translations by Paddy Bushe and the poet.
448pp; €15 pb;
REVIEW BY LIAM CARSON (Books Ireland, Eagrán an tSamhraidh 2014)
Sometimes one’s reading dovetails in the most curious ways. Whilst reading Gabriel Rosenstock’s new selected poems Margadh na Míol in Valparaíso/The Flea Market in Valparaíso, I was also reading Ursula Le Guin’s Tales of Earthsea, in which wizards are shape-changers (taking on the forms of various animals, such as otters or birds); and in which magic relies on the use of the ‘old language’. Wizards are entrusted with keeping the balance of nature, their philosophy Taoist in nature. These are the themes at the heart of Rosenstock’s poetry.
Gabriel Rosenstock is a shape-changer poet. He is both everywhere and nowhere. He has published some 170 books – travelogues, poetry, novels, collections of haiku, not to mention translations into Irish of, among others, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Rabindranath Tagore, Günter Grass, Zhang Ye, Georg Trakl and Janak Sapkota. More than any other Irish poet, Rosenstock transcends national boundaries. Pádraig de Paor has suggested that, for Rosenstock, ‘the Irish language is the quickest route out of a self-obsessed Ireland to a cosmopolitanism beyond Anglo-Irish navel-gazing’.
Rosenstock’s ceaseless output has, almost paradoxically, the effect of rendering him invisible. Just as a literary editor is wondering what do with his latest book, he or she will doubtless find another five review copies landing on the desk. But one might as well ask Rosenstock to stop breathing as to slow down his output. What is misunderstood is the nature of Rosenstock’s literary mission. Máirín Nic Eoin has suggested that his work is best seen as an ongoing project, a vast weave of poetry that draws on all manner of sources.
Rosenstock, as is well known, is one of the Innti generation of poets that included Liam Ó Muirthile, Michael Davitt and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. ‘Innti’ means ‘in her’, and quite apart from any obvious sexual pun, it alludes to being ‘in language’. Or, one might suggest, ‘in the groove’. Rosenstock is very much in the groove of his chosen language, Irish. In this volume’s introduction, Cathal Ó Searcaigh notes that Rosenstock ‘has learned much from the Gaelic tradition: the clear-sighted clarity of early Irish nature poems; the exquisitely fabricated interplay of sound and rhythm, assonance and alliteration of bardic poems; the thrilling sonority, the loops and whorls of sound of 18th century love poems’.
At times, Rosenstock imagines Irish literally speaking to him, and it is clear that the language itself is the muse. In ‘Konzipierung’ (‘Coincheap’), Irish declares its lack of faith in the word ‘coincheap’ (‘concept’), and rails against ‘Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche’, telling the poet to ‘grab hold of some metaphor, a wren, let’s say, or a flea’. Or in Irish:
‘Tarraing meafar éigin chugat féin,
Dreoilín, abair, nó dreancaid…’
The question of the Irish language and its marginal and often despised position in Irish society inevitably surfaces in many of Rosenstock’s poems. There’s the tour-de-force of ‘Mustanbih’ (‘An Arabic word for a Bedouin who entices dogs to bark by imitating them, especially when he is lost in the desert at night trying to find a camp – perhaps his own camp. Often it’s not a dog but another lost Bedouin who answers him’):
Nach aisteach í teanga seo an ghadhair
ná tuigeann na gadhair féin í!
Tuigid… tuigid…ach tá bodhaire Uí Laoire orthu.
(‘Bizarre, isn’t it, this hound-language/that the hounds themselves can’t follow!/Follow they could… but they don’t want to hear.’)
Then there is the lovely ‘Is Tú an Ghaolainn’ (‘Irish’), in which he imagines the language as a deity:
Ionatsa a shlánaítear
An leathfhocal ina nath glé
Tríotsa bíonn gach seanfhocal nua
(‘In You the half-said thing is known/In perfect clarity/Through You every proverb is made new’)
For Rosenstock, poetry is not so much about self-expression, but rather about seeing clearly, and finding the requisite language to give form to perception. He speaks of ‘the opening of the heart’, and quotes Hazrat Inayat Khan – ‘As one can see when the eyes are open, so one can understand when the heart is open’. Openness is the theme of ‘Osclaím mo dhán’ (‘I open my poem’):
osclaím mo dhán do nithe geala
seo isteach oráistí, is caisearbháin,
is beidh mé libh
(‘I open my poem to bright things/here come oranges, dandelions, /come in/take a seat/I’ll be right with you’)
It’s in this poem that Rosenstock also touches on another core theme – impermanence, as the poem concludes ‘osclaím mo dhán arís do nithe geala/ach níl aon ní fagtha’ (‘I open my poem again to bright things/but there’s nothing left’). His 2013 collection Sasquatch brilliantly tackles themes of loss and environmental destruction, speaking of ‘crainn ag éag ar fud na cruinne’ (‘trees, disappearing from the face of the earth’).
Margadh na Míol in Valparaíso/The Flea Market in Valparaíso is a terrific celebration of this most egoless of poets. Like an Earthsea wizard, Rosenstock is apt to take on a new persona at the drop of a hat – a cranky yeti, or the comic mystic Krishnamurphy, for example. His poems are, by turns, tender and lyrical, angry, self-deprecating, often very funny, always perfectly poised. This current selected comes with very fine translations by the poet himself and by Paddy Bushe. It should be essential reading for every poet in Ireland, all too many of whom are blind to what Irish language poets are up to. Finally, Rosenstock is all too aware that he is often dismissed as a holy fool of sorts. In ‘Agallamh’ (‘Interview’) he gleefully celebrates that fact, and the poetry within foolishness:
Agus conas a chuimhneofar ort, dar leat?
Mar amadán d’amadáin Dé.
(‘And how do you expect to be remembered?/As a poet?/As a fool among God’s fools./Thanks.’)