Shearsman Books ($15)
by Harriet Zinnes
To consider the poetry of the contemporary Irish poet Trevor Joyce one must start with a biographical fact: Joyce stopped writing poetry for about 20 years. And the reason was not biological: he did not have a strange disease, a fever, a loss of memory or a loss of intellectual rigor. Indeed, the silence was the result of a distinctive intellectual rigor. He could no longer write poems where, as he has noted, "all that is significant crystallizes in a perfection of plot and motivation, and all the rest, wanting any real brush with language, retreats once more to ground." His attack of a perfect plot and motivation was the consequence, he is saying, of a reluctance to come to grips with language. Just as American poets, and certainly not only the Language poets, emphasize language today, so does this Irish poet maximizes its importance.
As a result of the emphasis on language in the later work of Joyce, there is an avoidance of the Irish lilt, its more obvious lyricism, and a dominance of linguistic texture, a texture of sound, not easily comprehensible, filled with ambiguity and with the dexterity consequent of an admirer of John Cage, Samuel Beckett, Adorno, and Benjamin. Yet when John Cage wrote, for example, such a line as "A piece of string, a sunset, each acts," that successive juxtaposition, because of a musical coordination somehow pleases the ear and the poetry does not perplex. But this is another century. Globalization has taken hold. The old substance of poetry is gone. Love, loss, friendship, nature may still be written about by some poets but poets who see a world on the edge of chaos and disaster must break for it, must take language and pull it apart, render it with distortion, assemble its syllables from texts rarely before the matter of poetry. And here is a poet who wishes "to work comprehensively with the world which I inhabit." He must therefore pull his sentences together from regions remote from poetry, regions that are explaining the new world. Hardly a Billy Collins, more like a Bruce Andrews, he writes, "Damaged, we bleed time." Time is no longer floating. It does not flow. We are its warriors: "We bleed time." Even the mouth of the innocent "is like a bowl of blood."
American readers can now read Trevor Joyce's work in an edition collecting work from 1966 through 2000. The title is provocative: With the First Dream of Fire They Hunt the Cold. A bit perverse? Yes, Joyce is hunting the cold, namely, paralysis, death, not fire, passion, life. This is no Romantic writer. And we are all living in 2001, where fire is not passion but bombs, war, and hate. Even the poet's early poetry reveals a poet who though he observed nature closely he cared little for the material world, for he saw it as cruel and strange, a world that made the human observer uneasy because all was unfolding toward death. Even speech he saw as "a broken bird on stunned wings."
His recent poems, for example, the 1999 long poem called Trem Neul (meaning "through my dream") contains what the English poet Douglas Clark notes as "vaguely impersonal voices emerging from a Galway landscape." The poem mixes prose and verse facing each other but not in any way complementing or explaining each other. Its language is as in Joyce's poetry frequently difficult, leading to a seeming nowhere or to an incomprehensibility that seems part of the very meaning of the poem. The poet's dream is filled with the illogicality of today's world. How could the syntax, the flow of language be anything but a blur of sound, of a sound of unknown or at least of unusual meanings? Here is a page that is characteristic:
I sat there, my heart beating If you be not wise
shaken by what had happened, for then have
are we not all prone to error, all (bitter)
strangers at home? As the language memories
changes course through time, a pla-
cemame gets stranded, parched, cut May you not have
off from the stream of meaning, until the memory
another inundation reach, reinter- of the deer
pret and reanimate. The sound may
have to be bent for this to happen, It is my earliest
and the first sense left for ever irre- recollection
coverable, or the stuff of books, Quite unexpectedly
though locally, as stuff of lives, it
stays a name, a pointer (maybe mis-
leading) to the place.
Yes, quite unexpectedly, there is another Joyce of importance.