In Print : Eldredge: Speaking of Druids
"Amergin Again" by Joe Eldredge, hUMILITY pRESS, West Tisbury, 2009. $15.
"Queens are essential, but not for every bee.
You must make up your own buzzing mind
about working, endlessly, where you live.
A lot of bees can do it, in fact most of them."
Excerpt from I Am the Queen:of Every Hive
- By Joe Eldredge
Joe Eldredge has been an Island architect for some 50 years, and a poet for nearly as long. With West Tisbury poet Dionis Coffin Riggs and Oak Bluffs poet George Mills (both deceased but still legendary in Vineyard poetry circles), he organized group readings and other literary hijinks. In addition to a 1975 history of the architecture of Boston, his publications include "Dionis," a tribute to Ms. Riggs from the poets who had shared her love of iambic restraint; a retrospective edition of his own work ("Poet's License"); and vast tracts of writing on arcane topics, notably his pet obsession with the true identity of the author of works popularly attributed to the possibly fictional William Shakespeare. Seriously: do not get him started.
"Amergin Again" is Mr. Eldredge's latest chapbook, a 21-poem collection he describes as part of his work "connecting the poet gods of Sumer to the bards of the North and maybe to the man who wrote those fine plays." The description is at least as much caution sign as welcome mat.
To dip even a virtual toe into the background of this book is to become sucked into a Wikipedian thicket of cross-references with no hope of escape: "Amergin Glúingel ('white knees') or Glúnmar ('big knee') is a druid, bard and judge for the Milesians in the Irish Mythological Cycle. One of the seven sons of Míl Espáine, he took part in the Milesian conquest of Ireland from the Tuatha Dé Danann, in revenge for their great-uncle Íth, who had been treacherously killed by the three kings of the Tuatha Dé, Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht and Mac Gréine."
Many hyperlinks later, the druids of the Dé Danann have raised a magical storm to keep the Milesians from reaching and settling in Ireland, whereupon Amergin sings an invocation calling upon the spirit of Ireland that has come to be known as The Song of Amergin, thereby parting the storm and bringing the ship safely to land.
Mr. Eldredge uses the reconstruction of The Song of Amergin from Robert Graves's "The White Goddess" as a departure point and organizing mechanism - "matrix," in his words, for this poem cycle. But it is more than that. No stranger to Island footlights and proscenia, Mr. Eldredge must have been drawn to the recurring "I am" that begins almost every line, a refrain that is catnip to every Thespian who ever spoke from behind a mask. In Amergin's words:
"I am a stag: of seven tines
I am a flood: across a plain
I am a wind: on a deep lake
I am a tear: the Sun lets fall"
And so on. What in the original is a riddle in the Eldredge poem becomes a role, turning the book into a rogue's-gallery of cryptic, self-descriptive monologues. Here Mr. Eldredge speaks as the Spear that Roars for Blood:
"Know the pedigree of my hunger;
fresh from the sacred red earth's fiery gift
searching for a lethal shape
at the ends of light but eager branches."
The speaker is unquestionably our contemporary, mixing timeless images of warp-and-woof, scales and fins, with a modern understanding of molecules and pop psychology. The juxtaposition is at times humorous, at times genuinely illuminating. Speaking for the Shield, Mr. Eldredge delivers real truths about aggression and warfare:
"At barriers I protect you from an eternity of weapons
that sever you from the power to grow in wisdom:
stupidity; ignorance; superstition; prejudice; folly.
But be advised, this shelter is far from a guarantee."
It is earnest verse by a well-read and thoughtful mind, working within a reflective space heavily fortified by the moats and lances of reconditeness. The source explains the high-flown language, the dramaturgic premise excuses the bombast. In the end, as with all esoteric and visionary poetry, either you will slow down, teach yourself to share in the author's thrall, and enjoy the ride, or you will scratch your head and move on.
"Amergin Again" is available at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore and Edgartown Books.
Artist and poet Daniel Waters of Indian Hill Press, former Poet Laureate of West Tisbury, is a staff member of The Times.