Julie Breathnach-Banwait: Dánta Póca, Coiscéim, Dublin, 2020. 58pp.
September’s event (https://www.facebook.com/obheal.poetry) was a bilingual gathering of international poets, in association with Foras na Gaeilge and chaired by Julie Walsh-Banwait from Perth, an Irish-born award-winning poet whose first collection, Dánta Póca, is now available from the Dublin publisher Coiscéim under the name Julie Breathnach-Banwait. She is the third Irish-published poet based in Australia and writing in the Irish language. Louis de Paor returned to Ireland in the 90s after ten years in Australia. Melbourne-born Colin Ryan continues to write poems and prose in Irish that are published by Irish publishers.
Dánta Póca‘s 58 poem collection spans themes of loss and betrayal, exile and loneliness, bitterness and resentment, and on to an appreciation of the complexity of life and its beauty and an ultimate acceptance of the human condition and experience. The ordinary, everyday world serves as the wheel from which Breathnach-Banwait weaves her poems of many colours. The 2018 award-winning ‘Cóta Gorm’ is a prime example of this. A small blue coat is examined keenly twenty years after the wearer has left. The still silky buttons recall the ease with which the wearer managed them. The distinctive stitching, and the colourful thread are other reminders.
Glacann mo shiúil scíth
Ar chóta bheag gorm
Cnapaí míne síodúla
A bheadh compórdach
Ag do mhéara laga
Fiarsing dhá bhriseadh
Ró-ghréagach ar d’amharc
Ach go gcuimhním
Go bhfuil tú scór
The poet was born and raised in Connemara in Ceantar na n-Oileán. She describes her native place as ‘an archipelago of stunning natural beauty’. She uses imagery that evokes this background close to nature to illuminate her poems of anguish and despair. The poem ‘An tAnachain’ the tragedy describes a loved one changed as a result of it, and who then becomes deaf to the entreaties of family and friends to live on and find meaning in life. The poet provides a haunting image of a creature that has settled in the loved one’s ear and built a packing of sticks and spall (splinters of granite) and cow dung so tight she cannot see the way out and so remains deaf to the truth.
Threoirigh muid an cosán amach
Ach níorbh fhéidir linn a cluasa a
Shroicint leis an bpacáil
A bhí tógtha aige le spallaigh
Bheaga géara is carn aoiligh
A d’fhág í bodhar don fhírinne
In the poem ‘Púca’ the poet describes a sudden ejection as being like a heavy woolen gansy being discarded on a hot day Mar mheáchan geansaí/Olann lá gréine. The first poem, ‘Agallamh Dom Fhéin’, uses images of a bubbling volcano spewing out her insides to capture the speaker’s anguished state finally released.
Other poems delight and surprise with evocative imagery. ‘At Boilg’, swelling of the stomach, is an address to a child growing inside the speaker, safely swaddled, looking out for stones that are being thrown at the speaker along the way. It is a puzzling end, but the Christ passion comes to mind. In ‘Máireáine’ the mother is imagining the time when her daughter will be having her own children and how she, the mother, will be able to help her. We discover to our surprise at the end of the poem that this daughter has not yet been born.
There are painfully sweet poems such as the chance encounter with an old lover in ‘Brionglóidí na Seachtaine’, weekly dreams. The touch of a beloved brings back life and hope in ‘Cumhacht na Colainne’ the power of the flesh. By contrast, ‘Oíche Chiúin’ silent night’s scene of the beloved’s arm across her chest, his soft breath, the sleeping dog at their feet, ends with the revelation that this is just another night of sleep deprivation for the speaker.
Dánta Póca may need to be read with Ó Donaill’s dictionary beside you or open on the teanglann.ie web page, but it is worth the work in order to appreciate the artistry and craft involved in bringing Julie Breathnach-Banwait’s world and mind to life.
Dymphna Lonergan is a member of the Tinteán Editorial Team.