Poetics in Motion

By: deborahsc

Nov 17 2007

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Category: Essay, Irish

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  Cnóc an Fhía

Níl aon duine ar bith le feiceáil
timpeall an sléibh.
Agus in a dhiadh sin
tá macallaí agus
fuaimeanna daonna ann.
Le breacadh an lae
teann solas os cionn a ghleo|
go dtí an choill thiubh
     ar ais aris ag lonrú
     ar an rós caonaigh

Deer Hill

Not anyone at all to be seen
about the mountain
and yet, there are echoes and human sounds.
With the break of day, light
from above the din
comes to the thick wood
     back again, shining
     upon the rose moss.

Poetry lives through the ages. It may live a normal lifetime if lucky, finding its way into the minds of the current residents of a local area, country or in this age, a world-wide cybercommunity. If it is strong, it may live on in anthologies to be read by generations of secondary school students who are instructed to familiarize themselves with the best of past cultures. These “best” selections, of course, are relative to the committees who make these anthologies “required reading”. Many voices are conspicuous by their absence. In my college days in an all women’s liberal arts college, we would say, “male and pale” and look in places other than the reserved reading section of the library for some of our models.

And today I find my chance to dialogue with Wang Wei with the brush of my ancestors and it becomes more a group discussion than dialogue as I open the dictionary to the layers of meaning and magic.

I start with Gary Snyder’s 1978 translation. And I begin diving into the two green ponds of  O’Donaill and De Bhaldraithe (my Irish dictionaries). I can fairly easily translate the “story” of the poem, but I know so well that every word is a choice and conveys a particular meaning. Irish is a very exact and exacting language. The structure seems to flow fairly easily-the first line in Irish is almost conversational. “No one at all, at all” would be a common expression. The use of “about” has a resonance to a term in dancing “timpeall an tí” about the house. So no one being there might imply that it was a place where there had been people-to be seen. And it follows then that echoes and human sounds are there-to be heard. I consider New York Irish speakers would recognize the world macallaí as it was the title of a weekly column in the “Irish Echo” by the late Barra O’Donnabháin about Irish history. I choose not to translate empty. It doesn’t seem empty. I consider lonely, but I don’t want to put a human characteristic on the mountain. I like the word for lonely uaigneach which has the root for grave and one could consider whether it was the Tuath de Danaan that might be the voices!

The second verse begins with a well-known expression for daylight, the breaking of day breacadh an lae. Another choice would have been fáinne an lae, the ring of day giving the circular idea of sunrise and sunset, but I prefer the idea of “breaking and entering.” Fáinne an lae is also the name of a popular tin whistle song. The voices of the past are there, forming the din. Though the mountain place is empty, the spirits are there The light comes to the thick wood. I chose thick rather than Snyder’s dark.

The last part gives me pause as I can not visualize clearly the green moss, blue moss, black moss or lichen as it is described in other translations. I find the definition for moss as caonach related to covering stones and peat moss (portach) in the moorlands. Neither one seems to fit in with the mental picture that I have of this mountain place. So I choose rose moss, also known as portulaca. I read that the flower comes out in sunlight. It seems to fit in with the poem as a new story is coming to me.

Actually it is an old story and that is why I named it “Deer Hill.” A number of years ago, the Irish language group, Daltaí na Gaeilge, had its summer week in an old mansion near Peekskill, NY, called Deer Hill. For a good number of years this had been a special treat for those learning Irish who could come to a more relaxing locale with better than usual amenities. However, the place closed and the week came to the Marist Brothers Retreat House in Esopus. It has been at this location for about four years and we hope will continue here.  But it is more deeply the connection to the community of Irish speakers that has developed that lies at the root of the poem and in the human sounds and echoes.

Many of the Irish speakers who are leaders in Daltaí na Gaeilge today came from Ireland as quite young adults in the 1950s making their homes here and sending money back to their families. They kept their traditions going by forming Ceili groups for dance and Feis for youth dance competitions (pre-Riverdance). Music classes were held in homes for accordion, tin whistle and flutes. New York itself boasts of a number of champions who have won titles in the Fleadhs in Ireland. Joannie Madden of Cherish the Ladies is one example of such an education.  But Irish language has always trailed behind the other cultural marks of Irish identity.  However, Daltaí na Gaeilge, begun by almost 30 years ago by Ethel Brogan, an immigrant from County Armagh, has brought clú agus cáil  respect and recognition to the efforts of this all volunteer organization. 

During the year, three immersion weekends are held in Esopus, NY and Jameson, PA. In April there is a special weekend for fluent Irish speakers on Long Beach Island. And there is the week at Esopus at the end of August. Members of Daltaí often support immersion weekends and Irish Days by volunteering as teachers at these events at Iona College, Catholic University in DC, Butte, Montana, and Ontario, Canada, and buying landshares as part of the Permanent North American Gaeltacht in Ottawa. The last weekend had participants from Montana, Texas, Canada, and County Kerry, Ireland. It was announced there that the Irish Government through the offices of Eamonn O’Cuiv T.D. Commissioner for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has funded Daltaí 25,000 Euro over the next five years in order to continue the hiring of teachers from Ireland to instruct the volunteer teachers in the best methods of adult learning and to continue to grow the scholarship program.

I have now been part of this group for ten years having found it after a trip to Ireland when I discovered that Irish was a unique language! It is a special kind of community where I have learned that people who I thought were born knowing Irish had learned the same way I have-weekend by weekend and class by class. I have thrived by their generosity and have listened to their stories. I am at the crossroads of Irish and Irish-American culture and sometimes they are not the same. I see the old ways of self-deprecating humor and understatement, I see the new rhythms of Afro-Celtic fusion. I see some of them wince. Yet I hear their politics and I realize that I have  put on them a conservatism that was not there. Many of them are socially liberal and very Catholic. I am now part of their lives. This morning I get an email from Eibhlin Rua (Eileen with the red hair) about our friend and teacher Sean who is stablized following surgery for a malignant brain tumor. He is awake and complaining. I am here in Newark thinking about the empty mountain but hearing voices and I recognize Himself.

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