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,
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,
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.