The world through a carnival mask
For those of us who struggle with the bleakness of winter, ‘Carnival Masks’ – a new collection of poems by Westport-based poet Seán Lysaght – can hurry the spring along, allowing the imagination to inhabit lengthening, brightening days.
The book is loosely arranged along the year’s calendar, with the opening poems set in January and February, tantalisingly holding up the promise of summer splendour and autumn fecundity.
But Lysaght’s poems also remind us to see the beauty in the bleak. They beckon us to pause to consider the wonder of catkins, ‘yellow-green mills of gold’, expanding in February. Even when a March wind ‘scours the bones of the living’, there’s beauty to be found when ‘Clouds ride the blue on an occasional sunny day’. There’s mischief in the unruly April north-easterly, ‘an unbidden guest’ intent on ‘lifting the skirts of the hedge’ – a sudden boisterous spirit, ‘the blast of his airplane engines silvering the pastures’.
Lysaght is perhaps best known for his poetry about the natural world, especially bird life. That fascination is to the fore here, though his preoccupation with 16th-century poet and colonial bureaucrat Edmund Spenser is also manifest in ‘Sonnets to a Tudor Poet’. Translations of Goethe and Rainer Maria Rilke are present too. As Lysaght’s poems in ‘Carnival Masks’ move from Mayo to the Mediterranean, the works by these two poets, both of whom were also fascinated by southern Europe, sit comfortably alongside his own, echoing back and forth.
Born in Cork in 1957, Seán Lysaght grew up in Limerick. After studying Anglo-Irish Literature in UCD, he taught for a time in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. In 1994 – a year after he and his wife had visited Mayo and fallen in love with it – he took up a lecturing position in the Castlebar campus of Galway RTC, as it was known then. Now a lecturer in Heritage Studies in Galway Mayo Institute of Technology, Lysaght has published six other poetry collections, as well as a biographical study, ‘Robert Lloyd Praeger: The Life of a Naturalist (1865-1953)’ in 1998; ‘Venetian Epigrams’, translations of Goethe, in June 2008; and a play, ‘Achill’, which debuted in Mayo last year.
His first collection of poetry, ‘Noah’s Irish Ark’, was published in 1989, but Lysaght started writing at an early age. “I was tinkering with poetry from about the age of 15,” he explains. “It was in a kind of fervour, where you admire someone. I was reading Yeats at the time. And then you start off, and I suppose you’re trying to process work you’ve already read. Work you admire. Those were the beginnings really.”
While he was studying in UCD, Lysaght ‘kind of lost touch’ with poetry for a few years, but he returned to it in 1983. “I remember getting back to writing again when I was about 26, and sending stuff out to magazines like Poetry Ireland Review, as well as The Irish Times. David Marcus [Poetry Ireland founding editor] was publishing poetry in those days in the New Irish Writing section of The Irish Press, and a lot of us got our first outing or an early outing in those pages.”
Was the natural world always a preoccupation, or did he cast his net wider when he was young, honing in on nature later? “I think of myself as a young writer as very much under the influence of various others,” he says, “writing sometimes in a kind of Patrick Kavanagh mode and sometimes in a kind of Derek Mahon style. Then gradually, I suppose, you find your own way. Maybe I began to find my own way when I wrote those bird poems that were published as ‘The Clare Island Survey’ – that was my first collection with Gallery Press. The editor Peter Fallon maybe recognised that I was being somehow truer to myself writing about the natural world. There was something truer about that than there was when maybe I was trying to emulate someone else’s style.”
The theme of birds has carried from those early days right through to the present collection. “I suppose you can’t really get away from the things that you’re interested in … and I suppose it was an interest of mine from my father, going back to when I was a kid and being given a little bird book and a pair of binoculars and taken off for holidays in Kerry and so on.
“You know, you get a feeling for something – you get a link, a bond with something, and then that’s something you can write about with a degree of truth or a degree of accuracy that you might not have for other things … Yes, I tend to come back to the natural world, the landscape, the wildlife … and the birds.”
Laughing, he agrees that the west of Ireland wind is something that motivates him too. “Well we all got a flavour of that this winter! We were living first in Slogher beside Westport – and that’s a pretty windy place I’ll tell you…. And then when our house was built down in Fahy in the year 2000, it was in a fairly exposed location too. That’s what happens to you when you hire an architect from London to design a house to sit on the side of a drumlin in Mayo! The weather really began to come home to us, living here, in a way that it hadn’t done before. Fortunately, now we have a few trees that are giving us a bit of shelter.”
Lysaght’s new collection also contains some deeply personal moments. Standing out, perhaps, is ‘In Memory of my Father’, with its Irish-language verse.
“That little piece came to me on the day of my father’s death,” Lysaght explains. “He died early in the morning in a nursing home in Kilkenny, and because his body was being taken back to Limerick the following day, there was a whole day when I sat vigil in the nursing home after he had passed away. A few little ideas came to me there, in Irish. My father didn’t have great spoken competence in Irish, but he had a great affinity with the language, so it seemed natural at the time to try to put something down in Irish on that moment, just as I was dealing with the fact of his death.”
Other poems in the collection bring in, for example, Lysaght’s wife, Jessica – but not overtly. For Lysaght, intimate moments, or feelings about those moments, are communicated through an object described in the verse. “They’re poems trying to communicate feeling, but they actually do so through an object, they’re looking at things – in one case it’s birds that are nesting on the house [‘Chirbling’], in another [‘Jessica and the Butterfly’] it’s the garden of a house in Italy where we spent some time a few years ago.
“I think that using an object to describe a feeling is maybe a way of controlling that feeling: Otherwise, feelings in poetry maybe are not that interesting – they mightn’t be that interesting to a third party – unless there’s something happening that can draw the reader, through the description of an object or a moment.”
The exotic, warm landscapes of the French Riviera and Italy are brought to vivid life, again through Lysaght’s quiet, measured observances of the world around him. Was it different writing in foreign climes? “When you’re in a different place there’s a different mood, and in the case of Italy or the south of France, there’s a different language as well, so it takes time to adjust, to retune the apparatus to a new place. I don’t think I went out to Italy expecting to write loads … I kind of waited for it to happen … There’s a body of work there that tries to register a different place, a different atmosphere. And it’s one that’s not unfamiliar to many people – most people we know nowadays will go to France or Italy or Spain. It’s kind of part of the fabric of things now.
“So the book, with its division between the harsh weather of the west of Ireland and the different atmosphere of the south of Europe, it charts a course that a lot of people follow.
“And we do try to hold the two together, don’t we? Dreaming of our next sun, in April or May, as we do the rat runs through the bad rain in January and February.”
Still, when viewed through ‘Carnival Masks’, even these colder days can turn up miracles – the skylark calls, the thrush sings, ‘the crocus shivers to offer saffron to the world’.
Seán Lysaght’s new poetry collection, ‘Carnival Masks’ is published by Gallery Press. It will be launched in Mayo at 7.30pm on Thursday, March 20, at The Creel Restaurant, The Quay, Westport, and in Dublin on Tuesday, March 25, at the Little Museum of Dublin. The Mayo launch is supported by the Custom House Gallery.