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Ancestor Worship / Michael S. Begnal

Ancestor Worship

By: Michael S. Begnal

€12.00 €6.00
"Unusual routes become strategies. Mike Begnal is Irish-American, he writes in English and Irish, he can invent a hybridisation of style. Ancestor Worship is an extension of this, it can take on a new romancing and deciphering: 'the warm blood / that flows through to this age, / dangerous and violent in veins...' Likewise a journey or pilgrimage can be undertaken somewhere, from 'olive-green felt couch' to 'olive sky'. The e...
ISBN 1 903392 54 3
Pub Date Friday, June 01, 2007
Cover Image From Annals of the Fair Masters (Annála Ríoghachta Éireann) 1632 (R.I.A.)
Page Count 80
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"Unusual routes become strategies. Mike Begnal is Irish-American, he writes in English and Irish, he can invent a hybridisation of style. Ancestor Worship is an extension of this, it can take on a new romancing and deciphering: 'the warm blood / that flows through to this age, / dangerous and violent in veins...' Likewise a journey or pilgrimage can be undertaken somewhere, from 'olive-green felt couch' to 'olive sky'. The essential is no one has been quite there before, along the genealogy or amid the furniture."
James Liddy

Michael S. Begnal

Michael S. Begnal was born in 1966. His previous collections are Ancestor Worship (Salmon Poetry, 2007), Mercury, the Dime (Six Gallery Press, 2005), and The Lakes of Coma (Six Gallery Press, 2003). His poems, essays and reviews have appeared internationally in numerous journals and anthologies, in print and electronically. He was editor of the Galway, Ireland-based literary magazine The Burning Bush as well as the book Honeysuckle, Honeyjuice: A Tribute to James Liddy (Arlen House, 2006). In 2008, Begnal earned an MFA from North Carolina State University. He currently lives in the city of Pittsburgh where he teaches poetry and composition.

Author photograph: Emily Rutter

Ancestor Worship

Not like the bones of parents
carried out in procession
from their dark vaginal tombs
among the rocks,
mummified skin stretched
and tanned in mockery of death

it's not like the imagined
rituals of an old old age
before iron or bronze,
the metal of our mythology,
though the faces look the same
in the rain

but the warm blood
that flows through to this age,
dangerous and violent in veins,
hanging heavy like burlap sheets
on a dewy day

the right hook of history,
the slow motion arc of the punch,
the strange figure
on a modern city street
who burrows into your eye
and says, "Who're you?"

It's like when Lennon laid
his New York album on you,
and appeared in pictures
in his new image-
sudden Irishman,

gritty -

like LeRoi Jones's move to Harlem,
broke with his white friends,
changed his name:

            ancestor worship
            is the only religion
            truly compatible
            with the fact
            of evolution
Reviewed by Keith Gaustad for An Sionnach: A Journal of Literature, Culture, and the Arts. Volume 5, Numbers 1 & 2, Spring & Fall 2009

I realize it may be more interesting for readers to have me write about the poet rather than the poetry. I say this only because the pitfalls of academic jargon are out there, and I'm just the clod to go traipsing through the field looking at the sky. Holy shit! That's poetry.

Mike Begnal or Michael S. Begnal to fans and critics, has a new book from Salmon called Ancestor Worship (2007). He sent me a copy because, as a friend, he knew I'd like it. However, how does a poet living in North Carolina formerly of Pennsylvania and previously of Ireland know someone who has never lived anywhere but Milwaukee? Answer: James Liddy.

Begnal came to Milwaukee to take on the prestigious position of the James Liddy Chair at the Irish Cultural Center of Milwaukee. It was my understanding [End Page 309] that this was a newly created post. What the determining factors were for the selection of the James Liddy Chair, only the dear now late Liddy seemed to know . . . and maybe Professor Gleason. I don't recall what poems of Mike's that Liddy gave me to read in advance. Liddy knew I wasn't on the up-and-up or on the who's who, so if I were to accompany him to a reading, as the driver, often he would hand me a book or a copy of a poem to update me, so that if cornered I could produce at least one poem title to pronounce as my favorite.

Assuredly, one of the factors that determined Begnal's earning the seat of the James Liddy Chair was that Begnal wrote poetry in the Irish language. The Chair is, after all, a part of The Irish Cultural Center. So I sat down on a nice comfy couch in a nice comfy room on the Marquette University campus to hear for the first time what the Irish language sounded like. Interestingly enough, it sounded very sarcastic. Most of the poems felt uneasy. The poet told us that we probably didn't really care what the Irish language sounded like, and that's why he hurried through them to get to the translations, so we would understand what they meant. His demeanor was, how can I say this, punk rock inside a library.

I found myself chuckling a little during the performance and even thinking, "He means you, blue hair!"when glancing at the old, blue-haired ladies in attendance who did not linger for the reception. It was certainly a to-do. I found myself chatting with Begnal after the reading. The next day we drove around with Liddy on a tour of the city, and then later I drove him to the airport without Liddy. It's not often you go to a poetry reading at the Irish Cultural Center and make friends with the poet reading for the first-ever James Liddy Chair and end up chatting about early '80s hip-hop and the few '80s California hardcore acts I was familiar with. I even got an autograph on my copy of Lakes of Coma, Begnal's first book.

If the reading was legendary for all the wrong reasons, so be it. I've been able, thanks to the miracle called the Internet, to stay in contact with Begnal, even solicit him for poems for my own humble magazine, Burdock. I even once attempted to write a paper for Liddy based on our conversations about poetry. Needless to say emails do not translate to essays. I think I ended up writing about Sylvia Plath, or something else, instead.

The lesson: dialogue is important. Conversation, however technologically slanted, yields insight. And after having conversed with Begnal for a few years now, I think I understand what made that first impression tick on as it has. During conversations with him, and after reading Ancestor Worship, I think I have a better understanding of his reading that shocked and appalled people: there is frustration rooted in the passage of a culture. To [End Page 310] realize that Irish is not an active language in the real sense, that most people in Ireland don't speak it, and that Ireland only exists in America as a cultural artifact, is the hidden argument of Ancestor Worship.

The argument comes to the surface in the poem Begnal chose to translate out of the Irish To the Gaelic People by - Longain. One of the footnotes states that - Longain's poem's are "urging/inciting . . . didn't stir them in the slightest." A sort of status check in 1800 for the poet but for a long time both struggles went on but now, with independence gained for the country, the language of ancestors is threatened.

It's not just Ireland, though. Time, it seems, moves even quicker now. And what may have been a cultural movement in the '60s translates to a fashion statement today. We may understand history as it is or we understand it through plastic. I read this in "Old Men's Bar." If we read this poem simply for its imagery, that is enough.

    Sexless trio in the middle
    of cunt colored painted walls,
    dead wives,
    creeping stink of age,
    glasses of beer,

That the walls started out "salmon pink" in the poem is nicely done, intentional or not. That the poet becomes wary of his position in this bar is where I get my theories about the book.

    (I'm furtive -
    if they caught me they'd raise a shaking fist)

Does this refer to the pitfalls of dual citizenship? Can you belong to two tribes when so much of Ireland is rooted in the tribal, the notion of clan? The voice in the poem does not seek separation. It is felt. It already exists. These men, who may have seen a history the narrator can only learn of secondhand, exist separately from the narrator. They are living ancestors. So much of the pub culture is meant as an exchange, and yet, there it is in the pub. And an American can't approach it with any comfort for fear of what? Rejection? Perhaps the answer is exile. The book ends with "Another Exile." [End Page 311]

    The line bending,
    the burden being lightened

That Begnal's book begins with "Expatriation" tells us everything we need to know about this subtext. Other ideas exist in the pages of this book, but this next excerpt seems to explain a lot of what may be the thesis of the book. Presumably, it's the author's entry into the rituals of worship, and it contains lines that describe the narrator and the terrain he will be navigating for most of the book.

    and I too'm "American" now,
    sauntering the local lanes,
    land of ghostly progenitors,
    cold stone,
    bitter defeat

The poems in Ancestor Worship strive to define worship in a different way. A history-obsessed American often has science on the brain, whereas an Irish mind once had Druids, fairies, and monks, who kept everything alive for a time. Begnal has little choice but to approach this in an American fashion. That is to say, the tribal element will be overcome. Is this another sort of catholicism (universal appeal)? I hear composition teachers (they are my ancestors too) saying, "Beware the rhetorical question in your essay." But I adopt Begnal's ideas and ask why do we want to hear everything our way, in our language?

That first time I met Mike Begnal was a strange experience, and my initial review of Begnal's book was a bit off, so I felt I had to get a little more personal with this review. This is a side effect of Ancestor Worship, not the book but the concept it is named for, you feel compelled to make strange events known to multitudes.

The Irish Literary Supplement (Vol. 28, No. 1, Fall 2008)

Reviewed by Pat Lawrence

I received my copy of Ancestor Worship from Begnal in a darkened poetry bar in Manhattan. The publisher, Salmon, was celebrating the release of its new collection, and while grey-haired Irishmen read sentimental verse following Begnal's opening recitation of his own, sharper poetry, a steady bass began to insinuate itself between lines and stanzas as the dance club next door swung into the full flush of its evening business. It was a curious and funny experience: a quaint syncretism made more striking by the culturally-assumed dischord between its notes. I left not only with a smirk at the gag (and a smile at the reminder that poetry need not always exist only in hushed and proper coffee houses or raucous slam halls), but with this modest-seeming little monograph in my back pocket.

Weeks later, when the memory of the bass had faded, and the Irishmen had all returned home, I was pleased to finally crack it open during a lull in my academic and editorial responsibilities. I found it well-designed as a book of poetry ought to be, in its off-white pages and inauspicious formatting, a sophisticated minimalism pointedly refusing to distract from the thoughtfully ascetic poems it contains. This pleasant reserve finds itself expressed in those poems as well, though its 'pleasantness' is only for the reader. By contrast, the protagonist of these pieces is often mournful, self-mocking, rueful, melancholy. These blue emotions mimic and are mimicked by the landscape of Galway, its inhabitants, its visitors. Beautiful, novel images underpinned by clever rhythms appear and fade, their poignancy lingering with the reader as the poem seems to cast them about like so much chaff - it is a rich verse that can so carelessly treat its heirlooms,  but these are the hallmarks of an experienced poet who knows better than to grandstand.

In terms that seem both accessible and exotic to American ears, Ancestor Worship is an attempt at reconstructing an obscured heritage, imagining it in the roads and rivers and shops and people of a land both foreign and familiar. Over the course of its roughly three-dozen poems, Begnal drafts an Irish ancestry through its traces in the present in Galway, in its politics and its nationalism, in its decrepitudes and triumphs. And yet, there is an American-ness to it as well, in its trans-Atlantic focus, in its tourists, in its references to the U.S. as other, outside, used-up, in its desire to root in an ambiguous space of something that is not-as-it-once-was. It is this ambivalent, and yet searching, tone that dominates. These poems are sometimes fleshy, sometimes cerebral. Both are managed eloquently, and their intermixing keeps either from being superfluous or daunting. Some are coyly self-conscious, displaying an ironic distance from the materiality  they describe and inhabit. It is this irony, verging on self-parody, that allows the poems to stand as more than mere musings. Instead, they represent a consciousness prudently wary of the false promises of both American and Irish culture as it is manipulated by those who vehemently claim them.

Especially in 'Madrile's' (for obvious reasons), but elsewhere as well, there are undertones of The Sun Also Rises and its desire to find more durable significance beneath the attractive veneer of dazzling images and irreverent adventures in which it revels. This, again, is its ambivalence, its cynicism and faith. In this way, it goes beyond those poets who flaunt their rebellion, their outsider status, their drug use, their drinking, their philandering, or, conversely, those who drown in the flood of their credulity, obsessed with metaphysical 'truths'they see behind every surface and in the face of every old woman they meet. Ancestor Worship, rather, sees its hero entwined in a mesh of contradictory threads, some leading to transgression (of law, morality, fidelity), others to recuperation (in knowledge, pleasure, genealogy); this balanced voicing reflects a developed perspective that makes few promises, but convincingly keeps those it does.

Still sometimes ('My Role in Society') it is quaint, quizzical, laughing at and with itself, positively upbeat and lighthearted. It is here that it comes close to euphony, with beats and syllables coinciding, sounds more prevalent, more evident. Even in these moments, so hard to pull off for otherwise-cerebral poets, AW manages to seem unaffected and still meaningful, reasserting the fact that no-one and no search, however vital to its hero's identity, is entirely morose or entirely serious. There is also, even in more somber poems, the realization that the philosophy of aestheticism, the position of the aesthete (as he is referred to in 'From Great Height') is hamstrung by its solipsism, by its tendency towards self-aggrandizing.

And then, there is sometimes a blending, rather than ambivalence, recognition of a new hybrid space, rather than an inability to choose one state over another. This is 'There's No Present,' a bodily philosophy in a present-past. This poem bears the simultaneity of Begnal's cult of ancestry, reminding us that it is not only time, but form that submits to this new mode, a mode subtly salted between images and rhythms, rather than declared, paraded, humiliated on ostentatious display. These poems fulfill double functions (or myriad), then, too. They are simultaneously atmospheric and metaphysical, and, here and there wary of metaphysics or longing for its exhausted promises, they cover all ground, creating the jumble of cross currents that send the protagonist's boat adrift on his journey from and to America and Ireland.

'Ancestor Worship,' its pivotal and titular piece, deserves special notice for its striking insight, certainly something meriting the subtly transformed attention it receives in the pieces that surround it. It is traipsed across by departed icons treated philosophically, rather than elegiacally, inserted into a stream of cultural figures stretching its long fingers into the sedimentary rock of human existence. It is also aware, in a Historical Materialist sense, of the use of the past by the present, of history's weight always being a relative burden. It is a poem with relevance in the now for our treatment of the 'then' (and of the 'them').

It has its weak moments as well, of course, moments that are slightly indulgent, or that lose direction (ironically, this is never the case for the longer ones, and its presence in short poems is a sort of accomplishment, perhaps - in some cases, it decidedly is: just as questioning is the ambivalence of faith, so wandering is the ambivalence of homes). There is, perhaps, also an absence of the otherwise-effective critical self-reflection in the derisive stance some poems take towards the American tourists who appear from time to time ('shorts-wearers,' they're called). Their foreign-ness could act as a foil for Begnal's own imperfect belonging, and yet, affinity is rejected in favor of a somewhat-exhausted derogation of the bourgeois.

The arrangement of the monograph is strategically adroit, and manages these less sympathetic moments well. Front-loaded, the book's more striking imagistic pieces and the more startling insights occur in the beginning, taking hold of the reader and encouraging him to be generous. Afterwards, though the themes of ancestry and ambivalence remain strong, their development coherent throughout, the book seems to limp along for a bit late, then recover itself to finish with whispers of thunder both achingly doubtful and bitterly confident ('New Year's Day 1999' and 'Another Exile').

There are six in Irish, a pleasure for those who can read it, or for those who simply find significance in its presence, or even those who are forced because of its foreign-ness to learn to read around the words, read all the materiality of the page that falls silent behind sentences. Still, I have to admit I cheated. Begnal was gracious enough to answer my query with English translations, which equaled the others, but on which I will reserve the majority of my commentary for the appreciation of the above-mentioned pleasures.

The Irish poems and the exclusion their inclusion suggests (both the exclusion of the non-fluent reader and the exclusion of the Irish language from Irish culture their presence protests against) remind the reader that language and its use is always an act of affiliation, and that it can never be apolitical. That being said, the content of the poems themselves traverses the same thematic ground as the other poems: geography and the body as expressions of cultural belonging or the failure of it. These poems tend to linger in cold shadows or under grey skies, however, and the almost-cheery self-mockery that pokes its head in some of the English poems is entirely absent. Rather, they are mournful. Not dreary, but melancholy.

These poems, then, offer a new paradigm of heritage as a function of place, of body, of language. Interwoven as the tangled sinews of belonging grappling with history and dispersal, the threads of Ancestor Worship tie a complex knot. But it is a knot that binds us, ties us to our families and homelands. Moving forward from the unmoored civil society of the twentieth century, this gnarled and ambivalent filiation is incredibly timely, and Begnal's poetry makes a fit vessel for it.

A Review by Fred Johnston

Of the most recent brace of poets to emerge from Galway, Irish-American and Irish-language enthusiast, Michael S. Begnal is by far and away the most accomplished and the most interesting. During his time here he edited the enthusiastic magazine, The Burning Bush - where some have tried to shift heaven and earth (and every inch of newsprint in the region) to 'confirm' themselves as writers, Begnal has simply worked at his task. His work has appeared widely; a first collectioin appeared in 2003, 'The Lakes of Coma,' while some other work appearing in Galway at the same time and after was likely to induce one. He has written on the writer James Liddy and Liddy, naturally, returns the favour with a fulsome jacket blurb. He credits the Galway Advertiser's Markings page, once edited by this writer and cancelled because it was too, eh, racy for local cultural consumption. Like most young American poets, he has pilgrimaged to Prague. Seven poems as Gaeilge appear here, if you don't count the as Bearla 'Burned Hut,' which echoes the Irish-language An Teach Daite, which in English is the name ('The Burned House') for Maam Cross, outside Galway; one has to praise the remaking of language in such a word as 'gorted,' created into English from the Irish 'gort,' a field, or even 'gorta,' famine (to my mind there is a connection linguistically between the two words) in the line of his first poem, 'Expatriation': ". . .like the oblivion of Boston,/cast from your gorted land . . ." Begnal is no bauble-eyed romantic seeking some preposterous ancestral 'truth' in Erin the Green, though he is ardently nationalistic, or was, an echo of which can perhaps be heard in his 'The Conquest of Gaul' or in 'Black, White and Green,' and his translation, 'To The Gaelic People'; these poems travel, to Mexico, Paris, and elsewhere, seeking to put down roots like some mediaeval Irish wandering mendicant ". . . suffering the slings of myself,/ my vast torpidity/and inevitable disgust/at the exclusion practiced (sic)/by myself/and others. . . ." ('Water Cress') Note to Salmon proof-reader: this is not the US. 'Practice' is a noun, not a verb; the verb-form is 'practise.' One's hat is off to Salmon and Begnal for publishing his Irish language poems sans traductions into English, as so many Irish language poets seem to have a need to do - and by so doing, merely point up the dependence of Irish upon English. Irish poetry could not survive, one would think to read them, without the English language. Begnal seems to offer the poem and leave the interpretive work up to the reader bare-facedly, which is fine. With the occasional shortness of breath, these poems are wonderful, experimental, courageous, in-your-face, melancholy, lyrical, all by turns. The collection in full is a voyage of personal and imaginative discovery - circumnavigating identities. The production of the book is equally gorgeous with the 'manuscript' for cover by Siobhán Hutson. More will be heard from Begnal, there can be little doubt of that. Meanwhile Galway's scribes will continue, some of them at any rate, to scratch and scrape at the remaining stony grey acres of imaginative creativity. Excellent. Salmon Poetry at her best.

- Fred Johnston

Review by Tom Deignan in Irish America Magazine

Formerly the editor of the Galway literary magazine The Burning Bush, Michael S. Begnal is an accomplished poet, whose new collection Ancestor Worship has just been published. Though American-born, Begnal mingles the Irish and English languages in his work, which reflects on ancient history as well as pop culture. Take, for example, this sample from the title poem, which recalls Frank O'Hara: "It's like when Lennon laid / his New York album on you, / and appeared in pictures / in his new image- / Revolutionary, / sudden Irishman, / Manhattanite." Begnal's poems are filled with similar humor and the joys and anxieties of living in the shadow of those who came before us.

Review by Liam Mac Sheoinín

In his previous exemplary collection, The Lakes of Coma, Michael S. Begnal adroitly reflected on the Michael S. Begnal Cosmos. No less fleshy and turbulent than the first master of American free verse - I mean, the author of Leaves of Grass, the redoubtable Walt Whitman - Begnal continues, collection after collection, to display a Whitmanian genius for litotes. Modern poetry is about understatement. It is about uniting opposites. Perhaps poetry was transformed into a statement of eternal, simple truth by a young Dane enumerating esseric considerations to a severed consciousness. Hamlet argues for continuing his existence when all evidence contradicts his argument. Whitman is a Hamlet healed by words, words, words. Whitman's verse is a series of addresses to the ghosts of his past. Like Hamlet and Whitman, Begnal argues with phantoms.

Begnal's central argument seems to be with the craft he loves but also hates. The "Agenbite of Inwit" all deconstructionists must feel post Joyce, post Derrida. To his credit, this young poet seems to have an awareness of the futility of a poet's enterprise. He actually admitted in The Lakes of Coma, his brilliant first collection, to being "vulgarized by language." And although I stated in my Abiko Annual #23 review of The Lakes of Coma that Begnal "delights in being a poet," as expected of a Whitmanian, his verse is polygonal: a series of complex propositions. Mercury, the Dime, Begnal's long poem published by Six Gallery Press in 2005, is an elegy on the ephemeral claim a race has on a topography. It is a gentle howl, full of lament and acute observation. In Mercury, the Dime, actually written during the early 90s, Begnal brilliantly declares, "It was a Native American that dreamed Route 66."

Begnal's latest collection, Ancestor Worship, is as remarkable for its moody details. In "Beautiful People," "Dead bird blown down the road / as light as its feathers" is a dazzling, fitting inchoate for a poem that ends with the provocative line "the knife dripping with juice." Like Ginsberg, Begnal realizes a poem must provoke.

The title poem, "Ancestor Worship," is refulgent with race memory, the entelechy of the Eliotian proposal of melding memory and desire. Paradoxically, "Ancestor Worship," located at the near equator of the shining sphere of Begnal's collection, becomes a distant journey into the cavern of the past without ever leaving the present - and possibly with a foot in the future. "Not like the bones of parents / carried out in procession / from their dark vaginal tombs / among the rocks, / mummified skin stretched / and tanned in mockery of death." The journey ends with a burst of confidence: "ancestor worship / is the only religion / truly compatible / with the fact /of evolution." This is a foot projected in the future.

The great poet James Liddy, in his blurb of Ancestor Worship, declares Begnal's latest collection "a journey or pilgrimage." Liddy maintains Begnal takes us to a place where "no one has been quite there before, along the genealogy or amid the furniture." I am in total agreement.

Freddy Johnston, in his review published on the Western Writers Centre site, delights in Begnal's "remaking of language." Johnston, a very gifted poet and writer, cited Begnal's use of the phrase "gorted land" as a prime example of the poet's ability to shift from English to Irish. Johnston explains "gort" is the Irish word for field and "gorta" the Irish for famine. This sonorous echo is Begnal's wink to the polysemantic brilliance of Finnegans Wake.

Imagery, however, remains the predominate ingredient of Begnal's collection. Mercilessly eidetic-eidocentric, if you will - Begnal's saccadic eye turns the page into cinematic experience. This is especially true of his beautiful lament, "Montparnasse Cemetery":

think of all the bridges on the Seine,
that melancholy snake,
men and women have jumped off,
insignificants splash
in the green murk,

You can see the "insignificants" being swallowed by their own bile. Few poets are as adept at kinaesthetic image as Begnal. In fact, Ancestor Worship abounds with kinaesthetic magic: "Glass of the window / swims as you look / toward the Both Loiscthe bridge."

As a Joycean, in particular a devotee of Finnegans Wake, Begnal submits:

There's no present
just a continual becoming

All time in time and all space in space is the underlying theme of Finnegans Wake. So it's no coincidence that in Ancestor Worship, a subtle work of genius, that magus Begnal succeeds in achieving a temporal-spacial perversion akin to Joyce's Wake. Thus Galway and environs morphs into the streets of Prague, the royal botanical garden of Madrid, and "In the jet light of dusk tide" back to ancient Gaul and to the glorious defeat of the dying king of every Celt, Vercingetorix.

After joyously knocking my sconce against the formidable, lisible, scriptible Ancestor Worship, I have arrived at the conclusion that if poetry has produced another Heaney during our time, his name is Michael S. Begnal.

A Review by Kevin Higgins for the Galway Advertiser

An Irish-American Poet in Galway

I FIRST met Pennsylvania-born Michael S Begnal 10 years ago at an open-mic poetry session at Apostasy Café on Dominick Street when readings often went on towards midnight.

Mike was a Sinn Féin supporter with a big interest in experimental poetry, especially the Beats; I was a recovering Trotskyist who had just discovered TS Eliot. They weren't exactly idealistic times. However yesterday always seems less cynical than today.

Later we launched The Burning Bush magazine, harbouring illusions of overthrowing the 'literary establishment' (I have since realised that the literary establishment exists mostly in the minds of unpublished poets and old men on park benches). The hoped for revolution didn't happen; our exact aims were rather vague!

Yet The Burning Bush created a space where people could disagree without descending into crankiness. Mike, in particular, used the magazine to open up Irish poetry by promoting linguistically radical poets such as Alan Jude Moore, Trevor Joyce, and Randolph Healy.

It is fashionable to complain about America, but the American influence on the Galway poetry scene - from Jessie Lendennie to the late Anne Kennedy to Mike Begnal to North Beach Poetry Nights - has been profoundly positive. Mike's contribution, from the Apostasy days to his return to the US in 2004, was important, making the publication of Ancestor Worship (Salmon Poetry) a cause for celebration.

As the title suggests 'Irishness' is one of its big subjects. From Expatriation: "I too'm 'American' now,/sauntering the local lanes,/land of ghostly progenitors,/cold stone,/bitter defeat". Begnal is not any old Irish-American; he's acutely aware that he is addressing an issue about which the greenest clichés are forever being spoken. His interest in his Irish roots is altogether more profound than that of the typical elderly Bostonian in golfing trousers boarding a tour bus outside Jurys.

A number of the poems here are written in Irish. And in the title poem, Ancestor Worship, a distinctly separatist - almost supremacist - tone is struck at the end: "like LeRoi Jones's move to Harlem,/broke with his white friends,/changed his name://ancestor worship/is the only religion/truly compatible/with the fact/of evolution".

The three-page The Conquest of Gaul successfully combines the political and the erotic: "breasts still sway and shake and/bodies soak in camaraderie/the soaked flesh intensely perishable/lust lush will outlast the brick/of the industrial estate".

The weaker moments in Begnal's poetry are when concrete images give way to too many abstract concepts. He is at his best in View from a Galway Window: "the faint smell of sewage,/some girl ditches her dog/and a fat woman/heads for the beauty parlour,/open for Saturday business/this Bealtaine,/but all I see are/Mormon missionaries/sent severely from Utah."

This is not an easy, crowd-pleasing, collection, but then it is not trying to be. It is though, often witty, often caustic, and for me evokes the recent Irish past in a starkly unsentimental way.

A Review by Gwilym Williams for New Hope International

Man's best friend may be his dog but in Michael S. Begnal's case it's his ancestor.

The Irish-American Mike Begnal, as his blogspot calls him, has been rummaging around in his ancestry in various places including naturally in Ireland. Half a dozen of the poems in this publication are in the old tongue. And intriguingly the book's cover shows an ancient document listing the death of an abbot of Kells in the year 1128.

The place to start then would appear to be with the 14th poem in the book, the title poem, ANCESTOR WORSHIP. This one might provide an insight into what it's all about, this book of 70 or so pages containing "some of the poems" published in publications such as Poetry Scotland, Poetry Wales, Poetry Cornwall, Poetry Ireland Review, Electric Acorn, The Blue Canary and many more; some 3 dozen publications in all.

ANCESTOR WORSHIP is the basic starting point for it is, whatever your point of view:

the only religion
truly compatible
with the fact
of evolution.
It's a brutal acceptance of the then and now:
the faces look the same
in rain
Begnal asks, demands to know:
who burrows into your eye
and says, "Who're you?"

Other variations on the theme can be found in poems like IRISH CITIES. In his Derry hotel room Begnal is in a reflective mood. On the face of it a simple matter of nostalgic pondering:

like Waterbury, Connecticut,
where not I'm from
but my father
and all his fathers
since famine time

Note how Begnal suddenly slips in his justification there. The stay-at-home slouch must plainly starve or eat humble pie. Begnal's ancestors are nothing if not adventurers. No further justification for upping sticks is required. But it comes anyway. And with a star and stripes flourish:

like wave-battered Brendans
and populated,
planted the system within
the Go Nation

I could now go to some poetic place like Prague with its 4 poems but I settle for Paris and MONTPARNASSE CEMETERY. Begnal invites me as his reader to:

think of all the bridges on the Seine
that melancholy snake,
men and women have jumped off,
insignificants splash
in the green murk,

and having considered this and other Parisian matters I'm eventually taken along to the cemetery to discover the final furious truth:

cemetery toilets smell
like fermenting forest piss,
and flies congregate in gangs,
waiting to eat your shit

It matters in the end not one jot that in the first line of the first poem in the book that:

blue sky envelopes Galway

for like the old abbot from Kells we're all going to the same place as our departed relatives.

This is an intriguing collection to discover, unearth, and to contemplate. The poems can safely be read in any order and it's probably a good idea to do so. I tried jumping about at random from one to the other building and demolishing connections. It was great fun if fun is the right word. Like a favourite bone I suspect it's something that can be constantly returned to and chewed on with familial contemplation. The only disappointment I felt was that Bagnall couldn't see his way to translating those half dozen Irish poems of his:

agus Joyce bainte den tenner

Read an Interview with Michael S. Begnal at here>>

Other Titles from Michael S. Begnal

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