Over the next month, Professor Mary Burke has planned a “Festival of Irish Women’s Writing,” consisting of weekly events in her ENGL 3122 course (Irish Literature in English since 1939). Sean Forbes, an assistant professor in residence and the director of UConn’s Creative Writing Program, kicked off this festival Thursday, with a discussion and reading of his own Irish poem, as well as two poems by Michael Hartnett and Eavan Boland.
Forbes explained that his interest in Ireland began when he was just three years old in Germany, when a tourism commercial for Ireland played on the television. Later on, his interest in Irish literature and culture grew in response to his own complex Irish heritage.
“I never understood my ancestry,” Forbes said. “All I was ever told was we were mixed. And then of course, if you look at my first name, it’s very Irish; if you look at my surname it’s Scottish.”
“All I was ever told was we were mixed. And then of course, if you look at my first name, it’s very Irish; if you look at my surname it’s Scottish.”
In college, Forbes was an English major, and read a vast variety of Irish authors, including Seamus Heaney, James Joyce, Iris Murdoch, Edna O’Brien, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde and W. B. Yeats. He furthered this list in graduate school with more modern authors, such as Kevin Barry, Sabastian Barry, Boland, Claire Kilroy, Colum McCann and Sinead Morrissey.
“I wouldn’t call myself an Irish literature scholar, but I am learning and reading as much as I can especially works by Brendan Behan, Roddy Doyle, and Emilie Pine,” Forbes said in an email.
Forbes began the reading with his poem “Cashel Man,” which was featured on the Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day online series on March 17, 2014. This poem is part of an Irish-themed series of poems he is currently working on.
“I wrote the poem soon after I watched a NOVA special on PBS titled ‘The Ghosts of Murdered Kings: Bronze Age bog bodies reveal the strange beliefs of the long vanished peoples of Europe,’” Forbes said. “My poem is set in 2,000 B.C. in Cashel, Ireland and it’s a fictional narrative about a particular bog body that was discovered there.”
While reading his poem, he noted the influence he had subconsciously taken from Boland’s “Quarantine.”
“I didn’t have Boland’s ‘Quarantine’ in mind when I wrote this poem, but there are so many words that I used like ‘flesh’ and ‘sacrifice’ that come up in Boland’s poem,” Forbes said. “So it’s very interesting how we’re sort of inspired and don’t realize how other poems and other poets are kind of taking over.”
“it’s very interesting how we’re sort of inspired and don’t realize how other poems and other poets are kind of taking over.”
“Cashel Man” focuses on ordinary people doing extraordinary things to preserve their way of life, such as sacrificing precious butter to the bogs to appease the gods.
Forbes then moved on to Boland’s “Quarantine” — a poem of a sickly woman and her husband walking out into the cold to avoid getting other people in their workhouse sick. During the course of their journey, both perish, but before he dies, the husband attempts to warm his wife’s cold feet until his last breath.
“What really strikes me about this poem is that it’s seemingly simple in its diction,” Forbes said. “There’s so much use of repetition in words like ‘worst,’ even the word ‘of’ is used quite often. We have interesting words like ‘inventory’ and ‘breastbone’ and ‘flesh,’ as opposed to ‘body.’ Those are very alluring and they also allow the reader, as well as the listener, to take pause and kind of consider what is being presented here.”
Forbes discussed the ways in which this poem denounced the way the government reacted to the Irish potato famine, and how many victims of the famine died nameless and faceless in history books.
“I find the lines, ‘But her feet were held against / his breastbone. / The last heat of his flesh was / his last gift to her’ [interesting].” Sam Bastille, a sixth-semester English and human rights major, said. “I think that the duality in the use of the word ‘last’ twice in that second line especially creates this idea of finality and hammers home while it’s a tragic poem, it’s also a poem about romance and love. But not like ‘buying someone the world’ love — these giant things — it’s the small stuff. It’s the little sweet things that you get from being a part of a couple, part of a family.”
” it’s also a poem about romance and love. But not like ‘buying someone the world’ love — these giant things — it’s the small stuff. It’s the little sweet things that you get from being a part of a couple, part of a family.”
Bastille was also interested in Boland’s use of the word “threshold” in the lines “Let no love poem ever come to / this threshold.” He pointed out that this term may also be used to evoke Purgatory, especially considering the couple in question died in the line before.
The final poem discussed was Hartnett’s “Death of an Irishwoman.” Forbes said the Irishwoman in this poem — who is said to believe in Gaelic folklore and practice in aspects of Gaelic culture — reminds him of his own maternal grandmother.
“She [his grandmother] was essentially, for all intents and purposes, aside from being a matchmaker and a midwife, she was someone who loved witchcraft,” Forbes said. “It was a very important part of who she was. We were raised Roman Catholic, but she said ‘I’ll be Catholic in public, but in private I can be whoever the hell I want to be.’”
“we were raised roman catholic, but she said “i’ll be catholic in public, but in private i can be whoever the hell i want to be”
Forbes said he was interested in how the woman of the poem was someone of 19th century means, who was unable to embrace the modern world. He was especially impressed by the way Hartnett used the word “ignorant” at the beginning of the poem to describe this woman’s beliefs. He said the word was evocative, and forced the reader to confront the different ways in which people either explore or ignore other people’s beliefs.
“I really like the way this poem puts the old world up against the new, and in doing that it’s sort of a critique of the old world,” Catherine Casey, a fourth-semester English and film major, said. “But I think it really ends up being a more damning critique of the new.”
Burke closed the discussion with an invitation for Tuesday’s event, “The Alpha Male in Irish History,” which will be led by broadcaster and historian Myles Dungan. This was just one of the seven events planned for the festival, so if you have any interest in Irish literature, make sure to check out their schedule before the last event on April 20.