BOOKS: Belfast in more carefree and vibrant days

POETS:  A pentameter of poets at Clifden Arts Festival in Connemara – Ben Keating,  MIchael Longley,  Bernard ODonohue,  Lucy-Collins and Gerard Dawe. Picture by Bill Heaney

In that Dawn

Gerard Smyth

Looking Through You: Northern Chronicles, by Gerald Dawe, Merrion Press, 114 pp, €16.95, ISBN: 978-1785372810

The poet Gerald Dawe had what seems like a lucky childhood and adolescence in his native Belfast, a period of his life which he has reassembled into the evocative and engaging pages of the three companion instalments of his Northern Chronicles. He also had the good fortune to experience Belfast in more carefree and vibrant days before it became the beleaguered city of The Troubles, as well as to have been born in time to experience the Sixties revolution and renaissance in pop and rock music that made it the main cultural force of his generation.

As he revealed in the first of these chronicles – In Another World, Van Morrison and Belfast – “all that mattered was the music”, and much of his memory of time and place is through the prism of that music. While Morrison is central to the formative experiences recollected in In Another World, in Looking Through You his attention turns to other musical heroes whose sound infiltrated his young years – The Beatles. In particular their watershed album Rubber Soul (one of the album’s tracks gives this volume its title) is singled out as one that marked not only the “rapid change of pace” in their music but also in the life around him as an adolescent. In one short essay he conveys the world-weary mood of that album in a way that pays acute attention to underlying themes in the lyrics, as the group wrestled with the fame that was “starting to separate them from their own most recent past”.

Dawe sees the moment of crucial change and progression that Rubber Soul represents in the group’s career as part of much wider societal shifts, even relating the year of its release – 1965 – to a “moment of local history” (and, as it turned out, false promise): the meeting between the then Northern prime minister Terence O’Neill and the Republic’s Taoiseach, Seán Lemass.

His own inner world was not only enriched by the language of music, he was soon opening his ears to the language of poetry, with American poets initially making the deepest impression. They “emerged supreme, catching a mood of exhilaration that spread out from the American late fifties into the transatlantic sixties, bringing great music in its wake ….” In the ranks of those poets Robert Lowell was one in whose work young Dawe discerned something familiar – he was a poet who happened to have “a certain kind of local resonance, a complicated and unexplicated sense of the puritan inheritances of Northern Protestantism”. He soon also became a disciple of Sylvia Plath and her “shifting landscapes”. As with much of his reminiscence Dawe often juxtaposes his discoveries of the wider world (of music, literature, history) with the purely local – in the case of Lowell, he associates him with the Co Down resort of Bangor, a family holiday destination. Much of Looking Through You is concerned with the impact these and other poets had on his far-ranging imagination, leading him towards the moment when he realised that “writing poetry, and writing about it, was what I wanted to do with my life”.

He was lucky too in the places he landed to receive his education – first, Orangefield, a bastion of independent thinking, and then the newly established university in Coleraine where he found a cultural mix among fellow students that “created an atmosphere that had a truly democratic and liberal energy about it”. Dawe’s world, with its clubs, dance halls and relaxed socialising between young people of different backgrounds, along with the social and political activism of the era, was indeed another world compared to the place that would later bubble with the toxins of division, sectarianism and fear and where it became necessary to keep one’s guard up.

In the latest volume, A City Imagined: Belfast Soulscapes, he again draws on personal anecdotes, insider knowledge and vivid memories to recapture the fleeting moment of possibility and “brief period of immense freedom” before the sectarian overlords took over and life in the North was faced with the “reality check of the Troubles”. His narrative continues with the interlacing of family and home life with the wider world of the streets and avenues, music venues and meeting places, the political with the aesthetic, eulogy with elegy, Belfast with its complex history, including the consequences of two world wars.

A visit to Dublin in 1967, when he was fifteen, emerges as a focal moment. A field trip by Northern boys – or girls – from a Protestant school to the capital of the Republic must have been rare but his “enterprising” art teacher from Orangefield took his students South to do a round of exhibitions. The journey, he discovered “was not across earth-shatteringly alien terrain” but simply the introduction to “a different imagined place” and probably also a lesson in the value of crossing cultural boundaries. Perhaps it was a moment something like the one described by Miłosz in his poem “Bypassing Rue Descartes”: “I had left the cloudy provinces behind / I entered the universal, dazzled and desiring …”

Dawe, always an astute reader and literary analyst, looks at the work of several writers associated with Belfast and on whose writing the city has exerted some influence – poets such as Mahon, Longley and Carson as well as the novelist Brian Moore, whose early novel The Emperor of Ice Cream seems to have had a profound effect because of how familiar it seemed, evoking the world on his doorstep as he grew up in the postwar years and in a postwar world that retained “a very special resonance”. Like Joyce and Dublin, he sees Moore (in the early novels) as having a symbiotic relationship with the city. But, like Moore, Dawe was never going to be enslaved by it, looking beyond to embrace a wider European cultural and historical identity.

Among the poets there is a special place for one in particular – Padraic Fiacc, a poet, it seems, with an anarchic streak who was never one to ingratiate himself but who never quite achieved the prominence his “anti-poetic” work deserves.

And what of the revitalised, post-ceasefire Belfast of today? He is certainly not at ease with certain aspects of planning that, he suggests, has created a patchwork that only shows “the physical (psychic?) impact of political failure, sectarian head-counts; a failure inscribed in the actual fabric of the place”. His fear is that the city will further “break up into culturally and/or ethnically separated entities”.

What he intuited as a young man coming of age on the streets of Belfast has germinated into a series of lively and illuminating perspectives on his home town, a heartfelt study that never shies away from home truths, acknowledging that this is a place of “religious and political demographic fault lines”. But he is always keenly aware of the decencies that exist between those fault lines.

What Dawe’s prose shares with his poetry is the clarity and finesse of his exact language and carefully considered judgements. Whether it is the North’s devouring politics and credos, its music, its writers or the places and people he remembers with affection, there is always something fresh and surprising in what he draws from the resources of memory. There is no hint of yearning for the past, but also no holding back the sense of gratitude to the place and time that made him.

While the three volumes of Northern Chronicles together “chart the map” of his upbringing and form a vivid portrait of the artist, they will also leave the reader with a much better understanding of a city that at times in history has seemed like an enigmatic corner of our island.

Gerard Smyth’s tenth poetry collection, The Sundays of Eternity, was published by Dedalus Press in 2020.

 

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