Lorna Shaugnessy is the new Featured Writer. Her latest book Witness Trees is a sharply observed and very moving collection about individuals on the brink, about mysteries never explained. Shaugnessy who was born in Belfast and now lives in Galway, has also recently translated Manuel Rivas’ The Disappearance of Snow which launched in Dublin and at Cuirt Literary Festival, Galway.
Rivas is a remarkable visionary: his torrential poems spill across the page with passion as in My Smuggler Love or My Love is a Suction-Force Pump. Some of the lines in his poems make me want to stare into space for a long time – even when, or maybe mostly when, I am not sure I understand their meaning. We take words for granted – thinking that we know how they work and that they enable us to say what we want but, in this collection, I am often reminded of the Cornish poet W.S Graham who wrote, ’What is the language using us for?’
Rivas’ line endings are carefully stationed and this lets an edgy note creep in: for example, The History of Silence closes with:
‘He never came back.
But the silence did. Perching
On the night’s shoulder
Like a dangerous friendship.’
Or in Manifesto,
‘But sometimes, it’s true
that eyes can heed the crackling of the moon,
the unsettling snow of falling cinders,
the footsteps of someone returning to a body. ‘
His language is dramatic and transformative and draws powerfully on allusion. Past and present merge. There are deep echoes of his own personal life, mirroring mythologies and folklore from his own native Galicia and from other cultures. And Shaugnessy has brought some of his music into the more angular sound of the English, the two voices speaking as one and, if you listen to www.lrbshop.co.uk/news/50/Manuel-Rivas , you will hear how her Irish voice is completely in tune with the soft Galician that delivers such a punch. Maybe this poetry needed the Irish touch.
In The Enigmatic Order, ‘Words come to reclaim what is theirs’, and his veneration for the power of words that reveal truths and so carry our humanity, comes through in his thrilling tapestry of language: the aviator who reads braille at night; the Argonaut sweat of their grain; the cross-eyed woman who carries hushed voices/in her basket of sea urchins; the blind man’s ballad where everything is told/without hope and without fear. This is the collection’s powerful opening poem and the feelings evoked here swept me on right through the collection, the covering of snow protecting what lies beneath. As you read each line of this poem you see how language is freighted with memory, with personal and cultural meanings while conveying so many rich ambiguities.
The History of Money starts with the line, ‘My cap on the ground is the European bank. Please don’t throw your sadness in it’. Rivas makes every happening connect and explores its effect on the dispossessed. Always unafraid to look at and tackle vast subjects he brings this potency into the fine observation of the particular. His poems are like Russian dolls and repay searching for the hidden references in their depths.
He uses any amount of ‘grand’ words which he earns by employing them in dramatic and exciting ways or by following them with a sudden drop in register, the unexpected appearance of humour which hovers below the surface in so many of the poems, wrinkling their surfaces. In Resurrection Lazarus is reluctant to come back to life but it is only in the last line that we understand the event is being witnessed by the press. This is one of those moments when you need mental space to imagine the whole scene, suggested in so few words, his syntax supple and flexible. Lorna Shaugnessy’s translation is unflinching and her intuitive understanding of the language gives her a clear-eyed perceptivity.
In a recorded interview Rivas’ voice comes over as more hesitant than I’d have expected. He hunts for words, occasionally murmurs No? and yet his articles of faith in the power of writing are forthright and come straight from the heart. He has said that silence is a custodian of the language and is its placenta. Words of hatred can lead to war. Literature’s role is to enter the field of mute silence, of the unspeakable with a lit match.
His bewitching novel The Carpenter’s Pencil is a short but powerful evocation of the brutality of the Spanish Civil War and the humanity of those who were caught up in it and, indeed, were part of the war machine. With sparse description, Rivas reaches deeply into the contradictory human psyche and his surgical instrument is his distinctive style which is mesmerising, both lyrical and stark. His more recent novel, Books Burn Badly is rivetting but takes some guts to read as every page, if not every paragraph packs some punch.
The Disappearance of Snow translated by Lorna Shaugnessy and is published by Shearsman.