A Poetics of Questions: The Bower by Connie Voisine
Though I’ve been visiting the Republic of Ireland almost every year since I was born—1995, only three years before the Good Friday Agreement—I first crossed the border into Northern Ireland in the summer of 2018. I had been spending my June in Dublin, writing and reading and visiting family, and my aunt and uncle every so often took me on day trips to see more of the country than kitschy Grafton Street and Stephen’s Green, overrun with tourists. The Wicklow hills burned that summer, and there was a water shortage in Dublin City. The world was collapsing around me; in all my Irish summers, that was the hottest. Too many jeans in my suitcase, too many sweaters.
The day my aunt and uncle took me to Belfast, the sky was neon blue—it made the murals brighter, eerily vibrant. Like many young Americans, I didn’t (and don’t, to be honest, despite my best efforts) know much about the Northern conflict. In high school, when my film teacher jokingly asked me if my family were involved with the IRA, I had no idea what he was talking about. I thought he meant the cultural revival in the early twentieth century. I didn’t understand why my father was so irked by my interest in British television and music. I didn’t know about the bombs or the parades or the guns or the treaties. I didn’t know about Catholicism and Protestantism. I didn’t know.
The day my aunt and uncle took me to Belfast, for only two hours, in a taxi, on a tour led by a Catholic man who remembered the violence, I was on edge. I saw the chain link fences and the gates. Every street name a border. Every flag a statement. Driving into the city, someone had graffitied the sign: Northern One Ireland. The violent history, even then—even now—was palpable.
The Bower—out now from the University of Chicago Press, out now in a post-Brexit world, where border-talk continues to complicate local responses to a global pandemic—is Connie Voisine’s fourth full-length collection. In it, the poems traverse the poet-speaker’s year in Belfast with her young daughter, D. Voisine, too, is attempting to figure out this conflict, to figure out its stakes, its history:
In the books I’ve read and talks I’ve heard, the conflict
scholars say “pornography of violence,” or “new kinds of memories,”
and nineteen years into the staggering notion of peace
is forgetting still perhaps the best option? I have found
so many ugly stories—a woman raped in a bed beside
her murdered son, Remembrance Day celebrations bombed,
three generations in one family gone. Does a person need
The poet-speaker moves through Belfast and the ghost of the Troubles with delicacy, asking us and herself to think about matters of history, morality, violence, myth, politics, narrative. “Does a person need more stories?” Through utterance and re-utterance, through recounting her daily and familial (familiar) life in Belfast, Voisine implies:yes, a person does need more stories—or, at the very least, stories are necessary when processing cultural trauma, and when inserting ourselves into the cultural trauma of others in an attempt to learn.
To learn is perhaps Voisine’s primary goal in writing the poems in The Bower. The book grounds itself in a poetics of questions; Voisine isn’t interested in offering images or truths or ideas so much as the questions she encounters while navigating her family’s life in Belfast. Question after question after question. Here are the questions I dug up, in no specific order, when flipping through the collection at random: “Who does not love // to hate the betrayer?” “Who will rend // this quiet from the world and place it inside you?” “What kinds of things?” “Was Judas’s sin that he betrayed Jesus or that he sent / any man at all to his death?” “And where do I go?” “I want to know more, what is this kind of remembering?” “What will she remember? What will you?” And perhaps the most resonant series of questions in the whole project:
Watching a zombie serial I mute the battle scenes as innocents
are consumed alongside the guilty in snarling, splashing
waves of flesh. I prefer the program’s moral questions—
Are the dead able to hate? Is it murder when they eat you?
Shouldn’t the living try to get along to better scavenge, fight?
And why do the living fight at all? For our memories
of the lives we had, for what we squander?
That these pressing moral questions come at the mundane behest of watching The Walking Dead—such mundanities and profundities weave together over the course of The Bower, mimicking, in Voisine’s implicit “argument,” life in a post-Troubles Belfast.
Through these questions, the poet-speaker explores Belfast as an outsider, searching history without trying to impose boundaries or answers or even opinions. She tries to understand. She tries to make sense out of the suffering she sees in the place, in others. Much of this search happens both for and because of the speaker’s daughter, D. “What were you thinking, bringing a child into this knowing // called the world?” the speaker asks and does not answer, as is her wont. In being about a mother’s relationship with her child while simultaneously also being about historical violence and sectarianism, these poems ask the reader to contend with the legacies we abandon to our children: the wars and grudges and impossible borders drawn in the soil. What were you thinking?
This book is named for the space created for the child in the very first poem: the bower, where innocence might be temporarily protected, or beauty preserved. What lingers and smothers this collection and its speaker—Voisine-the-mother—then, is the possibility of crossing over the bower’s threshold into “this knowing,” the world with all its terror. Yeats said it, not me: a terrible beauty is always being born.
But what does it mean to bear yourself into a conflict not-yours? There are a great many poets, living and dead, from Northern Ireland, and you may have heard of some of them: Ciaran Carson, Paul Muldoon, Sinéad Morrissey, Seamus Heaney. Again: what does it mean to write about and from a place when so many “great poets” have done it before you? This is not Voisine’s conflict, nor her history, but her curiosity is genuine, and she refuses to pass judgement. Thus, the questions. Thus, the poems that describe the process of learning rather than the pronouncements that might follow a rickety American understanding.
Because of this, and because of her interest in writing motherhood, and because of the form—these are title-less, interconnected poems, written diaristically over the course of a year—we could consider Voisine in a lineage apart from Irish and Northern Irish poets. How about Carolyn Forché and “poetry of witness”? Aracelis Girmay and her long poem “The Black Maria”? Sharon Olds, Maggie Smith, Bernadette Mayer, Rachel Zucker, and the tradition of mother-worry—a poetics of motherhood—in poetry?
Like Voisine’s, my questions go answerless. To attempt to categorize poetry written from a border world, both politically and poetically, is to tempt judgement and ultimately failure. I’m not out to categorize poems that aim to question and even defy categorization. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn again and again to The Bower’s poems about Irish myths and legends. As we made the drive from Dublin to Belfast, as we approached the hills of Ulster, my aunt and uncle told me stories about great warriors and kings. They in the front seat and I in the back, like I was a child again, reading from the Irish storybooks I still keep in my childhood room: Cú Chulainn. Queen Medbh. Tír na nÓg. The Children of Lir, which is the story Voisine fixates on throughout The Bower. And of course she does: it is a story about family violence, and grudges, and transformation, and patience.
Eventually, all of our stories—and so all of our conflicts, our tragedies, our borders and histories—become legends. At the end of the very first Irish legend poem in the collection, Voisine writes out the exchange between herself and her daughter, providing the only answer possible in a book so filled with unanswerable questions:
Before drifting off
D performs the tasks for safe passage—kiss the bear, flip the pillow,
turn on the night-light teacher gave for being good—then asks me,
When did this story happen? The books say it’s one of the three
great tragedy narratives from before St. Patrick and in those days
sorrow was not known in Ireland. I tell her, Before everything.