The is the text of a speech I made last week, at a packed Triskel Christchurch, to mark the launch of home, more or less, the debut poetry collection by Paul Casey. Aifric McGlinchey launched her first book, The Lucky Star of Hidden Things, at the same event. Both are published by Salmon Poetry.
Aifric and Paul are touring the country together at the moment, in support of these very different yet equally arresting debuts. Both are captivating readers and are well worth checking out.
‘My mother is taking me to Africa’. So begins ‘Exile’ the first poem in this, Paul Casey’s fine debut collection. It is a violent opening. The infant poet-to-be is removed not only from the cherishing grasp of his grandmother, of his ‘mother’s Irish mother’, but also from the ‘reach of her great great grandmothers’
from a timeless and nourishing line of succession. There is a wrench, a shuddering jolt in these simple opening lines. We feel a circuit being broken, the sundering of some ancient chain.
The remainder of the collection, it seems to me, is a memorable and vigorous attempt to heal this fissured link, to solder the break, to find the switch that when thrown will send the ancestral energy flowing through the system once again.
It is tempting, then, to view this book as essentially circular in design, a temptation amplified beyond temptation by Brian Crotty’s superb cover painting. We are inclined to view the poet’s personal journey as an analogue of the salmon’s twin and mighty arcs, outward then homeward. In ‘Fly Away Paul’, for instance the livery of Aer Lingus becomes, as it has for so many many emigrants, indeed for so many generations of emigrants, a logo of heartbreak, a brand linked inextricably both with ‘sunstruck wings’ and the ‘aura of goodbye’.
There follows the stuff of no-ordinary biography: misadventure in the South African defence forces, the visicitudes and wanderings chronicled in ‘Painless’, that visit to the dentist where each tooth in the poet’s head recounts a mini-biography of its very own. Yet through it all Casey retains a robust imaginative uplink to his origins, to his homeland, to a very Gaelic Ireland. As he writes ‘Again, again, all hearts will seek their mother’.
There is, as Michael Hartnett might put it, a ‘fierce pride’ in this invocation of his ancestry, of his Gaelic heritage. And why wouldn’t there be? Poems like ‘Brigid, Queen of Bees’ and ‘The Boru Harp’, with its ‘filthy but proud’ titular instrument, are unabashed in praising the complexity, urbanity, and achievement of the Gaelic order, of that lost world that, as ‘These Kings of Tara’ puts it, still whispers to us from destitute and sacred grounds. The witty ‘In the Shade’, meanwhile, goes so far as to actually enumerate forty shades of green, including such surely never-before-encountered hues as ‘pea green ire’ and ‘fern green sleep’.
Yet it would be a mistake to suggest that Casey views this pea-green island through a pair of emerald-tinted shades. This book is mercifully free of the nostalgiac sea-haze that so often blurs the vision of emigres and indeed of arrivistes. No, this is writing far too canny to be codded by such guff. Poems like ‘Return’, ‘home more or less’ and ‘Imagining what Jesus Would Think’ look unflinchingly on this botched republic, on the carelessness and callousness that have so indelibly disfigured its polity.
Yet the salmon of Casey’s imagination ventures not only out and back but also into the depths, flickering resiliently downwards through layer after layer of individual and collective memory. ‘Once upon a Monday’ deals with personal origins, ‘Carrigavou’ with the origins of family. ‘Marsh’ touches the foundation of this very city, ‘Free’ on the building of Newgrange, I like to think that ‘Bare Feet on Hot Tar’, meanwhile, deals with the African beginnings of homo sapiens itself. Its vast-breasted African woman becomes for me that entire ungraspable continent, the mother of us all.
The salmon strives but the journey home is difficult if not impossible to complete. My favourite poem in this collection is ‘Half In’ where a ‘long lost lonely salmon’ pauses on the brink of home, out where the river flowing just beyond these walls meets the Celtic sea. It’s a poem that powerfully symbolises the hardship and contingency of return and of belonging. Casey leaves us if not quite home then ‘home more or less’. Ladies and gentlemen it is a vast and confident, yet troubled and uncertain journey that he takes us on in this new book. And I would ask you now to welcome him to the stage.