Books

Off The Shelf: The Stony Grey Soil of Monaghan

(Monaghan City Council/YouTube)
Some thoughts on A Poet’s Country by Peter Kavanagh

Editor’s Note: Every week, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes an “Off the Shelf” column sharing casual observations on the books he’s reading and the passing scene.

What an odd week. My father stopped by the states for a few days, sorting out a few bits of family business. He timed things awkwardly. We met in the city around noontime and had to travel to my house for him to get in his visit with the grandkids. Then he had to fly out of Newark that evening. My daughter, however, richly rewarded our efforts, pulling herself right up to give her “gwanddad” a nice welcome.

On the drive down to the airport, she started pouring it on thick. “I want to fly to Ireland with you gwanddad.” Very sweet. And my father took the occasion to remind me that there is a house we could use up in Ballybay in County Monaghan. It had been bought for my uncle, who is a priest currently serving in Nicaragua. My good uncle intends to stay in Nicaragua for now, as the country starts to become ungovernable. He almost certainly enjoys the action. Although he has relayed that Daniel Ortega’s thugs are not sparing priests a crack in the head if they are among the demonstrators. Hard to figure out how it will all end. With Venezuela offline, there aren’t many places for a socialist thief like Ortega to go. I hope the protesters rip up and destroy every one of the demented “Trees of Life that Mrs. Ortega had installed.

So with Monaghan on my mind, I started rereading from a collection, A Poet’s Country, featuring selected prose from Patrick Kavanagh, the poet who made famous the stony grey soil of that country. Much of this work is from his Irish Press columns, a gig that allowed him to frequent events he would not have otherwise been able to see.

For initiates to club Hibernophile, Kavanagh’s essays have pungent observations. There’s a 200-proof shot of an essay about Sir Roger Casement, the imperial British functionary who was hanged as an Irish nationalist after the Easter Rebellion. During his treason trial, Casement’s name was blackened through the use of his “black diaries.” The Irish who adored Casement often held that the diaries were forged or were nonexistent. Now, of course, they take the modern view that one of their leading revolutionaries was also a daring sexual libertine. Kavanagh proposes a middle position, holding that Casement did in fact compose the diaries but that they were full of lies nonetheless. “These delusions of sexual grandeur are not rare,” he writes. “His diaries might, therefore, be in a way described as fiction and, at a pinch, little less valid than Molly Bloom’s tiresome drivel at the end of Ulysses.” Ho ho!

One of my favorites is a brief essay on the John Ford–directed movie The Quiet Man. Kavanagh never even names it. He merely calls it “a film which purported to deal with the marriage customs of the Irish.” He contends that there is not much of interest to distinguish matchmaking in Ireland from anywhere else. “Marriage is, in the general sense, a commercial proposition which concerns more than the two principals,” he writes. Romance is pleasant, he says, but the practical proposition is what really excites. Readers will blanch at his suggestion that women are more excited by “the future” they can envision than by the man they see in front of them. Of The Quiet Man, he writes that

there seems to be some sort of idea that in America people get married for love and love alone. If this were true, it would be giving so-called love a position it does not deserve. In America it is supposed to be all romance; it has to do with necking, and not with collaring money. In the film we saw the romantic American bridegroom shove the bride’s fortune into a furnace, and it was the only time I have ever seen an American being contemptuous of cash.

There’s actually something poignant about this passage if you knew Kavanagh’s own history. While he wrote, he was his nation’s most important poet, but such an office hardly pays the bills. Especially during lean times of the war period and afterward. Kavanagh’s financial situation was perpetually in shambles. He often survived on the patronage of the archbishop of Dublin. He had a twice-weekly social column in the Irish Press, but that hardly paid anything either. And this lack of prospects caused Nora O’Driscoll to cancel their engagement, after accepting his proposal. Neither of them ever married. I also just started reading Simon Winder’s Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, which a few of my friends have raved about, but I haven’t really loved yet.

As I age, my musical preferences keep expanding. In a way, I’m getting younger. I used to hold pretty tight to music that could be pretty easily justified in a poseur’s intellectual terms. I liked the songwriters that reviewers enjoy calling “cerebral,” guys like David Byrne, Elvis Costello, Ben Folds, or alt-country outfits like Wilco and Ryan Adams. I liked the classic bebop era of jazz, particularly Thelonious Monk. I still like all that. But in the same way that aging men more and more appreciate astringent flavors in alcohol, so I have come to prefer music that used to make me wince and curl my lip.

I still listen to sleepy French bossa nova mixes on Spotify, but more and more I find it therapeutic to listen to music that gets me out of my head. Truthfully, I should have taken more cues from David Byrne, who often plays joyfully straightforward covers of stuff like Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” at his live shows. I listen to more Latin pop music and dance with the kids when no one else is home. I sing along to big cheesy, heart-swelling Nashville country. And rock and roll. I’ve been really enjoying last year’s album by Queens of the Stone Age. Guardian music critic described it this way:

[Frontman Josh] Homme might deal in a very old-school brand of masculinity but his band play heavy rock with every iota of hoary macho cliche excised, their brawny riffs crackling with wit and sensuality, and scoured of machismo — a revelatory, redemptive mission they’ve been pursuing for more than two decades.

Rock’s last remaining outlaws, they take a dim view of rules, sliding between genres at will and owning each and every one, from the blitzing attack of Monsters in the Parasol to the sleek metal of Avon to the Zeppelin-goes-disco stomp of Feet Don’t Fail Me, from their new Mark Ronson–produced album Villains.

I don’t think it is entirely scrubbed of machismo. This album has a roaring engine in it. Probably the highlight of my week was blasting this album in my wife’s car while driving over to a serene library/church/cafeteria in the moneyed hills of New Canaan, Conn. I sometimes do my work there. I find a little screaming or head banging necessary as an antidote to staring into a backlit computer or phone screen so much of the rest of the time. It is as if our vision of the world narrows through these screens. Our shoulders slump forward, our heads tile slightly downward. Somehow it all makes us smaller, quieter, and more anxious than the natural world would have us be.

I’ve begun to wonder whether social media was almost entirely a mistake. I can’t find any level of using it low enough that it doesn’t corrupt the experience of my own life. Every nice experience comes with a little barnacle of a thought that I should share it on Instagram. Every unpleasant experience also asks of me whether I should vent about it on Twitter. What I hate most of all is that it gives access to every possible opinion on almost every subject. Which, again, does some work in robbing you of your sense of owning your judgment, while reinforcing your sense of belonging to a tribe or demographic.

Language lessons have slowed down. I’m now going to try using the “Mass Sentence Method” of studying. Basically, you just pile hundreds of sentences into a spaced repetition software like Anki. By constantly repeating sentences with slight variations of grammar, you slowly make your understanding of it intuitive.

The manuscript of my book is slowly coming together. And not too soon. A beach vacation is just a few weeks away.

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