Michael S. Begnal reviews
by Catherine Walsh
Catherine Walsh’s 2009 long poem Optic Verve (Shearsman Books) is described in its own text at book’s end as “a commentary” – so what does that mean? In the past, it has been assumed by some that experimental poets such as Walsh (a blurb on the back cover of the book describes Walsh as “Ireland’s most radical experimental woman poet”) are merely concerned with words as such than with socio-political engagement, but any fair reading of such writers suggests this is far from being the case (I’m thinking of contemporary poets like Caroline Bergvall, Sean Bonney, Susan Howe, and Mark Nowak as a few immediate examples, and the list could go on). Of course, most readers familiar with these names already know this. And it is not to say that Walsh is not concerned with words and language – she certainly is – but here it is a case of engagement with language and engagement with socio-political/philosophical concerns merging into the same concern. On page 28, for example, Walsh observes, “words weight/ each affirmation/ a value/ among/ those who venture/ out/ style trans/ mutable through/ language/ fails…” In the opposite left-hand column (in many parts of this book there are two or more columns or concurrent trains of thought on the same page), she writes of “C18th rationalism,” before ending at “ideologies/ which were/ justifying/ oppression” – the idea being, I think, that oppressive ideologies are sometimes in fact embedded in language use, and that overcoming this implies questioning the ways in which we employ language and how it affects our capacity for independent thought and action.
Clearly, Walsh’s disruptions of linearity imply that she is consciously working against the Western cultural legacy of rationalism. And perhaps in this lies the experimental/mainstream divide in contemporary poetry – the inability of some people to overcome their expectations of linear logical “sense,” as if even the prospect of this is anathema to them. But so be it; Walsh is working in a different manner. Page 54 is a sharp critique of “impositional narrative” (in fact, of narrative, she writes, “what other kind/ exists”?). Her work is a rejection of “authority absolutism/ logicity,” hegemonies that “place the countries of the world according/ to economic power military/ power academic power/ media power /blah” – blah indeed. Enough of this, she implies. Yet it goes on; the poet is inevitably writing from a position of weakness when it comes to considerations of power. So Walsh’s book is in one way a commentary on that state of being – it is a critique of Western society, but in the knowledge that there is very little that can be done beyond the act of poetry itself (and perhaps of commiseration with other marginalized people). Walsh’s poetry wants to refocus the process of perception and of expression, and concomitantly, of conscious thought which is always based on grammar.
The poem begins with short segments that destabilize syntax but present perhaps the barest of images. Ezra Pound said that an image should be “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” In Walsh’s work she is not so much concerned with complete “images” or pictures in the way that Pound posited them approximately 100 years ago. Instead, this “intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” is sometimes embodied in a single word, so that a short piece consisting of say 39 words (as in the opener) may pull in many such complexes: “bird better hurry/ yet meant should change/ in stare whatever pursue….” And also contrary to Pound, a large part of Walsh’s work is abstract, so that while there is much here that is visual (it is, after all, titled Optic Verve), much else deals with philosophical linguistics as noted above, sometimes concerned with creating a kind of unique individual grammar. Words that jump out at the reader in this early section include “change,” “chance,” “mind,” “difference,” “progress,” “time,” with the perspective their combination implies. Perhaps not so much images, then, as ideograms, juxtaposed with each other, creating ever widening implications, ever widening series of interconnected ideas.
From page 20 onward there is a change, with the pieces becoming longer and sometimes more prose-like. Elsewhere there are more intricate wordscapes, and often an interplay between the English language and both Spanish and Irish. Irish becomes increasingly important as the book progresses and meshes with Walsh’s themes of
’s present history in relation to its past. Often, this sort of theme has been a hallmark of more “mainstream” Irish poets, yet another way that Walsh frustrates expectations. There is a sense of lamentation for the ancient hill fort being destroyed in Ireland ’s recent mad rush of property speculation and building, and an identification with the real people who lived at these places “possibly four and a half thousand years.” It is not because of some misguided idealism, however, but because these were people not unlike us, who happened, living in the same place, to speak a whole other language than the one that has so recently been imposed on Ireland, people who also like us perhaps “wonder when the/ night bright sky was cinemascope inspiring awe/ showing stories as shape light/ movement,” people who also wrote poetry. (The poet, for Walsh, is a “painter of light” – the act of poetry and perception being linked with the word “light” throughout the book.) But that’s not all – “we/ walked there,” Walsh specifies, ultimately identifying us (“we”) with these ancients who are nothing more or less than ourselves in a different time. In a couple of places she is even more emphatic, asserting for example on page 122, “The learning process has perhaps irreparably changed the more traditional Gaelic modes of social interaction, particularly over the last ten years. As if somebody were giving, throwing away, ancient heirlooms whose provenance alone made them interesting.” She clarifies further a bit later, “These matters are not just within living memory or oral testament here in Ireland as in so many parts of the world, they are a crucial determining factor in how people choose to interact socially, what they aspire to attain, how they use language and how they view language.” Something that some have previously handled in a maudlin way is thus here put forward as in a manifesto, part of an even larger manifesto of radical poetics. Ireland
So indeed this is a commentary. Other, inter-related subjects of commentary in Optic Verve include
’s “blame culture” (an update of “an béal bocht,” Walsh suggests), economic exploitation (“misinformed workers/ abused workers regimes running on/ the poverty of masses the/ ignorance of underdeveloped/ minds fears…”), anti-Polish discrimination, the under-funding of the health system, media censorship in Ireland . This book was published before the recent ceding of the Irish economy to the IMF, but much here seems to critique the mindset that led up to this current state of affairs. This is an anti-colonialist poem expressed as a subversion of or resistance to colonialist strategies of thought control through language. The sequence that could be called “ Ireland <\pomepleat>,” which is framed in html code (another form of language with its own political complications), is contrarily an ars poetica: “…life// these marks we make/ hold in mind/ ear heart brain for you/ to take us to/ understand…” The use of html code here sets the piece in the non-existent formatting of “pomepleat.” Walsh thus imagines poetic uses even for the language of html, imbuing with the human what might in the hands of some be yet another arena for privilege and disenfranchisement. Optic Verve, therefore, is the kind of commentary that inherently attacks coercive uses of language, seeking to place in their stead language that intensifies the process of perception, democratizing the present moment.
Michael S. Begnal’s new collection Future Blues is forthcoming this year from Salmon Poetry. His previous collections include Ancestor Worship (Salmon, 2007) and Mercury, the Dime (Six Gallery Press, 2005). He has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Poetry Ireland Review, Notre Dame Review, and Avant-Post: The Avant-Garde under “Post-” Conditions (Litteraria Pragensia, 2006). Most recently, he composed the Afterword to James Liddy’s posthumous collection
(Arlen House, 2010). Fest City