Last October my wife Kathy and I spent a splendid Saturday at one of our favorite spots, the Irish American Heritage Center in Chicago. The occasion was the annual Irish Book, Arts, Music Festival (iBAM). We enjoyed some fine music, attended a couple of fascinating lectures, browsed exhibits by authors, artists, and artisans, enjoyed some Jameson’s and Harp at the Fifth Province Pub, and endured some Irish cuisine that was about as good as you would expect. We picked up a couple of author autographed books and a CD or two. But the bonus for the day the Center’s library sale—surplus books for just one dollar each including a like-new hardback copy of Gerhard Herm’s The Celts and a slender gem, Unlacing: Ten Irish American Women Poets edited by Patricia Monaghan from Fireweed Press, Fairbanks, Alaska in 1987.
The title was a wink-and-nod to an old term for Irish Americans of a certain level of respectability—lace curtain Irish. Some of the poets had published collections, others had work culled from literary magazines. None were particularly well known when the book was published and are more obscure today. They included both immigrants and second or third generations assimilated but yearning to connect with lost roots or struggling against the conventions and expectations of the new world. They were young, old, and in-between; radical, pro-Irish Republicans or surprisingly apolitical, dutiful wives and sexually liberated rebels; urban as a late bus or caught up in nature and the new ecology movement; faithful Catholics, lapsed one and those seeking to connect with an ancient pagan tradition.
Monaghan revealed scant information about any of them in her brief introduction preferring for the poets to reveal themselves in their verses.
The collection reflects the turbulent times in which it was assembled—The Troubles back in the old country, American urban unrest, rising environmentalism, post-Pill and pre-AIDS sexual liberation, and above all feminism.
In her introduction Monaghan also took on how Irish women writers had been marginalized.
When the Irish-American literary tradition is charted, it looks like a pub in the old country. Finley Peter Dunne is there, and James Farrell with him. Eugene O’Neill drops in as does F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O’Hara. A couple of the new lads—William Kennedy, John Gregory Dunne—make a showing. It’s a place for the boys to get away from the world of women, and where a woman who shows her head outside a “snug” is no lady.
On special occasions Mary McCarthy is let in for a round, or Kay Boyle, or Mary Gordon. But the image of the Irish-American writer as a hard-drinking, priest and mother-ridden puer deterna doesn’t leave much room for them or other of our sex. Irish-American poets find no acknowledged tradition here from which to draw.
Now let’s turn to a few of her choice picks.
Margaret Blanchard has published six novels, two books of poetry, and three books on intuition. She is now a Professor Emerita of Graduate Studies living in Montpelier, Vermont.
The Convent, 1900: Eileen’s Choice
I’m sorry, so sorry, dear
lord, I cannot follow
your call, as the sheep
and the shepherd. More like the fox
we tried once to tame,
I long to rush into the woods
without even a glance
back at the rigid
rules which trap me here.
Fled is the simple
faith which led
me along this narrow way,
went across the plains,
where one got lost forever
if she strayed.
Please don’t abandon
me now as I forsake
you holiest path. The woods
are full if threats:
excommunication if they
forbid me to leave; the shame of
my family; the cage of
spinsterhood or the restraints
of marriage, the pit
Like an unblazed trail, the path out
is crooked, steep. One slip,
far from this comfortable
prison, and I could fall
to even worse: the mire
of lost souls.
Holy Mary, don’t
let them cast me out
of our mother the Church.
Please don’t let
this be a mistake
I’ll live the rest
Of my days regretting.
Soon I must choose.
I don’t care it’s never
been done before; it’s the first
and only time for me too.
Once we’ve embraced the future
as she leaves her touch on us.
As the century
turns, for better or
worse, I begin to move.
Tess Gallagher in the 1970's.
Tess Gallagher was born into a logging family in 1943 and stayed in that area most of her life. She is poet, essayist, short story writer who studied with Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington. Her honors include a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts award, and the Maxine Cushing Gray Foundation Award. This poem is from her collection Under the Stars published by Graywolf Press in 1978.
Conversation with a Fireman from Brooklyn
He offers, between planes,
to buy me a drink. I’ve never talked
to a fireman before, not on from Brooklyn
anyway. Okay. Fine I say. Somehow
the subject is bound to come up, women
firefighters, and since I’m
a woman and he’s a fireman, between
the two of us, we know something
about the subject. Already
he’s telling me he doesn’t mind
women firefighters, but what
they look like
after fighting a fire, well
they lose all respect. He’s sorry, but
he looks at them,
covered with cinders of someone’s
lost hope, and he feels disgust, they
are sweaty and stinking, just like
him, of course, but not the woman
he wants, you get me? And come to that—
isn’t it too bad, to be despised
for what you do to prove yourself
who want to love you, to love you,
Finally one from Monaghan herself who was born in 1946 on Long Island into an extended family was a poet, a writer, a spiritual activist, and an influential figure in the contemporary women’s spirituality movement. She wrote over 20 books on a range of topics including Goddess spirituality, earth spirituality, Celtic mythology, the landscape of Ireland, and techniques of meditation. In 1979, she published the first encyclopedia of female divinities, a book which has remained steadily in print since then and was republished in 2009 in a two volume set as The Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines. She died in 2012 at age 56.
In County Mayo
The turf settles as we again assign
blame for the unfathomable, cousins
in a house perishing with loss: sons
poisoned or dead, the border at hand,
a war at the table, wounded mother,
father poisoned with clarity. My left
leg scalds from the blaze, my right
is numb from a doorway breeze.
It is one a.m. Hot and damp in a crowded
bedroom, Ita coughs and calls from
the other bed. Over here, secret forces
evade the grip of security police;
there is a plot to overthrow
the government and counter attempts
to unmask sixteen conspirators.
These dreams are as familiar as cousins
and jumprope rhymes, and strange
as an old land finally visited.
It was too easy when I said
there were things I might die for
but I did not know if I could kill.
The dreams, the dreams. This split
island and its wars, grandfather
songs, glory-o, glory-o and
cousin’s stories late at night.