Saturday, January 21, 2012

Pearse Hutchinson's 'Watching The Morning Grow'

Kilmac Co Wicklow: Coffee & Sugarloaf

I read Pearse Hutchinson's obituary in this morning's Irish Times, having first learnt of his death a couple of days ago (Ian Duhig posted one of Hutchinson's poems as a tribute on Facebook). 

When I first began to write poetry in the 1970s, Pearse Hutchinson was an important discovery. His poems meant a great deal to me, and still do. In 2006 Peter Sirr, who was editing Poetry Ireland Review at the time, asked a number of poets to select a 'crucial' poetry collection to write about, one that had had a significant influence on their work. I chose Pearse Hutchinson's 1972 collection, Watching The Morning Grow. The essay I wrote (first published in PIR 87 in August 2006) is reprinted below:

In the early 1970s I discovered the Eblana Bookshop, near the top of Grafton Street. Inside, poetry was the Good News; the latest publications were arranged near the door, on the ‘altar’: tiers of narrow shelves designed to prop them with the covers facing out, like a display of pamphlets inside a church.

My school poetry anthology, Exploring English 2, had given me a tantalising glimpse of contemporary Irish poetry in Thomas Kinsella. But browsing these shelves I came across, for the first time, such poets as Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney, Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin, Michael Hartnett, and later, from across the water, Philip Larkin’s High Windows.

The first collection I bought was Pearse Hutchinson’s Watching The Morning Grow. The cover was striking, a boldly emblematic flower linocut –– appropriate, since flowers are a recurring and important motif.

Heaney has described Hutchinson’s poems as ‘first footers, coming to the reader with personal news to tell, keeping him “in the presence of flesh and blood”.’ The news was certainly personal, candid too. Watching The Morning Grow broached feelings I had yet to come to terms with: the underrated importance of friendship, gentleness and human warmth, openness to other cultures and people, an invigorating  sense of solidarity with anyone brave enough to do or say something that rang true.

The first two stanzas of the opening poem, ‘Ringing the changes on Mistral’, recall a local custom, whereby a child was brought round the neighbours, given

a couple of eggs,
a cut of bread,
a grain of salt,
and a match-stick,

and told to be

as full as an egg,
as good as bread,
wise like salt,
straight as a match.

As with some of the other poems, it is like a little prayer, exhortation or memo to the poet (and, by implication, to the reader).

Hutchinson is comfortably at home in several languages, among them Irish, French, German, Spanish, Catalan and Rumanian.  In a poem like ‘Ode to the Future’ this linguistic freedom, and the array of characters from different cultures and countries who make brief, epiphanic appearances and utterances, could seem rather bewildering to a monolinguist such as myself. But the rhythm was never less than compelling,  and the voice trustworthy, someone for whom these languages were pulsing, alive. As ‘Ode to the Future’ puts it:
“whenever I smell a rose I hear / a trandafír breathing”  (trandafír being Rumanian for rose).

The second poem in the book, ‘Gaeltacht’, made inroads in my imagination that remain to this day. It begins:

Bartley Costello, eighty years old,
sat in his silver-grey tweeds on a kitchen chair,
at his door in Carraroe, the sea only yards away,
smoking a pipe, with a pint of porter beside his boot

The portrait, from pipe to boot – taking in the sea – is startlingly complete. I am reminded now of other iconic portraits, from Montague’s poem, ‘Like Dolmens Round My Childhood, The Old People’ or Mahon’s “lamplighters, sail-makers and native Manx speakers” from ‘A Dying Art’ (another of those first, inroad-making poems).

Some of the most memorable phrases are delivered in Irish (translations given in the notes at the end of the book). As one of the characters says, ‘Labhraim le stráinséiri. Credim gur choir bheith ag labhairt le stráinséirí.’ (I speak with strangers. I believe it’s right to be speaking with strangers). Here was my country as I had never experienced it: exotic yet down-to-earth, a dream-territory that did not seem too out of reach to come to terms with; and the Irish language  (that had sent me to sleep in school), out in the open, free of chalk-dust and nationalism.

Perhaps my favourite poem from the collection is the third last, one of the apparently simplest, ‘Bright After Dark’. Each of the three stanzas is a vivid bat-swoop into a different country, unnamed except in the notes at the back of the book. Superstitions are relayed as facts, thus:

In the first country,
what you must do when the cow stops giving milk
is climb, after dark, a certain hill,
and play the flute: to kill your scheming neighbour’s curse.
If you can find a silver flute to play,
the spell will break all the faster, the surer.   
But silver is not essential.    But: the job must
be done after dark:
otherwise, it won’t work.

It isn’t always necessary to ‘load every rift with ore’. What makes this work, what gives it its rhythm and hypnotic music, is its prosaic, halting, matter-of-factness. Even the odd punctuation plays a part: those colons, like dramatic pauses.

If, as Helen Vendler suggests, poetry ‘insists on a spooling, a form of repetition, the reinscribing of a groove’, ‘Bright After Dark’ embodies that movement in each stanza, each country, each setting-out. And it ends perfectly, with a directive to ‘…drop / grains of maize for whoever comes after you: / for only maize can light the way on a dark night.’ So the poem’s talismanic brightness shifts from incantatory music to cinder/guardian angel and finishes in an imaginary ellipsis, a trail of light-seeds.

Hutchinson’s collection was one of the first that gently but firmly shook me, and woke me up.


Tom said...

I loved this wonderfully appreciative and evocative post, Mark. I haven't read him in decades, but you've sent me back to his work now, and I'm very glad you did.

Mark Granier said...

Thanks Tom. I remember you saying you liked it. Looking forward to 'Maren' and the new short story collection.

Anonymous said...

Years ago I lived on a small island off the Connemara coast and I was so poor I had to ration my radio batteries. But I always listened to Pearce Hutchinson's Sunday Miscellany on RTE, his warm generous voice filling my little cottage with poetry, observations, this and that. And how lovely to be reminded of Eblana, a place I remember with great fondness. A lifetime ago, now. Thank you for such a beautiful post.