Dig in

Posted by on Monday, December 5th, 2005

I should respond with my own disclaimer: I should feel bad for wrapping you up in this book, because it is such a giant mememememe my turn ME! treat to trick people into reading it, because I love talking about it so much.  Selfish Lanea.  Poetry Crazy Lanea.  So, sorry in advance, but thank you for reading Nuala. 

I should start with Ciaran Carson.  He’s a genius, and one of Nuala’s translators, and a true Classicist.  He’s done the big hard work of translating poetry from a few tough languages.  And I got to speak to him after a reading a while back.  It was a reading given by several Irish poets, some of whom wrote in Irish and some of whom didn’t, but all of whom had given a fair amount of thought to the language and to Irish-ness.  I was one of the only Celticists in a room full of nice people who, by and large, didn’t know much about the poets or their work.  That’s a common problem at Irish Studies events.  In the question and answer session, the moderator refused to call on me.  I don’t know why.  I was so frustrated I was on the verge of tears, listening to perfectly nice people ask inane questions of some of the greatest poets of a generation, all the while holding my arm up like I did in third grade when I knew the answer and my classmates didn’t.  It was distressing for the poets.  It was distressing Carson particularly, because he could sense that I had the question of the hour, and he wanted to answer it.  He stutters, so the stress was going to make it harder for him to answer, but he clearly wanted to address me.  Carson finally called on me himself at the end of the program, saying something about how I had already exhibited far more patience than any of the "old people in the room" had. 

I asked how poets who translate maintain some division between their own craft and creation and the work they are translating.  How you find a dividing line between poet writing her own words and a poet translating for someone else’s work.  Carson said, falteringly but absolutely sure: "It’s all translation.  Every jot of verse ever is a work of translation.  Any poet who doesn’t know their verse is a translation of another poet’s words or of an image or an experience isn’t worth reading."  I cried.  He got misty.  And the perfectly nice people looked at us both like we were crazy.   

And, of course, Ciaran is one of Nuala’s translators.  He tends to stick close to the literal meaning of each work.  Really, most of them do.  Nuala now is playing us a little bit when she expresses worry.  When she first got started, she may have been very worried.  But now she has a lot of editorial control over her translations, and unlike many poets whose work is translated into English, she is fluent in English and can tell if someone botches up her poems.  Nuala is perfectly capable of translating her own work, and yet she chooses not to.  I love that about her.  She loves Irish, but she also loves collaboration.  And she’s a bit of a minx on some level.  Having other people translate her poems ultimately makes them serve her.  Naughty Nuala.  All the while, she won’t brook this nonsense that she is her translators’ muse.  No no no.  They are her employees.  They are sometimes her partners.  But she is chief poet in this tribe.  Many of Nuala’s poems have been translated multiple times–I can get ISBNs to you if you want particular versions. 

I happily encourage you to seek out Medbh McGuckian.  She’s another giantess of Irish poetry.  A bit tougher for some to love, but a true talent.  I think what you’re responding to is Medbh’s taste in subject matter.  She is picking certain poems to translate, and I think she’s picking the poems you’d like best if you were reading the Irish. 

So now the religion and the myth.  Nuala was raised Catholic, as were most Irish citizens of her generation.  And she is well educated, so she is adept at using allusions.  "The Bond" or "Gaesa" is a poem that will make more sense to the initiated.  A gaesa is a type of oath that comes up in Celtic mythology pretty frequently, particularly in the Ulster Cycle, which is my favorite group of myth texts to read and translate.  A gaesa is a bond someone puts on you that you cannot break for fear of peril.  Think of Delphic prophecies, but with different accents, and with the cursed or bound as almost-willing participants in the manipulations of their own fates.  Gaesa are often foisted upon humans by Gods disguised as humans, and they generally don’t make sense until the whole story unfolds.  The old woman in the poem is probably the Washer by the Well, who is generally the Crone manifestation of the Morrigan (Great Queen), an Irish Goddess of War, Sovereignty, and Fertility.  She is forcing the speaker to be a traveler.  Nuala left her own country to live in Turkey with her husband’s family, she was raised in several homes, she is trapped between languages.  And she, like the characters in the myths, doesn’t know where to find the Woman and how to complete the Gaesa.   The significance of the numbers is really that Nuala is using the form that shows up in the Old Irish texts of the myths she’s riffing off of. 

In "Night Fishing" we’re getting mythology again.  The speaker is thinking of selkies, if I’m guessing right, which are like mermaids.  Seals in water, humans on land.  Again we get Nuala’s in-between status and her connection to myth.  It also makes me think of the great famine, when many Irish people were left with nothing to eat but seaweed and raw winkles, and many of them died of it food poisoning caused by that diet.  Those foods have a symbolic connection to both salvation and poison.  We’re also seeing the well-worn concept of words as food–the book the English girl offers the speaker is supposed to offer some sort of sustenance and safety, but really just makes it hard to fish.  And then there’s the red gold.  Red gold shows up constantly in Irish mythology.  It was highly prized, and it’s often used as an epithet in the myths.  Rather than "gray-eyed Athena" we get "red gold hanging from ear and braid" (a bit of one of my pieces, there).  I think the author is equating Englishness with learning very specifically because she spent much of her youth in an English boarding school, rather than at home in her Irish-language local school. 

And I’ll read 29 this afternoon. 

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