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Ian Parks' Essay

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WITNESS: THE POETRY OF SEÁN BODY


I'd like to begin with the notion of reticence as it seems to me that it is in many ways central to any discussion of Seán Body's work. From the outset, however, the question of reticence raises an intriguing paradox as it's always easier to talk about something that's been said than to talk about something that hasn't. And, to some extent, all poetry — even the most 'revealing' — operates in this way: in that it leaves significant gaps which are filled by the associations which individual readers bring to bear when they encounter the poem. Also, by reticence I don't mean an unwillingness on the part of the poet to confront issues which may be construed as being painful, disconcerting, or controversial — the sort of reticence we've come to associate with what we might call the English Tradition. Rather, the reticence which characterises Body's poetry and goes some way towards investing it with its singular quality has to do with an uncompromising commitment to look the painful, the disconcerting, and the controversial squarely in the face and to respond to them in such a way as to involve the audience in an act of witnessing which presupposes no moral judgements.

This unflinching attitude (tempered with a gift for articulating that most difficult of human emotions, tenderness) is characteristic of Body at his best; and he is often at his best in long, oblique sequences such as
Witness (which deals with the Holocaust) and The Hunger (which grows out of a meditation on the Great Famine). Here we find the poet at his most assured, dealing with themes close to his sensibility and poetic heritage. As such, they constitute the height of his poetic achievement and are, I'd suggest, necessary reading for anyone coming to Body's poetry for the first time. Here, as elsewhere, the reticence we encounter has to do with a blunt refusal to draw obvious conclusions of any kind — but especially moral or ethical ones. And yet a moral agenda is everywhere present: in the themes Body is attracted to, in his form of address to the reader, and in the tone of wry compassion he adopts. In other words, the reader is never in any doubt as to where the poet's sympathies lie: his empathy, humanity, and sharp awareness of social issues are always in evidence, but never more so than in the closing lines of Leaving Belfast Airport (itself part of a sequence called Flight):

On the tarmac, a boy with a gun
absorbs rain. Looking deceived,
as if playmates had slipped away,
he levels at angles, rain,

casts broken crosses
on the fuselage.

Throughout
Witness (the collection in which this poem appears) the poet, his audience, and — by implication — the whole of mankind are perceived as being witnesses to what Auden called the usual squalid mess of history; and with this act of witnessing comes the fundamental choice of whether to remain a silent witness — or to face the challenge that comes with the very human act of response. I'd argue that Seán Body's poetry draws much of its power to move at a deep level by operating within the tensions implicit in this state of affairs. And any criticism that someone not directly involved in the horrors of the Holocaust should not have the right to write about it melts when confronted with Body's argument: that all of us, at some level or another, are implicated in the recurring problem of human suffering.

Born in Templeglantine, Co. Limerick, Seán Body has lived in Manchester for most of his working life where he has been active in the Manchester Irish Festival, Manchester Poets, running
Tarantula publications and editing the poetry magazine, Brando's Hat. Unlike others, his work as a poetry activist hasn't detracted from his career as a poet. Although the experience of Manchester — and his job as a social worker there — have gone deep into Body's poetry, his essentially Irish background is ever present in his work. He'll show you a map of the countryside around his birthplace and point out the very bend in the road (which most maps don't show) where the house where he was brought up stands. This connection to place is important, as is a loyalty to the language of his own country which surfaces so often at crucial moments in the poems — as if English is somehow inadequate when a certain pressure — usually out of the past — begins to exert itself. Unlike most of his countrymen, Body has questioned the assumption that Heaney is 'the greatest Irish poet since Yeats', citing instead the influence of Michael Longley and (especially) John Montague. I sometimes see these three poets in a sort of triptych with Body and Longley at either side and Montague in the middle... The refusal to accept this received idea about Heaney (and therefore about Irish poetry in general) is typical of Body's individualism. His reticence arises from the realisation that poetry — whether public or private — begins and ends with the individual. Along the way it might take in a whole range of themes, debates, arguments, emotions, responses, remonstrances, and celebrations, but its origin lies rooted in the wellsprings of an individual response.

And when Body does come to deal with the Troubles he encounters them head-on as in the poem
Reprisal which turns out to be every bit as uncompromising as its title suggests:

A body was all
the morning revealed

caught
between lines.

Later, identification:
father of five, devoted.

Reason for death: catholic
lived here.

This poem, together with
A Morning Service, Communion, and Reflection might be said to represent something of the range of Body's poetry, and those coming to his work for the first time are directed to these as they give some indication of the depth and variety implicit in a body of work which is constantly developing, always in transition.

Ultimately, though, Seán Body is a deeply sacramental poet who celebrates the very fact of existence. It would be wrong to categorise him a religious poet, especially in the narrow sense in which the word is often used. Commenting on R. S. Thomas' claim that the cross was God's answer to man's suffering, Body goes on to say, I don't think God gives an answer, and we delude ourselves if we think he does. We invent answers, because we find it too difficult to cope with what doesn't fit our little understanding. And, of course, this notion of 'inventing answers' is also central to poetry, in that the poet is constantly engaged in the task of inventing answers to articulate the emotional states that he or she may be attempting to explore. Eliot said something about poetry having the ability to communicate before it's properly understood; and I've always been tempted to take this even further by suggesting that true poetry can also communicate without being 'properly' understood. Or, as Body himself puts it, a poem should yield its answers in ways we can't always reduce to a statement or argument. If it doesn't, I have failed. Exactly. And far from failing, Seán Body has recognised the shifting, nebulous quality of poetry and has exploited these possibilities in a poetry that is at once challenging and inviting, specific and general, public and private.

Body's most recent (largely unpublished) work falls outside the range of what I've tried to highlight in this brief introductory discussion, but in it I detect a new openess; a willingness to explore, to go where the poem leads, and a move towards more experimental forms where the conventional 'constraints' imposed by grammar and punctuation are modified in favour of a freer approach which somehow manages to 'get nearer' to the heart of the what the poet is trying to say. The areas of experience being dealt with in these poems are such that traditional grammar just won't do. Body has even gone so far as to say that in these instances it might even block our way (the reader's and the poet's?) to the truth and absorb our interest. All of this has serious implications when we come to consider what Body might do next. I think it's significant that one of the new poems — which deals with Christ's raising of Jairus' daughter and a particularly shocking episode from one of our recent European wars — should end with a one word sentence; and that that sentence should be 'Open'.

Ian Parks
(Pennine Platform #50, 2001)

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