Between Ireland and Greece
INTERVIEW WITH PAULA MEEHAN
conducted by Joanna Kruczkowska
6 Dec 2015, Athens
Paula Meehan, the Irish poet and playwright currently Ireland Chair of Poetry at Trinity College Dublin, was one of the guests of the symposium Living / Writing: Inner and Outer Landscapes of Irish and Greek Poets held on 4-5 Dec 2015 in Athens, co-organised by the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and the University of Lodz (for further information see: www.irellas.com).
Born in Dublin and educated at Trinity College and in the United States, Paula Meehan has published six award winning collections of poetry including Dharmakaya and Painting Rain. She has written plays for both adults and children, notably Cell, a play about women prisoners, and The Wolf of Winter, an ecological fairy tale. Music for Dogs collects three plays concerned with suicide during the economic boom years in Ireland. Dedalus Press have recently republished Mysteries of the Home, seminal poems from the 1980s and the 1990s. In 2015 she received the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Irish Poetry. She is Ireland Professor of Poetry 2013–2016, and is a member of Aosdána, the Irish Academy for the Arts. In preparation are two volumes, Imaginary Bonnets with Real Bees in Them, her three public lectures given as part of the Professorship, from UCD Press, Dublin, due in June of 2016, and Geomantic, a long poem in 81 parts, due from The Dedalus Press, Dublin, in November of 2016.
I’ve always loved thresholds
the stepping over,
the shape changing that can happen
when you jump off the edge into pure breath
and then the passage between inner and outer
I’ve opened our conversation with this fragment of your poem “Liminal” from the series “Six Sycamores” (Painting Rain 2009) because your own poetry seems to be shuttling between Ireland and Greece. This is, as if, one of your threshold experiences of the two countries in poetry and in life. Could we talk about this liminal experience, if at all it’s liminal?
I feel very liminal just at this moment because we are here looking across to the Acropolis in bright sunshine in December and I know that at home they’ve had floods, trees down and traffic disruptions, so it feels like a real liminal, out of body, out of mind experience, to be here at this moment.
I came to Greece first when I was sixteen after my secondary education finished. I came down with friends and did the usual things, stayed on beaches, drank ouzo, swam under the moonlight at night in the sea, all those young things, in some ways oblivious to the fact that the Colonels’ regime was an actuality, that the junta was here under our noses, but we were not seeing it or hearing about it from the local people we interacted with. We picked up hints and nuances but they were in body language rather than spoken conversation. and we knew a little bit about it but you know, we were subsumed in a kind of youthful oblivion. And later I would read Yiannis Ritsos in a dual language edition, and get some understanding of the emotional life of the people, of what was actually happening during those times.
The way you see things and then later you put them together. The way poetry helps you feel what it was like to be alive at a given moment.
The next time I really started to engage with Greece was when I finished university. I had studied Classical Civilisation with the famous classicist W. B. Stanford in the last years of his teaching life when he was in his crankitude and anecdotage. He really opened up our heads as students to Greek drama and the myths, so my head was filled to the brim by the time I finished college. I really wanted to see what I call the dinnseanchas, (the place name lore,) of the Minoan Bronze Age because I’m very much interested in the pre-Classical culture of the islands, especially the Bronze Age culture. Our own Bronze Age stories which got written down and christianized by the monks, such as Táin Bó Cúailnge, and our own cycles of hero myths, map to a certain extent onto the Greek stories.
Yes, but also our own sense of landscape, of the sacredness of certain places, of wells, guardian spirits. Even in the Christan era in Ireland the stories are still translated from the pagan era and many of them are very similar. So I came to Greece, hitchhiked down with a friend from Belfast, Marian Dobbin. We went to Crete. The one word of Modern Greek I had was δουλειά, “work”. We found work and incredible kindness, a very direct kind of hospitality. We worked hard in the orchards, picking oranges, in the olive harvest, I worked in a small restaurant with an eighty year old woman Maria down in Sougia...
Sougia is beautiful...
Yes, and in those days there was no road in, you came in over the mountains and down across river beds, down to the little tiny village right on the sea. Maria was eighty years of age. She used to take me to the olives early in the morning before it got hot, on a donkey up the terraces. She taught me to cook traditional dishes in her little taverna at the edge of the sea. So these were incredibly rich experiences for me. I was starting my own journey in poetry in a serious enough way, mostly in diaries, journals, mostly a secret writing that I was very protective of. Those early experiences here really laid the foundations for a relationship with my own creativity. I’ve been coming and going to Greece and the islands ever since. At home time is eaten by demands – work demands, family demands, living-in-Ireland demands – so to come here is a stepping out of the usual duties into a zone I experience as so free and creative that anything might happen. In Crete I had these strange experiences of knowing the landscape, knowing what would be around the corner though I had never been there before. The last ten years or so myself and Theo Dorgan, my partner, have mostly been going to Ikaria, which again is a very rich palimpsest of periods of history and a very distinct island community. That’s where I tend to go now. I really finish a lot of my work there and I write some new stuff.
I can see the myth of Icarus is also present in your poetry.
The Dedalus/Icarus story is a popular trope in Irish literature, going back well before Joyce. It is a strong thread in Joyce’s work. One of Ireland’s biggest poetry presses is The Dedalus Press, who are preparing my new work for publication. Icarus is the name of a renowned Trinity College student literary magazine. And I teach the Auden poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ written in the Bruegel Room of the Musée in Brussels. It’s one of those strange late thirties poems of Auden’s that have a foretaste of Nazism, the whiff of the camps.
I’ve gone back to the myth again and again, myself. A beautiful emblem of the ambition and failure of craft, or sullen art, the mysterious blue rapture of the flight our aspirations as poets take us on, often dangerous, sometimes fatal.
You can read the myth from so many different angles: you can read it as straightforward commentary on the technique of the lost wax method of bronze casting – the emphasis on wax and Dedalus as the Bronze Age maker sublime. You can enter the myth anywhere, you can read it as a template of failure in the craft, ‘craft’ being what helps us travel in or on or by the poem, the vehicle, in a practical sense. The idea of craft... When I talk of craft in poetry I don’t mean that to be mere ornamentation or a gloss of technique. I need it to refer to the actual craft to get into to make a journey, like spacecraft, aircraft, watercraft, that sense of making I love which is in an unbroken tradition from the Bronze Age.
I’ve always been drawn to Bronze Age sites. The myths map in so many ways on to the actual landscape there. I mean, Ikaria is a very windy place, the katabatic winds coming down the mountains in the afternoon are really dangerous; the seas around Ikaria are really dangerous, so Icarus coming down also has a very natural, simple relationship to actual prevailing weather conditions on the island.
At the same time, you’ve mentioned, there are hot therapeutic baths there.
Yes, we go to a village called Therma. The name is a clue. There are volcanic radionic hot springs. It’s been an Asklepion since ancient times, a place of pilgrimage for health. What interests me in the accounts that I’ve read of the ancient Asklepions is that first of all you would come and sleep in the sanctuary of the gods of healing and wait for a dream to come, an important dream. Then you’d take the dream to the priests or the guardians of the Asklepion, they would read it and pronounce a course of baths and healing. I like that idea that the dream drives the healing because I believe that our dreams do carry important messages about what’s really occupying the inner psyche. I believe we dream for ourselves, of course, but we dream too for our communities, carrying dreams for each other.
All these things really make me feel alive and in a sense happy, which doesn’t mean I’m blind to historical reality. Ikaria was a prison island during the Greek civil war of the forties and also afterwards. In fact the Irish poet Louis MacNeice, when he was here in Athens in the 1950s at the British Institute, waiting to take up a post as Director of the Institute, made a visit to Ikaria He went there on the advice of Kevin Andrews, writer, musician, historian, who had lived in the high village of Raches, presumably monitoring movements in the Aegean for the British. You have a fantastic vantage from there all the way down to Patmos and Rhodos and across to Turkey. MacNeice and his wife had a young Ikarian woman to help with the Athens household so she also was a source of information about the history and lore of Ikaria. Out of that journey came the poem “The Island” which was published in Ten Burnt Offerings. Though he never names Ikaria, he talks about the political prisoners who were still there in the 1950s. So it has that weight of history, a very left-wing history. The island still votes over 80 % left in the elections to this day. And there is a living communitarianism if you like, very community-minded villages where they fund-raise for their own roads and schools, an admirable sense of commitment to the local which could be a template for sustainable small communities. And their diaspora, which is all over Australia, the United States and Europe, is very strong and still very committed to the home island.
So I would see parallels: strange, mysterious and somewhat exotic as the island is, it’s also very familiar to anyone who has Irish island experience. I could be on our own Aran Islands. The people there have the same diasporic relationship to their children who left, their emigrants.
But I also always find renewal of physical energy for my body on Ikaria. I swim and get fitter. I come back from Ikaria to Ireland with this new energy for the year. Mind and body nourished.
Let’s switch to Ireland. This little fragment I quoted at the beginning belongs to a longer series called “Six Sycamores” set around St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. I was wondering: there are at least two crossroads in this series. One is of nature and cityscape, the other is the connection between nature and history – you reference the Easter Rising in ‘Them Ducks Died for Ireland’. Could we explore a little bit this relationship of nature in the city, or nature within the history of the whole nation?
I really don’t think it’s a very useful notion to see urban/rural divides, especially now, in this historical moment. It doesn’t make any sense. Where some people see dereliction, I see biodiversity, places where wild plant communities might get a toehold and flourish. And then the creatures winged and pelted that might come in their wake. In the same way I see within the city places where wild human communities can flourish, often the poorer areas where immigrants can get a little foothold. I see the interinanimation of nature with the built environment, what we’ve built, and it is a civilizing process. Gary Snyder says that we have to stop thinking of nature as a place we visit. We are part of it, we have animal selves, and the understanding of the animal self, I believe, is something that might deter us from killing off not only ourselves but the rest of creation.
Man as a part of the ecosystem...
Definitely a part of the ecosystem. We have to stop thinking of ourselves as outside it, outside nature. We are part of it, we affect it dramatically as top of the food chain. We have to integrate ourselves, or reintegrate ourselves. There must have been a moment in our history as a species when this sense of being outside of, or different to, everything else began. It is bound up with religious practices, certainly with the Christian ethos, which I would have real problems with, having grown up in a theocracy and still dealing on a daily basis with the value systems of that theocracy.
So that sequence of poems is a series of sonnets interspersed with what I would hear as living voices, snatches of conversation out of the flux of the city. The sonnet is such a neurotically formal enterprise. My ambition with using these received patterns is to take on the karma of the form, its journey through its past lives in literary history, if you like, in order to make it a powerful thing today. I was trying to mirror the incredibly beautiful Georgian structures around St. Stephen’s Green, one of our beautiful municipal parks. It was originally a swampy area outside the city. The leaseholders who built those Georgian houses, the city homes of the Ascendancy class, our colonial rulers, built them in a square around the swampy area, and their leases stipulated that they must plant six sycamores and tend them for three years. So that was the beginning of what became one of the most beloved pleasure gardens of our city. I loved that idea of civic responsibility.
At the heart of this series of poems was some kind of a demand, maybe, that civic responsibility now should involve a place for trees, for minding and encouraging what grows. The cities that welcome biodiversity are healthier.
There’s another aspect to this. St Stephen’s Green and the College of Surgeons an imposing building on the West side of the park, was one of the garrisons of the Easter Rising, the only one commanded by a woman, Countess Markiewicz, who shared the responsibility with Michael Mallin. St. Stephen’s Green itself was the field hospital for the wounded of that area during the fighting. This is explicit in ‘Them Ducks Died for Ireland’. I wrote the poem out of a fragment I found in the Architectural Archive, the report of the park superintendent in the clean up after the Revolution. He says, “Six of our waterfowl were killed or shot, seven of the garden seats broken, and about three hundred shrubs destroyed”. I loved this detail, a little bit of collateral damage during the Revolution. It did inspire me to think about how the people clean up after the revolution, the nurses who had the field hospital to tend the wounded. And the larger question of how a culture copes with revolutionary change. We are still a very young republic. Just because you get rid of the imperial power doesn’t mean that you haven’t another struggle with the internalised colonial power. In our case, we also struggle with an internalised theocracy, the corrupt power of the Catholic Church who had so much unquestioned authority that they could perpetrate abuses on vulnerable people in their care without fear of being called to account.
We’ve moved on. It is a really extraordinary time in Ireland now. There’s an intense process of re-evaluating what happened in the struggle for independence, and a re-evaluation of all the versions of our story, a chance, as we say, to complicate the narrative. We’re hearing now the stories that didn’t get told, stories of women and their part in the revolution, stories of bravery and courage in the Rising, in the struggle for suffrage and equality, in the struggle for sexual freedom and civil liberties. As is often the case, the parts of the archive that were most neglected or even suppressed, have become very important. When we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising in 1966, we children were offered as exemplary figures the seven heroes, the poets and dreamers who had signed the Proclamation of the Republic; we were offered the martyred dead from the War of Independence, and the winning side in our vicious civil war that followed the revolution. It was a simplified version of events tied in with Nationalism, with Catholicism. At eleven years of age I wanted to go out and die for Ireland. It was all a very jingoistic, very nationalistic version of our past.
We are now looking back at that initiatory event, the Rising, in a very different way, retrieving the stories that were written out of history in the post revolutionary era. I think this is such a healthy thing to do, to change perspective.
Thank you very much indeed. Can we finish with the poem we are talking about, ‘Them Ducks Died for Ireland’?
Thank you. Here is the poem:
Them Ducks Died for Ireland
“6 of our waterfowl were killed or shot, 7 of the garden seats broken and about 300 shrubs destroyed.”
Park Superintendent in his report on the damage to St. Stephen’s Green, during the Easter Rising 1916
Time slides slowly down the sash window
puddling in light on oaken boards. The Green
is a great lung, exhaling like breath on the pane
the seasons’ turn, sunset and moonset, the ebb and flow
of stars. And once made mirror to smoke and fire,
a Republic’s destiny in a Countess’ stride,
the bloodprice both summons and antidote to pride.
When we’ve licked the wounds of history, wounds of war,
we’ll salute the stretcher bearer, the nurse in white,
the ones who pick up the pieces, who endure,
who live at the edge, and die there and are known
by this archival footnote read by fading light;
fragile as a breathmark on the windowpane or the gesture
of commemorating heroes in bronze and stone.
‘Them Ducks Died for Ireland’, from Painting Rain, Carcanet Press, Manchester, 2009.
[The interview and the symposium was part of the research supported by a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship within the 7th European Community Framework Programme. It was also supported by the Embassy of Ireland in Greece and the University of Athens.]
Joanna Kruczkowska has recently been working at the University of Athens, in cooperation with Prof. Liana Sakelliou, on her Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship project on the perception of modern Greece in the work of contemporary Irish poets, mainly Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon. Apart from their Greek travel narratives examined from the ecocritical perspective, she focuses on their translation and reception of Cavafy and Seferis.
Permanently she works as Senior Lecturer (Assistant Professor) at the Institute of English Studies of the University of Lodz, Poland, and specialises in comparative poetry. After her Ph.D. on Northern Irish and Polish poets in the socio-political context (Université Paris III-Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2003), she has expanded her research with a Modern Greek perspective.