The Return of the Buffalo
Moy poet Deirdre Cartmill releases a new collection partly inspired by the Native American experience
The Return of the Buffalo is the second collection of poems by Deirdre Cartmill, a heartfelt, funny and at times harrowing book that finds the Moy-born poet examine a bracingly wide and diverse number of subjects.
The collection has a maturity to it – a sense of artistic confidence. It reads like the work of a poet who is pausing to reflect on how far they have come, how the present tallys with their childhood hopes, and the prospects that lie ahead.
There is a candour and playfulness to much of The Return of the Buffalo, a bittersweet sense of the vagaries of life, of chances missed, of the sudden tragedies, and the unexpected joys, that swoop in and give hope from nowhere.
Cartmill is a poet undaunted by examining even the darkest of emotions. There is no subject off-limits or situation too delicate to explore, to describe, to understand and finally learn from. Is there a point when something experienced suddenly has the potential to be a poem?
'There is usually two moments in the process for me,' Cartmill observes. 'First when I see something or feel something and I have a physical reaction to it, like being punched in the chest.
'I know then that this is going to lead to a poem. But I carry this around inside me until I experience something else entirely unconnected and suddenly there is a click when the two moments blend. This is when I get excited and grab my pen and capture that initial rush of adrenalin.'
There is a deep sense of loss Cartmill's latest collection, of physical bereavements and a longing for a vanishing world. Yet this longing is contrasted with episodes highlighting how unexpectedly joyous life can be.
'As the book progressed I did stop and do some soul searching, and I asked myself what I was trying to achieve,' Cartmill explains. 'I consciously decided then that the collection would be about hope, about the moment when things turn around, the light after the darkness.
'I felt emotionally crushed for a couple of years with one loss after another, but things always do get better eventually. I do believe life can be "suddenly, unexpectedly joyous". I love those moments of magic and I'm glad I managed to capture some of that in the poems.'
Halfway through the book, we take a detour to Paris, one of those great moments in a poetry collection when the reader is transported via the poet's ability to evoke foreign lands, proving Cartmill's versatility and scope in the process. Cartmill chose to write about the French capital for various reasons.
'I suppose the contrasts within the city. I love the sense of majesty and quiet dignity that seems to be infused into the buildings, but then there's the noise and chaos of the streets and the slightly frenetic feel to the Parisians themselves.
'We spent hours walking by the Seine and I've always loved rivers. Maybe that comes from growing up on the banks of the Blackwater. Water, rivers, the sea, they're everywhere in my poems, and I don't know why. It's obviously a rich seam of imagery, but it's more than that. I can't seem to escape it.'
The poem in question, 'Four Days in Paris', runs for four pages, and is one of two longer poems in the collection, along with 'Healer'. 'Some poems are just asking to be given that space,' Cartmill adds. 'I sometimes feel each poem already exists somewhere out there in the ether and that it's my job to uncover it bit by bit, to discover the form it already inhabits.
'The main challenge I find with long poems like 'Healer' and 'Four Days in Paris'is that you're giving it this extra attention. There is that feeling that it's building up to something. So there is an extra emphasis on the endings. It's very difficult to finish these poems and I've spent hours agonising over those last lines. You have to hope you've done them justice.'
The title poem was also inspired by a visit abroad, this time to San Francisco and a trip to the prison island Alcatraz, where its rich and surprising history sparked off certain feelings that Cartmill had about her own past living in Northern Ireland.
'Alcatraz was the site of a Native American occupation in the 1960s. As I listened to the story of that occupation I grew very emotional and actually ended up sitting there crying. It was really about a people finding their voice, finding their dignity and pride, and a new way of being in a changing society. I felt such strong parallels with my own life here in the north.
'Later I discovered the beautiful Native American myth that says that the birth of a white buffalo calf is a sacred sign, which will herald in a new age of hope and healing, and the first sign of this new age will be the return of the buffalo population. So these two ideas fused together into the poem.'
2013 has also seen the release of Cartmill's first foray into screenwriting. Her short film, Two Little Boys, directed by Ryan Tohill, was screened as part of the 2013 Belfast Film Festival.
'I had a wonderful experience with Two Little Boys,' Cartmill beams. 'Ryan just got what I was trying to say instantly, and that doesn't often happen with directors. I was lucky with Ryan because I felt from the start that we were both trying to make the same film and trying to make the best film we could.
'I also feel extremely lucky that actor Shaun Blaney accepted the part. He tapped right into the main character of a traumatised soldier returning home to a nationalist area and a troubled family situation. It's a very character driven piece, so a lot hangs on the actors and they all did a great job.'
Like all writers who spend so much of their time alone – agonising over each new word, each sentence, plot and sense of place – Cartmill found the experience of the premiere daunting but ultimately satisfying.
'It was a fantastic experience to see it on the big screen at the Belfast Film Festival. I have to admit I felt quite proud of it, but also humbled because then you see all the work everyone else has put into it, too. I don't think I'd realised how intense a piece it is until I saw it up there.
'That's a bit like my poems, too. I don't realise some of them are so intense until I get someone's reaction after a reading or a collective gasp from the audience, and that's a bit scary. But you just have to keep going and let the poem do its work separate from you as the writer.'
The combination of poetry and film work proves Cartmill's versatility as a writer. To have her operating in both fields can only benefit worlds that can sometimes feel distant and exclusive. Her work is vital, accessible, with a voice and passion all its own. Readers should welcome her return.
The Return of the Buffalo is published by Lagan Press and will be launched on September 24.