Ben Keatinge

Augustus Young: “Questing intellects never settle down”

I quote Augustus’ own words on Brian Coffey as a way of framing my sense of his sui generis persona and writing. His is a “solitary oeuvre”, as J.C.C. Mays has pointed out. And his capacity to lampoon others encompasses an endearing awareness of his own being on the edge of things – “Nobody really wants me in Ireland” (Storytime). And yet, as he also reminds us, ‘All Are Equal in the Sight of Godot’. The ‘Life Cycle’ narrative which opens Storytime, is liberally peppered with Beckett allusions — I count ones to Murphy, Krapp’s Last Tape, A Piece of Monologue, All the Fall and Waiting for Godot itself — and the cyclist in those pages, as both tactician and determined competitor, provides a suggestive analogy for the long-distance literary career of Augustus Young.

It was my privilege to welcome Augustus / James to TCD on the occasion of a centenary conference dedicated to the work of Brian Coffey in October 2005. His keynote address, ‘Brian Coffey: “word hidden for all”’, spoke movingly of Coffey as “a mentor to many young people” in London in the 1970s and of Coffey’s career as an academic and poet in Paris, Missouri, the UK, largely a writing life of exile lived away from what Coffey termed “the old country” (as he wrote in a letter to Thomas MacGreevy in 1950). Re-reading Augustus’ published text in Other Edens: The Life and Work of Brian Coffey (Irish Academic Press, 2010), I recall another plangent letter from Coffey to MacGreevy of September 1959 in which he laments “the accidents that scattered us”. That sense of exilic distance, even disappointment, its freedoms and exclusions, is one I admire in Young’s work. Equally, I enjoy his returns to Cork in such notable poems as ‘History Lesson’ and ‘The Golden Mile’ both of which, it seems to me, caution against misplaced nostalgia while at the same time indulging in a wistful looking back to origins and home ground.

In The Nicotine Cat and Other People (2009), the speaker is “back where [he] started, fumbling for words” despite being “in another country” (France). One senses that the poet’s “Cork syntax” – alluded to as an “irrevocably localised” aspect of his writing in his Statement to the Cork Poetry Conference in 1997 – remains as vibrant as ever as he continues writing from Port-Vendres. Delightful, recent evidence of this vitality can be found in Cyphers 95 where Augustus’ sonnet ‘Being or Nothingness’ has a wonderful cosmic and existential sweep mingled with a touch of nostalgia.

Many congratulations and Happy Birthday!

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The Duras Press

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