Listening to four poets, each reading one after the other, may sound like too much of an earful. All the more so if two of them speak Gaelic and two Catalan. But this performance was beautiful and well-organised linguistic chaos. The chair, Niall O’Gallagher, displayed an impressive trilinguilism in his introductions. A projector screen behind the stage provided English translation, courtesy of Anna Crowe.
Peter Mackay was first up. ‘Pancakes’ adapted T.S.Eliot’s idea of shoring up fragments of the past against the ruins of the present. It took apart clichés and pieced them back together to make something new out of the commonplace. During Mackay’s poem, ‘Crash’, it was satisfying to stop interpreting and give oneself over to what Meg Bateman called Gaelic’s ‘lovely vowel music’. The hard and soft syllables seemed to slip in and out of one another like waves washing over rock pools.
Along with Carles Torner, Josep Lluis Aguilo features in a new anthology, Six Catalan Poets, published by Arc Publications. Aguilo wore a clean, well-ironed white suit. He loomed over the audience to recite his blood poetry. His whole presence, including clean-shaven head, resembled Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. ‘Parallelisms’ compared the slaughter of innocents across different historical periods. The audience was left to draw their own conclusions. ‘The Reader’ considered the trickery of poems, luring readers into safe-houses before revealing what could be either ‘a love letter or a dagger.’ Not even the trilling, quick sound of the Catalan tongue could undercut the menace.
Meg Bateman lectures at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Skye’s Gaelic college. She translates her own poems and was launching her new collection, Transparencies. Bateman’s voice was slower than Mackay’s, lilting out her poetry. ‘Death Makes You Forevermore’ was a consoling song about a father whose death signals not absence but an acknowledgment that the dead are part of ‘all that ever was.’ Before ‘The Gift’ Bateman spoke of her poetic credo. We ‘don’t know what existence is’ so all we can do is ‘explore it gracefully.’ There was an otherworldly serenity to her poetry and demeanour.
Carles Torner was a less forbidding presence than Aguilo but his poems were equally full of blood and death. ‘The Child’ dragged the listener back through centuries of murder and oppression to arrive at the conclusion of pain as a condition that precedes time. This was counterbalanced by his final poem ‘Abraham’s Gesture’, a hymn which praised humanity’s potential to lower the hand and ‘cease killing children.’