Words of the Grey Wind
A collection of essays 'of great poise and grace'
Words of the Grey Wind by Chris Arthur from Lisburn is a selection of essays, most of which are drawn from his previous collections: Irish Nocturnes (1999), Irish Willow (2002) and Irish Haiku (2005).
Despite some fairly glowing reviews of his previous collections adorning the cover of this edition, this publication was the first I had heard of Chris Arthur. This relative obscurity is probably due to his chosen medium – the essay – a neglected form in a publishing environment where marketability takes precedence over literary quality. It is easier to market a product which is neatly classified and the essay form remains more resistant to classification than other genres.
The first essay in the collection, ‘Kingfishers’, starts with a naturalist description of the bird, then uses the suddenness of their arrival on the observer’s consciousness ('a discordant eruption of sudden metallic colour against the muted greens and browns of their riverside haunts') as symbol of the manner in which quotidian life could rupture at any moment.
These ruminations lead Arthur from poetic description, through symbolic analogy, to metaphysical musings. The kingfisher’s flight becomes 'a bladed incision into the ordinary' where 'the mundane is unzipped and zipped up again, revealing things below the surface that are … suggestive of another dimension to things beyond our everyday routines'.
Along the way, during the course of this 19 page essay, Arthur links the kingfisher to both an aunt’s mental illness and a bomb blast in Lisburn, ponders the Buddhist theory of causation, and moves between family histories involving world wars and the loss of a relative in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. Ultimately, Arthur’s concerns are with time itself.
Many of the essays, despite their divergent routes, follow a similar method – detailed description of nature, personal or family history branch out into metaphysical contemplations. A myopic focus on an everyday item is opened out into a meditation on the spiritual or universal. Arthur’s language, while sometimes over-loaded, frequently conjures up striking metaphors and images. At times his language has great style. ‘Linen’, for example, opens on this gorgeously constructed sentence:
'From the faded photographs, which are all we have left of her, you would never guess what colour her eyes were, and so one of the most striking things about her is already lost.'
The essay continues with a detailed contemplation of the procedures of linen production, moves through etymologies of the word itself, and ponders the brutal social and economic history of its production. These lead to metaphysical musings with the personal threads evolving into a contemplation of history or histories.
Arthur’s sensibility is at once lyrical, moral and humane which causes John Wilson Foster, in the foreword, to reach for the poet Michael Longley as a kindred writer. Arthur’s interests encompass the linkages exemplified by chaos theory and Buddhist philosophy. The nature of mortality is a recurrent preoccupation. He wonders if individual voices defy mortality or if 'they disappear forever into silence, their uniqueness rendered altogether extinct and unrecoverable?'
These considerations on mortality can at times become ponderous, even mundane, as in ‘Meditation on the Pelvis of an Unknown Animal’ where he considers that 'Bones are an excellent acid test for the adequacy of any world-view. They provide an earthing ballast which prevent thought from soaring off …'
The only utterly unconvincing essay in the collection, however, is ‘Witness’, which deals with overhearing a 'terrorist in a second-hand bookshop' in Lisburn. It ranges from the melodramatic ('I didn’t want to return to the bookshop … To have done so would have seemed at least imprudent, if not perilous') to the surprisingly facile ('Did I see a terrorist? Or did I see a lost and miserable boy?').
In the context of this collection, these are slight reservations and, indeed, two of the volume’s most successful pieces deal directly with the fact of death. ‘Table Manners’ remembers two ageing great aunts who lived alone in a converted coast-guard station facing Sheephaven bay in north west Donegal. Looking out into the bay is the primary preoccupation of Mabel who spends days in the upstairs room where 'time seemed to have shaken off its quotidian moorings to reveal something of its true scale and unnerving nature'.
In contrast to this 'silent vigil' in an icy, dark room Aunt Bella spends her time downstairs 'turned towards the fireplace' with the TV or radio for company. The essay takes on a fairy-tale quality, one which is heightened with shades of Grimm, particularly when the title’s irony is revealed: Mabel’s favourite piece of furniture is a ‘coffin-table’, made to set a coffin on during a wake. The essay concludes, with a graceful ease, by meditating on the 'different ways our lives are spent' and the commingled time and generations.
‘Swan Song’ is an incredibly poignant essay in which the author contemplates and attempts to come to terms with intense personal loss. It ends unresolved, the author aware of tensions within his own world-view, yet on a balanced or at least resigned note: 'Knowing all the while that what we have to cope with is as resistant to our wish that it were otherwise as granite is to the whisper of our pleading breath upon it'.
The formal procedures of Arthur’s thought – the shift from the micro to the macro view, the shift between the personal and the universal – give these essays great scope. Occasionally, the very constancy of these formal procedures and preoccupations results in the essays feeling more predictable than they should. Overall, however, this is a very welcome volume which contains a number of memorable essays of great poise and grace.
Words of the Grey Wind is out now, published by Blackstaff Press.