Catching the Light

Inspirational collection of essays and musings from Belfast poet and literary critic Gerald Dawe

In recent years the poet and critic Gerald Dawe has been engaged in organising, collecting, revising and expanding much of his critical work, teaching at Trinity College Dublin and producing, in between times, some fine volumes of poetry. 

This industrious re-organisation began with the publication of Stray Dogs and Dark Horses: Selected Essays in 2000, continued with his 2007 collection The Proper Word: Ireland, Poetry, Politics and took in My Mother-City from the same year, which provided a locus for Dawe’s autobiographical, cultural and political musings – through the prism of Belfast itself. 

The whole process has been a necessary act of literary desk-tidying which, along with much expansion and new work, gathers together writings originally collated in Lagan publications from the early to mid-1990s (including the well-titled 1991 volume How’s the poetry going? Literary politics and Ireland today). 

The present volume collates articles and interviews which originate, for the most part, from within the last ten years. Catching The Light: Views and Interviews (published by Salmon Poetry) brings Dawe’s literary housekeeping right up to the present.

The book is divided into three sections. Part one consists mainly of essays and reviews. Dawe’s eclectic interests are reflected in subjects ranging from Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac to Francis Ledwidge and Isaac Rosenburg. Some of these were previously published in academic journals. Others, which appear here for the first time, include the intriguing ‘Travels’, an essay which joins literature and place by means of the haphazard logic of personal association. 

So, we have Amsterdam and Anna Akhmatova’s Way of All the Earth (‘… with pillows stacked up behind me, the window wide open, the buzz of the hotel’s neon and the white strip-light above my head, I sank into Akhmatova’s world, her passion and grief …’). Switzerland is paired with DH Lawrence, while, altogether more predictably, Kafka is joined with Prague. 

Japan remains unmediated, maybe unmediatable (‘Japan is quite simply like no other place I’ve ever been to; it’s utterly compelling …’) His comments on Swiss train travel and architecture leave this reader wondering if Gerald Dawe wouldn’t do well to fit in some more extensive travel-writing. He has an eye for detail and an engaged sense of openness which makes him seem a natural for the genre.

One of the most effective essays in the collection, ‘Moon’s Corner’, intertwines place, biography and literary reminiscence. The piece first appeared in the Irish University Review as part of a special issue on the dramatist, critic and author Thomas Kilroy. Much of it is concerned with Galway, home of the subject and also to Dawe for many years. There are homes within homes - on Kenny’s, the Galway bookshop and institution, Dawe writes:

‘Kenny’s was the backdrop; the fulcrum. My books were launched there, numbers of magazines edited were sent on their way; the walls of our different homes had paintings bought from Kenny’s. Older artists were rediscovered, new friends made and met, strangers introduced, interviews conducted, photographs taken, luggage and messages left, drink consumed, rumours heard, first editions bought, borrowed, lost and found; afternoons spent ‘perusing’, evenings begun, weekends brokered, highlights installed in the memory, guests entertained, lives lived. ‘Would you like some tea?’ I turned from the bookshelves … ‘Tea?’ ‘Yes, I always have a cup of tea around this time. Lemon tea. And you can borrow that if you like’. A rare edition. It was Mrs Kenny, a conductor, behind her bureau … ’

Sadly, Mrs Kenny died a few years ago. The bookshop, as it was, has also passed on. It exists now in cyberspace, a web-based store, with Kenny’s art gallery occupying the building on Middle Street. 

Dawe is great at writing about places. Of course, writing of place is more often than not writing of the passing of time. ‘Moon’s Corner’, remembering a night in Gort, County Galway, ends: ‘For some reason, that night made me think of how the time had flown since I arrived first, like any stranger, asking for directions.’

The place these writings insistently return to, however, is the Skegoneill area of north Belfast in the 1950s, Dawe’s childhood home. 

The manner in which the relatively cultural diverse area of the writer’s memory (Dawe’s neighbours included an Austrian woman and Jewish families alongside Protestants and Catholics) was scarred and reduced by sectarian conflict, is a subject which Dawe returns to throughout the essays and interviews. This focus gives the collection an autobiographical feel, as personal anecdotes gradually accumulate. 

The structure of the book emphasises this aspect. As the second part consists of various interviews held with Dawe over recent years, readers might find themselves crossing familiar territory once too often, as different interviews converge, inevitably, on the same topics and preoccupations. 

In a related point, it’s a shame that an excellently produced book is let down by occasional lapses in proof-reading – though minor errors may be inevitable in a collection comprising of numerous essays and transcribed interviews.

But these are minor quibbles with a very good book. Dawe’s literary criticism and observations on his own craft are always acute. Writing on poetry collections, for example, Dawe states:

‘The understanding that a book of poems can be shaped and given an imaginative pattern is also becoming a thing of the past. The interlinking and crafting of a poetic order – be that in visual terms, tone of voice, an aesthetic – is more often than not viewed, when seen at all, with suspicion… there is a sense in which the power of association, the accumulation of these sounds and images bring an added dimension to a poet’s work when it is gathered into a single ‘volume’. That added dimension is elusive and it cannot be manufactured at will. The reviewer (and reader) whose appetite is more for the quick hit can miss it altogether.’

Or on the emergence of the Belfast ‘group’ of poets in the late 1960s, early 1970s:

‘It should be understood more as an extraordinary moment of literary achievement and historical coincidence than as an example of some kind of inherent cultural identity just waiting to happen.’

Reading Dawe’s criticism, you realise that it is increasingly rare to find such a wide range of good points being made about writing in such a readable manner. Catching the Light is highly recommended, as are the last three collections of cultural and literary criticism from this particularly thoughtful and attentive critic. Together they form a body of work that is at once necessary and highly readable. 

Ross Moore