If you’re writing or speaking about Pougemahone, you’re legally obligated to translate the title– which is Irish for “kiss my ass”. You’re also obligated to mention that was the original name of the band “The Pogues”, and also mention that the band appears briefly somewhere in the book. Having fulfilled those obligations, let us begin.
Poughemahone is a very long poem (600 or so pages in print) which concerns itself with Una Fogerty, an old woman living in some sort of care facility in the present day. The book, narrated by her sibling, Dan, spends a lot of time recounting their lives in the late 60’s/early 70’s living at the “Mahavishnu Temple” which is their name for what sounds like a hippie shithole somewhere in London. Una and Dan are the children of ‘Dot’, an Irish immigrant to London.
Things get more complicated from there. Dan may or may not be real, or may be a ‘grugach’ which is a kind of folkloric monster that lives with farmers but the book uses as a kind of metaphor for a bunch of things. There are also lots of references to the band Mott the Hoople, a few to Joe Meek, who appears briefly as a character, V2 rockets, and the story of Una’s love affair with Troy, who is a shithead wanna be artist, charlatan, and irritating Scotsman, who dies without achieving any of his goals.
It’s a sprawling narrative, and once you adjust yourself to the verse, it’s a fairly pleasant read. I keep seeing comparisons to Joyce’s Ulysses, but frankly, I didn’t get that at all– aside from the fact that they concern themselves with Irishness . And here’s where I’m gonna admit some weaknesses on my part– I don’t know a lot of deep Irish culture, and there’s some of it in there. Kilburn, the part of London where Una settles, is rendered as “Killiburn” which is at first an oblique and eventually an explicit reference to “Killiburn Brae”, a folksong. There’s a fair bit of the Irish language in the book as well. Some of it is translated, some of it is not, and I suspect that if you have a greater understanding of it, there’s like other puns and references that I’m not going to pick up on. Thanks to “the internet” it’s easy enough to look things up, but the many layered ‘grugach’ references, for example, are not something I completely felt I “got”, even by the end of it all.
I don’t think that hurt my ability to understand the narrative, which is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, but I’ll admit my limitations in understanding some of what I think are deeper layers. The book is shot through with references to music and dance, both in the way the characters interact through their love of (and references to) it, and in the language itself. “…musical art is born of satisfaction/the satisfaction which a being/experiences in expressing his life/by a sound” as the book puts it.
But even if I don’t understand every reference, or gather every subtle moment, I still walked away from it feeling its beauty. This is a novel (or poem) which is much more about the whole than the individual moments– that’s not to say that some of those moments aren’t beautiful, or dramatic, or sad, or funny, but it’s much more the overall impression that it leaves with the reader. In a kind of way, I felt it a bit more like “The Waves” than “Ulysses”– it tells you about life by showing you the moments that make up one, and zooming out from it all is what gives it its power. The repeated motifs, the rhythm and flow of the language, and even the Mott the Hoople references are all things that are a part of that.
Like “The Waves”, its one of the more unique things I’ve read this year; unlike “The Waves”, my praise for it isn’t unequivocal. I felt it outstayed it’s welcome. Some of the ‘moments’ ultimately don’t go anywhere, and some failed to resonate– perhaps for reasons I mentioned above, but I suspect at least a few are just dropped threads. It doesn’t mean the work isn’t worth it, and I admit to having a bit of a love affair with long works; but in this instance, maybe a little shorter is a little better. That seems like a fine enough point to end on.