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Joan McBreen’s ‘Heather Island:’ It’s worth the trip
A genial down-to-earth woman from Sligo, she has enjoyed considerable success since then, both as the editor of anthologies and the author of her own poetry collections.
I just read the most recent volume of her poetry, Heather Island (Salmon Poetry, 2009).
It’s a quiet, gentle book with many of the poems emphasizing her love of nature and pastoral Irish settings. She writes about flowers and plants, children playing in a house with a history, and winter light.
Her poetry is relatively accessible and any reader should find some memorable lines. Most modern poetry is rather opaque for many readers, however, and Ms. McBreen’s is no exception.
I recently heard her read at Emory University, where she has donated some of her personal papers. (Emory has assembled a stunning trove of poetry and has become especially adept at collecting the papers of Irish writers and poets.)
The poems I liked best in this collection were, for the most part, ones I heard Ms. McBreen read. In each case before reading them, she gave a short introduction telling us a relevant fact or two about what we were about to hear or describing the emotions and life experiences she was dealing with at the time. Her book, like most poetry volumes, includes none of those telling details. Wouldn’t most poetry books benefit from them? This seems to be such a small concession to help widen the audience for poetry. But not to single out Ms. McBreen on this point. She and her publisher follow the same practices that most poets and publishers do.
Of the poems I am talking about, one of my favorites is “Ebertswil, Zurich,” which is about longing to return to Ireland from Switzerland. A reader coming to the poem cold can appreciate it on some levels, but not perhaps as much as those of us who have had the benefit of hearing Ms. McBreen introduce it.
“Winter Light at Lissadell” is a truly beautiful poem. But, again, knowing the back story, as those of us who heard her at Emory do, makes it much richer.
Readers who are much more brilliant and sensitive than I am might disagree with me. No matter what your view, some poems will work just as strongly without the introductions.
One is “In Memory of Louis MacNeice.” Ms. McBreen read it at Emory, but I think anyone will respond to her description of the Irish poet MacNeice reflecting on his mother:
Always he heard her voice
from night shadows —
a scent of jasmine
at the gate she opened
and walked through.
The poem I loved most in this collection is an even better argument for the no-introduction-needed position.
Titled “The Sea Pinks at Isla Negra,” it seems to have been inspired by Ms. McBreen’s reflections on seeing the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s desk at his Pacific Ocean home, one of three Neruda homes now preserved as museums in Chile. It speaks of the poet’s devotion to the sea, to his wife and to his verses. It also speaks to hope and love.
It makes me want to speak to love and hope, too.
I loved this poem. I also hope that Ms. McBreen, or any poet who can write so movingly, will have a long, happy and successful career.
Worthy of Comment
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