I went to two evening readings at the CUISLE Limerick City International Poetry Festival last week. I don’t care what Charles Bukowski said about them (in two poems, which he probably read aloud ironically), I like a good poetry reading. CUISLE 2011 seems to have been a big success. Hardly surprising as the niche festival has a loyal and appreciative audience. The Belltable’s 220-seater auditorium was at least half-full both nights. It also helps that they get excellent poets to take part every year. It is organised by a committee made up of Sheila Deegan (Limerick City Arts Officer); Ciaran O’Driscoll; Bertha McCullagh and Mark Whelan.
Thursday never looking back…at poetry
On Thursday, the line-up was Clare Best, Lee Harwood and Mary O’Malley—all very different poets. CUISLE has a connection with a similar festival in Brighton so Best and Harwood were representing from there. Harwood has had an illustrious, 40 year career with a unique style. O’Malley, from Galway, is an award-winning poet and reads regularly in Ireland and abroad. The skills of all three were obvious. Harwood has a knack for creating expansive worlds out of words for the reader to wander through. Nature and memory were recurrent themes, as were urban and train imagery. O’Malley drew heavily from Irish mythology/history but also touched on the passage of time and emigration. She has an extraordinary, rich reading voice too.
But it was the first reader, Clare Best, who stood out for me. Her poems were emotionally raw and dealt with the most challenging of themes—love, death and self-image. She took the audience on a journey around the world (figuratively in opening poem ‘Drive time’) to the foreign planet feel of the Lincolnshire Fens to a rainy night in Manhattan. In ‘Knowing the prognosis’ she described pain medication as “white stepping stones” and morphine like a goddess with a “voice like rain on water”.
This confessional tone continued when she explained how she chose to have a double mastectomy to reduce her chances of developing a hereditary form of breast cancer. With titles like ‘Last walk with breasts’, it was obvious she was not going to shy away from sharing the details or impact. In ‘Breast Care Nurse’ she is not interested in trying to hide behind dummy breasts, defiantly thinking “I let go of the pretence weeks before the surgeon drew his blue lines on my chest”.
She shops for new nipples in Ann Somers in the playful ‘No adhesive necessary’ and delights at the fact that “they are always firm”. In ‘Self portrait without breasts’ she is a landscape “without hills” and her son’s tender compliment that she is “more beautiful” is a lovely moment. In ‘Seduction’, the lovers tracing their respective scars is a very evocative image of intimacy. I just thought she was so frank and so brave. Although I get the feeling she wouldn’t like to be labelled ‘brave’…isn’t it funny how you get an idea of someone from their writing? That’s what I liked about the reading; her poems were honest and well-written. The sequence Self portrait without breasts is in her first book-length collection, Excisions, (and I think a few copies should be sitting out in the Mid-Western Cancer Care Centre).
Friday, I’m in love…with poetry
On the Friday night, there were only two poets on the bill—Paul Durcan and Carol Ann Duffy. They are both award-winning and prolific. Durcan is often described as one of Ireland’s most distinctive poets and Duffy is the current Poet Laureate of the UK.
I thought Carol Ann Duffy was slightly eclipsed by Paul Durcan, who was on first. Her poetry is deserving of praise but while I could appreciate, I confess I didn’t connect with it very well. Her range of subject matter ranged from a protest poem about her poem being banned by a school to war poems to tributes to her mother, particularly heartrending in the sensuous ‘Cold’. She is brilliant at crafting rhyming poems with ‘Counties’ and ‘John Barleycorn’ being fine examples. She launched her latest collection, The Bees, and these themed poems were very clever i.e. ‘The Human Bee’.
I wasn’t familiar with Paul Durcan’s work before now so I was very pleasantly surprised! He’s an enthralling reader. It’s like he has absorbed the poem and then it pours out of him in whatever is the most appropriate persona, like an actor. But what about the poetry, you cry?! The material is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking.
The audience was cracking up with laughter at his observations of the idiosyncracies of Irish life in poems like ‘The man with a bit of jizz in him’, ‘Ireland 2002’ and an extract from the book-long poem, ‘Christmas Day’. In ‘The Story of Ireland’, he explains that bank manager and bank robber now meet on the golf course and even Sinn Féin members play golf now; it’s practically the measure of civilisation. In ‘Doris Fashions’ he gives the impression of an imagination ready to go wild at the slightest nudge.
Reading poems such as ‘The Drimoleague Blues’ and ‘Bovinity’ he builds poems out of sounds like a musician (He did perform a song with Van Morrison). When he reads, as Bertha McCullagh referred to in his introduction, it is sometimes like an incantation: “I am the centre of the universe…I’m always here if you want me…” In the whimsical love poem, ‘Waterloo Road’, he softly repeats “You were a whirlpool and I very nearly drowned”.
The reading had dark moments. Political poems about former president, Cearbhaill Ó Dálaigh, and the murder of two policemen by the IRA in the north made the audience realise that his work was not all sweetness and light. He spoke about the possibility of Martin McGuinness being president before reading The Bloomsday Murders, 16th June 1997. It begins with the line “Even you, Gerry Adams, does not deserve to be murdered” which was so simple yet so powerful in its utter condemnation.
He finished off with poems about his family and most poignantly, his mother. He left everyone with the image of elderly women with gold dressing gowns fanning out behind them as they jumped from a bridge into the water below. The audience was hanging on his every word and he made every single one count. It was in a different league to any reading I’ve been to.
So, it was good poetry and good company at CUISLE although chatting to the nice man (Brian McAree, a writer himself) who took the spare seat beside me, I found myself uttering the depressing sentence “I used to write poetry but I just stopped in my early twenties”. Now I’m in my mid-twenties, you see, I prefer to have poetry read to me. I don’t even think I could write a Limerick at this stage. Hmmm, “There once was a disparate blogger…”