The idea of poetically mapping Belfast was most brilliantly essayed by Ciaran Carson in his Belfast Confetti (1990), where asterisks on the map signifying explosions and dead-ends were more than geographical.
The Community Arts Initiative banner at their Ulster Hall launch of A New Belfast Poetry Map proclaims ‘New Voices/ New Hope’ and a ‘NEW BELFAST’. They have done much to popularise poetry in the city, and yet Programme Director, Conor Shields, admits that ‘the poetry scene in Belfast is perhaps not as vivid as it once was’. Can the poetry map kick start a new beginning?
They have certainly marshalled a formidable army to make the attempt. No less than 122 poets organised by north, south, east and west assisted by six facilitators advance upon the reader in rhyme, free verse, and haiku.
'Many of the poems,' as the press release reads, 'were collected via public submission; many others were conceived in community centres, libraries and cafes through workshops conducted by resident poets'. So, the organisers have clearly met their objectives of community involvement and inclusivity, but what about the poetry?
We open with Michael Scott’s ‘Keeping Belfast in Motion’, a potted history of advances in the sources of power, but the danger now is ‘aimless motion’ at a time when we are ‘questioning precisely where we are going’. The answer apparently is that our ‘artists and poets… must move us with the power of their emotion’.
I am not so sure that they do. For all their marshalling by place, I get a sense of loss of place. This is particularly true of poets coming from working class areas. There are sentimental memories of childhood games of ‘marlies, pirrie, and whip’, of Mickey Marley’s roundabout, Desano’s ice cream, women doing the washing, and men returning from the yard when the siren sounds.
There are exceptions: Helen Eccles remembers sailors seeking out prostitutes on the ‘sleet-slimed street’ in Sailorstown. Patricia Devlin-Hill in ‘Inflictions’ recalls the trauma of a no warning bomb. Jane Bailey is distinctly upbeat in ‘Love on the Shankill’ where ‘it seemed that blue skies would forever shine on this empire’, but Lily Smith describes a communal disaster in ‘Who Stole the Shankill’.
There are visits to granny's house with its fresh green paint and polished brasses, but granny is dead now. Even if the map remains the same, old certainties die. Mary Ringland tells us how ‘mill workers… squinted up the road in blind deference’ to Holy Cross. Now ‘Almighty Tesco’ is ‘a less demanding God’.
The old way of life has been replaced by a more amorphous and often suburban existence. For Natasha Cuddington Belfast can be ‘a godforsaken place’, and Mary Burrows laments, ‘I’ve been in this house two years / and I still don’t know the names of the people next door’.
In the city centre the City Hall flower-sellers have vanished. The Variety Market is threatened by the internet. The conviviality of the Capstan Bar of old is replaced as ‘Evocations of Comber, tales of Aughnacloy / Burst into life on the coffee scented air’.
Shopping is king, and no longer in the distinctive emporiums of old, rather as in Laura Bailey’s ‘shopaholic’ rhapsody for the culturally anonymous Castlecourt. Over it all the Albert Clock still presides as a symbol of our endurance.
The Parks Department will be delighted by the number of poets who escape to Belfast's green spaces, though surely we have to get beyond the fact that they are green, or that that sky can be blue, and the abilities of butterflies to fly or of children to play.
I particularly like Bill McKnight’s suggestion that ‘Summer has tilt-switched. / Twigs and branches’ and the atmosphere of ‘Trees seethe in the breeze. / Belfast enjoys an uneasy ease’.
Brenda Liddy contemplates the regal immunity of the swans on the Waterworks alongside the memory of the 600 Troubles dead in the neighbourhood, but now ‘they conjure up a folk tale, / where Siegfried and Odette break the curse/ and live happily ever after’. Ruth Carr is less sure beside the now unpolluted Lagan; ‘Forty years on, it is clearing. / So much loss silts the mouth/ you can hear the river grieving’.
Conor Shields makes a brave attempt to pull it all together with a last poem. He achieves an authenticity of languages, and a Belfast rat-tat-tat of discourse. This depends on counter posed propositions as in ‘Hill and lough/ Heaven and hell/ Hymn ‘n’ her’ which are true to the challenges of the place, but the justification for his rallying cry, ‘Arise Belfast’, is less obvious.
I am reminded of a recent remark by Michael Longley on Arts Extra. He thought that there was ‘too much poetry around and too few poems’. It is of course absolutely unfair to judge new writers from the community by the standards of Longley or Carson. Inevitably this is a mixed bag, and one not helped by over-arching claims for it. There is plenty of poetic mapping still to be done.
The accompanying DVD provides recordings of 35 of the poets, and a map offering a city centre walking tour with the poets is available at www.newbelfastarts.org.
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