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Bilocation - Dislocation - Xlocation : The Apocalypse of Place in Eamonn Wall’s Poetry

Bilocation – dislocation – Xlocation : Apocalypse du lieu dans la poésie d’Eamonn Wall
Pascale Guibert


Le poète irlando-américain Eamonn Wall fait partie de cette nouvelle vague d’émigrants (intellectuels et artistes) qui quittent l’Irlande dans les années 1980. Pour ces Nouveaux Irlandais, l’exil n’est plus définitif, mais va-et-vient transatlantiques. Quelle langue au-delà de notre langage communicationnel bien rôdé, pris dans une philosophie de l’Être, sa poésie va-t-elle devoir forger pour rendre compte des transformations que de tels déplacements incessants opèrent sur le paysage ? Une rencontre avec un tableau de Mark Rothko donne accès à Wall à ce langage toujours en migrations et mutations que sa poésie recherchait pour dire l’impossibilité d’un avoir lieu. Glissant, dont la pensée archipélique nous a ouvert le “Lieu-monde”, et Jullien, à qui le travail des écarts permet de suivre les processus transitionnels et transformationnels, nous aideront à approcher les lieux instables que cette nouvelle forme d’exil occasionne — des lieux éparpillés et vagabonds que seule une langue au-delà du langage, une poétique, peut écrire.

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1Exile used to be so definitive that a wake was organized — in the best of cases — for the poor Irish leaving home on coffin ships. It is no longer so for those whom the media have dubbed the “New Irish”, a pre-Celtic Tiger generation of young intellectuals, professionals and artists who, in the 1980s, left Ireland en masse because they could not find in Ireland the jobs commensurate with their qualifications (Wall 1999, 3). Their social position as well as the development of low-cost Transatlantic flights changed their relation to place dramatically. No longer deprived, like the Old Irish, of the place doomed to remain forever unique — the homeland, an Ireland which, once left, was yearned for forever after — the New Irish experience place as mobile and multiple. Travelling back and forth across the Atlantic, the New Irish have brought to life a new form of exile characterized by impermanence. As Dermot Bolger noted in his foreword to his 1993 anthology, Ireland in Exile: Irish Writers Abroad, which Wall quotes at the opening of his own founding article on the New Irish, “the terms ‘exile and departure suggest an outdated degree of permanency […]. Irish writers no longer go into exile, they simply commute’” (Wall 1999, 3).

2Eamonn Wall, a native of Enniscorthy, left Ireland in 1982. He first moved to New York for a few years (which are evoked in his first published collection of poems, Dyckman — 200th Street, 1997) before he moved to Nebraska, and finally to Saint Louis, Missouri, where he is currently a Professor of Irish Studies and a Professor of English. Once over the first shock of stark contrasts — between green and all-too-peaceful rural Ireland and bright and lively, multicoloured New York — thrillingly apposed in his first collections of poems, the poet felt the need to find a language to express a strange continuity made of estrangements and entanglements.

  • 1 All references to Michael Richardson’s and Krzysztof Fijalkowski’s English translation of Jullien’s (...)

3The English language that we commonly use — like all other Western languages, for that matter — seems to be very ill equiped to express this quasi-unseizable zone, this fluctuating in-betweenness where transformations breed and mature. François Jullien has demonstrated it: our Western languages accompany our Western way of thinking. They support the philosophy of being that defines it, and construe truth in the distinctions they write (Jullien 2011, 25-40; 2009, 30-44).1 You are Irish or American. Irish and American is also a possibility, as well as Irish-American. But nothing, even in this hyphenated phrase, will either escape the block-definition which it presents, or enable anyone to heed the constant flow and interchanges going on in a condition of living that is hardly a state. It is not very surprising, then, to read Eamonn Wall declare, in his 1995 essay, “Exile, Attitude, and the Sin-é Café: Notes on the ‘New Irish’”, which wrote the New Irish into existence: “To be able to write convincingly about America, the contemporary Irish poet must be able to partly unlearn what he or she has picked up in Ireland […]” (Wall 1999, 9). As long as this “partial unlearning” has not been accomplished, the New Irish is doomed to feel “doubled in every way” (Wall 1999, 72).

4We will here follow the poet on his “unlearning” progress — that is on his way to find a voice adequate to this New Irish, new exile, predicament of the impossibility of taking place. We will start with the original bi-location to which Wall’s poetry comes back time and again, the parting which appears inscribed in place. Édouard Glissant, whose poetic philosophy has magnificently unfolded this intrinsic impossibility of taking place (as in grabbing the places of the world in order to totalize them) will be our guide on this first part of our journey. François Jullien then, who has founded his groundbreaking philosophical developments on the fecundity of the gaps which he has signaled and explored between Western and Chinese philosophies, will help us scrutinize what takes place in between places. From dis-locations to slidings and runnings, the second movement will focus on the un-taking of place that takes place in the poetry of the migrant poet. The third part will take us onto mined grounds. There we will witness the anti-spectacle of place exploding into signs. The end of a certain monumentality of place, the end of its reassuring presence and unquestioned reliability, in a word, the end of the possibility to take and possess place is what signs spell out here. William Wordsworth, who most famously and grandiosely orchestrated such apocalypse of place will, of course, be the master of ceremony.


5Something pertaining to place itself, to the place of birth of the poet Eamonn Wall, Enniscorthy, in the South-East of Ireland, seems to mark the impossibility of place in the singular, of place as a nucleus, traceable as a simple dot on a map: its characteristic division. Wall’s poems come back to it repeatedly: the river Slaney flows through Enniscorthy. It immediately, unquestionably, de-homogenizes the place and connects its grounds to the sea, a few miles farther south, the sea that expands and blends with the Atlantic Ocean, to reach other continents. A phrase, at the end of the poem “River Slaney: New Year’s Day” retraces this initial division, in Wall’s first collection, Dyckman — 200th Street:

[…] This purple day I relish my river-
divided town, […]. (Wall 1994, 49: 29-30)

6The poetics both traces the topography and invites reflection on (this) place. It induces us to think of place not as what takes place — here or there or anywhere else, fixed by obligation of soil or record — but as what is unfixed and unfixing, opening, parting, departing. The hyphen accompanying the flow of the river is doubled by the enjambment. This effectuates the division in question at the very same time as it enhances the process of linking the two parts of a whole — both the town and the grammatical unit. To say it with Glissant in his 2009 Philosophie de la Relation, a “new way of thinking about borders” develops here: “It is now the unexpected that distinguishes between realities the better to link them, and no longer that impossibility that made interdictions stand out on either side” (Glissant 2009, 57, my translation). The river — as a local natural division that opens to connections far and wide —, the hyphen and the enjambment — which come as poetic surprises — are the signs of this new way of thinking about borders as inviting.

7Ignoring the invitation, letting place take hold of oneself, would have led to the de-composition which is already gnawing at the “Men Sitting on the Bridge” in another poem from this debut collection. Their presence, like their cigarette smoke fading into the air and also like their talk crumbling into stutter, is waning. The ground they are sitting on is waning too: the epizeuxis formed by their aimless chatter, “Ennis, Ennis, Enniscorthy”, breaks and denies place in its confusion. Ennis is not just the first two syllables of Enniscorthy and thus cannot be made to disappear in the longer name. It is a living place too, a town in the West of Ireland. It can always be seen in relation to Enniscorthy, but should not be confused with it, diluted into it as this insistent repetition of syllables would have it. Besides, the root which this stupid stutter draws for Enniscorthy is a fake. Such insistently and stupidly drawn roots can only make us trip. They are traps. They do not lead anywhere. They disorient.

They light more cigarettes, talk, and as they crumble incite us
all like tired Romans to maintain a presence on the bridge.
We stay. To move would take us out of the range of the world’s
eye, and remove this vista from the slow, monotonous commentary
we provide it with.

Nothing can move, nor any philosopher explain this suspension.
Air glazes the men’s eyes. They talk and aimlessly deepen the
mystery of Ennis, Ennis, Enniscorthy: the great mythology these
men present the walker with is useless, but I carry their
dumbness in my bag. Across the vacant sea.

Exile is death, Octavio Paz has said, but so too is this. […] (Wall 1994, 51: 1-11)


8So Wall left Enniscorthy and Ireland. First for New York, and then he went west — to Nebraska, and later to Missouri. In “The Westward Journey”, from the second collection, Iron Mountain Road (1997), Mr Pedro, the local grocer, warns him:

[…] ‘You are leaving New York
to live in America,’ he says. ‘I would
be afraid of that, and the little ones
will lose their Spanish.’ […] (Wall 1997, 26: 8-11)

9After the first shock of vivid contrasts between Irish rural life and bright New York life, which are thrillingly expressed in the first collection of poems, this new moment of departure is marked by blanks and ruptures which establish continuity. “The Westward Journey” opens on two elliptical lines: “Setting out on the westward journey / with eight suitcases and two cats” (Wall 1997, 26: 1-2). Something is lacking and the journey will proceed from this lack. In the same way, the great number of punctuation marks, in the passage with Mr Pedro, visibly and audibly cuts the flow that is nonetheless going on. Voids also are systematically opened before the subjects made to stand at the end of the lines, on the verge of their breaks: ruptures and continuities sustain each other.

10Having left cosmopolitan New York for Nebraska, the poet encounters “America” — America for real and, at the same time, archetypal, in the form of the landscape that opens in front of him: the prairie. Not the Four Green Fields of Erin, but an immense stretch of grass constituting the heart of America. Not the dunes leading to the seaside near home, but an ocean of dunes rolling to no sea yet continually set in motion by the wind shaking the grass. There is a feel to the presence of the prairie that makes it both totally alien to the Irishman and also totally kin. A number of beautiful poems in the second collection evoke this unheimlich place; but something in their poetics follows the place in its going further than the hybridizing unheimlich, which our language permits. The poetics, then, pushes the prairie beyond its taking place, prevents its reterritorialization within a text and/or its images.

11Looking for a language that will be capable of moving beyond the settlement of binaries, beyond what is distinctly posited as “here” and what is distinctly posited as “there”, beyond what is deemed familiar or unfamiliar, Wall’s poetry encounters Rothko’s band paintings. The encounter and its effects are developed in the poem “Yellow Band.”


We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject
matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. That is why we
profess spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art.

In Lincoln, I worried about the weather as I entered the
museum, imagined ice-coated poles and wires falling on
the kitchen as you waited for me to hear your stories.
That day I found the centre of the prairie on an upstairs
wall painted by an immigrant from Russia. It was what I
had been searching for since County Wexford had given
me no language to describe this unfixed loneliness out-
side my door. I recall the train leaving Enniscorthy,
going north by the Slaney then frozen — an oak tree in the
centre of a field, a herd of cows, a red Fiat headed for
town — then moving on again toward Ferns. (Wall 1997, 58-59: 28-41)

12Russian émigré Mark Rothko’s painting, Yellow Band, 1956, which the Irish poet émigré, Eamonn Wall, comes across “at the Sheldon Memorial Gallery [of the] University of Nebraska, Lincoln,” reveals to the latter the language he was looking for: the prairie-language of constant emigration (Wall 1997, “Acknowledgements”, n. p.). Sign after sign erases the landscape evoked by the lines of Section III, which, as they unfold, strangely empty the scene: phantasmagorical ice doubles the prairie and thus covers it in two ways; nameable and pinpointable place particularities are eradicated by a restless alternation of close ups and broad angles supported by a series of indefinite articles (l. 34-35); home, already distanced by the synecdoche belittling it to “door” (l. 38) is further deconstructed by the rejet externe which attaches to it, constitutively, “this unfixed loneliness out-”. In this systematic process of disruption which place is submitted to here ­— a disruption that amounts to emptying the place of its “placeness”, or to the denial of its essential emplacement ­— Wall manifests the language of the prairie.

13But what is the language of a place that does not stay in place? Quite unsettlingly (fittingly enough) maybe a detour via China and the Chinese language can help us better embrace the estranging syntax of a place that is without place because it runs, flows, melts, drips … and multiplies — from geographies to painting, from painting to words, from words to sheer forms and traces. François Jullien, whose work and practice will be relied on in this occasion, has explained for his part why he had turned to the Chinese “in order to better read the Greek” (Jullien 2012, 13). The exteriority of Chinese philosophy was to him a standpoint from which to gauge the alterity of Western culture, the “otherness” that also inhabits it and unsettles it, which thus constitutes its distinctive life (Jullien 2012, 17). In his 2009 Silent Transformations, Jullien tells us how the Chinese empty word “er”, meaning both “but” and “hence,” as in the formula “bian er tong” (meaning modification-continuation), “brings our disjunctive syntax into question” (Jullien 2011, 23; 2009, 28). Representative of the Chinese conception of life, it does not permit to part with what you have departed from. “Hence” and “but” have to be understood as functioning together, like the “modification” and “continuation” which it holds together in the expression “bian er tong.” The prairie, as the new language adequate to the predicament of the emigrant, requires such a non-disjunctive syntax in order to be expressed and grasped, both, as we have seen, as neither here nor there, and thus, in that way, as a new place defined by its placelessness, posited in its absence of absolute position.

14Disrupting Western syntax and the truth which it teaches us to define by distinguishing between what it places on the side of continuity and what it places on the (other) side of modification, the er-language of the prairie shatters the way we take place, what we take place to be, place taking place in its beinghereness or, at the very least, in some unique present manifestation. The ice in Section III of Wall’s “Yellow Band,” for instance, makes the prairie both disappear and appear in a multiplicity of reflections. It hides and reveals it in its continental situation and clime, both as distinct from oceanic Enniscorthy and connected to it by apposition, since it releases a memory of just such a freezing day back there and then in Ireland (l. 38 seq.). Ice also hides and reveals the prairie in its characteristic motions and modifications. Indeed, how does one define ice? What is ice? What state defines it? Jullien, we remember, takes “snow” as a central example of the impossibility Plato finds himself in to think “the phenomenon of the transition.” Isolating snow from its “process of melting, Plato fails in Phaedo to catch the transformations which constitute the life of snow (Jullien 2011, 32-33; 2009, 36-37). Ice hides and reveals the prairie in its translatability and continuation into art, too. Even if it can be seen as a factual detail that anchors the encounter taking place between Wall’s poetry and Rothko’s Yellow Band painting, this ice is also (above all?) the representation of what melts and runs and connects — an evocation of those filaments of liquid paint linking all the spaces of Rothko’s canvases and all his series of bands, from which Wall’s own series of stanzaic bands now issues and runs on. What is taking place is the continuation of place in its modifications. So we may ask: what is place? Where is place? And for how long?


  • 2 In her cogent 1989 Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction, Chave comments on Rothko’s search for a un (...)

15Continuation, in the émigré painter’s band paintings, is a myriad of frayed threads, passageways where colours run to conjoin all the spaces of the painting. Wall’s poem continues and modifies this with, for instance, the Roman figures in italics which mark the unfolding of the poem. Both through their chronology and their very thin manifestation on the space of the page, they propel the text forward as a continuous modification of bands. In this multiplication of I (all together the ghostly threads of the Roman figures marking the series; the turnstile slashes that spring into view as we progress across the horizontality of Wall’s lines, planted there in order to gather as much as possible as quickly as possible; the imaginary of the poles across the territory falling under the weight of the ice coating them), the un-taking of place takes place: it is signed. And maybe this is the truth about place which is here manifested, not in bright light but in obscurity. The darkening of pages with text constructs the atmosphere which, as we can read in the second band from Section V of “Yellow Band,” Rothko “found ideal for” the revelation of the original, mythical commonground which his paintings were aiming to express.2 On the white icy field of the page of the poem, the “ice-coated poles and wires” transform into written signs, letters and lines, and relay what otherwise would stay put — and mute. The thinning out of place into text (which is also a darkening, and an obscuring) so that it loses its massive impassableness, reveals place as pollen, spawn, spray, or magnetic filings as Glissant writes it (Glissant 2006, 157). Taking place in any other way would be taking it like a brick in the face. This is what happened to Wordsworth,

That day [he] first
Beheld the summit of Mount Blanc, and grieved
To have a soulless image on the eye
Which had usurped upon a living thought
That never more could be. […] (
Prelude 1805, VI: 452-456, Wordsworth 1979, 212)

16As the poetics of the father of modern landscape makes it stand out with the two iambs framing line 453: behold and grieve. If you see what you want to see, you will come to regret it. “Beheld […] and grieved” contains, maintains fixed in place, “the summit of Mount Blanc” which henceforth cannot escape. This repression of place by its sheer absolute presence is “usurpation” to Wordsworth, and leads straight to its extinction. This is the dead end we are led to if we follow the path retraced by the sentence as it unfolds.

17Apocalypse is something else entirely. It cannot be confused with such dead ends, that is with the block corresponding to the invasion of the senses by a place filling them with the massive presence of its reality. A few days, a few miles and lines later, the revelation of the conditions for the liberation of place is given in the passage about the Simplon Pass. It starts with a road missed, unseen, that soon leads to a fireworks series of sublime contrasts which delete — which blast rather — very systematically, one by one, every element of the physical landscape that presents itself to the senses.

[…] downwards we hurried fast,
And entered with the road which we had missed
Into a narrow chasm. The brook and road
Were fellow-travellers in this gloomy pass,
And with them did we journey several hours
At a slow step. The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of waterfalls,
And everywhere along the hollow rent
Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears —
Black drizzling crags that spake by the wayside
As if a voice were in them — the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light,
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great apocalypse,
The types and symbols of eternity,
Of first, and last, and midst, and without end. (
Prelude 1805, VI: 551-572, Wordsworth 1979, 218)

18It is not the place now to detail the explosive poetics which are at work in this passage, but we must nevertheless acknowledge the final volley of this shattering explosion of place. Step by step, one line after the other, the materiality of place is disintegrated until we reach this final atomization into traits (“features”), filaments (“blossoms”), characters, lines of flight (“types and symbols”), down to the sheer aural beat of line 572 that melts into the whole, its iambic rhythm diluting into the ternary anapest that closes the line at the same time as it opens forever the possibilities of re-creation.

19Such unmaking of place is its revelation. It follows that its taking is downright impossible. “Le lieu est incontournable,” Glissant writes in his Philosophie de la Relation (Glissant 2009, 46), playing, with this attribute, on both the impossibility to do without place and the impossibity of ever being done with place because of the universal dimensions it acquires by being related and relayed. The development and pollination of Glissant’s archipelagic thinking relies on such fecund fragmentation as Wordsworth’s poetics performs. At the opening of Une nouvelle région du monde [A New Region of the World], a rock detaches itself from the Martiniquan coast and drops into the sea. “Characterized” as an “Exclamation or question” mark (Glissant 2006, 12), this rock, le Rocher du Diamant in front of Glissant’s home maybe, becomes a miniature image of the whole Caribbean archipelago which itself stands as a “type and symbol” of all the regions of the world, and of the universe too.

20Jullien, for his part, has learnt to heed the silent transformations that breed and grow in those in-betweens ignored by Western philosophy and its grammar in the Yi-Jing. The text of the Yi-Jing (Chinese Book of Changes) is a succession of layers “founded not on a word, but on a line, a complete or broken line ( — / - - )” (Jullien 2011, 71; Jullien 2009, 72). The diagrams formed by the figures of three or six lines “assist in diagnosing […] the power lines at work in each situation encountered” (Jullien 2011, 71; Jullien 2009, 73). No description or narration there, but lines into diagrams, segments into characters, from which one can draw no conclusion, message, meaning or anything else, but an orientation.

21This is what the landscapes of the New Irish poet Eamonn Wall also tend to. The poem “Bilingual Day Tripper” from the 2011 collection Sailing Lake Mareotis makes manifest this disintegration of narration, determination, place as singular and meaning.

I joined
youths for coffee —
that’s lingua franca
on bright
They asked
first about Wichita
then Connemara.
So. I returned
to Helsinki —
Helsingfors to some —
switching at Karis —
perhaps Karjaa to you.
As Swedish
one’s writ,
it’s comrade’s all
Finnish. (Wall 2011, 65:40-56)

  • 3 My warmest thanks to Guillaume Fourcade for this thrilling addition and thus for carrying the tune (...)

22In this last stanza as in the rest of the poem, places are turned into mere names and names into lines: a confetti-like explosion of the monumentality of place is what this poem is made the locus of. The very lightness with which the names are made fun of has quite the opposite effect to pointing derisively at what is alien in the strange sounds. Helsinki, Helsingfors, Karis, Karjaa must be heard as echoes of the “Keokuk bric-a-brac” from nearby poem “Aubade Cracked along the Edge of Iowa” (Wall 2011, 61:17). Keokuk may sound and seem neither here nor there but it is actually connected to the current place of residence of the poet, Saint Louis, via the Mississippi river (a most literary river, celebrated at the opening of the collection). It also branches out to Ireland and its strange-sounding topography which Wall’s poems rarely fail to play with — as in “Lakeside Falling, Co. Sligo,” a poem with a tell-tale title, which lists for the pure pleasure of tricky sonorities,“Carrowmore, Labby Rock, Cromlech” (Wall 2011, 19:7). The specificity of each place, contained in its name, dissolves in the tune which is composed around the alliteration in [k] that links them all. Swedish, Finnish, Irish or Sakiwaki Indian: it is all Greek to us anyway. The only sense we can make of all that is a sense in the sense of the direction, also readable in the “lingua franca” of coffee (Wall 2011, 65:41-42). This is all the more so as in Swedish, spoken not only in Sweden but also by a substantial minority in Finland, “coffee” is “fika,” namely a term that inverts the syllables of the English word, its polarities and ultimately any sense of directions —and of places.3 What we are left with, then, is something like a come-all-ye, let the good times roll, and let the good places roll too! The Beatles, that have accompanied Wall’s poetry over the years, are conspicuously present in this “Bilingual Day Tripper” — Yeah! Their invitation to joining in a tune that we all know and add to is indeed a “ticket to ride” (Wall 2011, 64:12) — always farther away.

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Glissant, Édouard. Philosophie de la Relation. Poésie en étendue. Paris : NRF Gallimard, 2009.

Guibert, Pascale. « Eamonn Wall et la mise en œuvre du collage : vers la construction d’un espace littéraire et identitaire ». Collage, montage, assemblage. Poésie anglaise et américaine. Ed. Paul Volsik. Paris VII : Les Cahiers Charles V 34 (2003): 45-62.

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1 All references to Michael Richardson’s and Krzysztof Fijalkowski’s English translation of Jullien’s text will be documented first and will be followed by the corresponding references to the French original in the Grasset edition.

2 In her cogent 1989 Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction, Chave comments on Rothko’s search for a universal myth to serve the whole of mankind. She traces this aspiration from his Surrealist beginnings to his final abstract realizations. She notes that “[i]n attempting to ground their art in myth more than in oneiric imagery, Rothko and his contemporaries hoped to make art with a more universal basis and significance” (Chave 94).

3 My warmest thanks to Guillaume Fourcade for this thrilling addition and thus for carrying the tune farther.

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Pascale Guibert, « Bilocation - Dislocation - Xlocation : The Apocalypse of Place in Eamonn Wall’s Poetry »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 27 | 2019, mis en ligne le 07 mai 2020, consulté le 01 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Pascale Guibert

Université de Franche-Comté, Besançon (CRIT)

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