Where the Three Rivers Meet by Aine MacAodha
(Lulu Press, 2008. Free download available.)
Where the Three Rivers Meet by Aine MacAodha is a collection of poems linguistically evocative of 17th century Irish Gaelic poetry, although written in English. This is not surprising as MacAodha is an Irish poet intuitively connected to that rich poetic tradition. Her poems are rich with references and imagery that evoke the mythos of Ireland’s ancient history and Celtic traditions. She also writes about the landscape with a sincere affection and respect not only for its actuality, but for its vitality and mystery. In some respects, some of her poetry has a connectedness to the ancient traditions and concerns figuratively expressed in various earth religions, as well as in Celtic Christianity.
The vocabulary of the poems is interesting. MacAodha uses words that are largely unfamiliar to most readers, such as “dander”, “beagmore”, “alder”, “lough”, “gaels” and “firbolgs”. She also makes copious references to Irish mythic figures and places, such Cú Chulainn, a legendary Irish hero and demi-god, and “Tara”, which was the ancient seat of the high kings of Ireland. The obscurity of these words and references should not impede the reader of these poems. Far from it, they function as intertextual metonymic ciphers to be appropriated by the reader for his or her own personal exegesis.
The supernatural is never far removed from the poetry, and is largely expressed in refreshingly rhetorical terms:
I feel its supernatural pull
working its way up from the earth
and out to the universe.
(‘Aghascrebah Ogham Stone, Ireland’)
Into this November air
a supernatural force
draws me to it like a magnet
(‘Aghascrebah Ogham Stone, Ireland’)
She is the blueprints
of the past,
the wishes of the unborn,
the spirit of the crops
(‘Fire of the Gaels’)
Here, the physicality of the natural environment is “spiritualised” and enlivened by the poet’s consciousness, and words like ‘pull’ and ‘draws’ signify a forward (and perhaps upward) movement suggestive of a monistic narrowing of the “gap” between “heaven” and earth; spirit and matter.
Additionally, the landscape is made to resonate with human and non-human “energies” implanted long ago. For instance, the Sperrin countryside (a region in Northern Ireland) is described as if it can “record” past history, as is seen in the following stanza from ‘The Sperrin Mountains’, where dander (a material shed from the bodies of animals) is imbued with consciousness in order to recognise the latent “recorded” historical energies present in the landscape:
Dander over the peat clad slopes
find the ancient past alive
in the bones of the Sperrins.
This is again seen in ‘Banda’:
In myths we recall our living past,
woven as carpet on the landscape.
In stones, trees and bog;
in birds, horse and dog.
Here, sentient and non-sentient matter become amalgamated and seen as (to a degree) functioning as geological recording devices. Yet, in this poem, the recorded energies develop into personalised “ghostly” manifestations, and accordingly the poetic register is made to complement this transformation by taking on a more archaic and almost biblical tone:
Oh sacred bile, Oh graveyard Yew,
the Hawthorn and the Oak;
the Hazel, Alder and the Rowan,
the Willow and the faery folk.
Pay homage to the spirits of Tara,
the ones who went before
the Warriors, Bards and Kings,
the Queens and many more.
MacAodha’s use of poetic language is interesting in that it exists within its own self-demarcated boundaries, not reliant on mere description for its affects. For instance, in ‘Fire of the Gaels’ we see the lines:
Her stories, etched on the
landscapes of the universe.
It matters not that the universe has no landscapes (it being the sum of space and time); the lines convey the intransience of the “stories” through imagery that signifies solidity and durability. A slighter poet would have taken greater pains to minutely describe what MacAodha, here, has achieved in just two lines. One of the distinctive aspects of her poetry is that it uses Gaelic words and imagery that, as mentioned earlier, most readers would find unfamiliar. The poem ‘Mise Eire’ is an appropriate example, with such phrases as: ‘Tell me of Cu Chulainn’, ‘the battles of the Tain Bo’ and ‘the progress of the firbolgs. / The De danaans on the hill’. It is of little import that a reader may not know what these lines signify. It is, of course, easily possible for such a reader to find out what they mean, but to do so, in my view, would not significantly add to an appreciation of the poem’s use of such language. Poetry is, after all, not prose and to expect it to operate similarly is to misunderstand the nature of poetic language. The lines are best approached in such a manner as to allow readers to decide for themselves what words like, ‘Cu Chulainn’, ‘Tain Bo’, ‘firbolgs and ‘De danaans’ suggest to them, rather than turning to a dictionary or an encyclopaedia with each line.
In ‘Oak Lake, County Tyrone’, MacAodha displays a more conventional lyricism:
The lake waltzes to and fro
like a child mesmerized
by magical stories voiced
by an old teller of tales.
Its edges flanked with an audience of
purple moss, pink cranberry flower
and the burnt orange of summer gorse,
all paying homage by showiness.
A clump of rushes moves slightly.
I think of childhood tales of
the watershee luring one off
to the silver world of faeries.
Yet, even here we notice a transcendence and mysteriousness, as the poem concludes with the “disappearance” of its speaker; a disappearance which parallels that of the daylight:
The light of the day now slipping
ever so peacefully behind the
peaks of the Sperrins. I shall go now
and take its essence with me,
to sooth my night quests ahead.
We are placed in doubt as to who, or what, this speaker is. Is it a sentient being within nature or is it an aspect of nature itself? Like all good poetry, we are left with more questions than answers. As a first collection of poetry, Where the Three Rivers Meet is noteworthy and I highly recommend it.
Jeffrey Side studied English at Liverpool University and Leeds University, and has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg Review, and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A Little Poetry, Poethia, nthposition, eratio, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket, Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St. Laboratories, P.F.S. Post, Great Works, hutt, ken*again, Poets' Corner, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay, Dusie and CybpherAnthology. He has reviewed poetry for New Hope International, Stride, Acumen, and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the assistant editor of The Argotist magazine. He now edits The Argotist Online. He has two poetry collections out, Carrier of the Seed (Blazevox) and Slimvol (cPress).