Trem Neul.

We have a fairly capacious mailbox, and the mail usually fits with little problem, so I was surprised when I saw the mailman walking up the driveway to the garage, where he deposited a hefty stack that included several packages. Two were Russian books I had ordered, but the largest and heaviest was completely unexpected, and came complete with a customs declaration; it turned out to be from Trevor Joyce, and contained two of his collections of poetry, With the First Dream of Fire They Hunt the Cold: A Body of Work 1966/2000 and What’s in Store (Poems 2000-2007). I was bowled over — I’d been wanting to read more of Joyce since I got his Fastness in 2017 (see this post). His ear for English and his ability to deploy it in unexpected ways excited me, and now I can dive in to a much wider range of his work. The very first piece in the first collection, a version of Buile Suibne he did in his young youth, starts out with an easy confidence that puts most modern retellings to shame: “It’s no secret how Sweeny, king of Dal Araidhe and scion of noble though disputed stock, wandered deranged from battle.” After that come “The Moon as Other Than a Green Cheese” (“Tonight/ a phosphorescence is toddling along the night/ having the form/ of a silver apple, walking pome”), “River Tolka and Botanical Gardens” (“Eggshells of white hoar crackled underfoot”), and other exagminations of the world around him; I particularly like the title “Surd Blab.” Naturally I turned to “Tocharian Music” as soon as I saw the title; here’s the end of the finely restrained little poem:

Eleven thousand
died in the reprisal
and the city laid waste
the airs dispersed
only the names survive

Time slipped out of their tablature
and without stopping
fugitive amongst those sands

“Time slipped out of their tablature”: that has the same kind of phonetic/rhythmic authority that captured me in early Pasternak; I don’t care what the lines mean as long as they sound that good, and it’s a quality sadly missing from most poetry these days. And Joyce has kept it up for decades; the recent poems in What’s in Store are just as convincing. Here’s the start of one of “the thirty-six word poems scattered throughout this volume”:

the sheets
of wheat
are rolled

that blonde
your pillow

I’ll quote another of them in full; how can I not, given that it leads with a fedora?

is one
with a

at the waist


and yellow

a polished
shoe shows
below the

but know
the sole
is worn

and only
the appearance
is indestructible

It reminds me a little of WC Williams and a little of Lorine Niedecker, but it’s pure Trevor Joyce, and I’m going to spend a lot of time with these lovely books. (I mean, just the title “With the First Dream of Fire They Hunt the Cold” — how could you not trust the poet implicitly?) Oh, and my post title comes from that of the last, long poem in that first book (“This apparatus echoes and distorts many voices other than my own” — see the detailed explication here). It’s Irish for ‘through my dream,’ but the primary meaning of the word néal (of which neul is an alternate form) is ‘cloud’; it descends from Old Irish nél, “a cloud; a swoon, faintness, stupor; a vision, dream” (néall fir choirr ós cionn Tomáis, | néall maighre ós mhac na flatha ‘a vision of a hunch-back over Thomas; the vision of a salmon over the lord’s son’), which is (per Wiktionary) “a Celtic loanword either from Vulgar Latin *nībulus, a modification of Latin nūbilus (‘cloudy’), or from Proto-Germanic *nebulaz (‘cloud, mist’).” I love it when poetry hits me right in the linguistics.


  1. If “exagminations” is a typo, please keep it.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    Stuart Gilbert and Sylvia Beach believed that Joyce wrote the second letter of protest himself, as it is addressed to “Mr. Germs Choice” and “Shame’s Voice” alternately (two puns on Joyce’s name), and the letter itself is written in a pastiche of the punning style that Joyce was then using in his published work. Their assumption, however, was challenged and proven false by the discovery in the late 1970s of a number of books and letters authored by the historical Vladimir Dixon, a minor poet of Russian verse living in France during the 1920s.

  3. I like it. I would in fact be astonished to find a typo in any posting of yours.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    So what’s a “trem”? I learn from the internet that it means “tram” in Afrikaans and “train” in Brazilian Portuguese, but maybe something else fits this context better? It reminds me of this, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect Trevor J. to be familiar with it.

  5. It’s a form of tre ‘through.’

  6. PlasticPaddy says
    In the modern language néal refers to the enveloping cloud or veil of sleep, not to the dreams (which may be absent). I am most familiar with this word in the expression néal codlata or chodail mé néal. The normal word for cloud is scamall.

  7. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I think neul is ordinary enough in Scottish Gaelic, although sgòth is probably more common. No trem there, though – tron neul? I want to just say tro na neòil, with clouds plural!

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    Sgòth would be scáth in Irish (shadow, covering) with a PIE etymology. I do not see how to get to scamall from there and would favour a borrowing of Latin squamula (little flake or scale) but cannot find an authority suggesting this. Neul is also borrowed either from Latin or Germanic.

  9. I’ve found a source that says scamall is ‘(dark) cloud,’ not just ‘cloud.’

  10. Aha, I’ve found this in Ériu Volume 53 (2003): “Perhaps scamal(l) ‘scale; phlegm, etc.’, also later ‘cloud’ in Irish (see Dwelly s.v. and Dinn s.v., possibly a late borrowing with unlenited m from the Latin diminutive squamula, see Greene 1975)…”

  11. Trevor tells me that trem neul is “P.W. Joyce’s phonetic stab at tre mo neul ‘through my dream’.”

  12. Here is the text that I believe was incorporated into “Trem Neul” and contains the phrase trem neul (spelled trem nel). The phrase is on page 11, in the middle of the page here:

    From P.W. Joyce, “Some Remininscences of a Collector of Irish Folk Music”, Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society vol. 11, p. 9ff. (My apologies if this information is found buried somewhere else in the articles linked to—I ferreted it out myself for my own side interests.)

    About the elision of the vowel in mo, “my”, here is Thurneysen, A Grammar of Old Irish, p. 277, section 439, on the elision of vowel of the possessive pronouns after prepositions ending in a vowel in Old Irish:

    439. The 1st and 2nd singular have the forms mo mu, do du (arch. to, e.g. Thes. II. 250, 16; 255, 14), both leniting. For the interchange of o and u see § 101.

    After prepositions ending in a vowel, and after for, these forms are replaced by m and t (always unlenited); e.g. dom(m) dot, dim(m) dit, im(m) it, frim(m) frit, lam(m) lat, form fort, etc. After tar dar both forms (m and mo, t and do ) are found.

    Before a vowel (and in later texts before lenited f) the short forms m and t may be used also after a preposition ending in a consonant, or even without any preceding preposition at all; in the latter case t (and doubtless m also) may be lenited. Examples: 1 sg. mo chland ‘my children’, gen. mo chlainde; a mu choimdiu ‘O my Lord’, later written ammo, hence with unlenited m; mo béssi-se ‘my manners’, acc. mo bésu-sa; sech mo chomáes-sa ‘beyond my contemporaries’; im chuimriug, rem chuimriug ‘in, before my captivity’ (lit. ‘binding’), but asmo chuimriug ‘out of my captivity’; dumm imdídnaad ‘for my release’; form náimtea ‘upon my enemies’; tarm chenn ‘for me’ Ml. 72d11 (cp. Wb. 7b5), beside tar-mo chenn Ml. 88a8, tar-mu chenn 76d9; mo ort and m’ort ‘my rank’; messe m’oínur ‘I alone’; m’oísitiu ‘my confession’ (foísitiu) Ml. 46b12; oc m’ingraimmaim-se ‘at my persecution’ = ‘persecuting me’ 33a9.

    German version here, section 436:

    The contractions are no longer prescribed in the official standard Irish of today, but contractions like lem, led, óm, ód, dom, dod, im, id, fém, féd, etc., instead of le mo, le do, ó mo, ó do, do mo, do do, i mo, i do, faoi mo, faoi do, etc., are usual in the Munster Irish norm which was so prominent in the Gaelic Revival in P.W. Joyce’s time.

  13. Excellent finds all!

  14. possibly a late borrowing with unlenited m from the Latin diminutive squamula, see Greene 1975

    David Greene’s article in Ériu on scamall is here:

    It’s a brilliant little gem for those interested in Irish. (JSTOR has 100 free articles a month available now, so everyone who does not otherwise have access to this journal should be able to read it simply by registering.)

    The meaning “(dark) cloud” evidently developed from an earlier meaning “occlusion of the eye, cataract in a sheep’s eye”. Greene reminds us of the use of Latin squamae “scales” to translate Acts 9:18 in the Vulgate:

    καὶ εὐθέως ἀπέπεσον ἀπὸ τῶν ὀφθαλμῶν αὐτοῦ ὡσεὶ λεπίδες ἀνέβλεψέν τε παραχρῆμα, καὶ ἀναστὰς ἐβαπτίσθη

    et confestim ceciderunt ab oculis eius tamquam squamae et visum recepit et surgens baptizatus est

    And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized.

    Hat tip to Hat for the great post and starting the thread that led to me read Greene’s article. I’m very thankful.

  15. “Silence vexed”: The Poetry and “Workings” of Trevor Joyce is a 20-minute talk (by “someone in Spain,” as Joyce says here; it’s odd that the speaker isn’t named in the YouTube text) that I found very enlightening — I hadn’t realized he and Michael Smith basically forced Irish poetry kicking and screaming into the modern era (cf. New Writers Press).

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