Belfast poet finds ambiguity beneath the extremism of war

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Yesterday, Belfast poet Adrian Rice read from his poetry in the Scheuer Room. He was the first visiting poet in a series of events which will bring Irish poets to campus, sponsored by the Department of English and the William J. Cooper Foundation. Rice has written three books of poetry, Muck Island, Impediments, and The Mason’s Tongue, and is currently at work on a new collection, now entitled The Moongate Sonnets.

In her introduction, Professor Nathalie Anderson emphasized the prospect of change in Northern Ireland that Rice symbolizes. Raised a Protestant, Northern Irish nationalist in Belfast’s rough housing estates, Rice was saved by poetry, an art form Anderson said projects its clarity onto other parts of life. Yet, she stressed that it is a paradoxical clarity that records ambiguity. Rice’s poetry undercuts political charades and ideologies in exploring the fundamental uncertainties of nature and the folk world. Authoritarianism would use its authority to obscure doubts that can never be answered by probing the silent universe.

Rice began by reading some of his earlier poetry. The Boyhood of Raleigh, inspired by the painting by Millais, was his first selection. In the painting, an old salt tells a sea tale to young Raleigh and another boy. Raleigh will become a famous sailor, but the other boy will fade anonymously from history. The very short poem, Rice said, ostensibly about the variability of effect the same story had on the two different boys, is about the power of discourse to frame how we think and whom we support politically. An enemy of extremist rhetoric, Rice said he has throughout his life always undercut Catholic and Protestant extremism, trying to see things from both sides and impede the oversimplifications that lead to deceptively forthright political action. He noted the similarities of Northern Irish and Irish extremism with that of post-9/11 America.

Next, he read The Dummy Flutter, a poem about Belfast gang life. A common term in Belfast vocabularies, a dummy flutter is a member of a Protestant marching band, recruited more for his fighting abilities than his musical talent. Gang life was a huge influence on Rice’s adolescence that would have affected him more greatly had his father not forced Rice to go to school outside the city. It was there that Rice met the influential teacher who opened his eyes to poetry through John Keats. As a young adult he was a bookworm and scholar, feeling no need to write, and it was not until his friend, a visual artist, pushed him to work on a collaborative project that he settled into his present identity as poet. His most recently published work, The Mason’s Tongue, explores the culture of Northern Ireland, often assumed to be less rich than that of Ireland. Inspired by folklore and myths of the Islandmagee region, the poems he read from this collection included the title poem, about the imagined rediscovery of the buried tongue of a Mason who betrayed the guild’s secrets. Rice closed by reading two poems from his current work and then invited questions.

Rice received the Sir James Kilfedder Memorial Bursary for Emerging Artists in Northern Ireland in 1997, and The Mason’s Tongue was short-listed for the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Prize and nominated for the Irish Times Prize for Poetry. He serves this year as Writer in Residence at Lenoir Rhyne College in Hickory, North Carolina. Next in the Irish Poetry series will be Dublin poet Eiléan ní Chuilleanáin, on Monday, March 14 at 8:00 p.m. in the Scheuer Room.

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