Mick Delap, who edited this edition of Magma, leaves home with the American poet Elizabeth Bishop and returns to Belfast, home of Sinéad Morrissey whose second collection, Between Here and There, published by Carcanet, was short listed for the latest T.S. Eliot Prize.
The American poet Elizabeth Bishop, who died in 1979, was moved from one country to another in the course of a troubled childhood. Later, in the course of a troubled life, she never settled for good in any one place. ‘Home’ was, variously, Nova Scotia, New England, Washington, Brazil, and Key West. Each place was located somewhere along the eastern seaboard of the Americas and in one of her shorter poems, Sandpiper, Bishop examines in great detail the world of a small seashore bird, running up and down on a sandy beach beside the waves and tides of the Atlantic, "looking for something, something, something". Not long before she died she told an audience, "All my life I have lived and behaved very much like that sandpiper, just running along the edges of different countries, ‘looking for something.’"
Another Bishop poem, Questions of Travel, was quoted by Tim Kindberg as he edited the previous ‘Foreign Lands’ edition of Magma. Bishop wrote Questions of Travel soon after taking up residence in Brazil and in the poem she explores the detail of the foreign country she is experiencing for the first time, writing with a stranger’s, a traveller’s eye. But in the process of defining her reactions to a new country, Bishop also found herself opening up fresh perspectives on an old one, on the home – or homes – she’d just left. It was only when she got to Brazil that Bishop found herself able to start writing effectively about her early childhood in Nova Scotia. In Questions of Travel Bishop records this paradoxical process, how travel may throw new light not just on Here, but also on There. But in doing so, it may upset any comfortable preconceptions or assumptions about what Home was or is. So it was Questions of Travel which also inspired my own search, in this edition, for poems that have successfully gone away from home, "looking for something" in what Peter Porter, another expatriate poet, has called "the dictionary of discontinuity".
It certainly seems to have worked for many of the contributors to Magma 26. Some poets, like Mario Petrucci, Gary Allen and Myra Schneider, have explored the tension even the shortest departure from home may occasion. Others have followed Bishop further afield and written directly or obliquely about home as strangers experiencing a new, foreign culture: James Sutherland-Smith with more insights from Slovakia, Paddy Bushe and George Messo with the view from China; or Kathryn Simmonds, with her twenty-first century, urban version of Home Thoughts from Abroad, looking over her shoulder at a London "gutter-sweet, and overflowing like the bins". Then there’s the Russian Evgeny Rein in Austria-Hungary. But Rein’s Austria-Hungary, as the use of the old imperial name suggests, is distanced from the poet, and from us as readers, in years as well as miles. And other Magma poets have also explored the doubly distant territories that are far away in both senses, historical as well as geographical. Geraldine Paine’s unfortunates being transported from England to Australia are paralleled by the colonial returnees to the ‘Home’ country – the floating world of Alice Allen’s nineteenth-century diarist and Arthur Attwell’s unimpressed twenty-first century visitor. Others have explored the experience of more recent exile in other parts of a troubled world. Vergil Suárez returns to Magma with further American-Cuban memories, while the new voices of Stephanie Norgate, Lynette Craig and Herbert Moore look at the effects of more brutal uprootings. Home is, of course, as much about people and relationships as it is about place. And leaving it, as Elizabeth Bishop knew all too painfully, involves emotional as well as physical distancing and loss. So this edition of Magma ends its travels with a series of poems inspired by the experience of circling around – towards or away from – a homely, familial togetherness.
Not all poets, new or established, find leaving home either necessary or inspiring. Philip Larkin shared Elizabeth Bishop’s ability to turn a fastidious, tentative exploration of daily experience into formal poetry of great power. But Larkin’s poems travel without moving far from Hull. And in his Poetry of Departures he poured scorn on those who "chucked up everything and just cleared off".
We all hate home
And having to be there …
So to hear it said
He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred …
…. I’d go today,
Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren’t so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards …
And Larkin is right to sound a note of caution. Unlike Bishop’s profound and moving works, much of the poetry inspired by travel doesn’t go much deeper than the postcards we dash off and the snaps we bring home. By concentrating on the easy images, the colourful and the exotic, it so often fails to say anything new either about where we’ve been or who we are. So what distinguishes successful poetry-of-travel from unsuccessful? One contemporary poet who should know is Sinéad Morrissey. Her second collection, Between Here and There, was short listed for this year’s T.S. Eliot Prize. Morrissey, who was born in Northern Ireland in 1972, told me when we met in Belfast that she’d written poetry from the age of 8 or 9, and reckoned travel was "the dominant characteristic of my life" between the ages of 18 and 28. Those were the ten years that followed her move south to Dublin, aged 18, to read English and German at Trinity College. She took a year out of Trinity to live in Flensburg in Germany, spent time in Uist in Scotland and visited Canada (her first collection, published in 1996, was called There Was Fire in Vancouver). Straight after handing in that manuscript, she took off for two years in Japan, followed by two more years in New Zealand. Now she’s back in Belfast, as poet-in-residence at Queen’s University, and says she doesn’t want to travel any more!
Certainly travel hasn’t harmed Morrissey’s poetry so far. In 1990 she received the Patrick Kavanagh Award for Poetry. There Was Fire in Vancouver won an Eric Gregory Award in 1996; she was Poet in Residence at London’s 2002 South Bank Centre Poetry International; and she was a powerful presence, with her second collection Between Here and There, at the January 2003 T.S. Eliot Prize shortlist readings.
The most striking element in Between Here and There, and what certainly attracted most critical acclaim, was a sequence of poems about Morrissey’s two years in Japan. The first poem in the sequence, Goldfish, begins,
The black fish under the bridge was so long I mistook it
for a goldfish in a Japanese garden the kind the philosophers
wanted about them so much gold underwater to tell them what waited
in another element like breathing water they wanted to go
to the place where closing eyes is to see.
Goldfish exhibits Morrissey’s strengths – what the critic Stephen Knight calls "a clear eye for detail and a long line that never quite crumbles into prose". The result is an intense poetry of shifting shapes and luminous images and sounds, very different from the pared-down style of her earlier work. And travelling to Japan was crucial to taking this major step forward, Morrissey told me. Following the sudden and complete break-up of her family home in Belfast, she had "run away" ó first to Flensburg in Germany then, after finishing with Trinity and completing her first collection, to Japan. "I felt that if I went away and survived without any known structures around me to help me, then I could survive anywhere. So I went somewhere I knew nobody. I had no connections with this place. I didn’t know the language. I didn’t even know the history. It was a way to deal with this terrible fear that I’d lost the ground under me. And the results were spectacular – for a while. It was about being blown open. For the first six weeks I felt euphoria in a way I’d never felt before. It was a huge freedom to be somewhere you had no responsibilities towards. And I met my husband three days after I arrived, and fell in love. It was a profound change that happened to me personally, and poetically, at the same time."
Goldfish was the first poem Morrissey wrote in Japan. "It just seemed to write itself. And it was unlike anything I’d ever written before. It was a stream of consciousness, and the line became long and expanded. And because the reality in front of me was so strange, I felt I had to make the language strange to mirror it effectively." So, travel, for Morrissey the poet, worked? "Yes. It’s a kind of jump start, a short cut. Elizabeth Bishop starts Questions of Travel, "There are too many waterfalls here" – and it’s like her poetic sensibility is being pressurized into expression by the unprecedented qualities of what she’s seeing. It’s very exciting – like a big adrenalin injection into your poetry, shocking your sensibilities into a different kind of expression."
Morrissey acknowledges that being bowled over by the new does create a risk of lingering on the surface, leading to superficial poems written by literary tourists. "But in my Japanese poems, as well as the detail, there’s a seeing eye in unfamiliar surroundings. It’s an exploration of the consciousness of someone who’s at sea. Good poems come out of tensions; and by travelling you are deliberately putting yourself into a situation where there’s a tension between the new and the old, where you are and where you’ve come from. I need to be tussling with things. In my own poetry, the poems which don’t work are the ones I don’t feel have enough conflict in them. It’s out of the conflict that poetic power is generated."
Those first euphoric days in Japan were followed by tougher times, of writer’s block and the silencing of her voice. The poems in the first part of Between Here and There come out of that later, difficult period. But looking back, Morrissey has no doubts about her initial decision to "run away" to Japan. "It was exactly the right strategy. Travel’s been very kind. I’m tremendously grateful to those places for my experiences. Even the hard ones". She introduces Between Here and There with an epigraph about how her voice left her in Japan, and, eventually, returned:
eager, weather-worn, homesick, confessional,
burdened with presents from being away
and bringing me everything under the sun.