#188: THE WONDERS OF THE WORLD. Given our celebrity culture, it is possible and common to know a great deal about the biography and preferences—political, theological, sexual, aesthetic, culinary—of singers whose music you’ve never heard and actors whose performances you’ve never seen. But poking around online recently for some background on the marvelous Irish-language poet Sean O’Riordain, I found only the most bare and skeletal account. Born and died, etc., went to school, etc.; was tubercular most of his life, which in the Ireland of his day meant a great deal of time spent in isolation and in sanatoriums. His work was held in copyright captivity long after his death, so it is only in the last few years that bilingual selections have been available; his voluminous diaries are only now in the process of publication, in the original Irish.
Any account of his life, with its burden of ill health, is likely to suggest a somewhat hospital atmosphere, but, as with the long list of writers who were tubercular (Orwell, Keats, Voltaire, Catullus, possibly Stevenson, etc. etc. etc.), the visibility of the disease was not so dominant as one might expect, and O’Riordain’s verse, if not exactly carnival fun, was highly varied in mood. Like many writers so burdened, he fought through to vision, and, like the Japanese poet Masaoka Shiki, found marvels close to home: in one of his most famous poems, “Cul an Ti,” he speaks of “the wonders of the world, / a chandelier, buckles, an old straw hat, / a trumpet dumb but elegant, / and a white goose-like kettle.” There is loneliness here, but so there is for all of us; fear, illness, death, but also perseverance and pleasure, and, above all, his own distinctive slant. One of his most telling images is in “Na Leamhain” (“The Moths”), in which those common creatures are evoked in both their familiarity and strangeness. So it is with all great poetry: the everyday polished, revealed, restored to our attention. Part of O’Riordain’s inspiration may come from an urgent, wrestling relationship with his poetic tongue that is especial to Irish writers, speaking and retaining a language perpetually at threat; “A theanga seo leath-liom,” he calls it, “language half-mine.” Nothing can or will be taken for granted.
It is a joy to report that there are now two superb bilingual selections from O’Riordain now in print. A Selected Poems, edited by Frank Sewell and published in the Margellos World Republic of Letters by Yale, parcels out the work of translation to a rafter of terrific poets, including Ciaran Carson, Mary O’Malley, Paul Muldoon, Sewell himself and a dozen others. And Greg Delanty’s versions, delayed for years by copyright tangles, is now out from Bloodaxe Books: Apathy Is Out / Ni Ceadmhach Neamhshuim: Selected Poems / Rogha Danta (2021). You can’t go wrong with either, and both prove O’Riordain a poet of great range of invention, appealing modesty and happily accessible to translation. Online on Youtube, there’s a lovely setting of “Cul an Ti,” set and sung by Sean Tyrell.
Greg Delanty translates the last lines of “Ni Ceadmach Neamhsuim” thus: “No matter how far South Africa, / no matter how distant the moon, / they’re part of us by right: / there’s not a single spot anywhere / we’re not a part of. We issue from everywhere.” In the Yale volume, Peter Sirr gives them as “however far South Africa / however high the moon, / they’re part of us by right— / there’s nowhere in the world / where we have not been born.” However rendered, they seem to me good words to hear.