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This review is taken from PN Review 188, Volume 35 Number 6, July - August 2009.

THE THERENESS OF THINGS VONA GROARKE, Lament for Art O’Leary (Gallery) £8

One of the great poems of the eighteenth century, Lament for Art O’Leary, has been much-translated from the original Irish. Flexible, informal, and idiomatic, this new version by the Irish poet, Vona Groarke, is a welcome addition to the canon. The lament is mainly attributed to Eileen O’Connell, a well-born Munster Catholic, whose husband was killed, partly for sectarian reasons, in 1773. As a polyphonic, oral poem, with a ritual basis, the poem survives in various versions - there is no standard text - and although Eileen is the major contributor to the poem, it also contains speeches delivered by members of Art’s family.

Like the society which we encounter in the Icelandic Sagas, the world of the poem oscillates between natural time (seasonal, habitual, and immemorial) and human time (violent, vengeful, and acquisitive.) As well as recalling Art’s specific worldly acts, which tend to carry a sense of threat, Eileen details his more tender family habits, and this habitual past is so vehemently retrieved, it almost becomes an alternative present:

Straddle your mare
and ride down through Macroom
and on into Inchigeela.
One bottle of wine for the journey over,
another for the journey back,
the way it was in your father’s day
and me with my hair tied up in ribbons
that you brought home for me.

Short as the poem is, we are given a strikingly three-dimensional sense of a troubled ...

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