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Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2000

Poetry that brings countries together

THE WEATHER IN JAPAN, by Michael Longley. Jonathan Cape, 2000, 70 pp., 8 British pounds.
HAY, by Paul MULDOON. Faber & Faber, 140 pp., 7.99 British pounds.
A SMELL OF FISH, by Matthew Sweeney. Jonathan Cape, 2000, 64 pp., 8 British pounds.

Irland and Japan: two countries at the far extremities of the Eurasian landmass, one an underpopulated single island, the other a populous archipelago. Recently they were linked in anniversary celebrations for Lafcadio Hearn, Japan's great apologist from Ireland, who was born 150 years ago on June 27.

Yet despite vast differences and the huge distance separating them, there has been a mutual literary fascination for some time. As important as Hearn in this respect was the poet W.B. Yeats, the centenary of whose birth was marked here in 1965 by a Japanese scholar who had corresponded with him. There was a book ("Yeats and Japan," by Shotaro Oshima), there were commemorative events, and interest in Ireland grew.

This may have been partly a matter of gratitude -- to Yeats for being interested in Japan (or at least in a Japan of his imagination). If that was so, then the feeling was reciprocated and has continued. Irish poets have been regularly invited here in recent years, and the evidence of their visits can be found in new collections.

Two of the Irish poets under review came to Japan in the early 1990s; the third has never visited. The Belfast poet Michael Longley's visit was reflected in a previous collection, "The Ghost Orchid" (1995), but only very slightly. It was not an uneventful visit -- "Who stole my shoes from the garden of Ryoan-ji?" -- but the poems were diminutive and lyrical, gesturing toward the resonantly small:

We are completely out of proportion in the tea-house

Until we arrange around a single earthenware bowl. . .

Even though there is nothing at all Japanese in the formal shapes of Longley's poetry, which is invariably square and even, there is something akin to Japanese poetic practice in his procedures. He celebrates the tiny and the close at hand: small animals and birds observed nearby in silence, flowers that you have to look at on your hands and knees. This, and the fact that many of his poems are occasional verses, recalls the origins of haiku.

Haiku is pre-eminently a poem of the small and carefully regarded, which owes its beginnings to the commemoration of particular occasions. This Longley's poetry suggests, though history darkens and endangers the occasions that it marks. In earlier work, reference was made to World War I and to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, always in a low-key, unobtrusive way. The present volume has many elegies for relatives and friends.

Longley's compositions are seldom very long, and the title-piece of "The Weather in Japan" is the shortest in the book:

    Makes bead curtains of the rain,     Of the mist a paper screen.

This is not the stuff of an exotic travelogue, but the work of a poet who thinks in images. Another poem commemorates a visit from a Japanese scholar, and is freighted with memories of being in Japan:

. . . Let us float again naked in volcanic

Pools under the constellations and talk about babies.

There is an affectionate elegy for the poet Sean Dunne (who himself wrote an excellent poem about Lafcadio Hearn), as well as many other lovely things in this collection.

Paul Muldoon came to Japan a little after Longley, and is also native to Northern Ireland. He is professor of poetry at Oxford University in England, though he makes his home in the United States. He is considered one of the leading poets of the English language, whose technical dexterity is much admired.

If, against a backdrop of political violence and terrorism, poetry for Longley functions as one of the peaceful arts, sometimes quite directly, then for Muldoon it may do so, too, though more obliquely. The second poem in "Hay" is called "The Point" and first alludes to Yeats ("Not Sato's sword. . ."), before leading the reader on a wild-goose chase that deflects and deconstructs the very "point" that it is making.

Muldoon distributed specially printed copies of this poem when he visited Japan, perhaps because of its Japanese references. The fact that it is a sonnet reminds us of his experiments with that form, but, more than that, we note the wry bemusement with which it makes its absent "point." "I was standing in for myself," says the poet elsewhere in the book. He is one of the few serious poets whose work is genuinely funny.

"Hay" is a brilliant, multifaceted collection, whose themes and language are bound up in complicated ways with Muldoon's other writing, since he continually plays off himself. Of particular interest in Japan, besides the slyly textured references to a classic noh play in "Long Finish," is a lengthy sequence called "Hopewell Haiku."

There are 90 poems in this sequence, named for the place Muldoon was living in New Jersey when he wrote them. What is surprising, though, to anyone who knows contemporary English haiku, is the conservatism of the form. Muldoon's haiku are syllabic (three lines of 5-7-5) and they rhyme (usually the first and last line), conventions that have generally been abandoned by English haiku writers.

Their appearance here is surprising because Muldoon has experimented wildly with the sonnet, though his loyalty to it in book after book suggests that he enjoys the technical challenge. So it is with haiku, where both the poet's and reader's enjoyment come from the skillful and witty use of rhyme. This, too, fits into the wider strategies of Muldoon's work.

It is arguable, of course, that the haiku was actually invented in Ireland: There is a ninth-century verse in Irish about a yellow-billed blackbird singing across Belfast Lough, which resembles haiku in its brevity and vividness. The similarity has been remarked by several writers, including Seamus Heaney. The blackbird makes a quick appearance in the third verse of Muldoon's "Hopewell Haiku."

The subject matter of the verses varies widely, from the relaxed and personal:

At my birthday bash, /a yellow bin for bottles /and a green for trash. /to the mysterious: /Fresh snow on the roof /of a car that passed me by. /The print of one hoof.

In one, the poet makes a natural observation that is almost camp in its drollery, yet sharply accurate as well:

The Canada geese /straighten a pantyhose seam, /press a trouser crease.

This superbly evokes the line of geese in flight, head-to-tail, not quite straight but always nearly getting straight. This is the poet at his best.

Matthew Sweeney is of an age with Muldoon, from Ireland too, and his new collection appears simultaneously with Longley's. Sweeney is quite a different poet, intrigued above all by stories and the place that the story line will take him. But his book likewise contains some brief syllabic verses, like the dryly titled "Requiem":

Mournful music seeped /out through the window of the /overturned lorry.

I am told that he calls such verses "anti-haiku."

In several of Sweeney's monologues and stories, there are references to cooking, and Longley also mentions food preparation more than once. The 30-page sequence with which Muldoon concludes is partly concerned with a meal in a French restaurant. Are we witnessing the birth of gourmet poetry? Or is it that, as the Troubles seem to be receding, the time has come for finer things? Cookery is another of the peaceful arts.

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