Writing home: The ‘new irish’ poets

By Geneva Pattison

What is your perception of ‘home’? Is it a house, a state of mind, or maybe a feeling? For everyone, the idea of ‘home’ is different.
The collection, ‘Writing Home: The ‘New Irish’ Poets’, published by Dedalus Press, explores this very topic. The book consists of work from 50 poets, giving us distinct representations of the various meanings of home and writing from Ireland.
Co editor Pat Boran’s introduction to the collection discusses how the word ‘home’ can often be a loaded word. In its simplest form, it evokes feelings of safety, security and a sense of calm.
In recent years ‘home’ been a highly contentious subject in Ireland. As articulated by Pat, “this most innocent-seeming word seems to conjure a battleground for the rights and freedoms of future generations.”
Similarly, by extension, the concept of what it means to belong is brought into question. Must one remain in their homeland to truly feel they are home? Having a homeland is just an essential geographical fact, as mentioned by Boran. Surely, home is wherever and whatever we make it.
Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi shares the position of co-editor with Boran, and her work is also featured within the collection. Born in Lagos Nigeria and raised in Galway and Dublin, the poet explores the idea of displacement and the ever-changing shape of what it means to belong in her poem “Where”. The poem begins with, “I have stopped dreaming of escape from a country / on whose ground I could settle my feet / but not my spirit.”
There are dual connotations at play here. The feeling of stable relief presented on the surface in the first lines is almost immediately revoked in the following section. “I thought my mind had betrayed me/ the day I woke wanting to remember each moment where I feel at home.”
The poet feels like her memories are fading, like an “old woolen blanket” frays and thins over time. She is unable to “trap time”, to keep those memories safe until she needs to access them for comfort. We learn that these memories relate to a specific person in the poet’s life, she marks a “Google Calendar date every month” to meet them, yet, each time she sits across the table from this person, they are “old strangers.”
Time often creates distance between people and the implied space between the pair is especially palpable here. Escaping from a country is the poet’s past, escaping from a feeling a person creates is the poet’s present.
The innate way Chiamaka relays the complexities of relationships is beautiful. The loneliness of being removed from a person, the disconnection we fight against and the desire to relive pleasant memories are topics explored in the poem. The final thought in the piece provides a type of melancholic closure. “ I have stopped dreaming of escape / And began wanting to remember each moment / where I feel at home with you.”
Ultimately, the poet knows the truth of the situation, as does the reader. The fact that life is never static and that sometimes, upon personal reflection, one’s future can, in a way, rewrite one’s past –giving us a fresh perspective.
Suzanna Matthews is another featured poet. She currently resides in Donegal, but has studied and lived in Asia, South America and Europe.
Her poem “Teaching English at Spencer Dock” is written from the poet’s perspective, while on a bus journey home. “The teal and cold, gold signs of the many Centra shops blur / through the windows, / We pass the matador – bullseye reds of the Toltecas and Tescos and Ladbrokes.”
Although it’s raining and miserable outside, the poet paints a picture of an exotic, worldly landscape through her use of colour association. The “matador” reds permeating the grey dinginess and the “teal … gold” signs are like glimpses of eastern jewels
“It’s rainy / It’s raining / It rains”, the poet relays that these are the words she taught her students today. The tone of the poem shifts in the following lines, as the speaker describes the immediate atmosphere closing in around them. “I am jostled, and feel strangers struggle to keep their breath away / from my ears / and the back of my neck.”
We’re reminded that we’re not on a leisurely country or holiday bus ride observing the world go by, but in the midst of an overcrowded, busy city.
The claustrophobic reality of inner-city living is further magnified when the poet tells us the words her students “asked” her to teach them. “Terrified / Terrifying / Humiliated – ashamed.” Words that a student needed to know, to articulate the feelings of a distressing incident she experienced when she was “threatened and shoved” by teenagers, “her with her small children on the Luas.”
This happened just days after another encounter, wherein “older boys tore off her daughter’s hijab… flung it to the ground and stomped.” This may be the woman’s first time admitting it out loud, or her first time having the ability to, in English, like emancipation from an inherited vow of silence.
Human connection, nurtures the freedom to express one’s self to the fullest, being devoid of the ability to communicate in whatever manner or language necessary, creates isolation. This feeling can be heightened when surrounded by people, but lacking the verbal tools to relate your story.
Matthews highlights the issue of tolerance and the idea of “Modern Ireland”, saying how “broadcast-touted… headlines” of progress, can become “mournful” shakes of the head by “the auld ones” soon after. Modern in many ways on the surface, but ever fluctuating in the perception of what makes a society ‘modern’. The poet walks past “flash new tech buildings” of economic and industrial progress. She walks past “the reminding, plaintive bust of Luke Kelly”, a symbol of Ireland’s cultural liberation inspired by a period of oppression.
A “church fence painted rainbow colours – reading pride” is also passed, a mark of inclusion celebrating the due human right to love without fear. Yet, as mentioned by the poet, “angry young boys go past” her, “Running, / Rushing, / Stumbling.” It’s a reminder that a lack of self-awareness of one’s actions can affect others deeply.
The subject of home in this poem, is somewhat explored using the concept of ‘negative space.’ We move around the direct subject of the poet’s own home life, yet so much is implied. “I am on the bus home – to you,’’ is a phrase repeated throughout the poem, in various iterations of the first. It acts like a comforting mantra, ‘home’ and this person are almost inseparable. Likewise, the phrase provides the reader with an anchor, to further highlight the contrasting experiences of ‘home life’ in the poem.
The beginning of the piece is gracefully written and encapsulates a feeling of universality and the shared human experience. This innocuous start is transformed by Matthews into powerful poetic discourse on the fear and feelings of displacement that everyday xenophobia causes in a community. Feeling welcome is an important element of ‘home’ for many, but what do we call it when that’s not the case?
‘Writing Home’ is a wonderfully diverse and illuminating poetry collection. The work reflects deeply upon the psychological minefields people face when confronted with constant strings of unknowns, or faced with undue abuse.
The many descriptions of home don’t just manifest heartwarming visions of ‘hearths and families’, they ask us to be cognisant to where we fit into (and how we add meaning to) other peoples’ impression of home.
Maya Angelou once said, “the ache for home lives in all of us”, and this superb, socially-aware collection makes that point very clear. The point that despite our various differences, we’re more alike than we’ll ever truly know.
‘Writing Home: The ‘New Irish’ Poets’ is available from Books on the Green and all good bookstores.