A Review by Dymphna Lonergan
Julie Breathnach-Banwait: Ar thóir gach ní, Coiscéim, Dublin, 2022
ISBN 13: 6660012220045
RRP: 8.50 (Euro) An Siopa Leabhar
Ar thóir gach ní, (in search of everything), is Julie Breathnach-Banwait’s latest poetry collection to be published by the Irish language publisher Coiscéim. Her previous collection, Dánta Póca, was reviewed here at Tinteán in October 2020.
With its striking cover by Irish artist Marie O’Driscoll, the collection of around 100 poems is set out in two parts beginning with ‘Dearcadh beirt’ (Two people’s viewpoints). One of the pair sees only darkness and depression in the subjects the poet covers.
Ábhar dorcha,’ a dúirt sé/…m’fhágáil mí chomportach… a dark topic, he said, that makes me uncomfortable.
The narrator, by contrast sees the light achieved by illuminating dark topics. Facing these topics by writing about them results in breaking their hold and loosening their power.
Ach nuair a scaltar solas
Is gathsanna na gréine
Ar an dubh, lagan a bhrí
Is briseann a chumhacht
but when the light and the rays of the sun are scalded on the blackness, its energy becomes weaker and its power is broken.
Julie Breathnach-Banwait is also a psychologist and so understands the value of facing our fears and examining them. The poet too goes into the dark heart of the subject, and this act brings about the poem itself. Darkness has been transformed into pure brilliance.
Is níl fágtha ach lorg na lasrach lonraí is gile
and what is left are sparking traces of light and brightness
This is the art of poetry. We, the readers, receive the results of the poetic struggle to see into the life of things and to describe the poet’s experience in the best possible way, the right words in the right place. Then, in our reading, we bring evocations of our own lives and influences that lead us to interpret a poem for ourselves, sometimes in a way that the poet might not have meant all.
The second poem, ‘Bóthar fada na fírinne’ (p. 3), (the long road to truth), can also be interpreted as the poet’s journey into finding poetic truth. In this poem, the narrator decides to come out of the cave, the darkness, in order to explore what truths are to be found out there. First is Christianity (more specifically Catholicism ) with its stiff statues and wooden seats (remembered as hard and cold)
I séipéil stalcánta na gCriostaithe
Lean gcuid dealbha dúra,
suíochán dhorcha adhmaid
or is truth to be found in mosques with their golden domes, looking for salvation from Allah, ag cuardach slánú ó Allah, or in Sikkism or in Hinduism- i dteampall na Suíceach is na Hiondúch? Perhaps truth is to be found in community or in academia, psychology, sorcery, in Greek philosophy?
Just as Pangloss in Candide found the answer to be in tending his own garden in his quest for the best of all possible worlds, the narrator in ‘Bóthar fada na fírinne’ suggests something similar: truth may be within ourselves.
nó b’fhéidir go bhfuil an cosán is cóire
san áit ina raibh tú ‘riamh?
Or perhaps the true path is right here in the place where you have always been.
Breathnach-Banwait’s collection covers a range of topics and viewpoints. She is an observer of life’s startling moments that arise from ordinary events and a reflector on our biggest philosophical questions. She offers some answers, but mostly the poems themselves serve to illuminate a topic for a brief moment, so we can pause and reflect and appreciate. The shorter poems do this best, especially in her choice of words. The poem ‘An Jacaranda’ (p. 131) makes us appreciate even more the brilliance of that tree’s foliage as it struggles to feed its roots in a soil that is not its own. It is fighting (troideann) for its beautiful life, its colours are bellowing in the sun (búireach).
Troideann an Jacaranda
ar son a chuid áilleachta
a dhathanna ag búireach sa ngrian
d’aithneoinn a fhréam tartmhar
is an íthir a shéannan a chothú
Another short poem ‘ Is a bróga uirthi sa leaba’ (p. 53) (and her shoes on her in bed) takes us from what might be an ordinary experience with an exhausted young child who goes to bed with her shoes on, to the reason offered by the child: war comes quickly, so you need to be ready to run.
Tá sí traochta tráite.
Aerach. Airdeallach. Feighlíoch.
Go gceistíonn a chorp a thairbe
Is fágann sí a bróga ar a cosa sa leaba.
‘Tá orm’, ar sí
mar go dtagann an cogadh gan chuireadh
is go mb’fhearr domsa mo bhróga orm
mar gto mbeidh orm rith.’
My thoughts go to Ukraine children on reading this. What can a helpless child do in the face of danger? On a personal level, this poem reminds me of my young son who every time he got new shoes, he had to run up and down the hallway to test if they were ‘fast’. They always were.
Another type of child and another time is ‘Am tae i measc no nóiníní an chnocáin’ (p. 88) (tea time among the daisies on the little hill). The memory is of the narrator watching her father working outside, a knotted handkerchief on his head soaking up his sweat, and then sitting with him during a break in comfortable silence eating a golden apple.
Spallaí géara i do mhéara lúbtha is naipcín snaidhmeach
ag sú allas do chinn. Gan focal eadrainn ach
compord an chiúnas. I ngreim ar úlla buí ar nós gur
sheoid óir é
Sharp shards in your bent fingers, a knotted kerchief soaking up the sweat of your head. No word between us but the comfort of silence. Clutching a yellow apple as if it was a golden jewel.
Many of us will recall those precious moments with a beloved but often absent parent. In my own case, sitting with my father on the garden path as he sifted sand to make cement and taught me how to read the spirit level.
There are long poems such as ‘Grá gáfeach’ (p. 58) (dangerous love) where the narrator is a narcissist who doesn’t understand what went wrong with his relationship. He supposes his birth to have been celebrated widely with food and drink, dance and song, but now the community has turned against him. Growing up he encountered love of another for the first time, and pursued her. Some warned him that for love to last it must be savoured and cherished. In recounting how he lost his love he glosses over what went wrong in the relationship. However, we might guess what happened with the ominous last line of ‘Ní bheidh sí ag éinne muna mbeidh sí liomsa’. If I can’t have her, no one can. We can only speculate: did he kill his love or did he kill his lover?
Love is also the subject of ‘Filleadh ó shochraid d’athair’ (p. 26) (returning from your father’s funeral). This poem captures well those awkward moments when meeting someone who has been bereaved. What to say? How to say it? There’s an initial forced jollity in the poem as the speaker urges, come in and take off your coat and shoes, you’re back home again with me.
Bain díot do chóta is fág do bhróga ar an tairseach,
Tá tú ar baile le mo thaobh.
She points out how the dog is happy to see him home too and the cat in her own way. The bougainvillea has grown wild without his care, the olives need picking. She then notices his inability to respond, and she offers her arms, in which he finally releases his emotions, relieved to be home again.
Géileann do ghrá is do phian…/le buíochas go bhfuil/an t-aistear curtha dhíot.
In another poem ‘Neascóid’, (p. 6) (Boil), there is a moment when a mother is overcome by a sudden feeling of grief experienced when she is driving her son to school on his birthday. Is she remembering his birth and how time has flown or is it another memory that came suddenly in the middle of an ordinary day?
Great feelings in Ar thóir gach ní are often captured in ordinary settings with the use of plain language, but also in the use of stark imagery such as a boil bursting as in in the above ‘Neascóid’, or in daily sounds and imagery such as in ‘Beach, éan, tafann gadhair’ (p. 79), a bee, a bird, a barking dog and a lark teetering on spindly legs that remind the speaker that she is finally home.
Fuiseog ag seinm ar chloch gharbh
ag prámsach léi ar choisíní laga cipíneacha
A lark making music on a rough stone
prancing along on delicate match-like legs
This collection begins with a couple who have two opposing viewpoints. It concludes, aptly, with ‘Céileachas’, (p. 134) (Companionship) the joy of a longstanding relationship during life’s journey, the speaker expressing gratitude for her companion’s steadfastness while she holds his past and future.
Beathaíonn an beithe beithe eile is na dá
cheann ag coinneáil an beirt beo.
Coinníonn tú seasamh liom agus iompraíonn
mé d’aimsir chaite is an t-aimsir romhat
William Wordsworth defines poetry as emotion recollected in tranquility. This recollection in tranquility is when the poet fashions the emotion, the experience, into the poem. We must value our poets for how much they enrich our lives. Ar thóir gach ní has enriched mine. It warrants much more attention than I have given here, but I look forward to a second reading to better appreciate the work that went into Julie Breathnach-Banwait’s latest poetry collection. Molaim go hard é.
Dymphna Lonergan is an academic status researcher at Flinders University and a member of the Tinteán Editorial Team. Her latest publication is a collection of Irish language short stories with English translations As Gaeilge: Irish language short stories and translations, immortalise.com.au, Adelaide, 2022