Subject…”; Anne Mulhall, “Arrivals…”; Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi, Emma Penney “Are We Doing Diversity Justice?: A Critical Exchange”, Irish University Review, vol. 50, no. 1, May 2020, p. 113-114; Ailbhe McDaid, “‘Dubh’…”.

22 Unapologetic, online: https://www.unapologeticmag.net.

23 Ola Majekodunmi, “An Duine Anaithnid”, Unapologetic, no. 1, 2021, p. 9.

24 Conor Gallagher, “George Nkencho Shooting: Racial Tensions in Dublin’s Suburbs”, Irish Times, 9 January 2021. At the time of writing, a Garda investigation has concluded and a file is with the Director of Public Prosecutions with regard to charges against the Gardaí involved.

25 FELISPEAKS, Dubh, Dublin Theatre Festival, 7 October 2021, online: https://youtu.be/S91fzqqBos8.

26 Ibid., 7:05.

27 FELISPEAKS, “Dubh – Full Film”, blogpost, 11 November 2021, online: https://www.felispeaks.com/blogposts/2021/11/11/dubh-full-film.

28 FELISPEAKS, Dubh, 7:35-8:17.

29 Toby Rollo, “The Color of Childhood: The Role of the Child / Human Binary in the Production of Anti-Black Racism”, Journal of Black Studies, vol. 49, no. 4, 2018, p. 307-329.

30 FELISPEAKS, Dubh, 8:23. D15 was also the location of the murder of Toyosi Shittabey, a 15-year-old Nigerian-Irish boy stabbed to death in 2010. A 2023 TG4 documentary, Marú inár Measc, considers the legacy of the murder on the Black Irish community in Tyrrelstown and beyond. For further insight into the demographic profile of Dublin 15, see Oireachtas Library and Research Service, Dublin West: Dáil Éireann Constituency Profile, January 2020, online: https://data.oireachtas.ie/ie/oireachtas/libraryResearch/2020/2020-02-09_dublin-west-constituency-profile_en.pdf.

31 Kevin Higgins, “The Case of George Nkencho”, in Ecstatic, Cliffs of Moher, Salmon Poetry, 2022; also available online: https://www.broadsheet.ie/2021/01/04/another-way-wouldve-been-found.

32 Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi, “Exile”, Studi Irlandesi: A Journal of Irish Studies, vol. 11, June 2021, p. 455. “Exile” was published in “Ireland of the Minds”, a special supplement edited by Sven Kretzschmar, for vol. 11 of Studi Irlandesi: A Journal of Irish Studies, DOI: https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.13128/SIJIS-2239-3978-12901.

33 Michel Delville, The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of the Genre, Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 1998.

34 Charles Simic, “A Long Course in Miracles”, in Pretty Happy!, Peter Johnson (ed.), Fredonia, White Pine Press, 1997, p. 15.

35 Cherry Smyth, “The Holloway Road, London 2017”, in Famished, Glasgow, Pindrop Press, 2019, p. 95.

36 Cormac Larkin, “Famished: A Historical, Musical and Poetic Account of the Irish Famine”, The Irish Times, 25 May 2019.

37 Famished was toured in Ireland and the United Kingdom in 2019. A recorded adaptation of the full performance (with music and voice overlaid) is available on Vimeo: see 2019 S. W. Brooks Public Lecture: “Famished” by Cherry Smyth, https://vimeo.com/366888364; a short trailer for the ensemble performance is available from Smyth’s website: https://cherrysmyth.com (https://vimeo.com/337775695).

38 Cherry Smyth, “In Conversation: Emer Lyons and Cherry Smyth”, Cardiff Review, 30 March 2020, online: https://gala.gre.ac.uk/id/eprint/28191/3/28191%20SMYTH_Emer_Lyons_and_Cherry_Smyth_In_Conversation_2020.pdf.

39 Jacob Edmond, Make it the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media, New York, Colombia University Press, 2019, p. 119.

40 Anne Mulhall, “Contemporary Irish Women’s Poetry, beyond the Now”, in A History of Irish Women’s Poetry, Ailbhe Darcy, David Wheatley (eds.), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2021, p. 431-451.

41 Cherry Smyth, “War Crimes”, in Famished, p. 91.

42 Jacob Edmond, Make It the Same…, p. 119.

43 Angela Bourke, “More in Anger than in Sorrow: Irish Women’s Lament Poetry”, in Feminist Messages: Coding in Women’s Folk Culture, Joan Newlon Radner (ed.), Urbana – Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1993, p. 55.

44 Cherry Smyth, “The Parish Inventory, Gweedore, Pre-Famine, 1837”, in Famished, p. 19.

45 Cherry Smyth, “The Potato, Every Tillable Acre”, in Famished, p. 20.

46 Cherry Smyth, Famished, recorded for 2019 S. W. Brooks Public Lecture: “Famished” by Cherry Smyth.

47 Cherry Smyth, “In Conversation: Emer Lyons and Cherry Smyth”.

48 Cherry Smyth, “Plague-Breath, Everywhere”, in Famished, p. 50.

49 See Fran Lock, “Thinking the Working-Class ‘Aven’t Gard”.

50 Ailbhe Darcy, “Recent Documentary Poetry in Performance”, p. 41.

51 Lyn Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure”, p. 368.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Ailbhe McDaid, « Forms of Resistance: Witnessing Violence in Recent Experimental Irish Poetry »Études irlandaises, 49-1 | 2024, 47-60.

Référence électronique

Ailbhe McDaid, « Forms of Resistance: Witnessing Violence in Recent Experimental Irish Poetry »Études irlandaises [En ligne], 49-1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 28 mars 2024, consulté le 29 mai 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/etudesirlandaises/17908 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/etudesirlandaises.17908

Haut de page

Auteur

Ailbhe McDaid

Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick

Ailbhe McDaid est maître de conférences en littérature au Mary Immaculate College de l’université de Limerick. Ses centres d’intérêt incluent les migrations, les conflits et les questions de genre dans la littérature irlandaise des XXe et XXIe siècles. Son premier ouvrage, The Poetics of Migration in Contemporary Irish Poetry, a paru chez Palgrave Macmillan en 2017, et elle travaille actuellement sur une seconde monographie, intitulée Domestic Disruptions : Women, Literature and Conflict, recherche financée par l’Irish Research Council, la British Academy and la Royal Irish Academy.

Ailbhe McDaid is assistant professor in literature at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick. Her research interests include migration, conflict and gender in 20th and 21st-century Irish writing. Her first book, The Poetics of Migration in Contemporary Irish Poetry, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2017, and she is currently completing her second monograph, Domestic Disruptions: Women, Literature and Conflict. Her research has been funded by the Irish Research Council, British Academy and Royal Irish Academy.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

CC-BY-4.0

Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search