Contemporary Irish Poetry Featured Writer: Robyn Rowland

Robyn Rowland Seven poems           Contemporary Irish Poetry Index

 

Robyn Rowland is an Irish-Australian citizen, visiting Ireland for thirty-four years, where she lives in Connemara. She also visits and works in Turkey. She has written twelve books, nine of poetry. Robyn’s poetry appears in national and international journals and in over forty anthologies, including eight editions of The Best Australian Poems. She has read in many countries including, Bosnia, Serbia, Austria, Turkey, India, and Portugal.

Her latest books in 2015 were Line of Drift (Doire Press, Ireland, supported by the Irish Arts Council, and her bi-lingual This Intimate War Gallipoli/Çanakkale 1915 – İçli Dışlı Bir Savaş: Gelibolu/Çanakkale 1915 (Five Islands Press, Australia and Bilge Kultur Sanat,Turkey) sponsored by the Municipality of Çanakkale. Turkish translations Mehmet Ali Çelikel. Her second book with Doire Press will be out in 2018.

She has been featured on the RTE Poetry Show, Ireland, as well as PoeticA and Earshot in Australia. She was recently filmed reading for the National Irish Poetry Archives, James Joyce Library University College Dublin.

Reviews and Articles

Robyn Rowland discusses her poetry for the Irish Poetry Reading Archive.

Robyn Rowland: Seven Poems

Biographical Note            Contemporary Irish Poetry Index

Contents

The long walk
Bread line massacre
Golden flight
Invisible fields: from the sequence ‘Four Poems on Love’
Resistance, always
On the beach
Island harvest

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The long walk

March 1849, Connacht, Ireland

Violet: ‘The Famine?’ Malone: (with smoldering passion) ‘No, the Starvation. When a country is full of food and exporting it, there can be no Famine.” G.B. Shaw, Man and Superman

….The oracle could have foretold it, though the wisdom of Delphi
….was always silent in winter and Pythia had long since withheld her voice,
….but with Croagh Patrick to the back shoulder without serpents
….and the Goddess still hot upon its face with the old ways
….you’d wonder all the signs would warn them, walkers grasping for grain, as
………………..into the valley of death
………………..stumbled the 600

….Snow was sheeting across Ben Gorm and the Sheeffry hills,
….Mweelrea mountains shuddering under rain,
….blight was on the land and the white globes of goodness that grew
….in the dark Irish earth had taken in fallen dust from America,
….fungus-ridden with stench of starvation through its flesh, as
………………..into the valley of death
………………..staggered the 600

….Children were barefoot in the iced air, their ragged clothes
….barely a cover for thin arms, rickety legs, their stomachs round
….with hunger, mothers too weary for tears at their cries,
….their own voices lost in despair, mouths long unfamiliar with appetite
….or taste or something solid; lost long before
………………..into the valley of death
………………..struggled the 600

….In the rage of a storm it was hard to see if skeletons they were, or
….walking dead, spirits through which the wind blew as if their bones
….were all that held them up, and try though it may,
….no wind could play a tune on these bones, only the
….clacking beat of a funereal march as
………………..into the valley of death
………………..scraped the 600

….Hunched against the blizzard, Mweelrea indignant watched helpless
….as they clung overnight to sheer rock, rough unflowering furze,
….waiting for the 7 am attendance ordered by the Guardians, and
….let’s name them – Colonel Hosgrove and Captain Primrose – who
….slept under their down and starched Irish linen as
………………..along the valley of death
………………..shivered the 600

….From Limerick, Cork, Galway food kept leaving for commerce’s hungry mouth.
….From Kilrush July 1848, 711 tons of Kerry oats, 128 tons of barley.
….Ship after ship from fine busy ports, laden with bacon, lamb, wheat and eggs,
….while Oscar’s Wilde’s mother hidden in the name ‘Speranza’
….raged in poetry at the theft of Irish food, yet
………………..still in the valley of death
………………..waited the 600

….Delphi Lodge’s table groaned under lunch while the wretched gathered
….in front of long dining room windows; and the Guardians ate and talked –
….maybe about the terrible weather, the growing cost of living, the poor;
….maybe about the comfort or otherwise of their white beds,
….while on lawns between them and Dubh Loch
………………..in the valley of death
………………..huddled the 600

….They took but a minute to deem the gathering not poor enough for government grain,
….turning their empty hands away. But here the land is full of pity, and the mountains
….opened, gathering their bones into its soft peat; wind lifted them carefully in its arms
….and blew them easily into Black Lake. Snow cast a blanket over the young,
….sea washed others onto beds of Killary sand, and
………………..100 hundred only
………………..trudged out of the valley of death

 

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Bread line massacre

..Sarajevo, May 27 1992; 20 dead; 160 wounded
  after Roger Richards Photos, Remember Sarajevo, 1992-1999

Black and white clarity, though white looks grey.
In the cold morgue, Kosevo Hospital, Sarajevo,
his body lies on a flat wardrobe-door shrouded with sheet,
its stark shadow a jigsaw of lines on the tiles beneath.
His left leg protrudes, naked; the right, gone,
crushed somewhere under incinerated loaves;
bones mere shattered fragments in the pocked wall now;
or tossed to powder by the power of shells
lobbed with deliberation into a crowd queuing for bread.
Survivors covered with carnage struggle to throw off a woman’s
torso, head, as random limbs jostle for place in piles of body parts,
or pulped, run down drains in red rivers.
This is a strong leg, like my father’s, like my sons’;
the muscle clumped, calf broad and full –
what you love about a man’s body –
its strength, its assumptions of power.
The knee is smooth, lovely in its meniscus-shaped curve,
thigh pale from lack of sunshine close to the torso,
and the foot, its cardboard tag, five toes pointing towards the sun,
surprised almost, caught off guard.

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Golden flight

to Bob Adamson, from the west of Ireland
……….Still, these days …
……….I hold tight to what keeps me
……….alive – a spur-winged
……….plover in its broken-wing dance,
……….distracting the hawk from her chicks …
………………– Robert Adamson, ‘The Golden Bird’

October in Connemara after Atlantic gales
shred my late petunias, churning sea to growling
as it claws the stones on Ceann Dólainn bay below.
It marks the season’s late change, landscape softening,
roadsides rusting away fuchsia and blackberries.
A flock of goldfinches, their wings flickering yellow,
fall like autumn leaves from my power lines
onto newly mown grass, feeding on seeds with gusto,
and I think of you and the indelible ‘Goldfinches of Baghdad’,
your poem that rode beauty and cruelty into the flames.

Last time we met you took snaps to show Juno the jewels
of a jewfish my father caught and turned into earrings.
We swapped fish photos for months –
Bob and fish, Dad and fish – bigger, bigger.
Since then it’s been birds, birds. I watch them feed, strut,
fly through your photos on Facebook.
They stay airborne – rather than being gutted for eating.
I float the world now
as you grow more alive to your river,
so dissolved into its life it inks your veins.

You called me ‘Colour Girl’ in middle age,
though the girl was long gone.
You had really forgotten me but that didn’t matter.
I remembered you in the old days at Sydney poetry tables
all wild and scary with your word-passion.
I didn’t know you were just uncaged,
feeling your wings, and we both grew up alone,
but you were older, crazier, braver
and my voice still lost, imagining a life
outside my own loneliness in the country of the Dark.

You read too much, you talked too much,
you lived too hard till your feet finally caught again
in the oyster beds, as the river reminded you
there was solidity in a grandfather past.
I live in a watery place too, both solid and fluid,
my body and soul laid into the land so each mound of me
fits a silent bog-dip, each curve cups a rufty hillock.
Burnished wrack rings Seal Bay with amber
opposite salt-white coral strands and stone,
the grey of dolphins, with a hundred times the memory.

Your ‘speaking page’ is the Hawkesbury River
I travelled over as a kid on the Wisemans Ferry punt,
imagining I was travelling with the three wise men
walking across water. Bodies of moving water have had me since.
You make it a place we can all come to anytime,
feel the ‘serpent’s breath’ even if never spotting it,
learn the miracle of oysters, of oyster-catchers – man and fowl –
the rich unfiltered flow of river life. I envy that belonging.
How torn my own sense of it. Yet here I live inside the natural, ‘same as that’.
And birdlife here in the Irish west grows more plentiful each year.

Even the great Golden Eagles of Ireland Yeats never saw –
symbol of wisdom and power for the Druids –
are resurrected, three pair mating in Donegal.
Most birds travel long, long seasonal paths, rejoice in both flight
and landing, then take off again, different in nature and colour
from those wild reds and yellows that blaze my eucalypt alive in Jan Juc.
I can offer you music though – curlews wheeling along ribbons
of song into myth, no more than the creaking wings of
white swans before they glide into my lough
fingering the rushes for danger, their feathers for stray skin.

Skylarks climb vertically, levelling off to barely hover,
singing melodies flute-clear for twenty minutes.
Stonechats call each other in the percussion of two stones struck –
you think you’re kicking rocks walking. Kestrels, wrens, robins,
cobalt blue-tits, pheasant heads red among the reeds, massive seabirds,
magpies evenly marked with white splayed wings black-tipped,
that never repeat in their tunes, all harmony, brains working in halves –
one asleep, the other wakeful, alert. Most amazing are cuckoos –
unwooden – chameleons of the nest, male giving out the call
while he waits on her great deception.

Life is full of confusion, but holding onto beauty
in the natural gives our watery presence a firmer grip.
I think of that old table, typewriters, inked fingers,
and am glad that your keen bird’s eye
is still fishing for poems that grow fat
along the Hawkesbury banks and deeper in.
Golden Bird of poetry. Irreplaceable.
I think of your hair whitening to the chalk of oyster shells
and I like that. Better to age than to go missing.
It would be a terrible loneliness, if you were not in this world.

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Invisible fields
from the sequence ‘Four Poems on Love’

after Iarla Ó Liónard

One small, one larger below the house,
loughs at evening hold a late blue light
while crumpled earth around of stone and tufty bog
gathers dark in. They dare not shiver, these land-laps brim-full,
nor splash their unshed droplets across reeds
still as stick and straight in a breathless dusk.
Slyne Head lighthouse adds the beat from my suspended
heart to its own, its double flash my only compass point
toward the wide coal-black sea between us.

Your voice was so close in my ear I cradled it with the phone
as if you had breathed across my cheek in sleep
as you once did not long since, bodies hot with the sweat of love,
springy fur of your brown skin lit by the silk of me. And yet
you struggle to hold me in memory til I return?
How is love then to know whether to stay or go from the beloved
when life must be more than love alone?

Iarla Ó Liónard sings his mellow sean nós across the dark now
melancholic ache moves through invisible fields of land and wave.
Coming from old voices beyond a remembered past
his Irish more deep and sweet and mellow than mead,
he raises from the dead all old loneliness,
to cut-in bright as sharp-edged moon piercing the body of night,
scarring a pathway into water fresh and salt, sharp as the
sting of missing you, and I too am weary of lying alone, alone,
I am weary of living alone.

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Resistance, always

I call upon all Serbian women to give birth to one more son in order to carry out their national debt. Serbian Politician, 1991

They won’t do it, Mothers for Peace,
standing solid as scarred stone in the city centre
chanting for the war to end, their sons to be returned.
It is 1991, and their soldier boys are still soft with youth.
Compulsory training, a thing you do, then get on with life.

One year into the war, fifteen hundred Serbs demonstrate
in solidarity with those resisting the war elsewhere.,
but you never see these on the our tv screens.
‘Don’t count on us’ the crowd chants.
Half a million anti-war bodies sit in the centre of Belgrade.

They walk together in a March for Peace around parliament
where deaf politicians rewrite the rules of nationalism
planning a path so far from the intent of many
that Bosnian Serb military courts will have to issue
two-and-a-half thousand warrants for army desertion by 1993.

Unions hold strikes against increasing shortages, job loss.
Women in Black stand weekly vigil in the Republic Square,
silent and cauled. Sometimes they lie in a circle, feet to the centre,
spokes of a stilled wheel ringed by white daisies
their hearts the size of black suns.

Colour will die on them as the sons of too many states
are mauled by the creature of religious certainty.
Each year for seven years, they appear
with banners and posters stridently raging
‘Not in our name’ and ‘Pamtimo’ – Remember.

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On the beach

Bozcaada Island, Turkey

There is a bride in glorious white froth, laughing,
her black Turkish hair a net of breeze,
new husband stumbling on the rocks grinning, because
after the photographer leaves, she holds a selfie-stick.

There are two women friends, Meral and İlknur,
ambling, chatting, looking for deep-sea fossils set in stone
to embellish İlknur and Şefik’s home he builds nearby,
its stone and tiled beauty emerging from his hands, his dream.

I trail behind, head down for the small shells,
Trivia Levantina only to be found here on Bozcaada,
exquisite false cowries, tiny ridges ringing them,
their tail canals rose-pink or purple.

There is a giant ship, Egyptian, looming
into a white sun leaving the sky pink with ebru clouds
trawling across the tankers far out and strobing towards us.
Its name is ‘Mercy God’, a kind of hopeful prayer.

Shipwrecked last winter, ferocious wind drove it ashore
sideways onto this beach, then a grimace of cold sand,
its cargo of onions rotting for months,
a stench to banish all but the desperate.

Such strong women, we joke as I film my two slight friends
leaning on the ship like tiny ants pretending to push it out,
its hulk now home to crabs, birds.
Up near its prow you can just make out Arabic for ‘Allah’.

Tiny shoots are rising like small green wings
out of the golden dunes nearby. ‘Watermelon’, you tell me
‘someone’s been having a picnic’ and yes, they will grow
and the fruit will come for summer. ‘You will be here’.

On the way back past the darkening hull there is a faded lifeboat
seal-grey with orange fluoro trim, it is half buried now.
I had almost missed it, so much sand on its torn belly.
‘From the ship I imagine?’

‘No. Syrians’, you instruct me, suddenly grim,
and the way you accent it – Surians – takes me a minute to realise
in horror, sea now swallowing a sun burning orange with its last breath.
‘They tried the sea, they did not make it to Lesvos’.

I am told like a child barely able to grasp meaning.
Beside it sits just one shoe, a man’s strong walking shoe,
faded brown suede, its many laces salt-stiff.
My eyes are pegged to it, cannot leave it. I am glad there is nothing else.

On Lesvos, women are beachcombing too.
They collect children’s clothing washed up.
They itemize, they clean them for those who might still come,
who survive crossing ‘the sea of death’ that gulps them by the boatload.

Included in the debris from almost three thousand dead in the Mediterranean –
a tiny pink long-sleeved shirt with boat neck, for a girl, size 3 months;
small black stretch pants with nylon sequined bows knees, size 2 years;
a pair of sky-blue heavy fleece pants, for a boy, aged five.

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*‘Crossing the sea of death’ Carol P. Christ, Lesvos, https://feminismandreligion.com/2015/11/02/ crossing-the-sea-of-death-by-carol-p-christ/. So far more than 2,600 migrants are known to have died crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in 2015, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Death at sea, Sep 3rd 2015, The Economist

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Island harvest

for Ruairí & Marie-Thérèse de Blacam, Inis Meáin suites and restaurant, Aran islands, Ireland

Eating periwinkles requires the harvest,
back bent under a slate sky,
seawater, green as jade,
wet sand sloping to the wrack,
Ruairí lifting weed, molasses-dark and heavy
on an island so wild its rock
rises from the ground in jagged slices
striating a sky crazed-blue.

Eating periwinkles requires garlic,
white wine, swift heat,
Ruairí white-aproned,
a toothpick or large safety-pin,
a wrist to slide, twist and connect,
a heart willing to try
winkles, herbivorous, small as a
baby’s thumb, that graze on weed.

Eating periwinkles risks addiction
to the shape of conical shells in the palm,
spirals banded in fine threads of chocolate
and celandine yellow heated to downy-brown;
to a taste on the tongue of ocean secrets, and
the sense of having entered an old world
where edible sea-snails are keys to a labyrinth.

Eating periwinkles on Inis Meáin risks
not wanting to turn for home.

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The Vulnerability of Individuals in the Face of History: Lisa Gorton launches ‘This Intimate War: Gallipoli/Çanakkale 1915’ by Robyn Rowland

This Intimate War: Gallipoli/Çanakkale 1915 by Robyn Rowland and translated by Dr Mehmet Ali Çelikel, Five Islands Press, was launched at The Wheeler Centre Melbourne by Dr Lisa Gorton on 2 March 2015

This Intimate War‘What is history?’ E. H. Carr asked in his 1961 lectures at the University of Cambridge. ‘What is an historical fact?’ By what process is ‘a mere fact about the past transformed into a fact of history’ – made to express, more than all the other multitudinous facts of the same moment, the meaning of what happened? No poem can change the past. But a poem, if it is strong enough, can change the way in which we remember the past – our own, or our culture’s. It can change the kinds of facts that we notice. And when it changes the kinds of facts that we notice in the past, it changes the present, too.

In This Intimate War: Gallipoli/Çanakkale 1915 Robyn Rowland has entered the field of history. She has taken on the role of shaping how we perceive the past. I have read her collection many times now. It has come to live in my mind. Its many telling details, and its approach to history, have become intrinsic to my way of thinking about Gallipoli and Çannakale. This Intimate War will work in this way on those who let it. This collection brings home the vulnerability of individuals in the face of history.

thank heavens

faith is everywhere like bloodied green grass,
flying stone, screams of thousands in the din of dying,

sweet jesus, allahu akbar, mary mother of god,
yes sir, sergeant, commander, captain, lieutenant,

necessary as breath when the voice screams attack!
obey, obey, obey, smother that tremble,

fling your body over the trench-bank, charge!
feel your friend run beside you, grunt, drop,

run, keep running, forward, push those legs,
remember those childhood races, the prize,

bayonets are gleaming in the bright sun,
fields of starlight glinting before you so lovely,

waves of light moving towards each other,
the sound of cymbals? no, god NO!

the shock of his eyes up close,
stink on his breath – fear – and lunge in,

up under his chin to the spinal cord,
steel dulled, crimson as faith,

sweet jesus, allahu akbar, mary mother of god,
it wasn’t needed for long.

This, the first poem in the book, takes the reader immediately into the onslaught. Rowland is interested in history not as a narrative framed by retrospect, the perspective of safety, but as a present imperative force in the lives of individuals. The very inwardness of the poem’s point of view gives the voice of the poem a frightening, shifting intimacy. ‘Fling your body over the trench-bank’. Are we who speak the poem commanding someone? Are we hearing someone commanding us? Or is this someone speaking to himself, having internalised the voice of command? Who is vulnerable, who is safe? ‘Up under his chin to the spinal chord’. Who has died? Has the poem stepped back, is it recording the death of its nameless protagonist; or has this protagonist, who might be us, killed someone else?

Such shifts of perspectives, worked into the details of this poem, are essential to how this collection represents war. How does the voice of command enter into the lives of individuals? Does the idea of victory in war depend on stepping back from the nameless dead? On the facing page, the poem is translated into Turkish. A killed soldier, and a killing soldier: this poem belongs to both sides of war. I have no skill to comment on the translations; but having the poems in both Turkish and English is central to the idea of this book. Turn the page and these languages touch each other as the dead of that war are joined in death.

In a later poem for child soldiers, ‘Children of Gallipoli’, Rowland writes:

Every country had them. They left no wills,
no children to grandchildren, no mark on the earth
but some fading photo. If there is no stone for them
their brief breath vanishes into the vapour of history
unremembered. Just the image of a boy
dead in the trenches…

The poems in This Intimate War draw on private testimonials. The collection quotes, for instance, the letter that a boy called Hasan Ethem wrote to his mother, a letter smuggled past the censors hidden in a sardine tin. The poems in This Intimate War work with individual names, with quotations and recollections. They remember particular single incidents: how ‘General Sir Bryan Mahon, a Galway man/ had a tantrum when he didn’t get promoted, resigned and/ headed off to an island, leaving his men under fire,/ and no-one game to pull us back without command…’; or how James Crozier, twenty-one year old Belfast boy, fell asleep in a farmhouse and was shot for desertion. The poems in This Intimate War consider the lives of women: mothers, nurses, lovers, munition workers: a photograph of seven women pouring explosives into shells; a recollection of England’s ‘Canary girls’: ‘their yellow skin shining/ brighter than flares, orange hair a badge of courage/ as TNT poisoning sank its toxic glow into their flesh…’

Rowland quotes Patrick Shaw-Stewart: ‘Think of fighting… on the plains of Troy itself!’ Not only in such references to Homer, but also in her sequence about war artists, ‘Ways of Seeing’, Rowland shows her reflective interest in the ethics and aesthetics of representing war. Of Major L.F. S. Hore she writes: ‘the smallness of his paper allowed such intimacies with landscape, such smallness of citizenry.’ Of Sidney Nolan she writes, ‘His landscapes have no aerial views. He sat among the ridges, bluffs and valleys’. Intimacy, citizenry, close and involved perspectives: these are values that Rowland’s collection embodies. The poems in This Intimate War consider war not from the perspective of victory but from the perspective of those caught up in war, who, whichever side they were on, lost.

– Lisa Gorton

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Lisa Gorton writes poetry, essays and fiction. She is the poetry editor of ABR. Her latest collection poetry Hotel Hyperion was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards and Western Australian Premier’s Prize for Poetry. Her awards include the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal, Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize and Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry. Her novel The Life of Houses has just been published by Giramondo.

This Intimate War Gallipoli/Çanakkale 1915 – İçlİ Dışlı Bİr Savaş: Gelİbolu/Çanakkale 1915 is available from http://fiveislandspress.com/catalogue/this-intimate-war

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