Drawn to the Magnetic North

Darran Anderson is attracted to the emerging NI poets of this publication

Ulster poetry has been a potent artistic force for decades placing our region in the highest echelons of international literature. And whilst still producing work of critical acclaim the elder patriarchs of Ulster verse are now entering their twilight years and the question must arise, who will come next?

Magnetic NorthProduced by the Verbal Arts Centre Magnetic North is a vibrant, eclectic response to this question and a dazzling show of strength by the next generation of Northern poets.

In his introduction Magnetic North’s editor John Brown sets out their aims in ‘creating new currents’ and ‘breaking complicit, sterilised silence.’ It is immediately, and thrillingly clear that something new is happening here. For these twenty-nine poets the elusive meanderings of old are simply not enough, they require responses to the 21st century beyond the traditional narratives of bog and stream and stone and do so by employing urban and post-modern forms of language and outlook.

Informed, but not imprisoned by their predecessors they have the craft of old but also a fire in them where once there was only stately detachment. Giving free rein to imagination and looking outwards towards the whole wide world they have redefined and rescued poetry in this corner of the globe.

Nowhere is this new ethos better embodied than in the writing of Chris Agee. As befits a traveller he is a citizen of the world invoking the spirits of Hiroshima, Mexico and the wandering Japanese poet Basho.

And yet even when contemplating the great universals his work is anchored in the Irish earth whether demonstrated in the unforgettable rustic image of ‘the lightning’s muse/in the dark labour of fungi’ from 'Mushrooming' or in the visions of 'Port Of Belfast' - ‘hung on a wall of Calvinist stars/the moon is a mottled goatskin bodhran.’

Using a painterly approach to words his writing has a mysterious quality lit up by occasional moments of devastating clarity and as the first featured poet he provides the collection with its uniting maxim, the aim of ‘embarking…on the dusty road to a deeper North’('Campesino').

In their brief moment of near-glory in May 1968 the Situationists scrawled graffiti on buildings all around Paris, one of the most memorable recurring expressions being ‘La poésie est dans la rue’ or ‘Poetry is in the streets.’ This concept comes to life in the writing of Paul Grattan.

His is not the poetry of idle contemplation or spurious transcendence rather his writing conjures all the fierce, indignant power and all the incisive humour that words can summon. From his nocturnal odyssey through the drunken streets of Belfast in 'The End of Napoleon’s Nose' to his indictment of a once-glorious health system left to die in 'In Situ', this is poetry with nerve and fire in its belly, fiercely working class and political yet without any trace of dogma.

It is simply contemporary verse in its most exciting form and heralds the arrival of a major talent in Scots-Hibernian letters. The highlight of a stunning selection is 'Descartes At Ibrox' a piece that manages to be both furious and hilarious depicting the collision of lowlife and highbrow, both of which are subject to ridicule,

Injuries were sustained as a result
of paper cuts to the left nostril, inflicted when said Hun
proclaimed Hume’s rebuttal of the French Man to be
epistemologically speaking, fucking out of order.

Equally impressive is the work of Downpatrick poet and playwright Damian Smyth. It is rare but liberating to read an account of The Troubles that manages to somehow avoid the tired old clichés yet Smyth does so in 'Tracks' with its remarkable account of a terrorist blown up by his own bomb at a racecourse, ‘He had shaved and showered as though meeting a girlfriend…but the bomb that woke the birds and set the hurdles blazing/left his bed in the morning unslept in. There was nothing/in the coffin.’

In 'The Celtic Invasions' he captures the mystic allure of Europe where ‘the lives lived…were always hours ahead’ transmitted from a long wave radio ‘reining us in by the screaming winches/of airwaves from Madrid and Hilversum’ where even the names of football teams are filled with romance and wonder ‘Dukla Prague…Dynamo Dresden…Grasshoppers Zurich.’

Yet it’s in his reinvention of the familiar that his greatest strength lies, casting an invigorating modern eye over traditional funereal themes, ‘bodies are coming out of houses in boxes/ smuggling technology into the earth - /pacemakers, fillings, artificial hips’ ('1987').

Religion and its various mutations arise in the work of Gary Allen, the great critic and cartographer of Ulster’s Bible Belt. Exploring the inhumanity of fundamentalist thought his god-haunted verse is filled with desolate biblical images: ‘eyes burning like Abraham’s’ ('First Love'), ‘the Antichrist… real among the broken farm implements’('Born Again').

Through the disturbing rawness of his descriptions (‘a pit-bull snapping a herd,’ ‘the great staring eye before the bolt is shot’) he evokes a land to which the compassion of the New Testament has never arrived, a land that follows the old brutal laws of an eye for an eye and thus languishes in the kingdom of the blind, a land ‘where we betray each other.’ And yet by their very omission a strange hope and compassion loom over each striking line.

A similar collision of the surreal and the everyday occurs in the verse of John Hughes. The dreamlike magic missing from the poetry world since the death of Miroslav Holub is gloriously resurrected from the vision of his grandfather throwing his lungs to a winged lion ‘that had been stalking him for fifty years/from the time he set fire to a Red Kelly barn/built to store the fleece of the Lamb of God’ ('Diesel') to the image of ‘the holy ghost…born in County Offaly’ ('Leaving Home').

His spectacular, unsettling poems culminate in ‘A Respect for Law and Order’ an ode to the horrors of a banana republic all the more disturbing because of the light-hearted lack of histrionics, all the while weaving myths into the everyday and the everyday into myths with sublime skill.

Language is not just a means of exploring human existence or bearing witness. On rare occasions language can be a force of resistance. Gearoid MacLochlainn’s poetry is one such rarity. His commanding verse concerns itself with the other worlds, the worlds that exist in opposition to the ‘official’ histories and territories of the state. Combining hope and tragedy his poem 'The Storytellers' conjures that ghost republic, the Ireland that may have been and may yet be but which presently exists only in the ethereality of dreams;

‘in that twilight zone, for one split chink of time/I’d glimpse the imminent republic in all its majesty/before sleep wiped it out…’

Not just a defence but a rousing assertion of the Irish language he condemns ‘the tongue/bound on the butchers block/in government offices’ and calls upon this other world in hauntingly beautiful language translated from the Gaelic original, ‘I am Johnny Dark, Creole/I wing through secret pitch-black passageways/beneath the broken city’ ('Second Tongue').

Just as enchanting is the work of Sinead Morrissey particularly the ambitious and moving 'Jo Gravis In His Metal Garden' in which the main protagonist creates a startling metal menagerie of celestial figures, a setting as enigmatic and spectral as Morrissey’s poetry itself; ‘When his women with aerial hair were done/his kettle-headed men stood guard against them by a river/of headlights and bicycle wheels.’

Colette BryceTo focus on these individuals is to only touch on a wealth of talent from the daring sensual odes of Cherry Smyth and the musical earthy humour of Andy White to the rhythmic lyricism of Collette Bryce and the dark poignant intimacies of Moyra Donaldson.

There exists a tendency to reward our icons only when they are safely six feet under. Instead we should salute the living, and as this dynamic collection ably demonstrates, celebrate the fact the north remains the heart of Irish, and indeed British, verse. And if we must be nostalgic let it not be for the past but for the future and those, like the northern poets, who are blazing a trail towards it.


Darran Anderson is the poet-in-residence of Dogmatika, www.dogmatika.com/dm/, and the editor of Laika Poetry Review, http://laikapoetryreview.blogspot.com/. He has recently completed his first collection of verse entitled Tesla's Ghost.