“Free Ploughshares” Review: Spring 1980

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Issue: Spring 1980

This is a review of a back issue of Ploughshares. The author won our “Free Ploughshares” contest that we hosted earlier this year and agreed to review his/her free issue. This post was written by C. Wallace Walker. Enjoy!

As a child I fell in love with Seamus Heaney’s work when his collection Death of a Naturalist arrived on our farm in an odd lot box from a public auction. My grandfather had bid on the box for its collection of eyebolts rather than poems. 

The book stayed in the kitchen where I, as my grandparents’ designated English reader, shared it aloud for all to discuss. Heaney’s poems were so accessible to all of us even though my grandparents were native Pennsylvania Dutch speakers. Those poems spoke of our lives: gathering berries, digging potatoes, and collecting frogspawn in jelly jars for science class.

Heaney’s poetry convinced me that I could be a poet. By mimicking Heaney’s use of assonance, enjambment, and linguistic play, I earned a PEN prize for the first poem I’d published since the fourth grade.

Being so familiar with Heaney’s work and having heard him read, I thought I knew what to expect from the Spring 1980 issue of Ploughshares he edited. As I anticipated, he included many rural nature pieces about a “snail consumed by bludgeoning” from a bird and “a pantry silent with milk.”

I knew I would also find poems and short stories about preservation of the Irish identity. My favorite was an excerpt of Brian Friel’s clever play about mapmakers attempting to Anglicize Irish place names, such as reducing Bun na hAbhann, meaning the “tiny area of soggy, rocky, sandy ground where the little stream enters the sea,” to Burnfoot.

No Heaney compilation would be complete without tales of  “The Troubles.”  Seamus Deane’s “Adgagio” is full of particularly haunting imagery of violence: “Four hens in a burgundy pile rusted in the back lane, two cats in a stiff scissor lay in a liqueur of blood on a stone roof.”

Along with the expected, I was surprised to find Paul Durcan’s “The Death by Heroin of Sid Vicious,” with its non-traditional prayer “…Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols. Jesus, break his fall:  There – but for the clutch of luck – go we all.”

The biggest surprise was not in the contents, but in the authors. Only one of the twenty contributors was a woman and her poems were featured on the last three pages. As a Ploughshares subscriber, I know that in modern issues men and women are more equitably represented. A search of early issues revealed that women writers were not as well represented as men, but no other issue had a lower percentage of female contributors.

Since I found this curious, I contacted Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, the lucky woman whose work appeared in the Heaney issue. She remembers being quite pleased at being asked to contribute.  As for being relegated to the last three pages, she said that since 1975 she has been the editor of her own magazine, Cyphers and would have been understanding, since, “Someone has to be in that spot.” She adds that “being a token woman was not unusual back then.”

Like Ní Chuilleanáin, I’ll overlook Heaney’s underrepresentation of women. His Transatlantic Issue is so well selected and thought provoking, that it has inspired more creative endeavors in me. My life is richer for having read it.

C. Wallace Walker’s work has appeared in The Little Patuxent ReviewThe Copperfield Review and Prick of the Spindle, among other journals. Wallace is the editor of “The Literary Lunchbox” and is currently working on her first novel Time and Untime Again.

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