Maire MacEntee Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

An Irish Voice of Poetry: Conversation with Maire MacEntee, poet; 4/4/00 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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A Poem: Shoah

You've agreed to read one of your poems to us in Irish and then in English. Your poem Shoah was published in The Great Book of Ireland, where it was illustrated by a survivor of the Nazi camps, who signed his work with his tattooed number.

Yes, and that, of course, was an extraordinarily emotional experience, I imagine for both of us. I saw the memorial in Vienna. Conor and I were attending a conference of Christians and Jews, and I was enormously impressed by the memorial.

This was a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust?

Yes, in which there is the famous controversial figure of the crouching Jew, slightly larger than life but such a majestic figure that you begin to feel that it is inhuman to be standing upright. And that's more or less what I've tried to convey in the poem. But the poem wrote itself. It's quite short but it wrote itself and it still occasionally frightens me.

Before you read the poem, help us understand the experience. Did you go back to your hotel to write it? Did it come days later?

I wrote it on the plane returning to Philadelphia from Vienna. I wrote it on the plane; it wrote itself.

And you thought it in Gaelic.

Yes, it wrote itself in Irish. My poems do. A phrase suggests itself and then I know that the rest of the poem is there, I just have to wait, listen for it, and it's there.

Do you go back and do any editing?

I do edit occasionally. Rather little, but I do edit occasionally. Especially poems which are written when I'm away from Ireland and my Irish is rusty. I do tend to look at them again and say, "Well, that is what I want to say, but it's not how I want to say it."

We would love to hear you do a reading.

Should I translate first or read first?

Why don't you read it in the Gaelic and then we'll go back and then you can do the translation.

I'll do that.

And this is called Shoah.

It's called Shoah, and it says, "On seeing the memorial to the Holocaust in Vienna in November 1988."

poem Shoah in Irish typefaceShoah

An seanóir Giúdach ar a cheithre cnámha,
Ualach sneachta ar a ghuailne,
Cianta an rogha ina ghnúis --
'Mar seo,' adeir an t-lomhá miotail,
'Do sciúr mo chine "leacacha na sráide"
I Wien na hOstaire, leathchéad bliain ó shoin --
É sin, agus ar lean é --
Ní náire feacadh í láthair Dé --
Ach sibhse, na meacain scoiltithe,
Bhur gcoilgsheasamh ar bhur "gcuaillí arda",
Nil agaibh teicheadh ón aithis:
Ársa na mBeann crapadh go hisle glún,
Beatha na n-éag insa láib,
Ar a chosa deiridh don mbrútach!'

Shoah

The old Jew on his hands and knees,
A weight of snow on his shoulders,
Ages of election in his face --
'Thus' says the metal image,
'My people scoured "the flagstones of the street"
In Vienna of Austria, fifty years ago --
That, and what followed --
It is no shame to crouch in the face of God --
But you, the forked root vegetables,
Bolt upright on your "high stilts",
You shall not escape defilement:
The Ancient of the High Places stunted as low as the knee,
Eternal Life in the mud,
The brute on his hind legs!'

So that's the little poem. And it shakes me to read it, as that marvelous monument shook me at that time.

In the poem you have captured that feeling for your audience.

I hope.

And you have done it in the second part of the poem by turning to your cultural tradition. Explain that to us.

The figure of something very holy on hands and knees, immediately, to someone with a Catholic background, suggests the stations of the cross, and there is a marvelous folk poem called "The Lament of the Three Marys" about the Passion of Christ. And some of the phrases, the one about the high stilts and the one about the flagstones of the street, are direct quotes from the folk poem. So it's seeing the Holocaust in terms of the Passion, I suppose. But I didn't consciously do that; that happened.

The work of art that you've created enables people from your own tradition to resonate with this terrible thing that happened in Europe.

Absolutely, and of course it is external, even more external to the Gaelic tradition than it is to the English speaking, European, and in our case, neutral tradition.

By external you mean the experience of the Holocaust?

Yes. I mean it has been very little, I think, certainly as far as I know, very little treated in Irish language verse. And I can't think off-hand of Irish treatments of it in English.

As you talk about your poem, I'm reminded of the discussion we began with because of your experience in Africa, meeting villagers, talking about problems, but watching them and feeling a universal experience.

Oh, absolutely. As a professional politician's daughter, feeling totally at home.

So through poetry you are enabled, and you enable your audience to move from the particular to the universal and back again.

I would hope that, yes.

And this particular piece of poetry just came to you. You were a vessel.

I was just sitting on an airplane in the window seat and pulling out something to write it down on.

So your art and your scholarship empower you to create a piece of art that captures that moment so that, in a sense, it just flows.

It's largely self conscious, it just flows as you say. And rarely I'm afraid.

How does the interplay between emotion and reason in the poet differ, do you think, from that of the reader of the poem?

It shouldn't in ideal circumstances differ at all. I mean it should be a two-way communication, it shouldn't differ at all. But writing in a minority language is fraught with difficulties. The Irish that I write is the Irish that people spoke more than fifty years ago. All the generations for whom ideally I write are dead. The post - Second World War electronic age generation still speak Irish which I can certainly understand, but Irish which has become a kind of Esperanto, which is based on technical terms which are English, and above all on syntactical terms which are English. Whereas the Irish that I spoke as a child was a very distinct language from English, as you can see with the difficulty people like Synge had in conveying an Irish-speaking milieu in English. I mean, out of that grew Synge's own wonderful medium, but I write in the kind of Irish that Synge's people would have understood but that modern city children going to an Irish language school would have difficulty understanding.

How much of the emotion that you're trying to capture do you think is lost in the English translation which you so beautifully read?

I think in that one rather less than in others because that one depends rather little on poetic techniques. I mean that one is a very straightforward, immediate reaction, and you can see it's quite easy to capture the rhythm of the Irish when you're translating it into English. But some of my poems don't translate for the very reason that -- especially the love lyrics -- when you've translated them into English people tend to say, so what's new? But if people hear them in Irish then what's new of course is the melody and the metrical expertise.

So it's the sound, not just the words.

It's the sound, it's the marriage of the sound and the sense that is difficult to convey in translation. I am vain enough to think that I do it very well, so it's even more difficult to convey.

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