DeVry University, Long Beach, CA, USA
by John L. Murphy. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
The Origami Crow: Journey into Japan, World Cup Summer 2002
byÉamon Carr (Dublin: Seven Towers, 2008)
ISBN 978-0-9555346-5-2 (case bound);
978-0-9555346-6-9 (perfect bound).
Two poets from Irish departures enter Matsuo Basho’s path. Basho (1644-94) inspires Carr and Howard towards reconciling the mundane with the profound. Basho, known for what Carr calls “the most famous lines in Japanese literature”, wrote in one haiku these three: “Ancient pond — / Frog jumps in/ Water-sound”. Drummer, lyricist, and ‘conceptualist’ for the Irish electric-folk rock band Horslips, after an earlier stint with the poetry collective Tara Telephone, Carr shares with Iowa-born, upstate New York-based Professor Howard a long career in verse. For both, the East lures these Westerners towards a calmer perspective grounded in nature and forbearance. Although this is Carr’s first collection, compared with Howard’s sixth, both men bring to their slim new volumes a broad range of experience travelling through Ireland and abroad. They integrate popular culture, the toll of aging, sport, and pleasure into their recollections made largely in tranquility.
Carr, now a sports broadcaster and cultural commentator, leaves Dublin having planted seeds in his garden. He follows not only Basho’s footsteps but the kicks of the Irish World Cup team during their initial matches in Japan. Roy Keane’s dramatic departure from Mick McCarthy’s national squad before the games begin devastates all who support the “Boys in Green”. The tension between the team’s predicament as underdogs and Carr’s own pilgrimage towards a quieter example of fortitude adds unexpected force to his summer journey.
In a series of prose-poems, Carr describes the sights and sounds of Japan, mixed with his recollections of the first televised match he saw, that of the soon-doomed Manchester United team many of whom would die in a 1958 plane crash in Munich. This in turn blends with the memory of his mother, dead from cancer then at thirty-one. Against such frailty, Carr strives to rise to the opportunity provided by his visit.
At the Takasegewa River, he watches the local folks float lit lanterns downstream “to console the spirits of their ancestors” (27). Where Basho honoured his own stay there, so does Carr: “I listen to the music the river makes as it dances over rocks that have been cleverly placed to create just such a symphony and notice how close the twinkling machinery of the heavens seems. I find a key to an ocean of calm beyond the nameless gates of the everyday”.
His life tracks the same direction on “the road under a full May moon”. As he continues across Japan, the matches go on and Ireland manages to pull two draws to survive in the competition. The team bus airbrushes Keane from its exterior image, “his form by now an ominous black silhouette. A dark star at the heart of the squad’s aspiration’ (53). Ireland battles on against the odds, and like Carr, perhaps knows that defeat, whether with his mother, ManU, or himself, may loom. Nevertheless, he does not stray from his mission.
His fellow countrymen may not share his direction. In Roppongi, thinking that our narrator heads for a pub, “a man from Sligo” joins him (55). Carr must correct him. He aims for an obscure shrine “where many of the samurai families once worshipped”. The next line tells us simply: “I’m travelling alone when I arrive at the shrine, with its grove of camphor trees and ginko”.
Frequently on his pilgrimage, Carr seeks the less-travelled road. He finds on “the wide swift Sumida River” where the old poet “began his journeys. This is the place to which he returned. This is ground he walked on. I sit beneath the basho tree and close my eyes” (67). There in the breeze he hears the same sounds Basho did “every day he sat here”. In the wind, “it’s a voice I recognise. A voice that calls across the fields, and the years, from among the branches of the trees in a County Meath graveyard”. There rests his mother, who died when he was a boy. He seeks for her poor body and great soul the epiphany that the “wind in the basho tree” grants.
Reminiscent of Joyce’s “The Dead” not with a general snowfall so much as a gentler rustle, Carr reaches the moment of insight. “It is then. It is now. It is beyond and outside time. There’s a growing luminosity. It surrounds a large bright vessel that’s overflowing with tears and with light for the world. Compassion and grace. For the dead. For those still living. For us all. For my young mother. And for that boy”.
Even if the Irish team had not achieved more than two draws and a win, Carr would have left them on his already charted direction home. The team went on to Korea, fought on to the last sixteen knockout round, but lost to Spain on penalty kicks. “The World Cup remains a dream” (73). His own dream more compact, Carr comes back to his Dublin garden to find “a fine crop of blooms”. He learns the same lesson from life as taught by Basho: “While travelling, everything seems temporary. — And of course, everything is transient. Like clouds in the sky, like flower blossoms, like football teams, nothing ever remains the same. — In this impermanent world, we should attempt to hold family, lovers, friends, and heroes in our hearts forever” (75).
By such clarity, Carr leaves on every page here a single haiku, surrounded by such reflections. These episodes do not strive for great drama. In the spirit of their Japanese inspiration, Carr avoids complexity. He aligns himself with Basho’s perspective; in the sights seen by Basho, Carr sees his own.
Leaf, Sunlight, Asphalt by Ben Howard (Cliffs of Moher, Co Clare: Salmon Poetry, 2009)
ISBN 978-1-907056-13-0 (paper). 69 pp.
For Ben Howard, Leaf, Sunlight, Asphalt extends this poet’s own Eastern perspective, sharpened by his own Irish exchanges. A critic of its literature and a practitioner of Zen, Howard places himself at the same crossroads that Carr meets. For Howard, however, Dublin represents not home as it does for Carr with his garden, but a reminder of a past literary glory and a present but elusive revelation.
“The Glad Creators» opens part one. He wishes he’d been born a decade earlier, “an able novice setting out,/ Equipped with confidence and cautious diction/ But all the same a lamb among those lions/ Who frequented McDaid’s and Davy Byrne’s,/ Reciting Yeats or Ferriter by heart/ Or bellowing invectives to the rafters/ Or sitting meekly with a ball of malt” (13). He conjures up Behan and O’Faolain, Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien, and Parsons Bookshop with “May O’Flaherty/ Who made a temple of a common shop” (16). Howard takes on his forebears but betrays no anxiety for their influence. He sizes up each lion, and returns each glance steadily.
“Dublin in July” contrasts South Great George’s Street, “this street that’s no more Irish than its name” filled with panini, tandoori, noodles, and “The cell phone bleating from a stylish belt” (20). Here, he asks: “What has become of that revered, imagined/ Dublin of O’Brien and O’Faolain,/ Its taste as Irish as a ball of malt?” It may be found in Liverpool or Boston or a pint of Guinness, Howard muses, but not among the traffic press of Vespas.
Evanescence flows through these linked poems as through Carr’s; both know their return to a place they sought will weaken their memories from what they have read, once revealed as real. Howard fondles his latest poetry volume in 2004, in a place with “bamboo screens suggestive of repose” (22). Yet, its name warns of a lesson learned by Carr. “The Samsara Bar and Café” stands in Buddhist teaching for “the never-ending/ cycle of birth and death, the end result/ of ignorance, aversion, and desire”. He contemplates his new book of verse, one more poet with one more added to a long line of Dubliners native and not. He recognizes a truer moral that tempers his morale, sitting in the café with “its sparse calligraphy replete with meanings/ well beyond my ken”.
From such moments of comprehension and mystery, Howard creates his contemplation. His verse moves firmly, as confidently as the “cautious diction” favoured by McDaid’s lions. Yet, as with Carr, Howard hesitates. He retreats from hubris. “Leaving Tralee’ finds: “As for the page/ I’m writing over tea too hot to swallow/ I see it as a sieve, through which the pungent/ odor of last night’s fish” from the clattering kitchen reminds him of the passing patrons in his hotel’s lobby, “and all the sights I have or have not noticed/ are passing to their final destination” (27). His yellowing journals remind him of an “aging hymn” and seem “no less formless than a jotted dream”.
Part two surveys his Midwestern childhood. “Original Face” takes on the Zen koan: “What was your original face/ before your parents were born?” (31). He concludes, after gazing at a photo of his mother and father on a canoe earlier in their courtship about “the son who can’t be seen/ but nonetheless abides/ somewhere in those waters,/ those high Midwestern clouds” (32). He anticipates, in hindsight, “all the hoarded thought of forty years together” that his parents shared.
For now, Howard recalls his own dimming childhood memories. For Carr, these filled with death: ManU and his mother. For Howard, they remain more innocent tastes and smells and sounds. Part three invites Thomas Merton’s “lucid silence” to continue such a return to purity. Howard lives near where Merton summered as a poet-critic himself before he entered the Trappists; Howard finds Merton’s hard-won wisdom elusive today. Like that English professor turned monk, Howard lingers within nature for solace. “One Time, One Meeting” (also the name of Howard’s spare meditations collected as his blog) summons in Zen fashion the entry of the ethereal into the ordinary. It begins: “Picking up the phone to call my son,/ I entertain the thought that every act,/ No matter how familiar or banal,/ Might be construed as unrepeatable/ And all of life as ceremonial” (49). Precisely, Howard as has Carr moves forward on his determined path, to blaze into the everyday a trace of the otherworldly, which in its own universality permeates life.
Life passing, mortality for both poets waits. “What I May Rely On” reads in full: “Turning into nothing, all those days/ Remain in memory as though their patterns/ Persisted when their dyes had long since faded./ Here is the morning sun. And here is dusk/ Consuming every tree on the horizon”.
It continues: “Turning into forms of which I know/ Only a little now, my own two hands/ Tell me that the bones beneath that skin/ Are what I may rely on to continue,/ Whatever may come of mark or wrinkle” (58). Howard finds in his body’s reduction to not skin but bones his own sign, a Jolly Roger of sorts to mark his sailing over another ocean towards a port he cannot imagine. Carr came full circle back to his Dublin garden to find renewal as the seeds planted on his departure grew into flowers. Howard circles too, within the persistent patterns of nothingness that endure far longer than any plant’s dye, lost in the diurnal glow of savage sun and altering night.
The collection finishes with “Right Livelihood”, on the occasion of his retirement from teaching. The speaker fumbles as he struggles to find for his professorial peers the proper tone. He refers to Philip Larkin, who called in his university appointment his supervisor “Toad”, but then opts for a more diplomatic, and Zen-like, address. He chooses ‘Frog’, but “not the frog that brought/ enlightenment to Basho” (66). He chooses a croaking hungry creature as his avatar. Seeking to ease aspersions rather than to cast them at his colleagues, he calms himself.
Borrowing “a leaf/ from Basho’s heritage”, he calls his collegial faculty by invoking the Buddhist injunction to Right Livelihood and Right Speech in hopes of truth. He seeks in his verse as in his valedictory speech a signifier “that indicates what’s there/ and never what is not;/ that waters seeds of joy/ and equanimity”, but one that in truth also calls out “greed and cruelty” when necessary. As with Carr who admires in the refusal to capitulate to defeat Basho’s own example of fortitude under pressure, so does Howard evoke the same haiku master’s heritage to guide him on a path less directly trod by the Japanese poet and his Irish follower, but one which whether in the streets of Dublin or the corridors of a college in upstate New York keeps to the same fidelity.