Doireann Ní Ghríofa Reviews ‘Dream Country’ by Donna Sorensen

Dream Country (New Island, 2013) is the début collection of Donna Sørensen. Born and raised in the UK, Sørensen has been living in other countries since 2005, including some time spent living in Dublin. She is now based in Copenhagen. As one might imagine, a sense of exile, of searching for one’s place in unfamiliar surroundings permeates much of this collection. These are poems that  juxtapose the familiar and the foreign, the past and the present, childhood and adulthood. The title poem vividly illustrates the speaker’s experience of settling in a new country, a feeling that will resonate with many readers of Sørensen’s generation:

I am here and in my dreams, I am there
leaving the trail of crumbs, the pieces
of my own puzzle, my life, one night at a time.

Many poems in Dream Country touch on different constructions of home, of conflicts between the homes left behind and the drive to create a new home. Sørensen explores this theme effectively in the poem ‘Wind at the Zeppelin Hall’, where the speaker is suddenly reminded of England by a fleeting smell so familiar and evocative of her childhood that she imagines herself returned to those days. This poem is concluded deftly and poignantly-

I could walk here
a thousand times,
could step on and through
my own footprints,
imprinting them on this city –
indelibly – and still it would
never be home.

This is familiar ground in Irish literature, yet Sørensen  succeeds in turning the old stereotype on its head; she renders it freshly through the voice of an exile, a ‘foreigner’ based in Ireland. We have become used to assuming the role of the emigrant and it is with interest that we read from this perspective. Here is a writer who relates with empathy, depth and intelligence to issues that hold relevance for a generation. The idea of Home is one which Sørensen interrogates again and again throughout these poems. In Murmurations, the speaker reflects on the spectacle of a flock of starlings in flight and considers the universal desire to create a home:

This common search
for nesting places, the desire
to shelter together

As one might guess from the title of this collection, many of these poems veer through themes of dreams and nightmares, of beds, of sleep. Perhaps the most effective of these is the exquisite short poem To Bed:

Perched
as a paper crane
at the only still moment
of the day, waiting
to unfold myself
into a blank sheet,
ready to be written on
by dreams.

The imagery of these poems often evokes the twilight between sleep and wake; Sørensen  is at ease in explorations of liminality.  Here, sudden realisations strike on thresholds:

A jolt – on the front step,
head tilted skyward.
Mortality was on top of her.

Gateways, dunes, canals, clouds, rain are motifs that the poet returns to again and again in her evocations of the opacity of liminal moments in life. Perhaps it is in her evocation of these thresholds moments that Sørensen is at her strongest, as in the poem Knives, Forks and Fathers where the speaker is emerging from a post-university haze into an acceptance of her life as an adult:

Without looking up, we talk of this and that
and it happens – that each of us carefully places
our worries for our fathers upon the table
between us, amongst the glasses and hands
clutching slightly warmed metal and I only know
then, finally, that we are no longer children.

Other poems cover familiar ground for a first collection including the obligatory moon poem (Iris). There are many moments of poetic radiance here, poems that delve into surreal and dark matter and delighted this reader (There Could Have Been Sparks, Evergreen, The Puppet Son). However, there are a few of the poems that come across as a little overwrought and might perhaps have benefited from a firmer editorial hand. The poem ‘Misery’, for example, veers a little too close to teenage angst:

There is a doomed spirit –
it crouches in the dark
and mutters, misery… misery…

That said, these rare missteps do not topple the collection, and the bulk of Sørensen’s debut is strong enough to overlook the weaker poems among them.

Dream Country guides the reader through a series of dream-like, often liminal landscapes. These poems work as well on the page as they do aloud. Indeed, Sørensen’s deft handling of rhythm and language lend themselves to a certain poetic musicality that complements the dreamlike tone of this collection. Donna Sørensen is a poet of substantial dexterity who tackles issues of our time with a voice that is measured and distinct. In Dream Country she marks herself as a poet of intellect and empathy, resolutely of our times.

Pushcart Prize nominee Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s poems have appeared in many literary journals in Ireland and internationally, most recently in France, Mexico, USA, Scotland
and England. The Arts Council of Ireland has twice awarded her a literature bursary (2011 and 2013). Doireann’s Irish language collections Résheoid and Dúlasair are both published by Coiscéim. Her pamphlet of English poems Ouroboros was recently longlisted for The Venture Award (UK).

Dylan Brennan: We Need More Rulfos

Celebrated Mexican writer, Juan Rulfo

Celebrated Mexican writer, Juan Rulfo

‘Reading El Llano en llamas hurts because it depicts the reality in which we find ourselves in Mexico today’. With these words, the inaugural ‘Cátedra Extraordinaria Juan Rulfo’ kicked off at UNAM. The words were spoken by Clara Aparicio de Rulfo, wife of the late Juan Rulfo. The event and, it must be noted, the presence of so many of Rulfo’s family members, assured a strong media presence as reporters tripped over each other in order to have a few words with the writer-photographer’s widow.  Lasting three days, this major conference attracted speakers from all over Mexico, Spain, Argentina, Ireland, Japan, England, France and the U.S.A. The bulk of the speakers focused on El Llano en llamas (The Plain in Flames), Rulfo’s only published collection of short stories, the 60th anniversary of which occurred in September of this year. For the purpose of this short piece, instead of attempting to summarise the contents of all 38 papers (the focus was multi-disciplinary with papers on cinema, photography, fiction, economy to name just a few), I prefer to return to the words of Sra. Clara and explore the way in which Rulfo’s work has never been more relevant.  As the country has just been battered by a double flank attack by storms Manuel and Ingrid, two of Rulfo’s stories are particularly applicable to recent events– ‘Es que somos muy pobres’ (It’s Just That We’re Very Poor), which focuses on the heart-wrenching effect of a young girl’s cow being swept away by an over-flowing river and ‘El día del derrumbe’ (The Day of the Collapse).

‘Esto pasó en septiembre’ (it happened in September) – these are the opening words of ‘El día del derrumbe’. This story recounts the visit of the Governor to a small town in the wake of a devastating earthquake. The townsfolk recollect the magnificence of the party that was thrown to celebrate the arrival of the self-important politician and his posse (and a geologist). The townsfolk, already devastated by the earthquake, are saddled with the responsibility of staging a massive celebratory meal to mark this auspicious visit. When the time comes to speak, the Governor’s oration takes the form of a hilarious mish-mash of unintelligible, high-falutin’, vapid sound-bytes. The townsfolk seem both bemused and impressed by the Governor’s speech. The meaning of the hollow political jargon proves aloof while the delivery provokes admiration – the preference of style over substance is something that I have seen corrupt not just the political realm but that of the education system in Mexico too. One of the narrators suggests that the earthquake occurred on September 21st.  That same day, in the year 2013, saw Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto’s visit to Acapulco, a city still reeling from the destruction wreaked by Manuel. More a haircut than a president, EPN (as he’s usually known in the Mexican press) is the perfect candidate to replicate the oratorical style of Rulfo’s Governor. Examples of his numerous gaffes abound online. In 2011, at the major Guadalajara International Book Fair, he struggled for more than two excruciating minutes to name some books that have influenced his life. His stumbling, desperate, groping answer included references to ‘some parts of the bible’ and ‘La silla del águila de Krauze’. That novel was, of course, written by Carlos Fuentes and not, as EPN thought, by Enrique Krauze. He recently mistakenly referred to the state of Monterrey (which is a city located in the state of Nuevo León) and, while in Veracruz city called it the state capital – Xalapa is the capital of Veracruz state. (For less amusing examples of his behaviour one might be advised to google his alleged involvement in the murder, torture and illegal kidnapping of countless protestors against state expropriation of lands in Atenco during his governorship of Mexico State). As I write this EPN has returned to Acapulco to address the people of Guerrero, who continue to suffer horrendous hardships. No doubt his address will rival that of the Governor in ‘El día del derrumbe’, if not in pretentious eloquence then, certainly, in the hollowness of his promises.

‘Es que somos muy pobres’ is narrated by the younger brother of a pubescent girl named Tacha. Tacha’s calf has been almost certainly washed away by the river that has overflowed as a result of merciless flooding in rural Jalisco. The girl’s father hoped that the calf would attract the affections of a young man (or any man, for that matter) that would make Tacha his wife on account of the magnificent animal that would be part of the deal. Now it looks as if the animal has been swept away and with it, Tacha’s only hope of a respectful marriage. Her two older sisters, desperately impoverished, fell into the only profession for which they were qualified – prostitution. Now, with Tacha’s dowry calf having disappeared, it seems that her fate is sealed. During the conference at UNAM, Juan Carlos Rulfo (the prize-winning documentary filmmaker and author’s son) filmed me reading a passage from El Llano en llamas. I was asked to read from Ilan Stavans and Harold Augenbraum’s 2012 translation (entitled The Plain in Flames it is a marked improvement on George D. Schade’s 1967 translation). I chose the final two paragraphs from ‘Es que somos muy pobres’. This is how the story reaches its miserable conclusion (translation mine):

And Tacha cries when she thinks that her cow won’t return because it has been killed by the river. She’s here, at my side, in her rose-coloured dress, looking at the river from the gully, crying unstoppably. From her face run streams of dirty water as if the river had gotten inside her.

I hug her, trying to console her but she doesn’t understand. She cries even more. From her mouth comes a sound like the one that sweeps along the riverbank, making her shudder and tremble all over. Meanwhile, the flood keeps rising. The rotting smell that comes from down there splashes Tacha’s wet face and her two little breasts move up and down, without stopping; it’s as if they’ve suddenly swollen to begin working for her perdition.

Tacha’s tears mix with mud and the stench of rotting fauna. The dirty water seems to stream from inside her, as if she has been physically violated and morally corrupted by the river. Tacha’s lack of power to self-determination in a machista society means she will have great difficulty in escaping the dire poverty into which she was born. When coupled with the merciless destruction of nature that is not indifferent, but actively cruel in the work of Rulfo, her fate is sealed. Unfortunately, the relentless recent flooding in Guerrero (approx. 100 dead and 100 missing so far), the poverty of 21st century rural Mexico (exacerbated by NAFTA) and the pig-headed machismo that still infects every echelon of Mexican society, means that ‘Es que somos muy pobres’ is, 60years after the publication of El Llano en llamas, as poignantly relevant now as it was in 1953.

I’ve lived in Mexico for a non-consecutive total of five years. It is a fascinating place in which to reside. However, like every country, it has its problems. Sra. Clara commented upon the fact that many of these problems, so memorably depicted by Rulfo, still exist. She went on to remark upon the fact that the politicians don’t want to talk about it. That is why we need writers like Rulfo – in Ireland as well as in Mexico. We need writers to show what the politicians, in league with the almost indescribably corrupt media, refuse to show. At home and abroad, we need more Rulfos.

Dylan Brennan’s poetry has been published in a number of Irish and international journals such as Agenda Broadsheets, Poetry Ireland Review, New Binary Press Anthology of Poetry, The Penny Dreadful Magazine, Revival Literary Journal, The OFI Press, Arabesques etc. He has also collaborated with the Fundación Juan Rulfo on two of their recent publications El gallo de oro (2010) and Juan Rulfo: Otras Miradas (2010). In 2006 he featured in the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series. His first collection, Blood Oranges, was recently published by The Dreadful Press. He lives and works in Mexico.