“I have a double sense of things, but I tend to write about what’s under my nose. I write about here when I’m here and when I go back to Ireland I write about what’s there. I regard myself not as in exile, but as a migrant. That’s what attracted me, in some of my early poems, to birds. My becoming a poet—in this particular incarnation anyway—was not unconnected to someone giving me the present of a pair of binoculars.” — Eamon Grennan (who wrote a poem called “Sunday Morning Through Binoculars”)
Eamon Grennan was born in Dublin on this day. He has lived most of his life in America. He went to UCD, and moved across the Atlantic to Harvard to get his PhD. He has taught at Vassar for over 30 years. He returns to Ireland annually for what he calls a “voice transfusion”. His career has been long and fruitful, with prizes and National Endowment grants. His poems appear with regularity in The New Yorker. His connection to Ireland is clear in his work (you can hear the cadences of the Irish in his rhythms), yet he looks at things from a distance. It is an international perspective. He says he feels that all poems are “elegies”. Every poem is trying to capture something that has been “lost”. A memory, an image, a feeling. “Something is gone and that’s why you write,” says Grennan.
He is quite eloquent in interviews about language, and the particular problem of language when you are Irish. This is well-trod ground. When you speak English, you are speaking an imposed language. A language imposed with violence. This was most clearly expressed by James Joyce in the famous “tundish scene” in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (I discussed that here and elsewhere.) What happens when the language you use is not comprehensible to all readers? Do you adjust? But if you adjust your language to make it easier for those who don’t understand, are you not cutting yourself off from your own history? Grennan thinks about this a lot.
In this fantastic interview with Grennan, the language-problem is addressed when discussing Grennan’s poem “Wing Road”.
BH: [“Wing Road”] is a street in Poughkeepsie, New York, but “dustbin” is an Irish word.
EG: That’s right.
BH: I wonder if you use that word intentionally. I was thinking of Seamus Heaney’s remark that you should stay close to the energies of generation.
EG: Right. That’s right.
BH: Heaney was speaking of one of his poems where he used the word “flax-dam.” He said originally it would have been called a “lint-hole,” but later he had to explain “flax-dam” anyway, so maybe he should have stayed close to the energies of generation and used the original term. I wondered about that with your usage.
EG: Yes. I mean I’m sure there is something like that. I wouldn’t have formulated it so elegantly or eloquently, of course, but I think I used “dustbin” there because in another book, in “Incident,” for example, I say “garbage can.” In part, I think every choice you make has a whole set of tentacles attached to it. Right? When you’re writing a poem, you don’t know about them until after the fact.
When I look at the tentacles attached to “dustbin,” I would say: One, it’s a word that would come naturally to me. “Empty the dustbin” is what I would say. “Garbage can” is still a foreign word to me and “garbage collection,” too. I mean, I think of them as the dustbin men because that was what I thought of them as a kid in Ireland. And then, I’m sure I’m using “dustbin” here because when I hear the line “young man who empties our dustbin,” I’m hearing the sound of “young” and “dustbin,” so that is a bit of assonance at play. I’m sure I used it because “young man who empties our garbage can” would not have pleased my ear, so the other came more naturally.
BH: You use assonance quite frequently.
EG: Yes. It’s the old and probably Irish kind of nerve beating inside the verse, for me anyway. So I used “dustbin” for that, and then somebody decided I used it because “dustbin” has a slightly more eschatological, last-judgment kind of thing, and this is the last judgment, right; the thing is about the last judgment in some way as is the garbage collection, so “dust to dust” is evoked by dustbin [laughter]. So, in fact,” dustbin” is a more interesting word than “garbage can” in a certain sense, because of its connotations.
BH: That also suggests, perhaps, a religious context…
EG: That’s what I mean.
You can see what Grennan meant when he discusses the “tentacles” attached to every word choice. To James Joyce (and his alter ego Stephen Dedalus in Portrait), “tundish” was the word he would use. It was “tundish” or nothing else. You can’t suddenly call an “elephant” a “magnolia” and have everyone agree to it. There would be holdouts who still would see a great grey-colored trunked-creature and say, “Dammit, that is an elephant.” While “tundish” and “funnel” meant the same thing, the difference was as great as that between an elephant and a magnolia; so the English could call a “tundish” a “funnel” all they wanted, but the entire “tentacle” formation around each word was entirely different. This is a matter greater than just language. You cannot eradicate a language without doing damage to meaning and identity. Stephen Dedalus, confronted with the British Jesuit who says it is “most interesting” that the Irish call a “funnel” a “tundish”, thinks distractedly:
The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.
Nobody even comes close to what Joyce accomplished in that one paragraph.
But the problem remains, and Irish poets – whether living in Ireland or America – still face those issues.
Grennan has said of the poem I chose to excerpt today, “Men Roofing”:
I have a few poems about workers. The poem “Men Roofing” is another celebratory acknowledgement of a certain kind of work. I don’t know if it sentimentalizes it, but it certainly tries to celebrate it by turning it into art, not so much deliberately, but charging the language used to describe it with a kind of ceremony.
I love the poem. There is a sentimentality at work here, as he says, but it is of a poetic nature: a way of seeing and trying to “celebrate” what he sees. It is a prosaic act, putting on a roof, but what could it mean metaphorically? What could it show us about who we are, and the beauty of it? Eamon Grennan has often been compared to the American poet Elizabeth Bishop (one of my many posts on her here), and here, in this poem, it is obvious why.
for Seamus Heaney
Bright burnished day, they are laying fresh roof down
on Chicago Hall. Tight cylinders of tarred felt-paper
lean against one another on the cracked black shingles
that shroud those undulant ridges. Two squat drums
of tar-mix catch the light; a fat canister of gas
gleams between a heap of old tyres and a paunchy
plastic sack, beer-bottle green. A TV dish-antenna
stands propped to one side, a harvest moon, cocked
to passing satellites and steadfast stars. Gutters
overflow with starlings, lit wings and whistling throats
going like crazy. A plume of blue smoke feathers up
out of a pitch-black cauldron, making the air fragrant
and medicinal, as my childhood’s was, with tar. Overhead
against the gentian sky a sudden first flock whirls
of amber leaves and saffron, quick as breath, fine
as origami birds. Watching from a window opposite,
I see a man in a string vest glance up at the exalted
leaves, kneel to roll a roll of tar-felt flat; another
tilts a drum of tar-mix till a slow bolt of black silk
oozes, spreads. One points a silver hose and conjures
from its nozzle a fretted trembling orange lick
of fire. The fourth one dips to the wrist in the green sack
and scatters two brimming fistfuls of granite grit:
broadcast, the bright grain dazzles on black. They pause,
straighten, study one another – a segment done. I can see
the way the red-bearded one in the string vest grins and
slowly whets his two stained palms along his jeans; I see
the one who cast the grit walk to the roof-edge, look over,
then, with a little lilt of the head, spit contemplatively
down. What a sight between earth and air they are, drenched
in sweat and sunlight, relaxed masters for a moment
of all our elements! Here is my image, given, of the world
at peace: men roofing, taking pains to keep the weather
out, simmering in ripe Indian-summer light, winter
on their deadline minds. Briefly they stand balanced
between our common ground and nobody’s sky, then move
again to their appointed tasks and stations, as if they
were amazing strangers come to visit for a short spell our
familiar shifty climate of blown leaves, birdspin. Odorous,
their column of lazuli smoke loops up from the dark
heart of their mystery; and they ply, they intercede.