The Churchyard at Creggan
The Lament for Art O’Leary
A translation of a classic 18th-century Irish poem introduces a dramatic reimagining of the heartrending rage of ‘The Lament for Art O’Leary’; a sequence of lyrics from musicals about Ben Gunn and ‘Typhoid Mary’ Mallon (an asymptomatic carrier who, after decades in isolation, re-emerged to infect others), and an extended howl that begins with pillow talk and includes the Táin Bó that becomes Bo Diddley and the bó of beau monde.
For all the anguish and the haunting music of these narratives there is in our most protean poet a fair share of frolic and linguistic sport.
Paul Muldoon’s Lamentations (Gallery, €11.95 hb, €18.50, pb) is a substantial collection of translations and work written for performance. It includes another version of Caoineadh Art O Laoghaire, which Muldoon hammers into the strong rhyming stanzas he loves to devise. The phrasing is stagy – “steeds” and “fast friends” co-exist with “youngsters / who wouldn’t lose it entirely” and “quilts / that’ll bring you out in a sweat” alongside a garnish of French phrases, “hors de combat” and “tout de suite”, but the lines roll by at breakneck and eventually heart-breaking speed, and it is fascinating to see how Muldoon, such a superb, painstaking elegist himself, draws out the sorrow of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s great lament.
Muldoon ventriloquises two other historical figures here, Ben Gunn from Treasure Island, now granted a Fermanagh childhood and a dream of Hy Breasil, and another emigrant who dreams of home, Mary Mallon of Cookstown, better known as Typhoid Mary.
Their songs are a little lumpier and heavier on information than might be expected (“Isinglass is made of the swim bladder / of sturgeon or Atlantic cod”, Mary tells us), but when images and story align, the writing is crystal, and far-reaching as ever. Mary’s decades of isolation and quarantine are registered in a poem that is half (natural) history and half blues: “The lapwing causes a diversion / She trails one wing along the ground / The lapwing limps in the other direction / So her nest will not be found.” (North Brother Blues)
The book’s final section is a romp through Pillow Talk, whose rhymes make for a strange trip to unexpected destinations: “Though she insisted she was on lemonade / Medhbh had seemed a little tiddly / When she came back from the cattle raid / She’d christened Táin Bó Diddley.”
— John McAuliffe, The Irish Times
Year Published: 2017
ISBN PBK: 978 1 91133 726 3