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The quarrel with ourselves.

JAMES DOAN and FRANK SEWELL, Editors "On the Side of Light": Critical Essays on the Poetry of Cathal O Searcaigh. Arlen House, 2002

SINCE THE PUBLICATION OF HIS first collection, Miontraigeide Cathrach (1975), Cathal O Searcaigh has produced seven more volumes of poetry, five of which have appeared in the last ten years. One of the leading Irish language poets of his generation, O Searcaigh is also the first poet writing in Irish to identify himself openly as gay, and to write about that experience with wit and poignancy. In "On the Side of Light," James Doan and Frank Sewell have put together a highly readable collection of critical essays, which serves both as an introduction to O Searcaigh's work-the first of its kind-and a deeper exploration of it. It is a welcome feature of this collection that the poetry itself is not relegated to the back seat, but that the articles alternate with poems by O Searcaigh in Irish and English translation. Indeed, the volume opens with two poems: O Searcaigh's "An Tobar," translated by Frank Sewell as "The Well," and Mitsuko Ohno and Frank Sewell's translation of Mutsuo Takahashi's "Uncovering a Well" (the Japanese text of which is not given). Together these introductory choices set up the parameters of the collection, for the eight essays by American, Irish and Japanese contributors revolve around questions in O Searcaigh's oeuvre about sources and origins, boundaries and transgressions, and the native versus the foreign. The contributors to the book appear not to have been given any specific instructions by the editors other than to write about O Searcaigh. To some extent, the drawback of this lack of specific direction is that, by the second half of the book, the reader cannot help but begin to experience a certain sense of deja vu as the same poems are quoted by different contributors, and the same critical material is used to make similar points: Lillis O Laoire's argument about gender ambiguity in Irish traditional singing, for example, is quoted on at least three occasions. On the other hand, there is also something to be said for this method, as going over the same ground a number of times, each time from a slightly different perspective, has the effect of deepening and enhancing one's understanding at the same time that it allows one to focus in on details within the larger picture. The poetry can certainly withstand such repeated scrutiny.

Following the editors' introduction, Eoin Mac Carthaigh's opening essay "Placing Cathal O Searcaigh" focuses on the persona of the poet/lover through his relationship to the land, its people and the literary tradition. Mac Carthaigh illustrates the complexity of this aspect of the poetry with the poem "Cor Ur," in which the poet effectively uses place names to evoke parts of the body, a multi-dimensional feature of the poetry Often lost in translation. Placing the poetry in the context of mythological and literary traditions, the author goes on to find other echoes-or wellsprings--in O Searcaigh's work, from Mairtin O Direain's notion of the landscape as duanaire mo mhuintire--the poem-book of my people--to the alienation expressed in the lays uttered by mad Suibhne, the "music of what happens" in the Fionn Cycle, and the tradition of Dan Direach, which validated the expression of physical affection between males in that the poet's relation to his patron was often expressed in terms of the intimate relationship between lovers (another point made in several of the essays). Mac Carthaigh convincingly argues that O Searcaigh's early imitation of other poets soon turned into a more authentic voice, drawing on the older literary tradition but also interacting with his fellow heirs to it.

Mitsuko Ohno's "In Female or Male Voice: What Difference Does It Make?" addresses O Searcaigh's adoption of gendered masks in his collections Na Buachailli Bana (1996) and Out in the Open (1997). While Ohno raises valid issues relating to the secrecy, hostility and fear surrounding homosexuality in Ireland, particularly in the more traditional Irish-speaking community, I am not sure that her argument that "O Searcaigh's love poems ... 'appear' to be written in the persona of a woman" (42), whereby the female mask "is seen as a protective guise of gay writing" (44) is entirely convincing or ultimately helpful, especially in a poem like "Ceann Dubh Dills/Dear Dark-Haired Love." The poet's adoption of the mask of the victimized girl in "Gort na gCnamh/Field of Bones" is a slightly different and more controversial issue, and Ohno's point that the strategy of the female mask can here be seen as a means of expressing "a yearning for the familial and societal love that is not readily granted to the marginalized, including, for example, the homosexual or lesbian" (52), is well taken. However, her association of 0 Searcaigh's description of the abusive father working in the potato field ("while he indifferently parts / the thick-skinned soil, thrusting ahead, opening it up before and after him") with contrasting images of potato farming in Seamus Heaney's poem "Digging," and her subsequent focus on the parent-child relationship in both poems, actually leads away from the main focus of O Searcaigh's poem; if there is an echo, and if a comparison is called for, the sexual frustration of the bachelor farmer Maguire in Patrick Kavanagh's "The Great Hunger" comes to mind: "Turn over the weedy clots and tease out the tangled skeins. / What is he looking for there? / He thinks it is a potato, but we know better / Than his mud-gloved fingers probe in this insensitive hair."

Frank Sewell's excellent "Between Staisiun Chaiseal na gCorr and Stantzia Zima: the Poetry of Cathal O Searcaigh," traces more influences, from T.S. Eliot and Sean O Riordain to Mairtin O Direain. Sewen's exploration of the connections between O Searcaigh and Yevgany Yevtushenko is particularly revealing. Arguing that the Irish poet shares with his Russian counterpart a certain personal directness or mask-less quality which makes for a somewhat public persona, he goes on to qualify this by noting that O Searcaigh overcomes the possible limiting effects of such an approach by increasingly speaking out against intolerance and injustice, including that of his own community. Sewell's reading of "Gort na gCnamh" places ' the poem in a wider context of Irish-Catholic guilt and hypocrisy about sexual issues.

James Doan's amusingly titled "Cathal O Searcaigh: Gay, Gaelach agus Galanta/Gay, Gaelic and Gorgeous" unpacks the way the poet represents gay love within the traditions of the Irish language, story and song. Doan characterizes O Searcaigh as both postmodern and traditional, in that he often recontextualizes and reinterprets traditional concepts and genres, thereby both continuing and subverting the tradition. For example, the tradition of Dinnsheanchas or lore of placenames is both continued and innovated by the way the poet whimsically Anglicizes the names of two local townlands: Baile an Geata as "Gaytown" and Caiseal na gCorr as "Fort of the Queers." While queering the landscape in this way gives homosexuality literally a place in the Irish community, other uses of the tradition focus rather on the exclusion of the "love that dare not speak its name." O Searcaigh's use of the word "geasa" to refer to his sexual orientation, a term borrowed from the Old Irish sagas and suggesting a prohibition or taboo that was often imposed on someone against his will or without his permission, reveals the extent to which homosexuality was (and is) experienced in rural, Gaelic Ireland as a secret burden.

Kieran Francis Kennedy Jr.'s "'Oirfeas as gach Orifice': The Irish Language Question, Globalization and Homosexuality," also focuses on the unspeakability of homosexuality in the Irish language literally, in that there is no such word in Gaelic. Kennedy constructs an interesting argument on the basis of the realization that in O Searcaigh's poetry, the politics of gay identity necessarily comes from a culture and language--English-that historically threatened the right of Gaelic culture to exist at all. In this way the encounter between languages and cultures, particularly through the vehicle of translation, actually becomes a means of interrogating fixed identities.

Following on the heels of a number of densely argued and theoretically informed essays, Celia de Freine's "What's in a Label? An Appraisal of the Work of Cathal O Searcaigh" comes as a bit of a disappointment, in that it skims across the surface of a number of issues that have already been more thoroughly addressed in the preceding essays. Insofar as de Freine's contribution is a personal response to O Searcaigh's work, it does reflect her enthusiasm for his poetry. However, her expectations are at times a little too programmatic, as when she assumes that the internal contradictions in the poet's voice are simply the result of a change and development in his attitude over a period of time. Things are not always so straightforward, and it may be useful to know in this regard, as Nobuaki Tochigi points out in the next essay, that Walt Whitman ("do I contradict myself?") was an early influence on O Searcaigh. In "Cathal O Searcaigh and Transfiguring Representations of the Native," Nobuaki argues that the poet consciously tries to avoid what readers traditionally expect from Irish poetry. Acting as a witness to the transformation rather than the death of the Irish language, he blends his pure well water with streams piped in from afar, and is thus, as an "'inauthentic' native poet" free to make his own versions out of different sources.

In one of the more theoretically sophisticated contributions to the volume, "Falling Down and Falling Back on Language," Brian O Conchubhair uses Ireland's postcolonial status as a starting point to explore attitudes to homosexuality and language. His arguments are based on the contention that postcolonial countries have particular difficulty with the real presence of the homoerotic because colonialism itself "generates a gendered power relationship and, inevitably, casts the colonising power as masculine and dominant and the colonised as feminine and passive.... In Irish cultural discourse silencing sexual difference became imperative because of the supposed link between homosexuality and enfeebled, 'feminised' masculinity" (168): The gay sensibility was therefore edited out of the version of Ireland that emerged after independence. O Conchubhair argues that, in poems like "Cainteoir Duchais/Native Speaker," O Searcaigh uses his native Donegal dialect of Irish, which is often regarded as marginal and "inferior," in combination with loan-words, puns and Anglicisms, to launch an assault on the "falsehood and homogeneity enshrined in the. tradition during the Revival" (196). In this context O Conchubhair reads the poem "Gort na gCnamh" as a gay writer's attempt to link homosexuals with other marginalized and victimized groups in society. O Conchubhair once more invokes Yevtushenko when he characterizes O. Searcaigh as an active tradition bearer who interrogates and enriches that tradition, and whose poetry provides a place of solace and shelter filled with sympathy and hope.

The interview with Cathal O Searcaigh by Niall McGrath that concludes the book personalizes and contextualizes much that was generalized and theorized in the preceding essays. Particularly poignant are the poet's accounts of his father, home from seasonal work in Scotland, reading to his son the poems of Robert Burns in a language as yet unfamiliar to him; his mother's spells of depression and her belief that she had been "away with the fairies"; his first real confrontation with the Self in London in the early 1970s; and his visits to Nepal and his feelings for his adopted son Prem, whom he describes as "a being of Light" (218).

"On the Side of Light" is nicely produced and illustrated with numerous black-and-white photographs of the poet with his family, friends, and fellow poets. A select bibliography of works by O Searcaigh and secondary sources concludes the volume.

--University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
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Title Annotation:"On the Side of Light": Critical Essays on the Poetry of Cathal O Searcaigh
Author:Lanters, Jose
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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