I owe a great debt of gratitude to the Irish painter Eamon Colman. When we were discussing my writing a commissioned essay around his works for Thaw, at the Oriel Queen’s Hall Gallery in Wales in 2018, he encouraged me to read the poems in Paula Meehan’s Geomantic. That encouragement was the beginning of an erratic but compelling journey into the writing of women who are contemporary Irish essayists and/or poets, starting with Meehan and Leland Bardwell (the subject of Colman’s elegiac painting The Poet’s House), and moving on through Evan Boland, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill to Grace Wells and Doireann Ní Ghríofa. (I am not indifferent to the work of male poets. John Burnside’s poem about towns in the Scottish Borders region, Out of Exile, with its ‘Shadow foxes running in the stars’, always deeply moves me). All this poetry has, however, returned me to the important relationship between Ken Kiff’s work, that of the many poets he admired, and the folk tales he read and illustrated, and so to a whole tradition of work that connects with what animated my concern with deep mapping.
Imaginary Bonnets With Real Bees In Them is the title of a collection of three essays by Paula Meehan, given when she was the Ireland Chair of Poetry at University College, Dublin. I am now reading it for the third time and it has become a great source of encouragement to ‘dance [I am quoting Meehan quoting Camus] “beyond hopelessness and beyond hope”’. What else can we do now, in this time without compassion, of chronic and still deepening incivility? In short, Meehan provides me with a necessary counterweight to what I think of as my “professional” reading. (The gap between my “personal” and “professional” selves and their reading is, however, still bridgeable by books like Kerri ni Dochartaigh’s Thin Places).
My “professional” self finds it difficult to avoid despire, reading as he does books such as Bella Bathurst’s Field Work: What Land Does to People & What People Do to Land, Jennie Hayes’ Focus on Farmers: Art and Hill Farming, Corinne Fowler’s Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural England’s Colonial Connections, Nick Hayes’ The Book of Trespass, and David Gange’s The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel. Books that have ensured that I now cannot but see the uplands of the North Pennines or the Cheviots differently. Like all the rural space of the United Kingdom, they now appear to my “professional” eye primarily as the sites of bitter contestation on which a workable environmental future for the countries of the British Isles will depend.
If I am honest, my “professional” self would have to say that all the signs suggest to me that Jem Bendell is correct when he claims, in his paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy, that we are in all likelihood facing societal collapse as the result of the long-standing and chronic abuses of our environment. Abuses inseparable from our current psychic and social situation, housed as we are within a culture of possessive individualism. That view can only be reinforced by the recent confirmation of what many of us have long suspected: namely that Exxon, like so many big corporations, while publicly claiming to support action to address these abuses is, in actuality, doing everything in its power to hinder an such action.
There are so many reasons for me to relish Meehan’s Imaginary Bonnets With Real Bees In Them. Here is just one. The poet Glyn Maxwell insists on making an absolute distinction between poetry and popular song lyrics. And in his own professional terms he’s no doubt right. But I’m always more curious about where things overlap, or can’t be contained by the academic habit of insisting on categorical differences. So I’m with Paula Meehan, who started out writing both poems and song lyrics; who learned some of her craft from listening to Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, Joni Mitchell, John Mayall, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Van Morrison. Paula Meehan who tells us she sang Denny’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes? after the musician and poet John Borrowman’s funeral, and added two lines of her own. Maybe my refusal to accept any categorical separation of poem from song lyric is intellectually naive, but it seems to me that the Meehan who had just left childhood and refused to make Maxwell’s distinction, would become mother to the poet and essayist who helps sustain me today.