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This article is taken from PN Review 72, Volume 16 Number 4, March - April 1990.

Padraic Fallon Seamus Heaney

To drive across Ireland, east to west, towards Padraic Fallon's native country Galway, is to experience a double sensation of refreshment and déjà-vu. The refreshment comes from the big lift of the sky beyond the River Shannon, the déjà-vu from entering a landscape which has been familiar for a century as an image of the dream Ireland invented by the Irish Literary Revival. Yet even a disenchanted critic, tired of exposing the mystifications of social and economic reality in that old Celtic Twilight of cottage and curragh, cannot fail to respond to vistas of stone-walled plains running to the horizon and shifting cloud-scapes underlit from the Atlantic. For in spite of the west of Ireland's status as a country of myth, the actual place can still waken an appetite for experience that is pristine and unconstrained.

All this affected the climate of Padraic Fallon's mind and art. The market town of Athenry where he grew up was admittedly more down-to-earth than Yeats's Ballylee or Lady Gregory's Coole Park, yet Fallon began as a poet by taking on the protective colouring of the Ireland which those 'last Romantics' had imagined. Its accents and its typical inhabitants appear, for example, in an early poem like 'The Waistcoat'. Nevertheless, the instructive thing about the Collected Poems* is the spectacle it affords of a writer gradully and consciously negotiating his way through his influences and managing, with a mild but ineradicable self-confidence, to cultivate his own voice and his own subjects. Fallon's oeuvre can now be seen to stand in secure and complementary relation to the achievements of Austin Clarke and Patrick Kavanagh; but its 'learned' tendency and later fitful Poundian impulses suggest that it was also susceptible to a modernist strain that entered Irish writing in the 1930s.

'Gurteen' was the first poem of Padraic Fallon's to make me take cognizance of the strength and importance of his work. It arrived when I was editing an issue of Soundings, the annual round-up of new Irish poetry which Blackstaff Press published for a while in the early nineteen seventies, and it was the first part of the triptych, 'Three Houses'. Before that, I had known Fallon's poems only slightly, from seeing them in the standard anthologies; but nothing which I had read ever brought me to my senses in quite the same way as these low-key, sure-footed stanzas:


I had no gift for it.
It hung out in the welter of the moor;
A black-faced country staring in

All day. Never did the sun
Explode with flowers in the dark vases
Of the windows. The fall was wrong

And there was uplifted the striking north
Before the door.
We lived in the flintlights of a cavern floor.


This was neither the 'slack string' approach to writing advocated by Kavanagh in his later comic phase, nor did it belong with the more sardonic and resistant tones of the mature Austin Clarke. It issued from a sensibility more temperate than Kavanagh's and better tempered than Clarke's, and if it was less forcefully personal than their particular notes, it was all the more interesting for being the achieved freedom of a deliberate stylist.

'Gurteen' was a discovery and a resource, a manifestation of kindred spirit. It was not just that Fallon's 'black-faced country' was instantly recognizable-the phrase is wide open but I saw the high-gloss, spade-marked faces of bog-banks. It was more that the natural pitch of voice in his lines managed to embody a recognizably indigenous note and yet remained at ease within the decorum of the English tradition. Here was a voice that had somehow freed itself of the slightly too colourful diction and too animated address which were the legacy of the Revival to the poets of Fallon's generation; and yet it had retained its original Irish accent.

There was an overall security of tone, an assumption of common ground and easy access between voice and audience. For example, the phrase, 'The fall was wrong,' was neither paraded as an Irishism - which it is not - nor clarified for the benefit of the outsider as a technical term - unnecessary anyhow, since one grasps that it has to do with the way the dark country at the window affected the angle at which light was permitted to enter the house. Moreover, tone was only one symptom of a self-possession that was grounded upon intimacy with a landscape and expressed itself in other purely linguistic ways, from that nice balance of casualness and declarativeness in the opening line, 'I had no gift for it,' to the half-conscious echo of Wordsworth's Westminster Bridge sonnet in the phrase, 'Never did the sun...'

All of this came most carefully upon its hour in 1972 when political upheavals in Northern Ireland were pressing to the fore all over again old, unfashionable questions about the relationship between poetry, cultural heritage and national allegiance. A few months earlier, I had proposed a somewhat over-simplified programme for the poetry I thought I wanted to write. In an attempt to sail between the Scylla of 'the Irish mode' originally sponsored by Thomas MacDonagh and maintained as a literary category by later writers such as Robert Farren in his book The Course of Irish Verse (1949), and the Charybdis of a more standardized, New Lines-ish, iambic English, I devised a conceit in which Irish experience was to equal vowels and the English literary tradition was to equal consonants, and my poems were to be 'vocables adequate to my whole experience'. It was, admittedly, a fairly Euphuistic conception, but even so, it did signal a genuine stylistic problem, one which has been endemic to Irish writing and whose solution always represents a definite moment in a poet's development. Fallon, obviously, had solved it and was enjoying an open channel to the workings of his own spirit - which workings Wordsworth rightly defined as the poet's true subject.

And yet this is to project too simply and too confidently upon the basis of a single poem. One has only to read 'Shanballard', the second section of 'Three Houses', to find the pure personal note - 'the sun upon a breakfast knife' - being overcome by the rhapsodic strains of Dylan Thomas - 'I / Was the crown prince of birds early / With the first cock crowing.' In fact, even in Fallon's later poems, there is often a stylistic faltering. Sometimes it manifests itself as an over-absorbed ratiocination, so that the elaboration of the poem's argument grows too intent and the suppleness of natural speech rhythm gets hampered. All one has to do to feel the contrast between the natural weather of a sensibility and the uphill labour of a will is to read the first 'Lost Man', where the furniture of the poem is both part of the setting and an expression of the subject, and then read 'Lost Man in Me', where arguments and allusions are being reached for beyond the emotional circumference of the poem itself.

Obviously this is not to claim that argument cannot work as a poetic procedure, or that extravagant allusion necessarily constitutes a threat to a poem's integrity. Not at all. Indeed, one of Fallon's notable contributions to Irish poetry is the way he establishes wonderful, far-flung relations between the bog-bank and the Bhudda, between the byre and The Golden Bough. A poem like 'Totem' has an eerie, risky originality about it, exercising mythological consciousness in a completely un-Yeatsian way, and treating an experience common in the life of the small farm world depicted by Patrick Kavanagh in an idiom very different from Kavanagh's:


They knew it, the Totem people, the world
Inside the world where man
Makes metaphors
For the animal.


Such classical and legendary paralleling is most successful when Fallon keeps his grip on the actuality of his experience. It is because the reeks and textures of known places have been rendered in 'A Visit West', 'The Head' and 'The Small Town of John Coan' that I find them more persuasive than poems like 'Boyne Valley' and 'Magna Mater'. These latter seem to push their luck much too far into the field of abstraction.

This mythic side of Fallon's work is all of a piece with his translations. In the Greek material in particular, such as his versions of 'Hylas' by Theocritus, Pindar's 'The Stealing of Apollo's Cattle', Hesiod's 'The Muse's Gift' and the Homeric hymn 'To Pan', he manages another way of rhyming the remembered facts of Irish rural life with the venerable texts, and produces translations that not only conjure a sense of their originals but also spring-clean our vision of the natural world and clarify the ear. Ezra Pound obviously helped him to find his note, but there is a native tin whistle plainly audible behind the classical Pan-pipes.

There would also appear to be a vital connection between the open, sudden mode of those translations and the quickly articulated, dramatically timed utterance of some of the best late poems. 'Dardanelles 1916' and 'A Bit of Brass' look simple, which is part of their strength. But it is a condition of simplicity which has cost the poet a lifetime of imaginative effort, and it reminds one again that when it comes to the expression of new subject matter in poetry, formal and stylistic considerations are automatically involved. The Irish soldier in British Army uniform, en route for the Great War, was once a common sight but he has nevertheless rarely occurred in books of verse; and before Fallon could 'get it in', he had spent the best part of a career working through and working out subjects that were traditionally sanctioned and more immediately current in the literary ambience of Ireland during the 1930s and 1940s.

In his 'Afterword' to the Collected Poems, Brian Fallon writes that many of his father's generation were very conscious that they 'were "Irish Irish" in contrast to the predominant Anglo-Irishness of their predecessors.' His account of the imaginative consequences of this awareness, and of the general cultural and intellectual conditions which then prevailed, constitutes the background to the poems of Padraic Fallon's early and middle period. In them, as a prelude to his own gradually fulfilled vocation, Fallon rehearses many of the themes which had preoccupied Irish writers during the previous fifty years. His translations from the Irish of the rambling folk poet, Anthony Rafferty, and his generally sympathetic response to the Gaelic heritage of Connacht would have found corroboration from his friend Austin Clarke; and the survivals of what the song called 'spalpeen and jack' in the life of the countryside would have been urged on him as subject-matter by F. R. Higgins. Yet it is also worth emphasizing Brian Fallon's reminder that the poet was highly aware of the gap between literary conventions and the life of the country, and drawing attention once again to the wry coda he delivers on all these matters in 'For Paddy Mac':


No poets I knew of; or they mouthed each other's
    words;
Such low powered gods
They died, as they were born, in byres.


And then, of course, came Yeats; and at first sight it might seem that Fallon's attitude to him was the same as Nodier's to Malherbe, 'qui aurait pu, sans grand inconvénient, se dispenser de venir.' In Padraic Fallon's big addresses to the bard, there is a wonderful mixture of awe and shyness as he attempts to establish his own poetic and political freehold in a territory where Yeats is still demanding the ground rents. Robert Garrett has noted the 'ventriloquism' of these performances, in particular the poem 'Yeats's Tower at Ballylee', and diagnosed the condition of imaginative stalemate of which they are symptoms; yet the canon is nicely completed by the posthumous addition to it of these poems which reveal one of the big dynamics of Irish literary history in the post-Yeatsian era. If, as John Montague famously remarked, 'Kavanagh liberated us but he liberated us into ignorance', we are now in a position to add the corollary that 'Fallon re-educated us towards what we knew'.

These poems have the full dress and the high step of set pieces. They are indeed analogous to certain time-honoured parades that occur every year in some towns in Northern Ireland, where the Orange bands marche provocatively close to the Nationalist areas. They carry the banner of difference, the note of resistance and the boast of triumph into range of the enemy. Yet for all their panoply and glamour, they are based on anxiety, and reveal rather than resolve a tension.

The Yeats series constitutes such a pageant. The poems have a fine solemnity about them and a real sense of historical occasion; and they are a gift to any critic reading Irish poetry within an Oedipal, Bloomean framework. Fallon indeed cannot get an equal footing upon the historic Galway ground until he breaks up his Yeatsian lines and stanzas, not in order to weep but to admit the broken lives of the inmates of Ballinasloe Lunatic Asylum; and to admit also the vertiginous disjunctions between himself as aspiring schoolboy, nose pressed to the big sweetshop window of classical learning, and the remote, apotheosized sage of Ballylee. Which is why 'Stop on the Road to Ballylee', for all its obscurities and private associations (and in spite of an ill-judged last line) seems to me the triumph of the series:


                       Three measures
Of clay and we're at liberty to leave
To lay our tin wreaths on more iambic matter
At the Big Tower (those centenaries)
In Ballylee, Ballylee.


Once again, Ezra Pound would appear to have been the influence that opened the path and allowed Fallon to draw new breath, although it would be a mistake to enlist Fallon's work in general into the Poundian line. His sense of form remained too intimate with traditional conceptions of harmony and logical structure, and his ear too responsive to the old tunes of verse-writing for Pound's kind of modernism to take him over.

Yet it is in the many breaks with what was habitual to him that Fallon established his most memorable claims upon the disinterested reader. In addition to the work I have mentioned, consider the surprise riches of 'A Flask of Brandy', the exhilaration of renewal in 'An Island', and these lucent, opulent stanzas which conclude the late 'Painting of My Father':


Land's End some few miles away; the tide
Is white round the Mount; a bird
Stands on the sundial of the lawn; Spring
Is hovering;
And in the tulip tree - hallucination - some
Medieval person reads a tome

(To disappear battered
By a rainshower with his
Monkshood, creature of air;
The bird stays on, real enough;
A woodpecker)

A country ironed out
Into saints and menhirs where
You never put a foot,

Where the weather camps an hour before
It stamps the soft shires, taking over
The whole south of England at a blow.


These lines offer a passage towards new poetic conditions; they are at ease and posthumous to the old cultural, linguistic and historical anxieties. Enlivening, accessible, proof of the examined life and the generous instinct, empowered by impulse and unregulated by programmes, they are conducive to the next move of the spirit and the art. They remind us, in fact, of what his best work demonstrates: that Padraic Fallon comes to us now as much a contemporary as he was when he began.

Three Houses

I: Gurteen


I had no gift for it.
It hung out in the welter of the moor;
A black-faced country staring in

All day. Never did the sun
Explode with flowers in the dark vases
Of the windows. The fall was wrong

And there was uplifted the striking north
Before the door.
We lived in the flintlights of a cavern floor.

It was enemy country too, the rafts of the low
Fields foundering. Every day the latch
Lifted to some catastrophe, such as

A foal dead in an outfield, a calf lost
In a mud-suck, a hen laying wild in the rushes,
A bullock strayed, a goose gone with the fox;

The epic, if any, going on too long.
Nil the glory in it, null the profit;
It was too big for me and full of threat.

A place that glugged green in the vast egg
Of the weather, too littered with rains
And with minor stone-age tragedies like getting wet

Feet in the goose paddock watching
An angel, yes, in the air, in the dusk, taking
A rose petal face out of nothing in particular,

Just happening big out of a glitter,
Unaware of me or the black-avised country where
The half-wheel of the day was bogging down.

Certainly it could have been the moon.
And though I prefer to think otherwise
Nothing happened in the way of ecstacy.

And I took indoors my gawky childhood, still
Unmeasured, through mud and the yard midden
That was acting up and coming into the kitchen

With the milkers, with the men, with the weather,
Feeling as ever that the earth is outside matter
Trying to get in, to get into the very centre

Swamp the sunflowers and stone circles
And all that spirals and wings up, to bring
The tiller back on the old compost heap,

Dung value. Petering out
Like this father-figure at the fire
Crumbling into space, who was something once,

Who was the sage here and the reason, who raised
The roof, begot the tree,
Hedged the apple and built the causeway down

For the postman who never comes, who touched
The harsh sex of the earth that never blooms,
And was gentled by this woman who stands in the
    door now,

The mistress of a few iron pots,
With the bogface looking in and the barbarous
   furrows.
I tell of my angel and the bright thing is lost

In the cud of cows, in the farming day,
Never to bloom again and wash the air
Towards Clonkeen Carle. I sit down by the fire

And build my nightly stockade in the ash
With an old catalogue, Army & Navy Stores,
And polish two pennies bright

While earth and day go under. Buoyed up
In their bundles on the nightwave are the plover,
Blown with the sweet pith of their bones over, the men

Drift off to visit other outposts of
Man in nameless townlands, moon-swollen damps.
The two old people sit it out,

And humped in the very posture of the womb
On a small stool I ride it too,
The dull incessant siege, on the black orb -
The epic, if any, going on too long.


Totem


They knew it, the Totem people, the world
Inside the world where man
Makes metaphors
For the animal.

And all this day it intrudes, static
Of older inhabitants, saurian, aborted wing, flipper,
    fur,
And the wavelengths thereof
Babbling of a broken covenant

Because an old sick cow was put down;
Murder, they say: as if blood shed
From sheer pity dyed
The ghost red,

Set horns tangling in the thicket
And heaven to collapse, as it must
To every act of treachery, in
A jangle of broken trust,

Our mutual world
Impossible with images
Of pain; today
An old lady bled herself away

In Flatfield on the headland; into
October she went, the day lying
To its grass anchors
In autumn scent.

Plumbing her mound soon will be briar and berry;
Deathbed for a Muse.
A post mortem to go on
Forever in the dogrose

Wherein this old shambling skeleton in rawhide
Is totally translated and taken over:
Here in a way lies
Everybody's mother

Confusing certain formal issues, an
Ambiguous body at best, straddling
Source and origin like
The first dolmen,

requiring the old almost religious
Liaison, from whose
Mysterious totem bones I must ask pardon
For a pact broken

Thus acknowledging the ancient status
Of a quite ordinary creature who yesterday
Was horns not halo, whom heifers
Followed, whom we put down

By the raw hedge, cress and water near
And the orchard
That tells the weather to the falling apple
And rounds the echo travelling towards Tuskar.


Stop on the Road to Ballylee


I read Horace here
Where the lunatics now shamble around
The wrong side of their shadows. Kore or the moon
Have no pity. Mouthfuls of air,
Said the Big Tower, that's what we are.

Q. Horatii Flacci Carminum Liber 1;
Elementary classics, small blue book, Macmillan.
Our soft Cs were true Italian.
                              These
Overlay the place, shamblers
Stuck with the upper air,

Illustrating something, limbo or something, not
Like Liber 1 with its fauns and coins, Spring
(After a Pompeian wall painting;
At the woman's unsubtle nipple the first lamb yawns)
As if they saw behind the scenes

Not the Discus Thrower, page 9 -
From a marble in the palazzo Lancelotti -
Never that, no more, or the Greek boy with the
   jaculus, my own
Age, page 10;
             I tossed it too but antiquity magnifies.
Inward or outward these eyes?

Eight of us that drank the air here.
Now joy is difficult (like Beauty), but the big tower
    would have us
Make our verse like his, sing
Jubilant Muses. And these sad quidnuncs
Sidling by and round some broken thing,

Avoiding commitment; some woman laid them
Low or they denied her, Mater Saeva
Cupidinum - what ode?
                        Some fellows sacked for
                           her, plucked burning
After lights out from the sidereal bush
(In the haggard with a skivvy, in the hay)

Flagrante dilecto behind the fawnstoned ballalley
And sacked. What end to those fellows?
The bogmaidens walked away with some fine scalps.
(For the matter in an ode, to penetrate to
The great beat, thrown out, lost extra muros)

And these are husked, the flail is on them, unbuttoned
The only seamless garment, it is the dinginess
Hurts, affronts.
And Hermes (curvae lyrae parens) fashioning the toy
For love and the echoes of, for resonance;

Lynx lion tree-stumped, flamingo
Grounded by that lute, and the hells too in suspension,
Held up by a lover, Orpheus page 13
Where the dead hung off like these from the barbarous
   new ghost
With all that sounding metaphor, like these, the lost

Who still drift in the old flesh, confusing the
Gods, who no longer sing to their own wires
Or hang together
In the beat that is one beat, the all-beat.
Eight we were in the fine young weather;

Bright flashes, and some gone down Earth's
Hollow foundations.
                      (That other Hermes, the
                         conductor, what
Page, psychopompus, with a soul for Charon's
    fishprow)
Time to go now, time to be on the way.
(That was a woman the winghatted God had in tow)

Reminding me of that old girl being led away
Half dead at the top and too much down below.
Graveclothes the heavy skirts she heaped up to her
    navel,
The raw focus of it, and they bundled her away,
Poor soul not down yet to the ultra violet ghost,

In the main Asylum grounds O years ago
                           Edited by T.E. Page,
A prig but he did leave Faunus that field artillery.
Something came through,
A name, a coin, a winged horse,
Inked over by yours truly where they walk now,

The unburied
Illustrating something, Limbo or something, the
     unregarded
Who underlie us.
                     Three measures
Of clay and we're at liberty to leave
To lay our tin wreaths on more iambic matter
At the Big Tower (those centenaries)
In Ballylee, Ballylee,
Through Loughrea and Kilchreest where my own
   kin lie strewn
In the all mothering weathering Galway skies,
To a dead swan in Leda's thighs.



Dardanelles 1916


Last night in stomped
Our Connaught Ranger, Private Patrick Carty
On his way:
           Fully accoutred now, a ramp
Of belts and bandoliers, a bayonet
Wags at his side with no wound yet, the heavy
Haversack sits high:

                 filling the back kitchen, squinting
Down from the roofbeams, shyly
Shaking hands all round the family, smiling;
Me he picks up and by God kisses me.

                       Up there under
The brown-white plaster an unknown soldier's face
Is weeping.

           Do I remember more? The urchin
               daughters
Bold for once and peeping
Washed and ribboned through the door to wave
Him off on the Mail, the 4.15, and away
Where muted now in a long sand he lies, if not
Entirely melted into
The steadfast bony glare of Asia Minor.



Painting of My Father

I


I saw him to the last, the grey
Casting of the face,
The crabbled hands like this
Yielding to the cluster of the Rosary;

I who barbered you occasionally
And filled your pipe
Dropping into your deafness the odd item
Of family news that never
Exactly reached you,

For you were away already.

So your true going was a sort
Of mutual release. 'Lord', you whispered hanging
That day in my arms naked
As Jesus down from the cross,
'Take me away'.

Now for me this vague distress
And a guilt that grows;
What is it that one owes a father?

And cannot pay,

Liaison lost with the broad
Dialect of the child where words
Were the throbs of a countryside

Big like a sheepshearing or small
As the lark pinned high above
The water meadows where we drank our tea,
The trout waiting in the fishing river;

Eternal precincts
Of a huge present tense, as if
You were not due to be left
Abandoned like an old
Settlement;
The young being
Unscrupulous in their growing up.

So you wanted little of me towards the end,
Barbering, a light
For the old pipe,
And an ear, my ear, any ear, when you spilled over
The intolerable burden
Of being a very old man;


II


An image that wounds;
Better even
The figure of power, the
All father,

Jahwah, Helios or another; not
That I'd like you in big translations
Who were rich enough
As your own man

For you were daylight's own fellow and over
The moonsuck of the mother
All male and master under heaven;
And that's how you come into mind,
In taut middleage when you were quite
The masher,
Velvet collar, tan velour
Overcoat, plushhat and handmade boot,
In those streets round the cattlemarket where
Our evenings were a summer saunter;

Hanlon's Corner, Stoneybatter,
The Broadstone, MGWR
Where trains run no more,

And I half expect round any corner
The hastening dandy, country
Things still clinging;
Blue the gaze;
Delicate the gait, the dancer,
Angler, Fowler, Hurler, football player;

Tomorrow
Formally as a bullfighter he'll pace
The horned pens and the cattle slobber,
Face the loss or net the profit
Stonily
As befits the gambler;

And at noon lean
Recomposed on the railed wall
By the city Arms, yarning, true Ulyssean,
Over a shoe shrine.


III


And now here
Above the walnut desk, the only familiar in
This strange hallucinatory land I found
Late, you stare out; again
All age, all pain, at the very end
Of your long span: not you indeed
But every man;
Just waiting.

Land's End some few miles away; the tide
Is white round the mount; a bird
Stands on the sundial on the lawn; Spring
Is hovering;
And in the tulip tree - hallucination - some
Medieval person reads a tome

>(To disappear battered
By a rainshower with his
Monkshood, creature of air;
The bird stays on, real enough;
A woodpecker)

>A country ironed out
Into saints and menhirs where
You never put a foot,

Where the weather camps for an hour before
It stamps the soft shires taking over
The whole south of England at a blow.


* To be published by Carcanet in June 1990.

This article is taken from PN Review 72, Volume 16 Number 4, March - April 1990.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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