Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Unrefined poetry

The phrases, the words, the repetition, the coarse blend of English and Irish—it all reads like unrefined poetry, like a timeworn incantation that when fervently chanted, rouses the ghosts of far-removed, long-forgotten places.

Beal Feirsde ... The mouth of, or approach to, the sandbank or crossing ...

Bealafarsad ... Hurdleford town or the mouth of the pool ...

Bela Fearsad ... A town at the mouth of a river ...

The Irish maintain an intimate connection with the natural features of their environment, a devotion that engenders a unique charitableness when it comes to place-naming. "They lavished names on the land," writes Kerby A. Miller in Emigrants and Exiles. "Every field, cleft, and hollow had a distinctive appellation which recalled some ancient owner or legendary occurrence." This rich appreciation for nature, this power to give even the most ordinary aspects of the landscape a certain permanence is present in the name of Northern Ireland's capital and most historically important city: Belfast.

A little taste

Last week, Rolling Stone whet the appetites of us Astral Weeks zealots when it premiered one of the four bonus tracks that will be featured on the album's upcoming reissue. The publication debuted the first take of "Beside You." The reissue will feature three other previously unreleased tracks: the fourth take of "Madame George" and longer versions of both "Ballerina" and "Slim Slow Slider." This new edition of Astral Weeks will be released Oct. 30.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

The city of superlatives

Belfast ... A large city in a little country—a place where no task is ever small, where determination is never modest and the triumphs are imposingly grand. "As Belfast-people, we proclaim a belief in big ideas," explains Belfast-born architect and urban designer Ciaran Mackel in his essay "Impact of the Conflict on Public Spaces and Architecture." "We are accustomed, perhaps even addicted to, a big sense of our place in the world." The city's history is laden with superlatives. Three times Harland & Wolff built a ship that was bestowed with the title of "largest ever": the Teutonic, the Oceanic, and the Titanic. Additionally, the shipyard possessed the world's biggest floating crane and graving dock. York Street Mill was the king of all linen manufactories (helping Belfast earn the moniker "Linenopolis"). The Belfast Rope Work Company and Gallaher's tobacco factory were titans of their prospective industries.

In the words of still another architect, Dennis O'D. Hanna, the city's numerous feats of wonder are attributable to a certain shared trait: "What Belfast sets its hand to it will ultimately do well, for we are an ambitious people." A restless desire to succeed, a civic embrace of the idea that everything can be done better—and again. Van Morrison articulated it with two plain and irrevocable words. Back in the mid-1960s, Morrison and fellow members of Them were profiled in Belfast's City Week; asked to list his ambitions, the singer/songwriter stated just one: "Make it."

Perhaps then, it's no accident of fortune that the rock canon's crowning achievement can trace its roots back to Belfast. After all, this is the city of superlatives.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


Astral Weeks possesses the solid foundation that Belfast lacks. It's a juxtaposition that's altogether coincidental and at the same time, fun to tease out: The album that is constructed on the firm bedrock of Richard Davis' upright bass and Van Morrison's vocals and acoustic guitar pays homage to a city that is built on a soft, dense mixture of sand, gravel, and boulder clay. Locals call this mixture "sleech." (Engineers have coined a less colorful term: "reinforced water.") It lies underneath the central part of the city in varying thicknesses and is notorious for its poor weight-bearing capabilities. The Albert Memorial Clock, one of the city's most recognizable landmarks, subsided into the sleech and as result, developed a well-known tilt.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A brief poetic interlude

Van Morrison: Astral Weeks
By Paul Muldoon

Not only had I lived on Fitzroy Avenue,
I'd lived there with Madame George Hyde Lees,
to whom I would rather shortly be wed.

Georgie would lose out to The George and El Vino's
when I "ran away to the BBC"
as poets did, so Dylan Thomas said.