Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Éireann Lorsung

Dickinson House visual
[Image source: http://ohbara.com/projects/portfolio/dickinson-house/  Dickinson House was a writer's residency that EL ran when she lived in Belgium.]

Out the window the snow begins as it has all week, off and on, and the four o'clock dimness sets in, but it is tolerable because of the snow and the little colored lights and the darkness of the neighboring house mirroring the lights from our windows, and in the distance I can hear the poets I love begin to talk about their lives (and other poets begin to scold them for talking about their lives) and their red shoes and their fear, and I wish the poets could come stay in this anonymous house far away, with all the people they love and the people they love, all the people I love and the ones they love, all of us here in the dim with the small lights and the houses next door empty of neighbors

From a poem by Éireann Lorsung. The poem has a very long title beginning When I say... If I gave the whole title you'd have forgotten about the extract I wished to highlight.

Here the poem plays a game about welcoming people in. It's not irrelevant that EL* did run a writer's residency for several years, so she really has had poets come to stay. And she's also a teacher, so I guess pretty comfortable with rooms full of people.

And yet in the poem this is complicated. As soon as the wish includes so many poets, and then widens out to embrace all the people they love and all the people she loves, well that welcome is getting bigger and bigger but it's also taking on fantastical and unreal proportions. It's a soap bubble that grows and grows and bursts.

And in the anonymous house, what then? A loneliness and emptiness, maybe. But it also seems tolerable, with the Christmas lights that someone arranged and the reflections of light in the darkened windows over the way: a resonance tranquillized by distance and time. After all it's rather nice that the neighbours have gone away. The fancied voices of beloved poets are also a reflection: the poets exist, but not in this place. So the passage expresses the consolations of solitude, it is a rich kind of emptiness, not the featureless type but the emptiness of something that can be imagined as full: an absence.

"in the distance I can hear the poets I love"  ... So for a second we imagine EL reading their poetry, but that's not clear, maybe they are only chatting -- "about their lives (and other poets begin to scold them for talking about their lives)". It isn't clear, and the unclarity is pointed. After all it's a small debate about good manners, if people should go on about their lives, and it's also a big debate about poetry, should poems be autobiographical.

The implication is that those two debates are connected with each other. And there's a difficult question emerging here, is loving poets central to why we want to read poetry (for we certainly do love our favourite poets), and if so is writing our own poem a persuasion to love us -- no, no, that sounds very bad, but .... Yet isn't love of a kind central to what art is for? How to express the worth of artistic endeavour if it isn't something to do with love?

I'm not talking about the rest of the poem but it certainly observes how love forms the architecture of our experience, the love of selected loved ones and of other people and all people and dead people, love and the absence of love. Love, and fear.

"and their red shoes and their fear". Hard to avoid the allusion to "The Red Shoes", Hans Christian Andersen's tale of compulsive restlessness, himself the most restless and fearful of travellers. But if it has an unacknowledged autobiographical element, it's also deeply anti-feminist in its fear of Karin's free spirit and her rebellion against staying small; in Andersen's own terms the red shoes probably means a career of prostitution or at least its moral equivalent. And yet (or rather, and so) it now strikes us as a potent feminist parable about the challenges of stepping forth as a woman with a public career, about being willing to be noticed, about the tribal judgments and attitudes that still haunt our world.


Weir, fishbed, river a straightened ellipsis after 1918

What red flowers were worked here in what hand
Wh at blue

We covered the stove with Delft tiles
We laid our bones across one another, to be found like that

from An archeology, a poem about inhabitation and migration, living and moving. Specifically Flanders during the 1940 occupation, but conceiving long vistas before and after. Conceiving rather than seeing: these lines are preoccupied with the unseen and with those frail signals to the future ("to be found") that so often don't get through or can't be interpreted.


Éireann Lorsung is another poet I've discovered via the anthology women: poetry: migration, ed. Jane Joritz-Nakagawa (2017). (At the time it was put together, EL was living in Belgium, though she's since moved back to the USA.)

Éireann Lorsung's web page introduction to herself and what she does:


Charlotte Bhaskar's review of EL's Her book (2013):


2016 interview with EL by Taeler Kallmerten on the excellent Newfound site. It touches on both the poems I've written about, among many other things.



*This represents my latest, not especially happy, attempt to find a better way of referring to the author under discussion (once I've supplied their full name, obviously).

When we talk about dead authorities, using the bare surname is inevitable, sanctioned by tradition, and raises no hackles (though maybe it should). I've written hundreds of posts about "Shakespeare", "Scott", "Dickens", etc.

But I strongly dislike referring to contemporary writers in that way.  Partly because it always gives me a jar to see myself referred to as "Peverett". I haven't been called that since I was at junior school! Why are you infantilizing me and what I do? OK, I might play the fool now and then, but I assure you I'm all growed up! And talking about poetry is one of the most grown-up things any of us do, I'm putting my whole heart into this, my whole long life experience... So don't treat it like a school assignment...  Those are the thoughts that flash through my mind, whenever I'm Peverett-ed.

But besides that, I feel that I'm apt to write and think less honestly about the writers and their work and my own response to it if I adopt a naming convention that I'd never use to their face. (And every so often these were people I actually knew.)

So then I tried using the writer's first name, and sometimes that approach has felt totally right (for example, when writing about Tim Allen, a poet of my own generation with whom I've often had exchanges over the years).

But it's rather a different matter when e.g the writer's a woman who's much younger than me, someone I don't know at all. In that context throwing around someone's first name seems distinctly matey if not creepy. I don't take any credit for sensitivity in registering that unease. On the contrary, I think the embarrassment betrays susceptibilities within myself and other het males of my generation that are the reverse of admirable. But whatever, there's many times when the first-name thing doesn't feel appropriate, and I'm just not doing it.

So that's why I'm now trying the approach of using initials. It isn't very elegant, and its virtues are mainly negative e.g.  it is neither stuffy nor chummy. It isn't what people do in academic essays, and that seems to me a very good and important thing: academic conventions have long been a hindrance to the integrity of expressing what we really think and know and feel. And I do think initials are quite honest in this respect: that they probably are the form I'd choose if I was repeatedly referring to the same writer in a missive to a friend, for example.

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