Title: The Leading Question
Author: Roger Elkin
Publisher: The High Window 2021
Reviewer: Mandy Pannett
The Leading Question, an outstanding poetry collection, explores aspects of the Great Irish Famine (1845 -51) caused initially by potato blight and exacerbated by prejudice, indifference, neglect and greed. Roger Elkin’s passion for this subject began when he visited the Irish National Famine Museum in the stables of Strokestown Park House. From this came the unanswerable questions ‘how, where, when, what, and why’ (Conacre), questions reflected in Where Now? the striking cover image from Erica Brooke’s artwork.
But all this sounds too easy, an over-simplification of a decade’s obsession and research resulting in a long sequence called That F Word, a vast and complex project about the Irish famine set in a wide historical context.
In 2016 I had the pleasure of interviewing Roger Elkin for a feature in Sentinel Literary Quarterly. In response to my question about the origin of the project he gave this reply:
‘I suppose what attracted me initially, and this sounds trite in the light of what was to follow, was a cluster of words totally new to me and which featured in the museum display cases – “clachan”, “conacre”, “rundale”, “spalpeen”, “booleying”, “creaghting”, “lazy beds”, “tudal”, “boreen”. This sparked off an investigation of the tragic events surrounding the potato blight: the soup kitchens, the task work, meal roads, the evictions, emigration, the coffin ships, government inadequacy and incompetence. Nigh on 2.5 million Irish peasants were displaced, either by famine death or emigration to Canada or America. That’s almost a quarter of the population. And Ireland has yet to recover both in population terms and psychologically from that ravaging and diaspora.’
That F Word still remains to be published in full. Ten year’s passion cannot be easily condensed although David Cooke at The High Window must be congratulated on the remarkable publication that is The Leading Question, Roger Elkin’s thirteenth poetry collection and, arguably, his best.
There are levels of journeys here in this sequence – poetic, historical, counterfactual and contemporary, journeys of suffering and exploitation where voices cry out for justice and help, journeys that end in the silence of shame. A quotation chosen by the author for the preface strikes me as significant. It is from Robert Hughes The Shock of the New:
‘The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible … not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way to pass from feeling to meaning.’
‘From feeling to meaning’ – this is the quality of exploration we have in The Leading Question with poetry that is monumentally profound and beyond words moving, poetry which begins with a potato held in the curve of the hand and encompasses the whole ‘rhythm of living’ through ‘earth stone bone history’.
A great many issues are encountered in this collection. The question of historical truth is one, the way that History’s ‘special slant’ distorts and alters data, the way that bias and self-interest affect the selection and proportion of statistics and artefacts, the presentation of events in hindsight. It’s a riddle, says the author in the title poem The Leading Question, ‘where History ends and Literature begins’. Art becomes an issue when, on the one hand, wealthy landowners and politicians are displayed in fine portraits on the walls of their stately homes while the Irish poor are reviled in cartoons as gormless ruffians, ‘simian things.’ (Words … and Pictures).
There were massive economic and social divisions underlying the Irish Famine, divisions highlighted in The Leading Question by the ironic use of footnotes that reveal misconceptions and distorted theories. Social Darwinism, for instance, had its grip on the minds of many nineteenth century thinkers convinced that human beings were subject to the same laws of natural selection as Charles Darwin perceived in plants and nature. A footnote comment from Thomas Malthus’ essay On the Principles of Population declares that ‘in order to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil’.
This great part of the population, of course, did not include the middlemen or landowners, only the poor. Value was defined in terms of profit. Pigs on an emigrant ship were worth more than passengers. (All Animals Are Equal). The mismatch between wealth and poverty is exemplified in details of a banquet held in Cork which included:
turbot, salmon, lobster salads,
spiced beef, rump of beef,
veal, haunch of mutton, lamb,
hares, tongues, pigeon pies,
chicken, duckling, turkeys,
sponge cakes, jellies, creams, ices …
champagne, claret, port.
All this was happening while those reduced to beggary existed on boiled cabbage leaves every other day and if none of these were available then they ate ‘dead dogs, nettles, leather-belts,/ rats, grass.’ (Whereas).
And what of responsibility? What of empathy? Roger Elkin shows us a government in London composed of absentee landlords living in vast Palladian mansions with ballrooms, libraries and huge gardens and all of these people constantly passing the buck, shifting blame. Indian Buck is a particularly virulent, shocking poem as is To him who asks where, in response to a Government directive that ‘The food best suited for free relief is soup’, Crown Agent Knox, roster in hand, officiously organises the distribution to children ‘wild-eyed/in their thinness’ while the Reverend Lloyd and wife Eleanor smile ‘benignly’ at a distance.
The Leading Question is a book with impact. Fascinatingly written in a variety of voices and forms so that interest never flags, it nevertheless is appalling in its details and shockingly relevant in the light of recent and current histories and thought. An example is the comparison between the Irish girls who were forced to sell their hair to wigmakers in order ‘to stay alive’ and the horrors of genocide in Treblinka where bins were piled high with the hair of dead women, hair that could be used for ‘padding mattresses, filling pillows’. (Bills of Entry, Liverpool Customs House – 1848).
In his interview for Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Roger Elkin considered the implications of such issues by referring to contemporary Famine letters from the Strokestown priest, Father Michael McDermott, who described the situation as a ‘holocaust’ – a term more usually associated with later historical events. This, he went on to say:
… raises the issue that the political mismanagement of the English government’s dealing with its first colony had an element of genetic cleansing. It is matters like this that give the events an immediate relevance. For me, remembering G. B. Shaw’s “poverty is the greatest crime”, the writing became obligatory. I also made links with later historical events, and famines in other parts of the world – hence the inclusiveness of the title That F Word.
The displacement of people is another ongoing cruelty. ‘Destitute Irish poor’, victims of eviction, were forgotten British citizens, ‘itinerant beggars/ that most of England/ thought it wise to deny’
and not Romanians, Albanian, Iranians,
Serbs, Slavs, Poles, Czechs,
not Bangladeshi Muslims,
not Hindi, not Sikh,
not Chinese cockle-pickers,
not Vietnamese gagging for air
in the backs of container wagons
The poem’s list goes on, names falling like hammer blows, a list that finishes with ‘et cetera.’ This is a story without end where ‘everyone’s tomorrows’ are ‘garnered away’. (Sloe Progress).
The Leading Question is Roger Elkin’s masterpiece – or maybe three-quarters of a masterpiece that needs the rest of the long sequence to be fully complete. It is an immensely important, compulsively readable collection. At the end we are left, not with hope, not with any solutions, only silence engraved on a ‘cenotaph of forgetting’, a silence ‘lying deep beneath skin’. (This Silence).