Saturday 24 November 2018


The literary magazine Cyphers inches towards its hundreth edition, and I wonder will I be alive to see it? Fourteen issues to go. At two issues a year, I might make it!
Cyphers has outlived all but one of its original editors. Pearse Hutchinson and Leland Bardwell are gone, and most recently gone is Macdara Woods, who died in June. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is the remaining editor, and, as the acknowledgements say, she is assisted by Natasha Cuddington and Léan Ní Chuilleanáin, with Joseph Woods as consulting editor.
    This issue begins with the voice of Macdara Woods. Non omnis moriar, indeed, and a voice that I suspect will be heard more receptively in times to come. In the poem 'Sheep and Rorschach Birds Dissolving', Woods evokes the stifling summer heat (of Umbria or our recent home heatwave?) with characteristic mordant gaiety, translating the cooing of pigeons into unflattering, scatological English:
You're useless say the pigeons
You're a broomstick
Fuck off you
Fuck off you
Senseless in the afternoon
The heat in the forties
And the light gone viscous
And nowhere dark enough
Or cool enough
Or deep enough
And never will be
In saecula saeculorum
For so much as a sliver
Of a memory of ice
To permit you to
Open the lungs and eyes:
It's brutal it's brutal
Sings a mindless bird
For a moment making
A commonality of sense
It's a Rorschach test
A Rorschach test –
Et sauve qui peut
Pipes up the
Water box in the back
Of the Lot –
And my eyes close....

Why has the poetry of Macdara Woods been met with such indifference in our little country? Even at their best, reviews have been less than glowing, carefully hedged with qualifications. It seems to bespeak a fear among Irish poets of upsetting some dictatorial presence by endorsing Woods' frequent Neruda-like forays into the risky realms of injustice, oppression and other deep-rooted evils of humanity: the arenas where poetry seeks to parley with that which is grave and constant in human suffering?

And you will ask: why doesn't his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
in the streets!
(Pablo Neruda, 'I'm Explaining A Few Things') 

In a recent review in The Irish Times,  John McAuliffe comments on a poem by Janet Robinson about Ireland's only frog species as follows: she 'describes “a frog/ whose skin’s a mucous membrane/ like my eyes and mouth/ where inside opens wetly to the outside”, an image so tender it hardly needs the accompanying description of bleach and detergent pollution to make its ecological point.'
The Ticket, 17/11/18, italics mine).

So what are we to infer from this? 
(1) Tenderness itself will make an ecological point?
(2) References to bleach and detergent pollution are unaesthetic and take away from the poem?
(3) References to bleach and detergent pollution are uncomfortable because they hint at ecological disaster, and make us uneasy in our political and social inaction?

I am all for the 'soft' content of poetry, but surely poets ought to address the 'hard' content too?
I have also often wondered why Cyphers is not held in greater esteem, remembering the rather patronising remark of an otherwise supportive former Literary Editor of The Irish Times: 'Good old Cyphers'. I think the failure to give this magazine its proper reputation is because of its modesty: it does not tell you in advance that these poems are 'exciting', 'heart-stopping', 'delightful', 'fit to die in'; nor does it distinguish between the famous and the unfamous by opting for the big names before others. It simply places the poems before the reader to make of them what he or she may, to be judged on their merits, to take or to leave. But perhaps (and I hope) the dependably revitalizing contents of Cyphers will come into their own when people get heartily sick of boasting and oneupmanship, and eventually come back to their senses and make their own judgements; when an ethos might prevail where readers are allowed to be 'love-struck by a loveliness/ of lines, won over by a spell of stanzas' rather than being told vociferously what they ought and ought not to be reading.

There is originality and verve to the writing in the poems and stories on offer in this  issue. Here are the opening lines of a poem (in translation) which made me tingle with the pleasure of recognising how language can transform the world:
The mouths of post-boxes
On the sociology of absences.
The sparrow pecking
At disappointed onomatopoeias
Amongst the losing tickets
Of the charity Tombola...

('Endangered Language' by Manuel Rivas, translated by Lorna Shaughnessy)

And right beside it, a beautiful translation of Lorca's 'Romance de la Pena Negra' by the same poet-translator.
Cockerels break open the ground
pecking in search of the dawn
when down from the darkest mountain
comes Soledad Montoya.

Her flesh, yellow as copper,
smells of stables and shadows.
Her breasts, smoky as anvils,
are a sighing, ringing song....

What's not to like about this edition of Cyphers, which also includes two compelling short stories, 'The Gods of Mud' by Mark Czanik and 'Natural Birth' by Peter Arnds, and a commentary on 'Literary Publishing In Ireland' by the editor herself, amongst its many gems?


1 comment:

  1. Nice piece Ciaran. Makes me want to pick up cyphers ....