Book review: ‘Until the Manxmen are driven away’.

UNTIL THE MANXMEN ARE DRIVEN AWAY – The Selected Poems of Paul Lebiedzinski

Until the Manxmen are driven away. Cover design by Mary Cousins. (c) Culture Vannin

Ramsey poet Paul Lebiedzinski has finally had his work published in book form, 25 years after his death at the distressingly young age of 43. Culture Vannin have continued their interesting and vital work in expanding the popular idea of what Manx culture is like, with editor James Franklin gathering together 63 of Lebiedzinksi’s poems.

It’s maybe something of a cliché, especially when talking of a poet, but Lebiedzinski was clearly a complex man, capable of what can appear to be contradictory positions. He despairs at the poverty that befell the Island at the time of his early writing (there are no dates on the poems, but the book covers the 1970s to the 1990s), but also disapproves of the unfair distribution when new prosperity arrives. He makes withering accusations of laziness and greed towards Manx politicians, but twice served on Ramsey Town Commissioners.

There are two recurring themes in his work, though. One is a bullish, aggressive Manx nationalism. He writes of the spate of holiday home-burning without any condemnation of the violence. The new arrivals brought over by the expansion of the finance sector are always viewed with suspicion and scorn in this volume. The structure of the Island’s society has changed a lot in the last quarter of a century, and this inflexible approach is one rarely expressed today. It sits uncomfortably with a modern perspective, and is a reminder that this work belongs to a very specific period of time. Lebiedzinski often writes of the streets of South Ramsey where he grew up, and which were bulldozed in the late 1960s. He briefly touches on the squalor and dilapidation that must have existed in these narrow alleys, but the always potent mix of nationalism and childhood nostalgia romanticises the neighbourhood. He clearly views the demolition as an assault on his home, and his response is like a bereavement. The anger of his work is rarely more palpable.

Lebiedzinksi’s second strong theme is the absolute polar opposite to his furious polemic. Until the Manxmen are driven away contains an equal amount of gentle, wistful romance for both places and people. The love is equal in strength to the hate, although you get the impression that both may have cost the poet dear. Perhaps deliberately, it’s within these more sensitive poems that you have an awareness that Lebiedzinski is not always using his own voice or experience – he creates characters and scenarios. Some of this book is a memoir; other parts are fiction. It’s also in these calmer, reflective pieces that his technical skill at structuring poetry is clearest. They are the poems that linger longest with the reader, and have an energy equal to, possibly greater, than their invective-loaded bookmates.

As always with those who die young, you wonder what Lebiedzinski would have thought of the changes he didn’t live to see. He would quite probably have been appalled at the continuing corporatisation of some aspects of life on the Island. Conversely, he could well have been heartened by the growing interest in Manx culture and the increase in numbers of Manx speakers. As somebody with Polish heritage, he might have welcomed the increase in the diversity of the Island community and a richer definition of Manx identity, with new arrivals who enrich the local way of life rather than just themselves. Perhaps the advancement of years would have quelled the angry fire in his belly, as it has with some of his former associates. This book gives an impression of a man who may not have been easy to know, somebody who faced demons and didn’t beat them all, but who clearly had much more to give.

Until the Manxmen are driven away ultimately feels like an appropriate remembrance of Paul Lebiedzinski. It’s impressive in the talent it contains, but also catches the chaotic energy of a man who wrote his work on shop receipts and beermats. It ricochets from the sensitively beautiful lament, to the bawdy pub ditty, to the viciously furious rant, performing handbrake turns that leave the reader breathless.

This is an important work of modern Manx literature, as there isn’t another voice like Lebiedzinksi’s. Changes in society mean that there may never be another quite like his. The world that informed and inspired his work has moved on. but that period is captured in his words. Maybe even more significantly Until the Manxmen are driven away posthumously places Paul Lebiedzinski among the important writers of the Island. His work deserves new audiences and new discussion. This is the book needed to inspire both of those.

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