Chris Agee

The American poet talks of loss and commemoration at the Ulster Hall

There is something quaint and a little bit earnest about attending a poetry reading in the middle of the day. And yet, poetry, being distilled and often bite-sized, is exactly the sort of thing to consume on the hop.

The Ulster Hall’s Literary Lunchtimes series have featured writing of all kinds and specially themed events for a number of years, but this month is the turn of poet Chris Agee to read from published and unpublished work.

Agee’s speaking style is natural and conversant, with a great deal of poetry in it. He is writer-in-residence at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, and is working on a series of essays, reviews and prose about the Balkans, as well as Irish and ecological topics.

Agee begins by expressing his appreciation for an audience of any number turning out for a poetry reading during the day, indicating correctly that the size of an audience does not necessarily relate to the importance or value of the experience.

Such an introduction is necessary, even in a fairly intimate venue like the Group Space, to draw listeners together, metaphorically if not physically. It is even more so on this occasion, as Agee begins by reading from his collection Next To Nothing, published in 2009 as a response to the death, in 2001, of his daughter Miriam.

Agee prefaces the poems by saying how difficult he finds it to read them, a body of work which he describes as a kind of un-looked-for gathering of words that formed despite the emotional root of the poems. 'The idiom of emotion,' Agee argues, 'is not language.'

The first poem is 'Depths', a long litany of sorrow following the months after the child’s death. This calendar of grief references other events, among them 9/11, which occurred later in the year of what Agee refers to as both apocalypse and catastrophe; the end of Miriam’s 'brief but exquisite life'.

The title poem of the collection considers the offering and receiving of condolences, and in it Agee reveals a thread that connects a number of the poems: a sense of a man who has learned much through loss, and for whom the questions generated by that loss multiply and will never be answered.

The low light in the Group Space at midday creates a subdued atmosphere, and although the equalisation of the microphone is wrong for Agee’s voice, we have no trouble hearing. Yet Agee's American accent and robust physical presence is slightly at odds with the delicacy of the language he deploys in the poems.

He speaks of his admiration of TS Eliot and poems that divide along lines of ‘in with’ and ‘out with’ approaches; subject matter that comes mainly from internal or external influences and inspiration. The poetry works well when read aloud, with descriptive passages and taut, beautiful juxtaposition of words.

'Trout penned in dappled beauty' near a river, 'doe-eyed flakes' of snow falling on Grafton Street, 'tears of night rain' on the stump of an almond tree. There is a sense of connectedness to season, nature and light in the work.

Other themes in Agee’s poetry come from a long association with Croatia and a keen interest in the Balkan conflict and its aftermath. He introduces us to the village where his family have a house with a poem about small items left by villagers at each others’ houses as a sign that they have been there. These tokens are often an indication that the person needs or want to see you.

Agee’s poem describes one such token, a folded piece of paper with 'neither name nor note', unidentifiable, as if left by a ghost, resonating with his belief that people you have lost continue to exist, sometimes only in memory but often in real terms.

Agee’s new, unpublished poetry collection, provisionally titled Only, Always, continues to explore themes of loss and change, incorporating events and locations that clearly resonate for him. His experience of being in Sarajevo at the end of the conflict there, for example, and his occasional visits to the resulting and on-going tribunals in The Hague inspire poems that, while still concerned with loss, speak from a somewhat more detached vantage point.

He describes visiting Srebrenitza, an 'amazingly bereaved landscape'. The resulting poem, 'Summer Plums', is vivid, pastorally descriptive of a place where a bumper harvest of fruit and corn is set against the absence of men and boys, lost in the 1995 massacre there.

Agee also talks about the way in which poetry comes to him, describing works that form instantly in his head, or small ‘micro-poems’ that emerge to the page almost as stream of consciousness, so numerous now that they have formed an epic. Each begins with a word that he described as a sort of 'pulse into the poem'.

He ends his reading with a poem entitled 'Snow in Dublin: Epiphany'. In it, Agee reveals a sense of personal movement, perhaps away from grief, or possibly towards another understanding of it. In the poem, he speaks of the 'beautiful heart-manna' of an extraordinary fall of snow covering 'the old world of my defeated days'.

The Literary Lunchtimes series of readings continues in the Ulster Hall, Belfast throughout 2014.