Guest Review: Begnal On Walsh

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 Ireland’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.

So indeed this is a commentary.  Other, inter-related subjects of commentary in Optic Verve include Ireland’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 “ <\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 Fest City (Arlen House, 2010).


puthwuth said…
This review raises some interesting questions about our critical vocabulary for discussing work seen as experimental. Michael Begnal writes: ‘Walsh’s disruptions of linearity imply that she is consciously working against the Western cultural legacy of rationalism’. I am reminded of a passage by Claire Bracken reproduced on the back of Walsh’s City West: ‘Walsh’s poetry attempts to move away from a position of hierarchical domination and construct a poetic space of non-mastery and heterogeneity.’ In both cases there is an assumption that conventional poetry involves a certain complicity with structures of rationalism and control, from which other forms of poetry simply opt out. But is this true or even possible? If we take Irish poets working in a more lyric tradition – let’s say Heaney, Mahon, Longley, Muldoon – can we assume that their fondness for a more linear approach leaves them somehow in hock the ‘rationalist’ tradition? If so, how? In a culpable way? What should they be doing to put this right? Is it so impossible to challenge the hegemony of enlightenment reason (if that’s your thing) in heroic couplets?

I am also slightly troubled by attempts to commune with the inhabitants of Ireland four and a half thousand years ago. Whatever language they were talking then, it certainly wasn’t Irish. We know almost nothing about these people. How can an identification with them be anything other than an ethnic fantasy? I have more in common with a Latvian, an Angolan or a Chinese immigrant in Ireland today than I could ever have with these people; and anyway I myself come from Lancashire immigrant (colonizer) stock on one side, if we’re going to be ethnic about it.

And finally, is there not something unfortunate about Walsh being described as ‘Ireland’s most radical experimental woman poet’, as though her merits had anything to do with her gender? This is not the kind of special pleading women poets want to hear on their behalf anymore, surely.

I ask the above questions out of genuine curiosity rather than any hostility, let me add –
MB’s reviews are always thoughtful and well worth reading.
puthwuth said…
'In hock *to* the "rationalist" tradition,' that should have read (sorry).
Mike Begnal said…
David, I'm glad I don't have to keep seeing that "0 comments" after this review, and honestly I think you make some very good points (nothing taken as hostility on my end). Let me answer them as best I can. Personally, I am ambivalent about using terms like "experimental", "mainstream" etc., as if there were nothing in between or never any overlap between these categories. This can be reductive. But for the sake of ease in this review, and particularly since Walsh herself seems to accept the "experimental" moniker as in the blurb you quote, I simply decided to go with it. Now, about the "woman" part -- I can't purport to speak for Walsh or Shearsman of course, and I have no interest in special pleading, but at the same time we cannot ignore difference, as if we were all simply "poets" and that's that. It's just not realistic and elides a lot of context. So I don't think it amounts to special pleading for someone to want to represent herself as a woman in her description of herself (assuming that Walsh approved the back cover blurbs). I don't think she is suggesting that the merits of her work have anything to do with this, but certainly the perspective of her work does.

In regard to inhabitants of Ireland going back 4500 years, you are right about the question of language -- they would not have been speaking Irish 4500 years ago. To be fair to Walsh, she doesn't suggest this. If I gave the impression that Walsh thinks people were speaking the Irish language that far back, it was my own carelessness in wording. But from about 2500 years ago onward, they would have been. Be that as it may, honestly I don't think any of this is a question of ethnicity, and one need not even identify with Gaelic culture per se to get the point she is making, which has more to do with the issue of colonisation generally than it does with vaunting Gaelic culture or the Irish language. This is why I noted in the review that it's not a question of "misguided idealism" but of people. Further, in one of the sections I quoted above, she specifies, "These matters are not just within living memory or oral testament here in Ireland as in so many parts of the world..." So I think she is well aware that the same processes have happened and are happening and can happen anywhere. All of that said, it is a simple fact that she is writing from Ireland, and so naturally the particulars of the colonisation and history of Ireland are unavoidable, at least for her in this book.

In regard to lyric poetry and the forms of language it tends toward, I suppose I am less certain. I think it's quite possible for someone like Heaney to have an anti-colonialist stance as a matter of conscience, for example, and still write in the style that he does. I certainly cannot say that he is "culpable" for anything. But I do think that language to some degree or another (not to an absolute degree) can help shape our viewpoint or outlook on the world, the ways that we communicate and interact with each, and I think this is something that Walsh is interested in exploring. Does it mean that the Heaneys and the Longleys of the world are responsible for reinforcing an oppressive intellectual framework of rationalism simply by working in the style or form of language that they do? I certainly cannot say that they are. Like, "Goddamn it, Heaney, until you stop writing your well-crafted, Nobel-winning lyric poetry and start experimenting, you're nothing but a fascist pig!" No, of course not.

But I do think it's interesting to think about whether or how language may or may not be related to "hierarchical domination" (Bracken). I suppose ultimately the reader can draw his or her own conclusions. I don't mean to sound wishy-washy, but I honestly can't give you a more definitive answer on this.

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