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Road To Cleggan Bay: The Connemara Cantos - Mike Harding
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
A little late in the day, perhaps, but well worth the five years that elapsed between the publication of Mike Harding’s The Connemara Cantos, and the book’s arrival at our offices. It may have turned up out of the blue beyond, but what a collection of poems!

That Harding is a polymath is an indicator of a mind given to intellectual curiosity, of not remaining static. He is a concatenation of paradoxes: in no particular order, a forward-thinking traditionalist, an unsentimental Romantic, a belligerent prophet and an acerbic comic. I’m guessing that he fears inertia.

And it is good, certainly for an audience weaned on Harding’s intelligent good humour, that he sets his fervently musical imagination to the task of poeticising. Outside of music, poetry is the most musical of the Arts; the formal structures of poetry observe similar stylistic patterns. The poet’s grasp of form, and especially rhythm, here, is a clear attempt at the distillation of more profound rumination through the conduit of formal measures.

Harding’s direct exposure to Irish culture – he spent several years in the West of the country – is, perhaps above else, an exposure to an inherent form of musicality, a culture of insouciant bonhomie, clotted colour and savage cultural irony. Connemara Cantos is a hymn – part eulogy, part elegy – to a place he has loved, close at hand and, through Irish parental connection and Catholic schooling, at intuitive distance.

In short, Ireland lies comfortably within Harding’s compass; his antennae, as Christy Moore implies in an insightful Foreword, are attuned to the aether over the water. Which is why, even in those poems that do not engage directly with terrain and cultural lingua franca, we inhabit an Ireland of the imagination, vouchsafed in the diaspora: the navvies, the relentless minimalist chatter of cotton mill machinery in Manchester, and the long shadow of the Famine which brought the dispersal of a broken people to the England of the 1840s and 50s. The song on the wind encompasses a terrible lament for the lost, alongside lost mythologies of place:

‘This hollow land is singing, set your ear
To that worn, cottage hearthstone – you will hear
The caoining of the years, of stories lost, the long song
Of a people most grievously wronged’;’
(‘The Old Bog Road, November 2010’)

Mike Harding
Harding’s use of Gaelic is put to persuasive use here: ‘caoining’, which I take to mean ‘keening’, as in lamenting, bears a resonance which unites the Famine sufferer in a circle of pain with millions of displaced sufferers, the forgotten woman and children of history; those who endured on the plains of the Troy of Greek tragedy, or the refugees of modern Syria.

Keening is as old a response to great sadness as human existence, and in a sense, this poet’s métier is shaped by the abstract vicarious pain which another writer once described as resembling a great sigh out of the last century.

Harding wears the integrity of deep fellow-feeling as though by instinct. Informed by those profound personal connections, he has an easy grasp of nuance, of cultural appurtenances which can transfigure meaning in a skilled rendering.

The ‘Six foot and some’ Heaneyesque figure of Paddy in ‘The Man to Write the Book’ carries the dignity of graft in his big frame, as he bears a ‘hundredweight bag of cement’ on each shoulder, ex-patriate distance from his real home in the west matched only by his quiet sense of deracination on an English building site.

Paddy’s blowing of a fuse one day is both instructive, and, in the context of his emotional erosion, justified. That the narrator’s explanation is speculative makes it no less persuasive: an eloquence of pity hoves heimat clearly into view:

‘You, Paddy, in my mind, lashing at the cruel chains of air,
The money manacles , the pay-day Friday cuffs,
Bright eyes fixed on an unreachable horizon,
The smell of seaweed off the rocks,
Salt on your tongue, wind in your copper hair,
And the far off fins of wine-red hooker sails
In a shining, mackerel coloured Connemara bay.’

The title of the poem is repeated, in different guises, throughout this fine collection, making of the act of writing a kind of commemoration. The poet is doing for the ghosts of memory what Tony Harrison did for his family and for the Leeds working classes of his youth: giving voice to the voiceless, and in so doing, making peace with the past.

The inarticulate Paddy of ‘The Man to Write the Book’ demands to be heard, as do the emaciated wraiths of the 1840s.

And, indeed, Harding’s parents, who no doubt struggled in order to give the nascent musician and writer the means to slip the chains of heritage, although the irony is not lost on their son: the haunting of the present by the past is a catalyst for making amends, for therapeutic re-connection.

The richness of Harding’s emotional confection gives something back. The child, ‘straddled’ on his mother’s hip, the recipient of unconditional love, owes a debt of gratitude, and in ‘Walking Mother to the Car’, it is returned in the pitifully moving image of declining, dependent age:

‘Breath and a bag of sticks is all – for all
The weight of years no heavier, as though
A small dry whitethorn branch has caught
Up on my sleeve, rootless, weightless
Futureless, and I am carrying it along

In this spirit, the gorgeously binding image of a brotherhood of men in ‘Making the Past’ – ‘our little lives, / meshed together by the web’s ineluctable lines’ – is elsewhere writ large as a metaphor for familial bond, more still for the extended consanguinity of the generations whose blood courses through Harding’s own veins. ‘Family Album’ opens on to an Irish vista peopled by the ghosts of threadbare emigrants on whose behalf Harding can only now make restitution in commemorative words – speaking, as it were, for the brutally silenced:

‘    Now I translate
The daysongs of their lives
One story for a thousand winter’s nights
Fireside words hugging the hearth.’

....which is, in the end, the poet, the troubadour, the shaman and the mystic’s mandate: to re-tell the story around the campfire or the domestic hearth, as an act of restitution and catharsis. And to this extent, Harding’s own compulsion is one link in a ‘chain’, the continuation of an endless narrative.

Also by Steve Whitaker...
Poem Of The Week: ‘My Boy Is Eighteen Today’ By Helen Cadbury
Celestial Recurrences: Huddersfield Choral Society/Orchestra Of Opera North
Catherine Robinson: Local Author Nominated For Top Literary Prize
Poem of the Week: ‘Petit Mal’ by Philip Gross
After We’re Gone: All The Way Home By Jane Clarke
A storyteller by instinct, Harding brings forth a story of love which stands foursquare in the face of the negligent Victorian ruling classes who remained perversely, and immorally, fearful of killing the Irish with too much kindness.

And how the caoining resounds. The poet’s frequent use of repetition underscores a plangent libretto: the musical lyricism that sustains, often unnoticed, in absentia; the diaspora which ripped away half of Ireland, and whose legacy breathes life into cultures of assimilation due east and west of its sea borders.

The deliberately lively metrical arrangement of ‘Fluteplayer’ is pulled up short by ironies of displacement. The music which inhered to every fabric of agrarian Ireland - gave work and leisure meaning in a harsh landscape - is enjoined in the figure of the listener quietly seduced by thoughts of the homeland he’ll ‘see no more’:

‘    While, through it all,
Your eyes tightly closed, your bald
Head slightly tenderly bowed, the old
Tunes warm the room’.

Equally affecting is the spirit of connection with Ireland which the poet magics from within, and which leads the present writer to suspect that some of these wonderful poems were conceived at a reflective distance. In ‘The Song of the Flute’, Harding nails the symmetry, the symbiosis of music and instrument and landscape which aggregate an experience, and bind the poet to his own artistically mutable sense of vocation:

‘    From root to branch,
From core to wing, from heart to wrist to fingers – cran
And roll the music, spin the tune out of the room’

His effort yields moments of transcendence as he contemplates a landscape and culture which remain, to some degree, indivisible. In amongst the observational wit and passages of easy comedy, these moments do not languish; in fact, they define a collection which is rooted in serious reflection and elemental sadness.

From moving ‘frames’ captured through a bus window, to black roses ‘flapping, caoining on a cold, rain-coming Atlantic squall’, to the crushing loss of a disappearance at sea, these poems anchor the reader to Harding’s greater purpose. And nowhere is that better described than in the undirected, lilting lament of ‘Train by Skerries’:

‘Beside me a nun reading and a priest reading
And the feeling that there was an ending and beginning,
Here in all, somehow meeting;
That the eternal sea falling on the shore was all,
That the child still hung upon the air was all,
And the broom, burning in the late May sun was all, was all.’

The Connemara Cantos is published by Luath Press
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Road To Cleggan Bay: The Connemara Cantos - Mike Harding, 8th February 2019, 11:05 AM