Monday, January 7, 2013

Review: Voices at The World's Edge:Irish Poets on Skellig Michael ed. Paddy Bushe

What a marvelous premise for a book! Skellig Michael, twelve kilometres off the coast of Kerry and birthplace of a monastery in the sixth century which was a climb of 670 steps and 230 metres above sea level. Dissolved in 1578 by Queen Elizabeth I it continued to be a place of pilgrimage and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 and is well preserved due to its extreme remoteness which discouraged visitors.
Paddy Bushe, a Dublin born poet living in sight of Skellig Michael invited eleven poets to spend a night on the rock among the beehive huts and sea birds and to then write about their experience. The collection includes work by Theo Dorgan, Macdara Woods, Derek Mahon, John Deane, Kerry Hardie, Biddy Jenkinson, Sean Lysaght, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, Cathal O Searcaigh and Paddy Bushe. As befits such a collection, several works are in Irish (with some translated alongside by Paddy Bushe) and not all are poems; there are prose works as well. There are also some beautiful black and white photographs of Skellig Michael, the boat arriving and several of the writers on the island by renowned photographer John Minihan, famous for his record of the people of Athy, his hometown, over a period of time, the well known photos of Samuel Beckett and also for the iconic photograph of Lady Diana Spenser in the gardens of the nursery where she worked , the sun silhouetting her legs through her skirt.

The foreword by author Marie Heaney, wife of poet Seamus Heaney, is extensive and explains well the inspiration behind much of the work beyond the Skellig itself. An example of this relates to Biddy Jenkinson's piece 'The last Holy Woman of Sceilg', which Marie Heaney explains is "a clever pastiche of early monastic writing". She points out how of the poets, "Every one of them testifies to the intensity of their experience on the island. All of them seemed to have been changed in some way by being there." They are not the first poets to write about these rocky outcrops- George Bernard Shaw called it "The most fantastic and impossible rock in the world" and Keats said "it dost tease us out of thoughts as doth eternity".

Paddy Bushe's introduction is equally important to the reading of this collection; the story of how the book came about, of how their "collective experience was always edging towards the miraculous, physical and spiritual, and we have borne poetic witness to this." Bushe rightly describes the book as a "creative reaction of a dozen or so artists to their visit" and we the readers are better off for them.

The works collected here are diverse, inspired and inspiring, moving and humorous and unique for their reference to this amazing Irish rocky outcrop.The birds on the island are as much the island itself, and as a result they too are omnipresent in the collection.You couldn't go far wrong in finding yourself a quiet corner and losing yourself to the experience of the voices of the poets as they are led by Skellig Michael.

Published by Dedalus Press

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