Kerry Mead reviews Queering the Green Edited by Paul Maddern
When Irish poetry is mentioned most people’s thoughts first turn to the work of William Butler Yeats. His early work is marked by elaborate, flowery language and adherence to traditional forms, simultaneously always true to his strong sense of his own Irishness in its exploration of Irish landscape and legends. As Yeats grew older he became more experimental in form and subject; the simple language and unpredictable changes in metre in his poem Easter, 1916, written in response to the Easter Rising in Dublin that year, illustrates this shift:
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.1
Published in November 2021 by The Lifeboat Press, Queering the Green is full of such shifts from the traditional in form, subject and style. It is an anthology of post-2000 Queer Irish Poetry collected by author Paul Maddern, featuring the poems of thirty one contemporary Queer writers, who either currently live in Ireland or were born there. In the introduction to Queering the Green Maddern explains that the anthology’s title is a nod to Easter, 1916: ‘A century after The Rising, equally momentous upheavals of a different nature have again seen the ‘green’ changed utterly and the queer community and its supporters have played an integral role in bringing about these transformations’.2
Queering the Green is intended not as a tick-box historical overview of Irish Queer poetry but more as a multifarious feast of words and subject matter exploring what it means to be an Irish poet today. It includes poetry from a wide array of writers; ranging from established names to new, previously unpublished voices, from every stratum of the LGBTQ+ community. Considering themes as wide-ranging as grief, parenthood, home, hookups, familial ties, romantic love and politics, this is not an anthology that only talks of exclusively LGBTQ+ issues; but all viewpoints are rooted in the queer, a different way of looking at the world.
The poems are ordered alphabetically by surname of the author, so themes, identities, styles and decades clash, highlighting their differences and common threads as happens in meandering conversations, rather than the linear, progressive march of time and development seen in history books. But Queering the Green offers up many avenues to explore questions of Irish history and Queer politics, such as: How does the nature of the upheavals and transformations visited upon Ireland since 2000 differ from the struggles of previous centuries? How has Irish poetry responded to this changed landscape? and What exactly does it mean to be Queer anyway, both in creative practice and in modern-day Ireland?
It presents these avenues of inquiry not just through the poems on its pages, but also in its very existence as an anthology. The fact that an anthology of the work of Queer Irish poets is available on the shelves of bookshops today tells us much about the shifting landscape of contemporary Ireland. A stereotypical view of Ireland is that of a beautiful, rural and mythical emerald isle; poverty-and-violence-stricken due to its colonisation by the English and subsequent rupturing into North and South, ruled over by the church and a dogged adherence to non-inclusive, traditional values. Ireland’s literary voice, although widely lauded as producing some of the best poetry and prose of the last few centuries, was previously dominated by the traditional white, male voice. But Ireland, like most of the world, has changed considerably since its portrayal in the work of Yeats, or even in Roddy Doyle’s more recent The Commitments or Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha. Many contemporary Irish voices do not fit this mould, and it is now okay to stand up and publicly identify as a Queer Irish writer. Indeed, twenty-first-century Eire is now known as a forerunner when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights, being the first country to legalise same-sex marriage in 2015.
What exactly has changed? The recent uncovering of systemic abuse against women and children by the protestant and catholic churches has reduced the power and influence of religious bodies in Ireland. The mid-nineties saw a swift and huge boom in the Irish economy (followed of course, by a devastating economic bust in 2008), which in turn saw massive changes in the country’s infrastructure and an influx of migrant workers. The rights of women and the Queer community have much improved, with the legalisation of abortion and same-sex marriage. Today, Ireland is a diverse, cosmopolitan country, but there are still battles to be fought to achieve full equity, especially in Northern Ireland. Brexit has also had a huge effect on both sides of the border; the threat of violence and old divisions many thought had been contained by the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 is bubbling back to the surface again.
These changes have meant that the important issues for contemporary Irish writers have shifted since 2000, although it is evident that the legacy of Ireland’s turbulent history and the after-tremors of the sociopolitical changes the country has experienced in recent decades are still a part of present-day Ireland and its psychogeographical landscape. Queering the Green does not ignore these aspects of Irish experience. Whether seen as a generational echo or trauma running through the fabric of a poem like a blood-red thread, or more explicitly stated, such as in the unnerving clash of domesticity and violence in Sarah Clancy’s What A Bomb Hits, the past is very much present in parts of Queering the Green. You can find this sense of inherited trauma in another of Clancy’s poems Gorse, a quiet yet powerful homage to the stubborn, unchanging landscape of long-term relationships and also to the physical landscape itself, even when scorched by petrol fire:
Bogland doesn’t always burn
that easily, even after
a surprise late-night baptism with petrol
up here, where we are, a sly sea mist
sometimes sneaks in to douse it
and it’s left to smoulder
neither burning not put out
like we are
like we are.3
Some of the poetry in Queering the Green fully rejects the traditional, such as Stephen Mooney’s glitchy, diagrammatic, experimental works, but there are many examples of poems as well as Gorse that celebrate Ireland’s landscape, mirroring the subject matter of much Irish poetry from the past. Yet the mirror image is skewed, playing with traditional language structure and poetic forms.‘The green’, in its geographical sense, is ‘queered’, bringing into question the place of the contemporary or the uncommon when placed in or alongside the more traditional understanding of what Ireland and Irishness is. Padraig Regan’s Salt Island is a standout example of the placement of the Queer in the Irish landscape and a queering of the poetic lyrical tradition. Regan literally places himself, a Queer first person ‘I’, in the green landscape, observing: ‘… I see that my red tartan | clashed with the grass so perfectly | I wonder if I intended to be the punctum, | the little rip in the surface’.4 As Paul Maddern puts it ‘… what happens in ‘Salt Island’ occurs in poem after poem that you will encounter here’.5
In another example Chandrika Narayanan-Mohan, in Two Countries, compactly and clearly illustrates the experience of being a migrant to Ireland, comparing and contrasting the country of her birth with Ireland through the pull of their landscapes and their distinct effects on her corporeal self. In Colette Bryce’s Car Wash, two women steal an unseen kiss in a Belfast carwash. In The Proof Rosamund Taylor squats and pisses ‘in the boggy grass’ between spruces ‘somewhere above Balingrass’.6 Mícheál McCann scrolls through Grindr in bed in the dead of night, not so much looking for a hookup when he scans for the green circle that lets him know that someone close by is online, but more for confirmation that someone like him is out there somewhere in Hook-up | rural Donegal. A new, queer Ireland has arrived on the map.
The word queer literally means unusual, different from the norm, an oddity. When you start delving into the notion of ‘queering the green’ you realise it is a multi-layered concept when applied to the subject of the whole anthology. Queering the Green asks the reader to consider the different meanings of ‘queer’, such as being at odds with your surroundings, the queering of language, viewing the world through a queer lens, or identifying as part of the Queer community. Maddern states in the introduction: ‘… every poem is a queering of language; every poetry critic is a critic of the queer; every reader of poetry is engaged in a queer act; every performance of poetry is a queer iteration’. These different readings of the word are intrinsically linked, yet, as Maddern goes on to point out: ‘But only we are queer’.7
Which then naturally raises the question ‘and what is ‘the green’?’ Is it the symbolic Ireland Yeats explores in Easter, 1916; a source of pride and patriotism worth fighting to the death for? Is it the vivid green of the rugged, fertile landscape of a small island on the edge of the Atlantic ocean (a departure point or a destination, depending on your point of view)? Is it an identity; an innate sense of Irishness residing in the first person I? Is it a sense of tradition or home? Queering the Green affirms on every page, like the word ‘queer’, ‘the green’ contains a tangled web of all of these definitions. Maybe Maddern could have also added: ‘but only we are green as well’.
Queering the Green, whilst drawing on and respecting the past, both socio-politically and lyrically, deftly and thoughtfully brings together the diversity of thought, approach, subject matter and literary application evident in the contemporary Irish poetic landscape. It also points towards an inclusive, experimental and bright future for Irish literary practice. It really is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary poetry and Queer voices; a collection full of moments of Regan’s ‘perfect clash’ between the past, the present and the future of Irish and Queer identity.
- Yeats, William, “Easter 1916” and Other Poems, (Dover Publications, Mineola, New York, 2012).
- Maddern, Paul, Queering the Green, ed. Maddern, Paul, (The Lifeboat Press, Belfast, 2021), p xxiii.
- Clancy, Sarah, Gorse, ‘Queering the Green’, p44.
- Regan, Padraig, Salt Island, ibid.
- Maddern, Paul, ibid., p xxix.
- Taylor, Rosamund, The Proof, ibid., p359.
- Maddern, Paul, ibid., p xxii.