the burning bush
number 5
spring 2001

Editor: Michael S. Begnal

ISSN 1393-8312.

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Beyond Tradition: The Wild Honey Poets Michael S. Begnal

Robert Archambeau, Another Ireland (essay). Wild Honey Press (1997)
Randolph Healy, Scales. Wild Honey Press (1998)
Randolph Healy, section in etruscan reader VIII. etruscan books (1998)
Trevor Joyce, Without Asylum. Wild Honey Press (1999)
Trevor Joyce, Syzygy. Wild Honey Press (1997)
Billy Mills, A Small Book of Songs. Wild Honey Press (1998)
Maurice Scully, Prelude. Wild Honey Press (1997)

    Back in the very first issue of The Burning Bush, the Editorial Note posed the not-so-rhetorical questions, "Where is the experimentalism? Is there an Irish underground?" See, here's the thing: Irish poetry seems to be so dominated by its mainstream tradition that that which might loosely be referred to as experimental or avant-garde is largely ignored and rarely pursued, despite such luminous antecedents as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Thomas MacGreevy. Instead, it's all about conventional form and what Robert Archambeau, in his essay Another Ireland, refers to as "the nationalist-regionalist tradition" (exemplified in the twentieth century Yeats-Kavanagh-Heaney axis). That's one of the reasons why this magazine was started. Interestingly enough, there were active experimental poets in Ireland all along, their low visibility the result of exactly that sort of establishment apathy.
     Many of these native Irish experimentalists are published by Randolph Healy's Wild Honey Press. The above-listed poets, along with Catherine Walsh (whose idir eatortha and Making Tents are published by Dublin press hardPressed Poetry), form the nucleus of a group that has been working, often in obscurity, for decades. Only recently have they been getting some degree of notice for their efforts, meriting (for example) a relatively large section in John Goodby's recent Irish Poetry since 1950: From Stillness into History. The latter would make a good introduction for the uninitiated, as does the Archambeau essay. For the work of these writers can sometimes be difficult-but then, writing that challenges the reader's understanding is often the most satisfying in the end.
     Randolph Healy shines some light on his own methods in the Introduction to his 1983 collection 25 Poems, reprinted at the start of his section in the etruscan reader VIII. Healy here makes plain his interest in the "dynamics of meaning", stating that "meaning, far from being something static, locked within a particular set of words, becomes mobile and culturally dependent". Though this sort of talk sounds dangerously close to deconstructionist Theory cant (which often seems intended to separate the text from its author, a dubious proposition), when used as a statement of a writer's intentions, applied to his own writing, it works fine. Later Healy continues, "the consequent evolution of the meaning becomes part of the theme itself". Or, as put in one of his many philosophical poems,

Because their senses register
only zero to five per cent of the world [...]
it is hardly possible for them to be
anything more than inaccurate ("Change & Response").

Just as our reliance on our limited senses dictates a subjective understanding of the world, so is our language limited in its expression of the world:

M-A-N
spells and remains separate from
man ("Poem in Spring").

Thus these poems do not pretend to accurately convey the "thing-in-itself", but instead reflect the process of human comprehension. Often they are couched in logical or scientific terms, like in "Envelopes", or sections of the long poem "Arbor Vitae" (which uses deafness as a metaphor for the relativity of all language systems). Again Healy explains why: "so that a critical atmosphere, rather than a dogmatic one, prevails".

     Not all of Healy's work is so concerned with the scientific. "Jim", for example, is very lyrical in tone, despite the specification of "Cambrian rocks,/massive quartzite, breccia," etc. Even stronger is the quasi-Beckettesque personage of the poem's title. Nonetheless, Scales (one long poem in 14 sections) continues the theme of perceptual subjectivity. It begins by raising the question,

When it happened
in an inaccessible space
in parallel with a configuration of neural states,
was this itself part of the happening?

i.e., if the brain is a physical organ in which minute physical processes occur each time we see, hear, etc., does this not then also become part of the action of the event we're seeing or hearing? It is, therefore, impossible to divorce the viewer from that which is seen. With Scales, it's impossible to divorce the reader from the poem. The reader's own perception becomes part of the action itself. Here Healy expertly explores various different means of understanding, and different ways we have of processing information. We are continually made aware of the act of reading through the blacking out of certain words and phrases of the text, a device that increases in frequency as the poem moves along. The effect of this is that the reader is forced to either guess at the missing words or to supply his/her own meaning to the passage in question. It is ultimately futile: the final section is nearly all black blocks.
     Trevor Joyce too is concerned with the act of reading, but his style is somewhat different than Healy's. Syzygy comprises two sections, "The Drift" and "The Net". "The Drift" takes a line from a Pablo Neruda poem, several historical references, a phrase from a financial newspaper ("an exposure to the tune of several millions"), and other varying bits and pieces, and uses them as starting points for a long, surrealistic poem. These "found" extracts, placed in different contexts, take on new meanings. In "The Net", the words of "The Drift" are reformulated again along the lines of a cancrizan, a palindromic medieval musical form (according to the author's notes): "the drift having been established, the identical voices are intermeshed to weave the palindromic net". The impression on the reader here is not unlike that created by the cut-up technique used by Dadaists such as Tristan Tzara, and later writers like William Burroughs. The reader is aware of a certain disjointedness, yet a subconscious logic still prevails. Joyce's technique could also be likened to the modern-day process of sampling (in hip-hop music), where a short excerpt of an older song is actually placed into the mix of the new piece at key moments. His use of the Neruda bit serves a similar purpose to that of a sample-on the one hand he is making reference to the older poem, showing his influences and giving props, while at the same time the Neruda line recontextualized actually takes on other connotations in this new work.
     Joyce's Without Asylum is a truly astonishing poem. Picking up on the theme of "exposure", this piece (composed of 21 four-line stanzas and one final line) begins with the jolting image of a knife becoming bird:

true we may surmise
how a knife hatched
out of meat
should fledge

The poem uses highly surrealistic language as it wends its way through the horror of modern society "where tellers and their firm/controllers fight to reconcile/accounts..." Though consumerism (the religion of our time) promises

shelter from the fall
asylum from the edge
a luminous domain
unbounded

we are ultimately left with "only a sustained bewilderment". The language used and the heightening of the pitch towards the climax leave you stunned at the poem's final line. It's the kind of virtuoso piece on which reputations are built. Hopefully (but who knows), Without Asylum will eventually garner Joyce the recognition he deserves.
     Among the works under consideration, Billy Mills makes one of the few direct references to Ireland (or to "place" generally) in his A Small Book of Songs. In the first section, Mills contemplates Phoenix Park and the Wellington Monument. Though some might wonder why this obelisk to British imperialism was spared the fate of Nelson's Pillar, to Mills it is "a monument to mutual incomprehension". Ireland, since Southern independence, is "a country enacting the long inevitable slide/into mediocrity..." This provides the backdrop over which personal experience can occur. A Small Book of Songs is perhaps a more personal work than some of the others. Among other things it is concerned with memory, which is not only personal but inherently faulty. However, in an echo of Healy, "mind invents structure". Continuing along these lines, Mills refers to Heraclitus:

step in the river
feel stability
& flux     words bend
under such pressure

Yet, despite all these questions of language and epistemology, Mills is writing an affirmation of life, love, sex and reproduction: "waking this syntax bargain/love before language: stories/exact this essence call softly..." Running through the last half of the book are variations on the line "our sleeping children", and a paean to the wife/lover that approaches the lyrical. Breath, finally, is "an organising principle", as Mills gets real elemental.
    Archambeau places particular emphasis on Maurice Scully's Heraclitean world-view, quoting him as saying, in a paraphrase of the ancient Greek philosopher, "There is nothing static in the world". Even seemingly impervious stone yields to a vine plant in Prelude's "The Pillar & the Vine":

the tendril travelling
& the leaf with it
hacks at the

pillar [...]

Most of this piece is written in three-line stanzas, except in two places where the lines break up in disorder, serving to shake the reader out of pattern-induced complacency. "Stone" exhibits an even stronger sense of intentional randomness. Prelude is the first book of the five-book Livelihood. Judging by the extract of Book III which appeared in Metre 5 a while back, Livelihood becomes more personal-autobiographical even-than its Book I. Like most of the Wild Honey poets Scully prefers to work on an epic scale, not only in reflection of the complexity of life, but also, as Archambeau says, "out of an aversion to the idea of the poem as closed system".
     To those more comfortable with the dominant tradition in Irish poetry, all of this might seem a bit esoteric. But it would be wise to remember that, in his own era, Heraclitus himself was known as "the Obscure" and "the Dark One of Ephesus". 2,500 years later he's still being read, and his surviving work is just as significant now as ever. Despite the many great poets it has produced, the mainstream is no guarantor of longevity, or even of relevance. The Wild Honey poets have, in a sense, circumvented the mainstream tradition, and in doing so have been free to take Irish poetry places it has rarely gone before. At the same time, both Archambeau and Goodby postulate the existence of a sort of parallel tradition, citing Beckett, MacGreevy, Brian Coffey and Eoghan Tuairisc as forebears of the current generation of experimentalists. In any given time or place there will be those who form a literary underground. Perhaps it has been less the case in Ireland than elsewhere, but this only makes the work of the Wild Honey poets (and others) that much more important.

Michael S. Begnal