This essay argues that a feminist ethics of emplaced nomadism underpins Catherine Walsh's City West. It examines Walsh's engagement with the politics of contemporary neo-liberal Ireland, and argues that her experimentation with nomadism is an attempt to navigate through the environs of late capitalism.
A section of Catherine Walsh's long poem Optic Verve features a wandering character, searching through the bins of a Tallaght housing estate in Dublin:
Indeed, one of the main targets of Optic Verve is the narrative of neo-liberal progress so central to Ireland's twenty-first century political economies, evident for example in the collection's critique of the Fatima Mansions regeneration project. This project, which ran from 2003 to 2010 – thus spanning the Celtic and early post-Tiger years – saw the demolishing of an economically and socially disadvantaged inner city Dublin housing complex, followed by its redevelopment. In an extended prose section of Optic Verve, a speaker questions the motivations guiding the regeneration project, noting: ‘If there were no Luas line nearing completion (or bankruptcy) would anyone with access to power give a damn?’.4 There is also a personal note embedded in the voice throughout, as Walsh herself grew up in Rialto, close to the Fatima Mansions. The piece concludes with a (mournful) meditation on loss, as the figure of a wanderer once again appears:
Winter. About a year ago, the junk-addicted son of a widowed flat-holder in Fatima died twisted up, wrapped in an overcoat, huddled on the doorstep of his recently deceased mother's home. Dublin City Corporation (that same one that so publicly bestows titles and accolades on the strategically needed deserving) did not recognize him as a tenant so he was locked out. Alliances. He had been living there all his life. Home.5
What these examples from Optic Verve powerfully enact is an exposure of the hypocrisies of Ireland's neo-liberal politics, with its aggressive exclusions of persons and communities from conceptualizations of what constitutes the nation/home. In both, the idea of movement is figured in quite complicated terms. These figures are moving bodies that are intensely managed and restrained, as enforced movement functions simultaneously as containment: a restricted form of nomadism, an affixed journeying. It is this form of affixed journeying that I will explore in this essay, looking specifically at the way nomadism is engaged in City West (first published in 2000), Walsh's collection previous to Optic Verve. If the later collection takes critical stock of some of the effects and residues of Celtic Tiger excess and their continuation into the post-Tiger era, City West traces an immediacy of living in Tiger postmodernity, harnessing a nomadic paradigm as an ethical navigational model through the environs of late capitalism.6 Traced across Walsh's oeuvre are nomadic images, with journeying a key aspect of her writing, a restless poetics that does not stay still. As I have argued elsewhere, in analyses of Idir Eathortha and Making Tents and Pitch respectively, Walsh's poetry's restlessness, its being on the move – physical, psychic, virtual, textual – enables major interventions into the paradigmatic structures of both Irish Studies and Irish feminist criticism.7 This essay will focus on a different type of intervention, specifically analyzing the critiques of late capitalist Celtic Tiger Ireland in the collection City West, a book that engages the concept of movement itself in all its complex possibilities and restrictions, freedoms, and limitations, developing a nomadic ethics that treats seriously the intersecting relations of gender and class in twenty-first century Irish culture.8
City West is invested in movement through embedded locations, travelling swiftly through space(s), harnessing the energy and speed indicative of the Tiger period. Throughout, the collection figures a nomadic self that also takes time for moments of rest. An analysis of the potentialities of affixed movement constitutes the first section of this essay, which analyzes the text's experimental engagement with configurations of visceral embodied experiences, fragmented and dispersed forms of self, and temporally creative disjunctions and non-linearities. The argument is that in this drawing of emplaced nomadism, City West engages theoretical possibilities for living through and with postmodernity, with the text establishing the potentialities of swift and creative movements that are co-joined with forms of stasis. Thus, while nomadic movement is figured as providing creative navigations, immobility is shown to convey comforting solace and much needed rest to speakers caught up in the disorientating whirlwind speeds of late capitalist change and modern ‘progress’, ‘these disassembled and dissembling times’.9
However, this is not to suggest the text presents a utopian imagining of an emplaced nomadic position. As the opening examples from Optic Verve demonstrate, being moved and stopped are integral experiences of the restrictive containments and managements of late capitalism. In the second part of this essay, I explore representations of working-class spaces in City West. The book engenders what Eric Falci has termed ‘pointed critiques of capitalism in Ireland’ (p.197),10 calling into question neo-liberal ideologies of progression, in particular the placing of working-class communities on the rhetorical margins of Tiger self-congratulatory discourses concerning economic success. The ways in which working-class communities, and working-class mothers in particular, are constructed and othered as ‘threat’ and ‘hindrance’, as well as rendered invisible and inconsequential in the late capitalist eye, are subtly highlighted throughout. City West figures such ideological markings in terms of mobilities that disorient, forcibly move, and exhaust in Tiger Ireland, in addition to functioning as oppressive containments of certain bodies and lives. Enmeshed in the sexual and class politics of the time period, stasis is a feature of these classed spaces and bodies, as intensely managed and contained sites.
While Walsh's nomadic journeying selves reveal the ways in which bodies are both moved and contained within and by such discourses, as they move and are moved through the terrain of Celtic Tiger Ireland, at the very same time City West also harnesses the liveable potentialities of emplaced nomadism (as explored in the first section of this essay). Infusing the body's fixities and moving emplacements with a mobility of becoming, of potential, the work provides some creative negotiation to the management of classed and gendered subjectivities in late capitalism. Constructions of selfhood are marked by both restrictive containment and a creative non-linear mobility that eschew progressive forward movement with a nomadic journeying that encompasses road-blocks, resting sites, and cyclical passages. In this way, the book enables serious critical reflection on the problematic ideologies that shape and govern the material realities of working class women's lives, as well as opening up moments of possibility from such restrictive conditionings.
Walsh's collection thus articulates a complex and nuanced configuration of affixed nomadism, with the dynamics of mobility and immobility both playing a part, integral components of affective selves, moving in, around, with, and through embodied forms of emplacement. Representing the restrictions and creative possibilities of living in Irish postmodernity, evident here is a configurative investment in bodies living (and moving) with, through, and in their socio-cultural environment. In this respect, the collection demonstrates what critic John Goodby terms (referring to the work of Geoffrey Squires) a ‘poetics of perception’, with a ‘self immersed in its environment’,11 signalling the ability of experimental poetry to be deeply and ethically embedded in its socio-cultural times. The question of ethics and experimental poetry has been addressed by Matthew G. Jenkins in his book Poetic Obligation, where he counters ideas in the ‘poetry world’ that experimental poetry has ‘nothing to say about how human beings might live better together’, making the case for the ‘centrality of experimental poetic form to new ways of thinking about ethics’.12 What I am suggesting here is a specific exploration of such a claim, arguing that Catherine Walsh's City West configures an ethics that generates a complex nomadic navigational paradigm for thinking about gender and class in late capitalist Ireland. As Rosi Braidotti notes: ‘What nomadic ethics stands for … is a regrounding of the subject in a materially embedded sense of responsibility and ethical accountability for the environments s/he inhabits’.13 Walsh's collection functions as just such an ethical nomadic subject, taking on accountability for the routes and avenues of its cultural milieu, staking critiques, as well as generating new pathways and lines of future journeying.
City West opens with a quotation from Doris Lessing's 1962 novel The Golden Notebook:
Michael S. Begnal notes, ‘Walsh typically works in these large, open forms instead of writing the self-contained lyric poem.’15 In all of her published books, she experimentally engages with this form of verse, replacing self-standing poems with poetic fragments and monologues.16 Multiplicity and change characterize Walsh's writing, as her poetry figures a continual variety of different speaking voices and contextual locations, all the while favouring the opened use of the entire poetic page to structured stanza form. Walsh's rejection of the lyric form can be read as a rejection of the ‘I’, the subject and the one. For Walsh, the poetic voice is multiple, never singular,17 as the work ‘endeavor[s] to record the vicissitudes and disjunctions of daily experience, personal memory, and social life’.18 City West is all about life and living. Motifs of the breath pervade the collection:
Thus, City West moves away from a subject-based lyrical mode, and instead presents the self as an embodied nomad traversing its poetic spatial planes. Falci perceptively notes Walsh's use of the gerund in ‘City’, the first of the collection's three sections, as a way of ‘encapsulating (at a tangent) experience’.20 Indeed, throughout the first section of City West Walsh engages the present continuous tense to signal a body in motion:
What then of the ‘I’? Is there any space for selfhood in Walsh's collection? The second section of City West, ‘Tangency’, charts its very possibility through images of stop and rest. Throughout, movement is always inflected with immobility, as fluidities are tempered here, one example of which is the frequent usage of the words: ‘point’ and ‘jot’. While Falci suggests that this section explores the volatile effects of the ‘incessant movement’ established in the first,22 I would suggest that it, in fact, stabilizes ongoing movement. As noted in one poetic piece: ‘why should stopping / not involve another part / of due process’ (p.40). Nomads need their moments of rest and stop, these are part of the processes of journeying. The multiple territories or locations in the text function as ‘resting places’, as ‘stop as pause’ (p.40). It is not that there cannot be fixed points, but rather that these points are temporary, actualities which are always dynamically disassembled in the spirit of futuristic change. Thus, moments of becoming can encompass that of Being. The ‘I’, only used three times in the first section ‘City’ (two of which take the unstable question form -‘am I?’ (p.24), ‘do I mean?’ (p.22)) is increasingly used in ‘Tangency’ to signal the possibilities for self-definition in nomadic wandering. As one speaker notes: ‘i i more / ing’ (p.50) – signalling an ability to voice the self. The use of the lowercase is important, as it highlights a mode of being that is a vital part of surrounding life – of zoe – never its overlord. This moving ‘i’ is then followed by ‘more” ‘ing’, more processes of becoming and change: ‘always / shifting moving on / going / over’ (p.51).
It is in the final section of the work, ‘Plane’, that Walsh engages most incisively with the affective experience of nomadic wandering. Its title can be read spatially, the plane upon and through which such existence can occur. Falci identifies how ‘though it putatively takes place in Dublin like previous sections’, it also ‘superimposes the west of Ireland onto its chartings of the capital’.23 The text provides numerous fleeting glimpses of rural and urban landscapes – the modern City and the traditional West of its title24 – operating by way of a motion of embodied peripheral vision as the nomadic self hurtles through space. Moreover, this space, this ‘plane’, encompasses not just geographical multiplicity, but non-linear temporality:
Thus, while the first section of the collection repeatedly draws on verbs of the continuous tense, the second displays an interest in ‘rest’ and ‘pause’, the final part is concerned with temporal configurations of the nomadic self. However, this does not imply linear development. All three elements pervade the three sections. The nomadic self, as articulated and configured in Walsh's City West, is a futuristic one, ‘circulatory thought deemed consequential’, and the many images of the circle (cycling, ring roads, roundabouts) scattered throughout City West operate to make clear its resistance to linearity. Nomadic wandering, or passing through, is concerned with the circle because it constitutes an eternal return. What returns, again and again, is the process of wandering, the becoming condition of change. To again engage again with a Deleuzean term (one which he reworks from Nietzsche), it is an eternal return of difference. Difference is what repeats in City West: ‘missing / the point of missing the / point of missing / the point is not repetitive’ (p.51). These lines bring together the two key elements of living for Walsh's nomadic self – with ‘missing’ we are once again in the continuous tense and a state of tantalizing and evasive becoming, while the ‘point’ infers the necessary moments of self-definition and rest. Both are repeated in different ways over the four lines, which conclude (crucially) with the phrase ‘is not repetitive’. ‘[T]he point’ ‘is not repetitive’ because we arrive at different points every time, the becoming nomadic process marking even the familiar unfamiliar, uncannily shrouded in ‘déjà vu’ (p.72).
However, Walsh's collection does not simply allow for a wholesale positive embrace of the possibilities of this drawing of emplaced nomadism, with aspects of the paradigm itself shown to be an intricate part of the workings of Ireland's neo-liberal political economies. As Braidotti notes, ‘advanced capitalism is the great nomad par excellence in that it is propelled by the mobility of goods, data, and finances for the sake of profit and commodification’.26 Ultimately, there is an ethical impulse to Walsh's configurations of this nomadic self that pulls in two directions simultaneously, with one concerned with how certain classed and gendered bodies are moved and restrictively emplaced and the other imagining liveability for these same bodies in a late capitalist Celtic Tiger Ireland, an epicentre of industry and wealth. Rather than look towards this centre, Walsh's poetry envisions its ‘decentralized’ (p.40) peripheries, Dublin housing estates on the outskirts of the city:
Walsh's social critique in City West is also directed towards gendered concerns. Figurations of motherhood are the most dominant and repeated image in the collection, specifically mothers in the marginalized housing estates of urban Dublin: ‘baby in cot from nap in / morning / mother hearing sirens’ (p.43). Embodied maternal subjectivity is figured in the text, with a number of fragments featuring pregnant women's voices: ‘yes. for me. overdue. she says. / well. waiting. / getting’ (p.15). Images of labour and pregnancy articulate the difficulties of liveability for some people in the Tiger era, with breathing difficulties again signified: ‘one / day / long / tight / breath pushing’ (p.14). Images of containment and restriction also continue to predominate:
Popular discourses about gender and class in the Tiger era focused insistently on the figure of the single mother. Like the gangs and the guns, this classed gendered body was marked with intense anxiety, as politicians wrangled over her welfare benefits. During the 1997 General Election, the leader of the Progressive Democrat party Mary Harney called for ‘allowances for single mothers to be redirected to encourage them to stay at home with their own parents’,27 contributing to a conservative cultural and political discourse that questioned the ‘generous’ nature of social welfare benefits. Harney's position – essentially that single mother's benefits should be cut – generated significant media debate in the lead-up to the election, debates that took place over the bodies of some of the most disadvantaged women in early Tiger Irish society. Similarly, journalist Kevin Myers, in an infamous Irish Times column in 2005 generated a media furor and public debate when he wrote about ‘MOBs’ – ‘Mothers of Bastards’ (2005), a diatribe on single working-class mothers.28 The media obsession over the single mother and her welfare benefits can be read into Walsh's repetitive use of the word ‘radio’ in the above piece. Infiltrating her home, her private space, the public discourses of the Tiger period position the classed mother as a contained figure, an intensely managed site. Walsh's formal use of the open-ended parenthesis in the section is significant in this respect, signifying the ongoing nature of containment.
However, parenthetical openness, in its refusal to finally close down and delimit, also establishes possibility, as Walsh's use of the blank page enables a configuration of an undetermined futurity in contained space. While City West highlights the way classed bodies are restrictively moved by neo-liberal forces of the Tiger period, one of its impulses is also to explore how emplaced forms of mobility can provide liveability for contained bodies in contemporary Irish postmodernity, particularly women's bodies marked as working class.
Walsh's experimental poetics deliberately dissolve coherent and fixed categories of the ‘I’, her work challenges identity politics in these terms. In an interview I conducted with her thirteen years ago in 2002, she expressed her concerns with feminist ideologies which seek to fix women's experiences and lives in predetermined categories, noting that this serves only to erase the complexities and varieties of female experience.29 She particularly emphasizes this as a danger in terms of class difference. At the time Walsh was writing City West, when living in Tallaght, Dublin in the mid nineteen-nineties, women were attending university-directed writing classes, at least partially Arts Council funded. While the aim was female empowerment through creative endeavor and education, these women expressed their frustrations with those classes. Walsh saw this as a gap between the limits of pedagogical expectation, the understanding of the role of facilitators, and the women's own ability to access or deliver the material. There was a hiatus between the identity politics of the women's writing course and the lived realities and experiences of the women students attending, a hiatus based on an inability to properly register material differences existing between women.30 In a more recent 2015 email conversation, Walsh crucially comments that ‘there was no real top-down investment in ensuring quality outcomes or enabling other models’, something which she saw as ‘a series of missed opportunities and lack of expectations on the part of the various funders/organising bodies’.31 The point that Walsh is making in these commentaries is not an unfamiliar one: the calling of liberal feminism to task for its class blindness, and the privileging of one particular standpoint as constitutive of the issues of gender politics. I bring it in here because it helps to shed light on the feminist-ethics of City West: the non-identity politics of the nomadic-becoming-self, and the ways in which this configuration can both reflect on and help circumvent the late capitalist control systems so prevalent in Celtic Tiger life.
Of particular interest in this essay has been the dynamics of emplaced movement integral to Walsh's harnessing of nomadic and non-linear forms of restricted and embedded movement. These can be read in ethical terms, as embodied feminist sites that register the complexities and contradictions of postmodernity, enabling critique, registering disorientation and restriction, as well as futuristic hope. Engaging non-linear, nomadic selfhood as a way of reflecting on late capitalist control systems that move and constrict classed bodies in restrictive ways, City West provides the mechanisms to creatively negotiate within such systems through the construction of intensely located mobile selves that enable critical reflection and critique at the level of ethical thought – moving that thought in vital and dynamic ways.
This article is a revised version of material published in the monograph Irish Feminist Futures (Routledge, 2016). I gratefully acknowledge permission from Routledge to publish this material here.
1 Catherine Walsh, Optic Verve (Exeter: Shearsman, 2010), p.38.
2 Intriguingly, there are pronoun slippages between a number of subject positions in this poetic section, moving from child Niall, who is having his ‘morning nap’, to the homeless character referenced above and also to a horse. These slippages have the effect of dissolving some of the boundaries between separate embodied locations: between waking and sleeping, between child and adult, between human and animal.
3 Walsh, Optic Verve, p.39.
4 Walsh, Optic Verve, p.23.
5 Walsh, Optic Verve, p.24.
6 Indeed, the title refers spatially to a concept of decentralization, embodied by way of a play on the name of Ireland's ‘National Digital Park’ called ‘Citywest’ established during the Celtic Tiger era.
7 See Claire Bracken, ‘The Love Affairs of the Irish Feminist Critic’, Facing the Other: Interdisciplinary Studies on Race, Gender and Social Justice in Ireland, ed. Borbála Faragó and Moynagh Sullivan (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008), pp.204–219; and ‘“Each nebulous atom inbetween” - Reading Liminality: Irish Studies, Postmodern Feminism and the Poetry of Catherine Walsh’, New Voices in Irish Criticism 5, ed. by Ruth Connolly & Ann Coughlan (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005), pp.97–109.
8 City West was first issued by hardPressed Poetry, a press Catherine Walsh runs with the poet Billy Mills. It was subsequently republished by Shearsman Books in 2005. Catherine Walsh, City West (Exeter: Shearsman, 2005). All subsequent citations from the collection will be in parentheses.
9 Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Free Association Books, 1991), p.186.
10 Eric Falci, Continuity and Change in Irish Poetry 1966–2010 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p.197.
11 John Goodby, ‘“Repeat the Changes Change the Repeats”: Irish Alternative Poetry’, in The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Poetry, ed. by Fran Brearton and Alan Gillis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p.614.
12 Matthew G. Jenkins, Poetic Obligations: Ethics in Experimental American Poetry after 1945 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008), pp.2–3, p.19. For an exploration of ethics and new directions in experimental poetry see also Catherine Wagner, ‘US Experimental Poetry: A Social Turn’, Primerjalna Književnost 37.1 (2014), 235–246.
13 Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Theory: The Portable Rosi Braidotti (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), p.122.
14 Falci, pp.196–197.
15 Michael S. Begnal, ‘Anarchy of the Flesh,’ Poetry Ireland Review 90 (2007), p.115.
16 Other works by Catherine Walsh include: The Ca Pater Pillar Thing and More Besides (Dublin: hardPressed Poetry, 1986); Macula (Dublin: Red Wheelbarrow Press, 1986); Making Tents (Dublin: hardPressed Poetry, 1987); Short Stories (Twickenham: North and South, 1989); From Pitch (London: Form Books, 1993); Pitch (Durham: Pig Press, 1994); Pomepleat 1 (Limerick: hardPressed Poetry, 2002); Idir Eatortha and Making Tents (London: Invisible Books, 1996); Astonished Birds: Cara, Jane, Bob and James (Limerick: hardPressed Poetry, 2012).
17 This is also evident in an audio CD ‘bodysounds’ (2005), which is a recording of Walsh and Mills reading their work.
18 Falci, p.193.
19 Braidotti, p.99.
20 Falci, p.197.
21 See Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense (London: Continuum, 2004), p.3.
22 Falci, p.198.
23 Falci, p.198.
24 Falci makes a similar point about the book's title in Continuity and Change.
25 Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, p.3.
26 Braidotti, p.17.
27 Alan Murdoch, ‘Rainbow Coalition narrows gap’, The Independent London, 27 May 1997.
28 Kevin Myers, ‘An Irishman's Diary’, The Irish Times, 8 February 2005.
29 See Chapter one in Claire Bracken, ‘Nomadic Wanderings: Liminality and the Poetry of Catherine Walsh,’ MA Thesis (University College Cork, 2002).
30 Bracken, ‘Nomadic Wanderings’, p.11.
31 Email conversation with author, June 2015.