Tuesday 28 February 2017

Books: Jumbled response to Rising

Magazines: The Stinging Fly: In the Wake of the Rising, Guest editor: Sean O'Reilly, Stinging Fly, €15

John Boland

Belinda McKeon
Belinda McKeon
Author Kevin Barry
Catriona Crowe. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Lia Mills

This special edition of Ireland's most admired contemporary literary magazine is edited by Sean O'Reilly, who tells us at the outset that it was created "in order to engage with this year of national introspection".

He also tells us that the 43 contributors were free to respond to his invitation "in whatever way they wanted", which probably accounts for the curate's-egg result, with some of the stories, essays and poems having no obvious connection either to 1916 or its aftermath.

The book, then, is a good deal less coherent than the recent superb special edition of Poetry Ireland Review, in which editor Vona Groarke celebrated the 150th anniversary of WB Yeats's birth by inviting her distinguished contributors to write poems inspired by Yeats, essays on his work and influence and individual reviews of each of his 13 verse collections. And her anthology also reproduces key poems from all stages of Yeats's career.

Working to a vaguer brief, some of O'Reilly's invitees seem to have either misunderstood the general point of the undertaking or to have wilfully ignored it - as in Belinda McKeon's 'MiseryLit', a three-page fictional doodle with no detectable relation to anything other than its experimental self.

Just as puzzling (to this reader, anyway) are Eoin McNamee's 'The Black Proclamation'; Val Nolan's '#Rising', which comprises 14 pages of invented tweets; and Dave Lordan's 'The Multimedia Revolution in Poetry', a polemical essay that argues against boring old "page-poetry" (you know, Yeats, Heaney and the like) and in favour of "the digital and performance revolution" that's apparently happening in contemporary verse and that has made someone called Kevin Higgins "likely the most widely read living poet in Ireland".

Axe-grinding of a more persuasive kind is to be found in Catriona Crowe's 'How Do We Know What We Know?', which is all about our need for national archives, with particular tribute paid to the records of the Bureau of Military History and of the Military Service Pensions Project, about which most people know little or nothing.

Elsewhere, Kevin Barry writes absorbingly of his antecedents' various allegiances and of his own political coming of age, even if this leads him to a stark conclusion: "I believe that national politics is largely just a distraction from the fact that we're essentially owned and run by commercial, financial and technological concerns, the same ones who own and run our neighbours across the Irish Sea." But he thinks that local politics has become more interesting, "not that I get off my hole about it".

And Lia Mills's outstanding 'It Could Be You' begins with a nightmarish evocation of ordinary people caught in the crossfire of battle ("a lot of futures stolen and families destroyed"), while also going on to address concerns about the Ireland that emerged from the ashes of 1916, not least the treatment of those writers who "had to shut up or get out" when they dared to question the repressive established order co-created by church and state.

There are other fine pieces here, too. Paul Lynch's 'The Rage of O'Malley' vividly imagines insurrectionists under siege from a sniper; Desmond Hogan's 'Walking Through Truth Land' depicts a contemporary Ireland that bears no relation to the Proclamation's ideals; and whether fiction or reminiscence, Iggy McGovern's 'Poblacht na Hero' exhuberantly tells of a Chicago bar in which The Irish Boomerang ("yet another second-rate folk group") are strumming their stuff.

Joan Win Brennan's 'Making Fire', a chillingly matter-of-fact story told by a young suicide bomber, also has real impact, and indeed the volume's successes certainly outweigh its misses.

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