In the preface to his second book of poetry, Sorry for Your Troubles (Canterbury Press, 2013), Pádraig Ó Tuama explains that ‘The poem titles have spaces between each letter as a way of indicating the importance of silence, listening, grief and the things beyond words.’
It’s a brave to begin a book with such an admission about the limitations of words. But it’s also an invitation to enter into the experiences that Ó Tuama chronicles through his poetry, including the profound losses of those who lived through the Troubles as well as the challenges of trying to keep on living now, day by day.
As a volume of poetry, Sorry for Your Troubles works on a number of levels, the first of which is simply as a darn good book of poetry. The quality of the work builds on that in Readings from the Book of Exile, which was long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize in 2013. For those who savour words for their own sake, Sorry for Your Troubles is for you.
But on another level, Sorry for Your Troubles works by creating a space in which some of the pain, grief, and experiences of the violence in and about [ t h e ] n o r t h [ e r n ] [ o f ] i r e l a n d (a title of one of Ó Tuama’s poems about the contested name of this place) can be explored.
In this, the book is a timely contribution to ongoing debates about how we remember our past, how we create spaces for people to share their stories about the past, and how the words we use in those debates can help or hinder our healing.
Indeed, many of the poems were written as responses to Ó Tuama’s work with the Corrymeela Community and Mediation Northern Ireland. There are several sections of prose interspersed throughout the book, and in one, ‘Bury the Hatchet,’ Ó Tuama describes the artists’ and the poets’ roles in reconciliation work (p. 37):
The Corrymeela Community believes that the quality of the telling of a story will be related to the quality of the listening of the people. There is no shortcut to human encounter. Susan McEwan [of Corrymeela] told me this. So, she makes sandwiches and space and tea and provides tissues for the talking spaces that she holds, and she holds them well. She curates encounters with a careful tone. She’s the one who invited the poets and artists to listen. And she tells us we must listen well.
I see Sorry for Your Troubles as another opportunity to listen, to let the stories which Ó Tuama’s poems mediate sink in and provide us with some deep insights about grief and hope.
There are a number of poems in the collection that I found especially powerful, though doubtless other readers will have their own. One is ‘T h e P e d a g o g y o f C o n f l i c t’, the third verse of which is:
When I was a child,
I learnt to count to five:
one, two, three, four, five.
But these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I count
Because each time is the first time that that life has been taken.
I was also moved by ‘I n t h e b e g i n n i n g,’ and I n t h e b e g i n n i n g, p a r t I I.’ I n t h e b e g i n n i n g is stark and bleak. But 17 pages later, I n t h e b e g i n n i n g, p a r t I I – all the more powerful because of the stories in the other poems between the two – can conclude with the words:
The people stood in darkness
and in it
they’ve become their light.