Of Now and Then
Piotr Florczyk is a poet, essayist, and translator. His books include Barefoot (Eyewear, 2015), Los Angeles Sketchbook (Spuyten Duyvil, 2015), and East & West (Lost Horse Press, 2016). Florczyk has also translated several volumes of poetry, including I’m Half of Your Heart: Selected Poems by Julian Kornhauser (Lost Horse Press, 2018), Building the Barricade by Anna Świrszczyńska (Tavern Books, 2016), and The Folding Star and Other Poems by Jacek Gutorow (BOA Editions, 2012). In 2017, he received the Found in Translation Award and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from The Academy of American Poets for his translation of Anna Świrszczyńska’s volume of poetry Budowałam barykadę. He is completing a volume of poems based on Holocaust testimonies entitled From the Annals of Kraków. Florczyk is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Southern California.
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Gillis, Alan. Scapegoat and Other Poems. Wake Forest University Press, 2016.
This is Alan Gillis’s first U.S. publication. It gathers work from his four previous volumes published in Ireland and should be of interest to anyone interested in how Irish poetry has evolved in the effort to break free of the quiet pastoral meditations we have come to expect, for better or worse, of Irish poets. The first stanza of the opening poem, “The Ulster Way,” announces its agenda from the get-go:
This is not about burns or hedges.
There will be no gorse. You will not
notices the ceaseless photosynthesis
or the dead tree’s thousand fingers,
the trunk’s inhumanity writhing with texture,
as you will not be passing into farmland.
Nor will you be set upon by cattle
These lines go a long way in undercutting the reader’s expectations, in a language both measured and musical. Of course these poems are about all the things the poet says they are not. The difference lies in how Gillis goes about simultaneously situating and unmooring himself within that tradition. In the end, he does aim it to have it both ways; fully aware of where he comes from, he also turns the lens back on himself, effectively taking ownership of his individual self. “Everything is about you,” the poet says in the poem’s last line, before literally imploring us to pay attention and listen.
What’s amazing about this book is how the first six poems showcase what’s great about Gillis’s poems in general. I am not being facetious. One advantage of getting to know the poet and his work early on in a selected collection like this, which does away with chronology or any such identifiers that would tell us which poems belong to which individual collection, is that we can read the book on its own terms. Poem by poem, we follow the poet as he deepens his exploration of his subjects and themes. While there is some trepidation, too, about encountering more of the same after each page is flipped, this journey is by-and-large thrilling and revelatory.
Still, it’s no surprise that early on we come across poems about the so-called Troubles, which tore the communities of the island of Ireland along sectarian lines. The first of the two, “12th October, 1994,” is a fabulous showcase of politics and the kind of quotidian preoccupations that the youth around the world have in common. The title is significant—it marks the day before Northern Ireland’s loyalist paramilitaries announced their ceasefire. It also undermines what happens in the poem itself, creating a palpable incongruity between subject and narrative. This might be intentional on Gillis’s part—many a ceasefire had failed before. Being caught, as it were, in a rhetorical no man’s land, between the promise of the announcement and it actually being carried out, the speaker announces, “I enter the Twilight Zone,” which, we soon find out, concerns the speaker playing video games at an arcade. This “virtual combat zone lights the green / of my eyes,” he tells us, before going on about shooting the bad guys while his friends, hovering around him, gawk at the screen. Indeed, the real combat might be over soon, but the video screen functions like a mirror—it reflects back the reality one projects onto it. Having taken out his rage and anxiety vitually, having kicked some real butt, in other words, the speaker reenters, he tells us, “the fierce grey day” that “looks like snow.” Which, the grey or the white, the violence or the peace, will come out victorious?
That’s why, perhaps, a few pages later, in a poem called “Progress,” which stands on par with another brilliant Troubles poem, “Belfast Confetti” by Ciaran Carson, we encounter a speaker who turns back time in order to find a way forward:
They say that for years Belfast was backwards
and it’s great now to see some progress.
So I guess we can look forward to taking boxes
from the earth. I guess that ambulances
will leave the dying back amidst the rubble
to be explosively healed. Given time,
one hundred thousand particles of glass
will create impossible patterns in the air
before coalescing into the clarity
of a window. Through which, a reassembled head
will look out and admire the shy young man
taking his bomb from the building and driving home.
Whereas Carson’s poem ends in a stalemate that paralyzes the speaker who suddenly cannot articulate who he is, unsure of his own identify, not to mention his past and his future, this gorgeous poem offers hope for the ending of hostilities, as we say euphemistically, to become reality. As long as the poem progresses down the page, while the poet is choosing to take the proverbial two steps forward for every step back, there is a chance that things will get better.
Pop culture has been an escape from history and politics for many a poet in Ireland and elsewhere. The refocusing on what’s at hand becomes a purifying tonic of sorts. Needless to say, however, this kind of entanglement carries with it its own set of risks. For one, no poet wants to be known as the chronicler of the kitschy, the lowbrow, and the self-appointed celebrities such as—you guessed it!—Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. As poets we start out believing in the power of words to help us make sense of the world we live in. What eventually distinguishes the few great artists from the rest of the flock is that they can transcend the times they are of. Indeed, Gillis relishes pop cultural references, his poems are full of them, but he never merely repeats what they already tell us about ourselves. In his hands, in part because of his contagious sense of humor, they acquire a new meaning. For instance, he appropriates song lyrics—“I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar” or “ever step you took, I was watching you”—breathing new life into words that have grown stale. We recognize them right away, locating their origins and humming the melody, but as words they have lost their meaning. Our preoccupation with pop-culture and, by extension, technology, can take on ominous undertones, as in the opening of “Down Through Dark and Emptying Streets,” when the poet writes, “Open a new window. / Go on and Google yourself. Open Facebook and update / all trace of yourself.” Clever indeed, these lines are also terrifying, suggesting as they do that our real and virtual selves have become indistinguishable from each other. I think I’ll stick with belting out timeless hits in the shower.
Some poets start out tight-lipped—by disposition and sensibility more so than choice—then try to expand their toolkit and write longer poems. The opposite, needless to say, is also true; some poets start out expansive, writing poems that stretch over at least several pages, before they try their hand at concision and restraint. Gillis belongs to the second group, but he’s not a rambler. Instead, Gillis is a great formalist, not in a traditional or historical sense—that is, a poet who only plays tennis with the net up—but rather as one who employs formal constraints to keep his sprawling narratives from careening out of control. Without the formal constraints he imposes on his poems, his garrulous half would have gotten the best of him, and us, in the process of getting from one anecdote or observation to the next. No wonder he revels in sequences of various kinds. One of the shorter ones, “The Estate,” showcases the poet’s interest in immersing himself in the world of his less fortunate neighbors:
Blotches on walls and much dog
shit on pavements, hedges full of crisp bags,
chip bags and cans,
and eye at every window for the postman,
anyone at all, anything coming
or going, or unbecoming.
Being socially conscious comes easy to some of us—the empathy we feel towards the poor, say, springs from the same source as our poems. The vivid details of these meandering lines, however, suggest a speaker who’s paying attention and protesting at the same time:
Well I couldn’t stop cringing,
stuffing his face
with Monster Munch, like totally impinging
on my personal space,
and when I said so he was like look here missus
this here’s a public bus.
The slight change in the diction at the end of the poem’s second section highlights a conflict that’s about to ensue. It is a barrier to entry, so to speak, for those of us who, no matter how empathetic we might be, have no idea what it means to be underprivileged and struggling to make ends meet. At the same time, though, the move also illustrates Gillis’s willingness to immerse himself in wider surroundings fully:
Don’t be saying but e thinks e’s humungous.
On tha Viagra an then some, ah’m telling ya.
But sweaty balls. Fer Christmas e gave us
knickers that cut right inta
ma hole, an gave his fiancé Nigella
fuckin Lawson. Eh? Wha? Nah, she’s gorgeous.
This is a long way from the descriptive first stanza, but giving a voice to the voiceless is a key element of Gillis’s work. I won’t tell you how this poem ends, but it suffices to say that the poet’s refusing the status quo hovers over the entire poem.
Alan Gillis, who was born in 1973 in Belfast, and teaches at the University of Edinburgh, goes a long way to distance himself from his predecessors. That he never quite succeeds is actually to his credit. Breezy, funny, infatuated with sex, on one hand, while poignant and ruminating, not to mention historically and politically probing, on the other, his poems testify to our deepest concerns and preoccupations, which, like most of what we call the human condition, doesn’t really change from one century—or millennia—to the next.