As the back-cover blurb tells us, Did You Put The Weasels Out? (Eyewear) by Niall Bourke is inspired in part by an eighth-century Irish epic (The Tain) and in part by a nineteenth-century Russian romantic verse novel (Eugene Onegin); but it also contains roughly equal measures of James Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Spike Milligan. What results from this mix of influences is something rather more than the sum of its parts, and it would be a mistake to write it off as a piece of showy experimentation: this is not romanticism, not modernism, not surrealism or absurdism – not just, anyway – it’s also a contemplation of the modern condition: western spiritual malaise, economic disparity, loss of identity. But like any such contemplation worth its salt, it does not take itself too seriously.
The text invites you to draw comparisons between the silly/funny/mundane story of Mark Setanta’s imagined row with his fiancée Jen, his sloping off from work early to spend the afternoon walking and drinking, and his return home later that night, with the The Tain episode of the Ulster Cycle of myths in which uber-hero Cú Chulainn defends Ulster against Medb and Ailill’s cattle-raiding forces of Connacht. It’s therefore tempting to try and read Did You Put The Weasels Out? in the same way you might approach Ulysses, trying to find mythic equivalence in every character, episode and action; and it is true that both Mark and Jen at different times might be read as Cú Chulainns (Setanta is the Irish hero’s childhood name) and other characters may or may not have their direct equivalents (Mike/Medb? Isy/the Morrigan? Masefield/Fer Diad?) but in general we look in vain for heroic parallels in this tale of modern paranoia (all Mark’s worries are in his mind) and alienation (Mark is an ‘exiled’ Irishman in London) – and this is part of the whole “perverse” point, I think.
Like Flann O’Brien, Bourke makes extensive and eccentric use of footnotes throughout – often the footnotes themselves have footnotes – and he impressively/doggedly sticks to rhyming through most of these (as well as in the contents and acknowledgements!). There is no denying that (as in O’Brien) this interrupts the flow of the narrative to begin with, but as you proceed you become attuned to the style and it adds layers of richness and depth to the poems rather than detracting from them. Bourke takes layering to a whole different level in two poems which are given lives of their own by thinking/speaking verse in cartoon bubbles (again bringing O’Brien to mind in At Swim-Two-Birds where internal characters are given unexpected life in relation to their author, but here it is the Pushkin sonnets themselves which appear to be coming to life, as post-modern an idea as anything I’ve ever read).
Just as Irish mythology gives great significance to the relationship between event and landscape (“landscape as a mnemonic map” as Ciaran Carson calls it in the introduction to his translation of The Tain), Mark (as much a Leopold Bloom as a Cú Chulainn) walks through and observes different parts of London, and while doing so he imbues them with similar significance: the shapes of the City skyscrapers viewed from Hampstead Heath inspire the radical shape of the ‘graph-poem’ (my term for what is as far as I know unique in its form) called ‘Economic Development’, a briefly digressing mini-critique of laissez-faire capitalism; and the winding River Thames itself becomes a metaphor for tamed and emasculated modern life (in ‘River Retirement Blues’).
Mark Setanta’s story is free from the insane violence of the Ulster Cycle until the very end (in the last of the three ‘remscéala’ named after The Tain’s prologues but which Bourke, in typically contrary style, uses as appendices) when Cú Chulainn’s famous ‘battle frenzy’ or ‘warp-spasm’ is replicated by Mark losing his temper hilariously with the ‘serve-yourself’ scanning machine at his local supermarket (I will now never be able to hear these machines say “unexpected item in the bagging area” without smiling!) and subsequently being beaten to death by his fellow shoppers. This episode, like the other ‘remscéala’ are to be read, like a couple of other incidents in the story I think, as things which didn’t happen but could have in another, more directly analogical world perhaps.
Quite apart from the mythological allusions, the Milliganesque absurdity and fun with language (e.g. sausages/assuages) and the use of the Onegin Stanza to carry the narrative on at a good clip (footnotes notwithstanding) both add to the reader’s enjoyment and suggest further layers of meaning (there is possibly something Onegin-like in Mark’s self-absorption and his misinterpretation of Jen’s door-slamming for example, but perhaps we could go too far with this line of thought?).
There are also moving individual poems in here which stand up well on their own, outside of the main sonnet-flow, and which serve to turn Mark into a more fully-rounded character than he would otherwise have been (‘My Father The Forest’ and ‘My Love Is The Weeds’ are my favourite of these) and which also contribute, I would suggest, to the feeling in general that there is some equivalence intended not only between Mark and various fictional characters but also with the poet himself.
As to what the Weasels of the title signify – they appear (along with various types of hats) several times throughout the novel, mentioned by different characters in different situations – they appear to be symbolic of playfulness, memory, gnawing fears, paranoias, and imagination itself (and possibly all – or none! – of these). I can’t pretend that I know what they are intended to signify ultimately, but it is perfectly possible that they have some mythological significance I’m unaware of or that they are intended simply to mean whatever I want them to mean. The biggest compliment I can pay this book is that it makes me want to go back in and look for more. Perhaps on a subsequent reading I will finally be able to tie the weasels down to my satisfaction.
It seems easy to dismiss allusive and formally structured (though experimental) poetry as elitist or ‘show-offy’, but I would offer this intriguing, beguiling book as evidence against that charge. I hadn’t read either The Tain or Eugene Onegin before beginning Did You Put The Weasels Out? but it soon became clear that I would get more out of it if I did. So I picked up the e-books very easily and quickly, read them, enjoyed them and then read and enjoyed this book. We should thank poetry for introducing us to more poetry, I think. But more than that, this “Perverse Novel in Verse” made me want to go off and try writing some Pushkin sonnets and some ‘graph-poetry’ (if that’s what we’re going to call it!) not because I thought I could do a better job than Niall Bourke (I tried, I can’t), but because he clearly had such a good time doing it!
Did You Put The Weasels Out? is published by Eyewear and can be bought here.