Writers on place will sometimes speak of the "primal landscape" when referring to the environment in which we first encounter the world. Such a landscape can certainly include the built environment, as is did for Dr. Kieran Quinlan, whose first landscape was Kirwan Street in Dublin's Stoneybatter area. Here, Quinlan recalls a childhood in which his immediate neighborhood comprised a knowable world. Kirwan Street's eccentricities, its residents' reputations (both earned and unearned), and its entrenched but often unspoken awareness of class and status existed in a balance as delicate as any charming river valley or country village. Like many memoirs, Quinlan's story is one of circling outward into a world that is vastly larger; yet, a half-century later and an ocean away, the old self-consciousness of place still holds. Kieran Quinlan is the author of three books, including Strange Kin: Ireland and the American South (2005).
As the author of Pastoral Elegy in Contemporary British and Irish Poetry, published earlier this year, Dr. Iain Twiddy is well-placed to comment on contemporary poems of grief and loss. Here, he turns to four "cancer poems" in Paul Muldoon's Horse Latitudes (2006), in each of which the disease—and its effects and treatments—provides both subject matter and metaphor. Drawing on Susan Sontag's cautionary writings on illness as metaphor, and on other writers on elegy (among them the poet Douglas Dunn), Twiddy acknowledges that the presence of cancer in a poem can be uniquely troubling. One complicating aspect, for instance, is that much of the language of cancer treatment, such as "invasiveness," "cells," or "eradication," is also the language of the so-called war on terrorism—a concern that is key to the title poem of Horse Latitudes. In the end, Twiddy contends, Muldoon's "unhindered sympathy with victims both known and unknown" allows him to show that it is possible "to write with ethical integrity when using cancer metaphorically." [End Page 5]
Michelle O'Sullivan makes her home near Ballina, County Mayo, and in her suite of new poems presented here the shaping presence of the West can be felt and heard. Or almost heard—for these poems are also steeped in the quiet of the West, as in "The Silent Flock," where she writes, "There are no boats. No bells. No wind. / Breath by breath these creatures come and go. / Without emptiness. Without fuss." Sunlight, flowing water, birds and their nests fill these short and closely observed poems, but it would be a mistake to read them as mere nature poems. Her human voice, often a voice tinged with loss, also sounds clearly. The closing lines of "Watermark" could be said to apply to all these poems: "An irregular heartbeat struggles / begins to breathe life in your head." Michelle O'Sullivan's first collection, The Blue End of Stars, is new this year from The Gallery Press.
Deep in the archives of Schlesinger Library at Harvard, Dr. Catherine Burns came across a remarkable collection of correspondence: nearly two hundred letters written by a courting couple (each the child of Irish immigrants) in late nineteenth-century New England. Little in these letters seems love-struck. Rather, John Rooney and Catherine Cusack display a lively engagement with social thought, with literature, with their Catholic faith, and most especially with Cusack's unquestioned sense of duty to her widowed mother. Her "duty" was complicated by the mother's insistence that Rooney save the then-enormous sum of $6,000 before the marriage could take place. Burns's analysis finds that Irish Catholic thinking on family and gender roles, imparted to the couple through distinctly local channels, pervaded all areas of the couple's lives—even in the most secular of places, the young man's bank account. An independent scholar, Catherine M. Burns lately contributed a chapter on the Irish republican Kathleen O'Brennan to the 2010 volume The Irish in the Atlantic World.
It is no secret that none of Patrick McCabe's eight novels that followed The Butcher Boy (1992) has attained the earlier work's critical success; but the disdain that reviewers expressed for his novel...