An Ear for Ireland
Language got here on a flood, dissolved, broken and battered smooth by unexpected turns. Oral traditions evolve through accretion — stories grow with each teller. Written traditions evolve through erosion. Take the poet Archilochus, whose remaining works exist only in tattered fragments, rescued — though ripped beyond resuscitation — from German mummy wrappings. Language, no matter which route it takes, seems destined for dilution. But was permanence ever the point?
The circling relation between the oral and the written reminds an observer of siblings — they are the same but different. This pattern of orbit is common to many themes in Angela Patten’s new collection of poetry, Still Listening. The book is divided into two sections. The first and title section collects memories of an Irish childhood while the second, called “The Country of Becoming,” details the Vermont adulthood of an Irish expatriate who, at the hands of memory and dream, is haunted by the past — sly and circling as a fox.
Still Listening has time in two places and words working double. The “still” of the title means both quiet and continuance. Patten takes such wordplay seriously. She uses oral Irish wit to her written advantage, simultaneously entertaining her reader with a game of words and hearkening back to the island she left behind. Look at the play in Patten’s poem, “How My Father Lost His Eye, September 1933.”
At school in the parish of Killbride
the boy at the next desk stuck out a boot
and knocked my father’s books awry.
The teacher, Father Cooney of the short fuse,
landed a slap, flat-handed, across my father’s face
with a crack of lightening and a shower of stars,
shattering the optic nerve of his left eye.
Ten miles to Navan hospital
on the crossbar of a bike,
his eye throbbing like the hammers of hell.
He never told a soul what happened.
Bad luck to speak ill of the clergy.
You’d never do a day’s good afterwards.
Did you realize what you did to him, Father,
or did you stay in the dark for the rest of your days?
After six weeks in hospital
he was ashamed to return to school.
Instead he fled to Dublin’s Eye and Ear
where a doctor plucked the offending blue
and returned him a glass facsimile.
They say an amputated limb can twitch with memory.
Do his two eyes gaze together in his mind’s eye?
A north wind off the sea hurts the empty eyeball.
Sometimes there’s an irritation he can’t explain
like sand in the socket, the gritty inception
of a pearl within an oyster-shell.
What bothers you, Father?
The odd lapse of memory or a twinge
of rheumatism before it rains?
I’m warning you, Father,
even in Ireland they’re questioning authority.
The others have my mother’s eyes but I have his,
and if looks could kill you wouldn’t have a prayer.
Patten’s own father and The Father, though opposites in anger, blur into the same symbolic character because they are homonyms. Sounding the same when they are heard and not read, “father” and “Father” must reveal their meanings by the context of the surrounding words. For a narrator existing in exile, there is no chance for an oral telling because the surrounding words, and the surroundings, are foreign. How curious then that an island famous for instilling the gift of gab produces an inordinate number of writers in exile.
What keeps a person tethered to her fatherland? Her mother? Her mother tongue? Patten rolls these three questions into one. The narrator’s mother is the vehicle for speech whether she is repeating a scolding or a decade of the Rosary. Mother becomes language. Ireland’s tradition of the spoken word is present in Patten as she draws from kitchens, pubs, the Catholic mass and an island people that are making a valiant effort to save their own language. Patten’s evocative poem “Emissary” mentions the Irish language and the problem of existing as a duality, a bilingual nation, an expatriate. The book is a mirror for the struggle between oral and written, Ireland and not-Ireland, childhood and adulthood.
The longing to exist in two places is nowhere felt as strongly as in her poem “Thatch Pub,” when the narrator’s sister, in a moment of nervous excitement, bites through her soda glass. How beautiful that, in a book concerned with oral versus written culture, the volta event occurs in a child’s mouth. Or perhaps it is when the full brunt of speech — the power of the oral — is cast in “Mornings on the Highway,” in which the narrator is told, “Your mother is dying because you left the church.”
These are not poems of Irish hardship in line with the brothers McCourt. Though it does have a narrative at heart, Still Listening delivers its tales through the shadowy, twilight medium of poetry, where solid objects and events play themselves and concurrently point outside themselves.
The oral tradition comes through in well-known patterns and formulas. The book is chock-a-block with domestic wisdoms along the lines of, “Whistling women and clucking hens always come to some bad end.” Sometimes such wisdoms come across as clichés, and Patten plays off them. She teases them, as in the above poem about the father’s eye loss when she threatens, “If looks could kill.” Or in “Without Redress,” where an actual red dress makes an appearance. Or in “Abandonment Blues,” where a poem that tells the story of bringing a stray cat to a shelter ends with the line, “You won’t catch me crying over spilled milk.”
Patten forces her reader to examine traditional language, but utilizing overexposed phrases has its dangers. Sometimes her succinct closures are too perfect, too tight.
The second section is a cycle of poems that takes rebirth, regeneration and return as its subject. “Another New Year’s Poem” is set on the 14th of June, when female turtles return to where they were born, ignoring traffic and lawn furniture to deposit their eggs in an underground nest. The poem reads,
There’s something enviable in this blinkered singlemindedness.
The rest of us dither and dissemble —
Should I stay or go? And is he worth it?
We ignore the first five laws of the universe
that tell us not to panic.
While Janus, the two-faced god of the new year,
laughing up his sleeve, looks for a long time both ways.
Neither stone-faced Janus nor the turtles allow for deviance from a pattern. Patten imagines a change. The book that begins with an ear for gabbing moves across the ocean to get away from that. In the second American-set section, Patten is more solitary, seeking silence, some space to write quietly in, but finds instead a rattling, a longing for sound. The lovely poem “Holiness” reads, “Your tongue lapping like water against stones/startles me into stillness.” This is quite different than the Irish tongue-lapping of her mother in an early poem, “tea-sugar-butter-flour-potatoes-onions-milk.”
Still Listening does not necessarily end where it begins — in other people’s voices. There is a return to sound, but it is not her mother’s shopping list, or even the litany of Irish priests that the reader hears. The final four poems look at, or listen to, music from a variety of new perspectives: a father and son’s singing voices meeting on a hallway stair; the songs of birds; country and western; the singing of blood. So at the end, the prodigal daughter returns altered, and in the sound of singing recognizes something that looks like home.