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Medbh McGuckian 1950-
Northern Irish poet and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of McGuckian's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 48.
One of the few female Irish poets to attract both critical and popular attention, McGuckian writes poetry that infuses...
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Medbh McGuckian 1950-
Northern Irish poet and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of McGuckian's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 48.
One of the few female Irish poets to attract both critical and popular attention, McGuckian writes poetry that infuses the traditionally masculine realm of Irish poetry with her own distinct brand of femininity. Throughout her career, she has simultaneously illumined and blurred patriarchal definitions of womanhood in collections ranging from the critically acclaimed The Flower Master (1982; revised, 1993) to The Soldiers of Year II (2002). Primarily writing on such themes as female sexuality, sex, and identity as well as marriage, fertility, pregnancy, and birthing, McGuckian has challenged the Irish literary canon which traditionally devalues woman writers. In addition, she has asserted a female Irish perspective on European poetry while honoring precursors of both genders in that tradition. McGuckian's themes are intimately linked with her literary style, which is not only densely literate and allusive but also deliberately oblique, deconstructing both logocentric thought and conventional grammar and syntax.
McGuckian was born on August 12, 1950, the third of six children, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her family lived in the Newington District in North Belfast, a small area populated by Roman Catholics that forms an interface with the Protestant Tiger's Bay area and was therefore fraught with sectarian tension throughout McGuckian's childhood. Her father was a teacher, the vice principal of the local Holy Family Primary School, which McGuckian attended before completing her secondary education at the Dominican convent in Fort William. From 1968 to 1974, McGuckian studied English literature under the renowned Irish poet Seamus Heaney at Queen's College in Belfast, earning both her B.A. and M.A. degrees. During her tenure at Queen's College, McGuckian interacted with a number of noted Irish poets, such as Paul Muldoon, Michael Longley, Frank Ormsby, and Ciaran Carson. While working on her graduate degree, McGuckian began writing and publishing in local newspapers and magazines. In 1974 she started teaching English at her old convent school in Fort William and later accepted a position at St. Patrick's Boys' College in East Belfast. She married John McGuckian, a teacher of geography, in 1977, with whom she has four children. In 1979 McGuckian won first place in the National Poetry Competition, a well-publicized media event in Britain, for her poem “The Flitting.” She subsequently released two brief pamphlet editions of her poetry in 1980—Single Ladies and Portrait of Joanna—followed in 1982 by the publication of her first major volume of verse, The Flower Master, which she later significantly revised in 1993. During the 1980s, McGuckian issued two collections of poems, Venus and the Rain (1984; revised, 1994) and On Ballycastle Beach (1988). In 1986 she became the first woman poet-in-residence at Queen's University. She has also served as a writer-in-residence at the University of Ulster, Coleraine, from 1994 to 1997. In the 1990s McGuckian published three poetry collections—Marconi's Cottage (1991), Captain Lavender (1994), and Shelmalier (1998). She has won numerous literary awards, including the Rooney Prize in Ireland, the Cheltenham Award, the Bass Ireland Award for Literature, and the American Ireland Fund Literary Award. In 1993 she facilitated a controversial series of poetry workshops for both loyalist and Republican prisoners of Northern Ireland's Maze Prison. In the late 1990s, McGuckian joined Aosdána, a highly selective association of Irish artists representing literature, music, and the visual arts. In 2002 she was awarded the Tolman Cunard Prize for best single poem for “She Is in the Past, She Has This Grace.”
A palpable eroticism suffuses most of McGuckian's poetry, articulating concerns about ambiguous marginal states traditionally represented by the feminine in patriarchal literature. Such bodily experiences as pregnancy, birth, and death often focus these themes, particularly in her early poems. For instance, The Flower Master, McGuckian's most critically acclaimed and best known work, is thematically centered around childbearing and dying, engaging floral imagery as both a generating idea and a metaphorical resource. In such poems as “Gladiolus” and “Spring,” the language of flowers is used to describe the manner and method of poetry, highlighting the female poet's movement from adolescent potential to maturity through subliminal, oblique narration. McGuckian's second collection, Venus and the Rain, develops similar themes and techniques, delving into growth and womanhood in terms of fertility and pregnancy. In addition to dealing with female responsibilities for childrearing and relationships, On Ballycastle Beach engages the realm of modern European lyric poetry, exploring that poetic tradition through the symbolism of flags and national languages while pondering the political possibilities for Ireland beyond its historic association with England. Similarly, Marconi's Cottage stresses the importance of Ireland's links to European poetry and considers the nature and value of poetry itself, pitting the chaos of nature against the order of art. Incorporating the symbolism of marine and domestic imagery, the volume also contains numerous poems specifically addressed to women that reflect the possibility of dreams and female intuition. Divided into three parts, Marconi's Cottage opens with a sequence that focuses on the conflict between motherhood and artistic creativity, followed by a section that celebrates the birth of a daughter. The collection concludes with a series that asserts the fertility of both types of creation and affirms the mutual relationship between the poetic and the ordinary. The title of Shelmalier (1998) alludes to the ancient name of a clan in County Wexford, Ireland, who successfully rebelled against the English but were eventually exterminated. The title also recalls a term later used by the United Irishmen in Ulster, Northern Ireland, during their insurrection in 1789. In relation to these historical events, the volume explores the continuing links between the Irish and the English, southern and Northern Ireland, the historic past and the present “troubles,” and Catholics and Protestants. Presented as an act of both remembrance and reconciliation, Shelmalier offers a contemporary perspective not only on the 1790s but also on the 1890s, recasting the heroic visions of that era's poets in terms of an injured, feminized masculinity. One of McGuckian's more accessible works, the collection experiments with the possibilities of such traditional poetic forms and devices as sonnets and rhyming couplets. During 2002—in addition to releasing the short collection The Face of the Earth—McGuckian published The Soldiers of Year II, a selection of poems that focuses on the overlap between public and private lives. In poems such as “Ballerinas” and “The Colony Room,” McGuckian uses rich imagery and unconventional associations to portray the personal and emotional impact of major events in Irish history from the Great Potato Famine to the present.
Eliciting a great deal of critical interest since the publication of The Flower Master, McGuckian's poetry has prompted a variety of responses from readers and academics alike. While some reviewers have hailed her work as visionary, artistic, and perfectly suited to her material, others have regarded her verse as discursive, oblique, and virtually incomprehensible. Many commentators have praised the striking quality and associative nature of her poetic imagery, asserting that her poems skillfully examine contemporary cultural notions of “womanliness.” However, McGuckian's difficult syntax, densely allusive style, and intimate tone has continued to alternately delight and confound readers. Her supporters have praised the degree of control, assuredness, and intellectual courage her poetry exhibits, while her detractors have pointed to the unwarranted obscurity of her poetry, noting that it notoriously resists paraphrase. Although many critics have been exasperated by the excess verbiage in McGuckian's verse, some scholars have aligned her dense poetics with feminist literary theory, interpreting its apparent obliqueness as a sign of écriture feminine, or “female writing.” According to such feminists as Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, and Julia Kristeva, women have traditionally articulated language in a decentered, irrational, and nonlinear manner, unlike the logocentric, hierarchical expression of patriarchy. Nonetheless, critics have generally acknowledged McGuckian as the first woman to rank among the Ulster poets who came to prominence in the 1970s who are often referred to as “The Northern Voices.”
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Portrait of Joanna (poetry) 1980
Single Ladies (poetry) 1980
The Flower Master (poetry) 1982; revised as The Flower Master and Other Poems, 1993
Venus and the Rain (poetry) 1984; revised as Venus and the Rain: Revised Edition, 1994
On Ballycastle Beach (poetry) 1988
Marconi's Cottage (poetry) 1991
Captain Lavender (poetry) 1994
Selected Poems, 1978-1994 (poetry) 1997
Shelmalier (poetry) 1998
Horsepower Pass By! A Study of the Car in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney (criticism) 1999
Drawing Ballerinas (poetry) 2001
The Face of the Earth (poetry) 2002
The Soldiers of Year II (poetry) 2002
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SOURCE: Bendall, Molly. “Flower Logic: The Poems of Medbh McGuckian.” Antioch Review 48, no. 3 (summer 1990): 367-71.
[In the following essay, Bendall discusses the style and imagery of McGuckian's poems in relation to the subversion of phallocentric literary conventions.]
In casual discussions of the Irish poet Medbh (pronounced like Queen Maeve) McGuckian's work, I've often heard the responses “flowery,” “irrational,” or “strange” used. Yet I think “sensual” and “intricate” are far better words to describe this poet's compellingly original poems. McGuckian's imagination does more than enhance a realistic sequence of events in the rendering of a poem. Her characteristic play with unexpected usages, quirky syntax, synesthesia, and even dazzling pathetic fallacies constantly confronts then abandons common narrative equations and structures.
This is true not only of the poems in On Ballycastle Beach, McGuckian's most recent collection, but also of the poems of her previous volumes, The Flower Master and Venus and the Rain. While the poems appear (on the page) to be constructed in a fairly tight, lyric mode, the words and syntactical gestures create their own sphere of reality—and not necessarily a metaphorical sphere. For instance, these phrases seem to perform as image: “where all is leaf,” “her madonna parting,” “her milk-fed hands,” “The tray / Clinks silver in the stage before coldness,” “she smooths out her girlhood / Into a shadow of body-colour,” but they defy any expected metaphorical correspondence with our orderly and named reality. The phrases should be understood instead as gestures contained in a fluid choreography that is the presence (the imagistic performance) of a McGuckian poem. Here is “Minus 18 Street” from the new collection:
I never loved you more Than when I let you sleep another hour, As if you intended to make such a gate of time Your home. Speechless as night animals, The breeze and I breakfasted With the pure desire of speech; but let Each petal of your dream have its chance, The many little shawls that covered you:
I never envied your child's face Its motherless cheekbones, or sensed in them The approach of illness—how you were being Half-killed on a sea-shore, or falling From a ladder where you knelt to watch The quartering of the moon. (You would never Swim to the top of the rain that bathed The mute world of her body.)
Sleep for you is a trick Of the frost, a light green room in a French house, Giving no trouble till spring. The wedding-boots of the wind Blow footsteps behind me, I count each season for the sign Of wasted children.
Sky of blue water, blue-water sky, I sleep with the dubious kiss Of my sky-blue portfolio. Under or over the wind, In soft and independent clothes, I begin each dawn-coloured picture Deep in your snow.
Certainly there is an emotional reality to this poem but, as McGuckian explains in an interview with critic Kathleen McCracken, “the environment is an inner one, the sea and sky are mental attributes.” She goes on to say, “I suppose it is the old microcosm thing. I do tend to explore the delicate balance of the human or female organism, which can so easily soar or drop from productivity to sterility.” McGuckian also claims her poems are not following an “anti-logic.” What is working in the poems is a struggle to subvert what some feminist theorists have named as characteristics of phallo-centric literature: a strict linearity and an affirmation of authority (which includes a faithful allegiance to only “literal” dictionary renderings of language). Much of the vocabulary in her poems is drenched with associations that evoke response in the feminine consciousness, especially in the realms of domesticity, fertility, and eroticism. Yet, even with these traditional resonances, the usage of that vocabulary is utterly surprising and new. Here is “Aviary” from Venus and the Rain:
Well may you question the degree of falsehood In my round-the-house men's clothes, when I seem Cloaked for a journey, after just relearning to walk, Or turning a swarthy aspect like a cache- Enfant against all men. Some patterns have A very long repeat, and this includes a rose Which has much in common with the rose In your drawing, where you somehow put the garden To rights. You call me aspen, tree of the woman's Tongue, but if my longer and longer sentences Prove me wholly female, I'd be persimmon, And good kindling, to us both. Remember The overexcitement of mirrors, with their archways Lending depth, until my compact selvedge Frisks into a picot-edged valance, some Swiss-fronted little shop? All this is as it Should be, the disguise until those clear red Bands of summerwood accommodate next Winter's tardy ghost, your difficult daughter.
I can hear already in my chambered pith The hammers of pianos, their fastigiate notes Arranging a fine sight-screen for my nectary. My trustful mop. And if you feel uncertain Whether pendent foliage mitigates the damage Done by snow, yet any wild bird would envy you This aviary, whenever you free all the birds in me.
As the poem invokes its intimate, seductive imagery, the speaker asks to be heard in her own language, one that both commands the poems and generates their landscapes, not those landscapes that have been pruned and regulated, but rather those that have been “let go,” allowing an organic logic to take over, one that brings with it all the mysteries and unpredictable qualities of nature. McGuckian says, “I hope my poems will draw the reader into the particular mesh of thoughts and nexus of feelings, but I hope in the end to have spelled something out clearly. If the poem is swallowed whole it won't be digested. I want it to become part of the person. …”
J. Hillis Miller has said, “Language is at once the expression of a style of life and the embodiment of a local weather and geography.” In McGuckian's work one may certainly detect the evidence of Irish literature, the Irish language itself, Catholicism, and the crisis in Northern Ireland. However, these remain elements that simply inform and transform the speaker's consciousness, and they cannot be pointed out as overt subject matter for any of the poems. Concerning the struggle in Northern Ireland, McGuckian, who was born and lives in Belfast, states, “I have touched on the subject implicitly … in a poem like ‘The Blue She Brings with Her’ for a mother whose son was destroyed, but one could argue that I do not deal with or solve anything. I just suggest an attitude of compassion in what is part of a universal tragedy.” Dedicated “for Teresa,” here is that poem:
November—like a man taking all His shirts, and all his ties, little by little— Enters a million leaves, and that Lion-coloured house-number, the sun, Into his diary; with a rounded symbol— Nothing—to remind himself of callow apples, Dropping with a sense of rehearsal in June As if their thought were being done by others.
The mirror bites into me as cloud into The river-lip of a three-cornered lake That when the moon is new is shaped Like the moon. With a sudden crash My log falls to ashes, a wood of winter Colours I have never seen—blood-kissed The gold-patterned dishes Show themselves for a moment like wild creatures.
While any smoke that might be going Loose, the hot room gathers like a mountain Putting out a mist, and not the kind that clears. Something you add about mountains makes My mouth water like a half-lifted cloud I would choose, if I could, to restrain As a stone keeps its memories.
Your eyes change colour as you move And will not go into words. Their swanless Sky-curve holds like a conscious star A promise from the wind about the blue She brings with her. If beauty lives By escaping and leaves a mark, your wrist Will have the mark of my fingers in the morning.
Reading this powerful elegiac poem, one feels overwhelmed, yet at the same time poised on its stage of grief. The suggestions of a domestic life and its untimely winter illustrate the risky and unsolvable nature of her work. The beauty and genius of these poems continually redefine our notions of poetry. Medbh McGuckian offers us a poetic voice that is radically different from the majority of her contemporaries; to appreciate it fully we, as readers, must often forfeit many of our more conventional expectations.
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SOURCE: Wills, Clair. “Making Waves.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4658 (10 July 1992): 23.
[In the following review, Wills surveys Marconi's Cottage, situating McGuckian's achievement within the context of twentieth-century European poetry.]
One of the questions currently much in vogue concerns our relative “Europeanness”, or lack of it. In keeping with the Republic of Ireland's recent affirmation of a European self-image, Medbh McGuckian in Marconi's Cottage stresses the importance of Ireland's links with European poetry. This was true of her last volume too, but whereas in On Ballycastle Beach (1988) her engagement with European poets (or poets who “chose” Europe, such as Byron) symbolized through the language of flags and national tongues the political possibilities for Ireland outside a relationship with Britain, this volume is more concerned with the nature of the poetic gift and the value of poetry itself.
This is a rich and authoritative collection, containing some of McGuckian's finest poems to date, and continuing her exploration of the traditions of modern lyric poetry. The Europeans most in evidence are Tsvetaeva (the poet whom, in spirit if not in form, McGuckian most resembles), Mandelstam, Rilke and, of course, Marconi, who is to some extent given honorary status as a poet in this volume. Why Marconi? Well, his mother was half Irish, and he married an Irishwoman, but more importantly, in 1898, in a two-roomed rudimentary cottage in Ballycastle, on the North Coast of Ireland, he experimented with sending radio waves across the sea to Rathlin Island. The cottage, then, is not symbolic but real, and McGuckian really owns it. And why a poet? Much of the symbolism in this book involves images of seas and houses: chaos and nature as opposed to civilization, order, art and meaning. Marconi harnessing of electro-magnetic waves suggests a means of communicating between these two principles, as also between body and spirit, and from soul to soul. To some extent, the wave theory is offered ironically, as a kind of technological advance on Tsvetaeva's “lyrical wires”, through which, while in Germany, she dreamed of communication with Pasternak in Russia. Many of the poems in Marconi's Cottage are concerned with the possibility of dreams and intuitive understanding between women (one of the striking departures in this book is the prevalence of female addressees): foetus, daughter, mother and other writers.
The collection can be roughly divided into three parts: an initial sequence of poems focuses on the conflict between motherhood and artistic creativity—the claims of differing types of fertility. This is followed by a sequence celebrating the birth of a daughter and a series of uplifting poems asserting the productivity of both types of creation and affirming the mutual dependency of the poetic and the quotidian. These are complex and difficult poems, but guidelines are given, not only through the by now familiar use of a shaping, albeit plastic, symbolism, but also through what appear to be certain key references. There are pointers to Patrick Kavanagh, to Sylvia Plath, to Mandelstam's poem “Silentium” and Rilke's “Requiem for a Friend”.
Take this last example: Rilke seems to be important partly because of his own ambiguous sexual upbringing (his mother dressed him in skirts and called him Sophie until he was two), and partly because of his sympathy with women artists, “handicapped” by their femininity. “Requiem” was written in memory of the artist Paula Modersohn Becker, who died in childbirth—in it the death of the true artist is imaged as the breaking of a mirror through motherhood, rendering her unable to “close” herself and recreate the perfect, disinterested reflection of the world. McGuckian discusses the complex gendering of the artist in several poems, and laments the damage that fertility can do to the mirror: “A thin rain borrowed my silver”, rendering her mere glass. But she also tries to count the cost of the preservation of the self-reflecting mirror which cannot countenance the woman's desire to become a mirror for others, specifically by bearing children. So “Journal Intime” (a kind of bodily diary) evokes the womb as Plato's cave containing an imagined child:
I am a Platonic admirer of her Flowing Watteau gowns, the volume Of Petrarch in her lap. It is so Unthinkable she should look outward From the depressed, pink light of her One-time nursery, if only to dilate Upon the same two faces, if only, upon the snow.
In a child's first (and most satisfying) House, where everyone is repeated In everyone else, the door that is so light To her, so dark to us, is wise enough To dream through. Her voice fills the mouth Of her own mirror, as if she were a failure: As if, what is lifelike, could be true.
As is clear from these lines, McGuckian's poetry is “translation” in more ways than one—not simply of Rilke's images into her own terms, but of ordinary objects and everyday events into an “otherworldly” realm. Not only the poet's body, but the objects with which she engages (which she mirrors) are given back to the world as strangers.
The charge that this is narcissistic or self-obsessed writing, interested only in the vagaries of the lyrical “I”, needs therefore to be put into perspective. It cannot be denied that McGuckian likes to “explain” her poems as the pages torn out of a diary, or as personal letters sent to those around her, and in particular to other poets (hence her interest in “lyrical waves”). But the poetry itself steadfastly refuses to be read in such a way, not only because it repeatedly signals its creative engagement with a European poetic tradition, but also because the self which is deemed to structure the work is, in fact, all but destroyed by it. McGuckian's lyrical “I” is continually changing shape, parcelled out in a dialogue between mother and child, masculine and feminine principles or parts of the self (German and Russian help her here, because of their linguistic gendering of objects), even between a heart on the left and one on the right (since pregnancy gives a woman “two hearts”). While all this could be construed as the exploration of a divided psyche at a more fundamental level questions are being posed about the nature of home. Home may indeed be where we start from but, for McGuckian, it is always insecure, invaded and disrupted: “a horizontal cutting / That has always already begun”. To read this as autobiographical poetry, obscurely concerned with domestic life, mistakes the extent to which the home, the family, the mother tongue and the nation are each torn away from their traditional representations and scattered into wild and undomesticated elements.
Moreover, the overwhelming feeling is one of affirmation of this internal exile, and a refusal to ignore its violence. “The Unplayed Rosalind”, for example, reminds us that “I have lived on a war footing”. The poem finds the bloody evidence of that war, as well as culture's other product, writing, in the most natural, the most intimate of spheres, the womb:
The room which I thought the most beautiful In the world, and never showed to anyone. Is a rose-red room, a roseate chamber. It lacks two windowpanes and has no waterjug. There is red ink in the inkwell.
Thus the oppositions between culture and nature, house and sea, order and chaos are never stable: the interpenetration between them is recognized in the triumphant title-poem, with its glancing reference to Marconi's work: “It is as if the sea had spoken in you / And then the words had dried”.
Electro-magnetic waves are an apt image for McGuckian here since not only do they represent a kind of dry fluidity, but they also carry sound—voice and music, from which poetry is created. Many of the poems contain images of the substance of the atmosphere, and the tangibility of sound—the new-born child is “deluged with the dustless air”, and in “Oval of a Girl” the child
might just as well have been water Breaking and mending with a dark little movement. A kind of forlorn frenzy leaking over into sound …
In keeping with this emphasis on balance, order and architecture, many of the poems are less syntactically complex and demanding of the reader's ingenuity than some of McGuckian's earlier work. They are also more diverse, experimenting with verse forms and framing narratives such as the fairy-tale or dream vision. The whole of this collection reveals a degree of control, assuredness and intellectual courage rare in contemporary poetry.
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SOURCE: O'Brien, Peggy. “Reading Medbh McGuckian: Admiring What We Cannot Understand.” Colby Quarterly 28, no. 4 (December 1992): 227-38.
[In the following essay, O'Brien defends the obscurity of McGuckian's poetry, comparing her thematic and stylistic treatment of female sexuality and sex to other major poets of the traditional canon.]
When detractors speak of Medbh McGuckian, the first sin they name is an unwarranted obscurity. My purpose here is double: to defend that obscurity as necessary within the terms of McGuckian's poetic by looking at a few poems closely; and to place that poetic within the canon by making some broad comparisons with other major poets. It strengthens the case for McGuckian to discover that she has venerated precursors, not all of whom are female, as is often assumed. The point of similarity that bonds her with respected poets of both sexes is a content, often erotic, that encompasses what is nearly unsayable. Obliquity can result either from an effort to preserve privacy or because the experiences explored genuinely resist verbal expression or, in McGuckian's case, for a combination of these reasons.
On the question of thematic opacity, I will ally her with Dickinson, but place her at the antipodes from Moore. On the question of stylistic opacity, I'll compare her to Crane and finally connect her need for reader complicity to the tactics of Whitman. It seems no coincidence that Crane and Whitman surface as kindred spirits, since both write erotically charged poetry, the latter with greater candor than the former. Both, however, are creating poetry out of a personal perspective that includes an unorthodox sexuality and have evolved poetics that respond sensitively, if secretly in Crane's case, to these sexual truths. Sexuality and sex also figure at the center of McGuckian's work and very much determine her strategies with language, revealing and concealing female erotic truths, to which the canon offers limited hospitality. Within the canonic frame of reference it's still unorthodox to be sexually honest and female. McGuckian, like Dickinson and Crane and Whitman before her, is pushing at the margins of the canon, implicitly questioning the censoring of an inherently obscure and threatening female content, along with the elliptical style forged to accommodate it.
Marianne Moore, in contrast to McGuckian, has laundered herself clean of all traces of female sexuality, hence her embracing of a diametrically opposed poetic. In her poem “Poetry” there is a ringing defense of clarity: “We do not admire what / we cannot understand.” Similarly, “In the Days of Prismatic Colour” contains this admonition: “complexity is not a crime, but carry / it to the point of murki- / ness and nothing is plain.” This is also, not coincidentally, the poem that carries her most strikingly asexual opening, an invocation of a time before coupling: “not in the days of Adam and Eve, but when Adam / was alone.” She goes on, illustrating what the loss of clarity through a messy sexual union means in terms of a dissipation of prismatic precision. She hankers for a time “when there was no smoke and colour was / fine,” a time she laments as lost, irretrievable: “it is no / longer that; nor did the blue-red-yellow band / of incandescence that was colour keep its stripe.” This use of the impure commingling between Adam and Eve as a central conceit further reminds us of that quintessential Moore poem, “Marriage,” where it's also used. “Marriage,” which is characteristically tart in tone, includes early on a famous dismissal of connubial, above all conjugal, bliss, referring to it as something “requiring all one's criminal ingenuity to avoid.” Moore's faith in absolute clarity is linked to a preference for celibacy; McGuckian's commitment to obscurity is linked to a fascination with erotic love.
McGuckian makes it a precondition for reading her that the crude demand for immediate clarity be dropped like clogs at the door of her exquisitely private poems. Her new book, Marconi's Cottage, makes this point more emphatically than ever before. It contains a plethora of reflexive comments about the way she writes, what she's serving through maintaining a certain level of obscurity. While Moore's defense of clarity comes packaged in a textbook declarative sentence (“We do not admire what we cannot understand”), McGuckian describes her addiction to the inscrutable almost parenthetically in a phrase from the poem, “The Most Emily of Al”: “As a sentence clings tighter because it makes no sense.” Her words confess a susceptibility to the seduction of what's unknown, the other. The Emily of the title must be Dickinson because McGuckian in the last line refers to her own “clove brown eyes.” The reader immediately thinks of Dickinson's response to Higginson who inquired about the color of her eyes: “the color of sherry in the glass that the Guest leaves.” Emily makes this reference in a letter to Higginson,1 and McGuckian's poem is about a letter written to a male friend who has a potent masculine presence. This man's simplest action, like running his “right hand up and down / in a groove on the door panel,” is endowed with erotic possibility, just as Dickinson might have created elaborate fantasies about Samuel Bowles or the Reverend Wadsworth from small, observed gestures. McGuckian seems to be identifying with Dickinson's sexual excitability, the hermetic tone, the frequently inscrutable revelations expressed in sentences that indeed do cling tighter because they appear to make no sense. McGuckian anthropomorphizes the sentence, makes it capable of clinging, because verbal expression for her is a sexual act and the sentence is as mysterious as our true sexual motivations. We become attached to such sentences as we do to our own inscrutability. There is as much humility and obedience to a moral imperative in McGuckian's insistence on dissolving lucidity in the face of genuine mystery as there is in Moore's need to dispense with hubristic mystification and embrace the morality of fact.
McGuckian's material is the mercury of sexual arousal, intense erotic feelings that are so much in flux they never assume the stable shape of facts. Given a poetic which is incongruously grounded in these volatile but always visceral sensations of physical love, the reader must resort to experiential data to describe what it's like to read McGuckian. To complete a reading of one of her poems successfully, with any sense garnered en route, the reader, on perhaps the tenth reading, has to gather momentum toward the beginning and never balk until the end. To stare too long at a single, still intractable word, like a horse at one fence, is to become paralyzed, and whatever accumulated meaning we might have been carrying topples with the jolt of suddenly arrested movement. Motion is critical; so is empathy. The reader needs to be able to merge with the writer in the rapid flow of feeling. Metaphors proliferate with frightening fertility and velocity, like a time-compressed film of a flower blooming. To get caught in one time frame is to miss the climax.
McGuckian has written like this from the start. As a consequence there has always been an all-or-nothing effect to reading one of her poems. Either the central emotional state is understood, almost intuitively diagnosed, and the images that symptomize it enjoy an inevitability or the poem eludes the reader entirely. If Marianne Moore is a “literalist of the imagination,” McGuckian, for all her fantasy and flamboyance, is a literalist of the feelings, especially as they lodge in the flesh. Her poems read at times like poetic reportage: bulletins stating what erotic excitement, anticipation, fulfillment, rejection are like at the front, on the skin. She translates into metaphor less conjunctions of thought and feeling than of physical perception and feeling. It is often surprising to discover how literal McGuckian is being for all the apparent obliquity of the image.
There are a number of instances in Marconi's Cottage where the only means of bringing an image into focus is to remove the impeding lenses of thought and even feeling, to the extent that feeling lodges in the heart and not the senses. Elementary physical perception is required. For example, “No Streets, No Numbers” opens with this puzzling compound simile: “The wind bruises the curtains' jay-blue stripes / Like an unsold fruit or a child who writes / Its first word.” It's easy to connect bruising with “unsold fruit” but how to make the leap into a shakily drafted first word? If we return the image to its literal beginnings, making it purely visual, then we see a failure of alignment of the curtains' blue lines, which are appropriately the color of ink. By adding this second, more hidden meaning to the trope, McGuckian suggests that a personal, historical bruising has implications for her writing.
Similarly, a very private poem about her father “The Partner's Desk,” on initial readings is defiantly dense. Early on we meet this recondite image: “I arranged the Christmas tree in its green outfit, / Producing its green against the grey sky like handwriting / That has been traced over.” The image actually photographs tiny needles sparking off a branch, like the minute deviations from the original line of a pen when we trace. The aptness of the simile is that it sounds the perplexing depths of the poem, also suggested by the title. A partner's desk offers writing space and drawers on both sides, presupposing two authors, like a line traced over. The nervous quaver in any traced line is the product of tension, of trying too hard to conform: spontaneity, authenticity, and hence confidence are lost in the effort. The poem, significantly, is at its deepest level about the poet's identification with her father, their near fusion, that becomes heightened during sex with a man. The title asks implicitly who is the author of the poet's own life. The metaphor of two lines, one tremblingly superimposed on the other and barely deviating from it, provides a haunting representation of the psychological depredations suffered by the daughter of a seductive father.
To invoke this single instance, however, doesn't do justice to the mobile sensation of reading McGuckian. It is not an exercise in perceiving a static formal design or some simple thematic coherence above the stream of language but of entering that stream, accepting the fluid interdependence of images as much as the poem assumes the same of lovers. In the title poem, Marconi's Cottage, there are these revealing lines, “It is as if the sea had spoken in you / And then the words had dried.” The poet is invoking Marconi's special achievement of transmitting radio messages across the Atlantic. The image could not be better suited for McGuckian, with her propensity for totally fluid meanings. But she does write in discrete, visible words, a calligraphy like delicate, dried seaweed, in close juxtaposition to swelling implication.
An early poem which illustrates this tension between the plurality of individual words and a tide of feeling is “The Sofa” from The Flower Master. In a sense, like primitive, telegraphic radio messages, every McGuckian poem requires that a story be made up to explain its ellipses and contradictions. The story makes it possible to stay with the poet as she rides the waves of her own consciousness. “The Sofa” begins with an apology to someone for not writing sooner, not answering, maybe even not opening, a letter. Then we hear that the poet's “mind was savagely made up, / Like a serious sofa moved / Under a north window.” The “serious sofa,” a relatively available McGuckian metaphor, suggests domestic soberness and chastity. Also, those letters, the one she received and the one she didn't send, initially seem associated with a lover. It's not only forgivable for the reader to rely on the conventions of penny romances, but natural when the poet refers to her mind being “savagely made up,” as minds often are in cheap novels. As the poem unfolds, however, this facile theory is thwarted, just as the speaker's simplistic resolve breaks down. The clue to greater complication occurs when the speaker addresses the unidentified recipient of the letter, admitting that she wishes she could interest them in “his gentle stares.” We then know that a more subtle story is being related. We begin to visualize this addressed individual as perhaps a concerned parent, urging a daughter toward the safety and rectitude of marital fidelity and recommending in a patronizing but well-meaning way the therapy of writing poetry. The poem sketches both the difficult relationship between art and life McGuckian endures in isolation and a feminine definition of the poet, someone for whom work doesn't handily serve as sublimation. Psychic separation proves difficult and the insidious blending of the poem's linguistic indirections with the unresolved matter of life points to this feminine truth.
The poem accepts the necessity for confusing, distracting experience and the slow process of integrating it into the ego. The work for the reader of piecing together a narrative which makes sense of the poem runs parallel to the poet's efforts to explain her self to herself, to fit a disruptive love affair into her domestic and ultimately artistic life. In the end the sheer will represented by a “serious sofa”—no downy, chintz affair on which to recline sinfully but a button-backed, leather, horsehair object that forces folks to sit up straight, to behave—fails and a slovenly disorder rules … “I spread on like a house.” Yet, she speculates, “somewhere a curtain rising wonders where I am.” Suddenly, here, at the conclusion, it all makes sense. This curtain is as much a theatrical appurtenance as a domestic one and at some incalculable distance there will be a revelation of self to self, dramatic in its intensity and formal beauty. Eventually the creation of art will provide a climactic release from domestic constraint and tedium. “The Sofa,” like “The Circus Animal's Desertion,” is an ironic poem about not being able to write poetry. It's about failing to make poems in the old way, by the old formulae, of having to forge new ones. Such a reading is by definition hypothetical, but there seems no other way to conduct oneself as a reader of McGuckian except to take this risk and string the gorgeous images and brilliant non-sequiturs on a strong narrative thread; what the story turns out to be is the extraordinary one of McGuckian's gradual self-realization, as woman and artist, and of their integration.
That achievement is always only imminent, however. Process prevails. In another reflexive aside from “She Which Is Not, He Which Is” the poet tells us, almost ungrammatically, “My words will be without words / Like a net hidden in a lake, / Their pale individual moisture.” This version of what her writing represents seems to contradict the distinction made between water and a separate dried substance: clearly formed, separate words. In this second statement words pale and dissolve. Their meaning dilutes, like ink in water. This is an exact trope for the sensation the reader has at the conclusion of a poem, when it returns to the sea of homogeneously ineffable impulse from which a formed utterance temporarily surfaced. These poems also celebrate in a way closer to Moore than one would at first appreciate the persistence of personal autonomy even after the self has risked complete assimilation in the tactile world of another and dispersal in the shadows of the subconscious.
“The Sofa,” indeed much of The Flower Master, is pellucid compared to Marconi's Cottage. It is much easier in the early poems than in the later to glimpse the line of connection that threads disjointed images and exclamations. In “The Sofa,” for instance, even lines from nowhere like “my disasters, my surrenders, all my loss” and the maddeningly interrogative “The impudence of flowers?” find their provenance in identifiable feeling. McGuckian as she has grown, however, has sought to create even more turbidity: and her later poems court remoteness in a blatantly deliberate, insistently contradictory way. A repeated strategy in Marconi's Cottage, for example, is the use of initials, a code to identify a lover. From “Lac de Galance”:
When a cloud of letters chose the moment Of deepest sleep to burst their white ribbons Into the same ‘M’ room. I discovered your name There among the ‘E's. …
It's a serious question in evaluating the success of these poems to ask what effect this flaunted secrecy has. On the one hand, concealment taken to such an extreme is a patent rejection of being known, mocks the very effort by others. The poem hoards knowledge that belongs exclusively to the poet's private life, beyond the margins of the poem. This can insult and anger the reader but also relieves us of the burden of trying. Nonetheless, limits are placed on the poem's accessibility, perhaps its universality, even value. On the other hand, to use such an arcane code is also to adopt the strategy of dangerous love letters, a genre available to many people, not just poets. This may increase the poem's availability. The poem rehearses the rituals of furtive, extra-marital romance and embodies in images the thrill and anxiety of it. The poem shies away from disclosing its secret as much as a determined adulterer would. For the poem to make such a disclosure would neutralize its erotic content.
Does this mean that McGuckian's poems fold inward solipsistically, refusing to present themselves for honest inspection as Moore thought all serious art must? It does not. In fact, it's ironic that one of McGuckian's cartographical devices for mapping emotions is a major resource for Moore: color. If certain elements of the poems resist decoding, others offer themselves to it. Color is one. Reading over the oeuvre—The Flower Master (1982), Venus and the Rain (1984), On Ballycastle Beach (1988), and Marconi's Cottage (1991)—reveals how surely this code has evolved. Color in McGuckian is a readable shorthand as it is also, say, in Wallace Stevens with his “zero green” and “Blue Guitar” and “Large Red Man Reading.” McGuckian's most frequently applied colors are red and blue and, a disturbing non-color, sometimes white or grey or simply moonlight. The three were present in the first volume. “The Chain Sleeper” contains these lines: “She dresses under her dressing-gown, her fussy perfume / Eating into all the storyable floors of blue.” From that same volume, the poem “That Year” is dualistically structured through the connotations of red and white. In the first stanza there's an allusion to “bleach or henna on the hair.” In the next stanza there is a “red kite” and a “white ball,” and in the next the line “Listening for the red and white.” This application of paint, however, is spare compared to the way it's daubed on in Marconi's Cottage.
Color by this point is one of McGuckian's favorite languages. She's explored its connotations deeply and is enthusiastic and lavish with its use. Her favorite pigments—scarlet, china blue, and every muted tone from dove grey to champagne—have acquired complex meanings about which, surprisingly, she's forthcoming. A law operates in her with regard to candor: she can be confidential when she's speaking through metaphor but becomes an obscurantist when the facts of real life appear to slip into a poem. They appear in such impenetrable mufti that only a fool would call them autobiography. Colors, by contrast, speak with relative directness through a previously established code. From Marconi's Cottage the poem “Journal Intime” speaks mainly through the medium of color and pictorial art. The third stanza refers to “Watteau gowns” and the second stanza begins with the blunt statement: “Red is the color of art.” Red is even more precisely the color of female art, a woman's attempt to cross turbulent passions on the formal, cyclical life of her body to produce art.
White is associated with heterosexual union. (As early as “The Sofa” the woman explains “I must wear white for him.”) Less a sign of purity than of regressive psychological fusion, white is the color that links sex and death for McGuckian, locating the lure and threat of sex. White becomes a male color and in the context of heterosexual sex an indication of male dominance. Again, from “Journal Intime” there is a reference to moonlight and then to the “death-devoted color of masculinity.” It's predictable, given McGuckian's poetic, that a title implying utter privacy and confidentiality be in a foreign language and that color, the central metaphorical device of the poem, its chief artifice, lays the emotions bare.
Blue, however, is perhaps the hardest color in her spectrum to deconstruct, maybe because its meaning emanates from a pre-sexual area of consciousness. It is above all associated with the innocence of infants' eyes, a color of childhood, hence that early reference to “storyable floors of blue.” In “Amsterdam Avenue,” a new poem, a memory of an old lover centers on his eyes (“Your eyes are the one thing now / Worth visiting”), beginning: “If you exist, make me blue, / You are blue in my picture.” It's the color of idealization, aspiration, memory. Going back to the comparison between Moore and McGuckian, it's interesting that Moore locates a prehistorical time when there was inviolable prismatic clarity “In the days when Adam was alone.” Moore, aiming to observe the world with objectivity, causally connects this external, sharp focus with unsullied masculinity. Eve, again the temptress, is responsible implicitly for muddying Adam's palette with her confused emotions. McGuckian's achievement is to transform the manifold obscurity of subjective experience by separating it into discrete meanings, colors. She is, in the end, as precise as possible.
If reading McGuckian through Moore, in relation to the problem of obscurity, is obeying the law of opposites, reading her through, for example, Hart Crane is the opposite of that. Crane and McGuckian use metaphor in a similar way and this coincidence is not unrelated to erotic pressures in Crane's work. The difference is that he as a homosexual in his time had to be extremely covert about his identity and McGuckian as a heterosexual woman today isn't under quite such an injunction to obfuscate. Still, being frank about female sexuality is a relatively rare occurrence in canonic poetry. McGuckian enjoys little comfort from precedent even in her veiled disclosures. Both Crane and McGuckian, even when writing about inanimate nature, project an erotic, emotionally complex content onto it and do so through an equally complex poetic. Crane too was accused of being indecipherable and mounted a persuasive defense of his impervious style. Crane's observations on “illogical impingements” in a letter to Harriet Monroe go a good distance to explaining McGuckian. Crane is speaking of “The Bridge”:
as a poet I may very possibly be more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness (and their combinations and interplay in metaphor on this basis) than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid signification at the cost of limiting my subject matter and perceptions involved in the poem. … This may sound as though I merely fancied juggling words and images until I found something novel, or esoteric; but the process is much more predetermined and objectified than that. The nuances of feeling and observation in a poem may well call for certain liberties which you claim the poet has no right to take. I am simply making the claim that the poet does have that authority, and that to deny that is to limit the scope of the medium so considerably as to outlaw some of the richest genius of the past.
McGuckian, like Crane, is exercising her authority as a poet to use a technique which matches the “nuances of feeling and observation” that constitute her content. Her most obscure patches, typically metaphorical, serve a complex, usually sexual, truth and that truth could not be adequately served by a less complex discourse. The opacity is not gratuitous, the linguistic tactics not aimed at achieving the “novel or esoteric.” This is simply demonstrated by her not frequent lapses in style, declensions into cliché, as in “Storm-Flap” with its line, “Finding him light as a feather.” No one uses such a trite image if bent on spectacular invention.
The concept of “illogical impingements” is genuinely useful in understanding McGuckian, particularly as Crane explains it in detail:
its apparent illogic operates so logically in conjunction with its context in the poem as to establish its claim to another logic, quite independent of the original definition of the word or phrase or image thus employed. It implies (this inflection of language) a previous or prepared receptivity to the stimulus on the part of the reader. The reader's sensibility simply responds by identifying this inflection of experience with some event in his own history or perceptions—or rejects it altogether.
This is an uncannily exact analysis of how reading McGuckian works, or doesn't; it pinpoints the all-or-nothing factor. She requires the reader to understand intimately female sexual experience before intimacy with the poem is possible. If this knowledge exists prior to the reading, then the apparent illogic of statements and figures turns itself around into contextual inevitability.
An obvious, easily convertible instance of illogical logic occurs in “Sun and Moon Child” where she describes the beginning of an affair, saying “and the third / And fifteenth of every month were our first meeting, / Our first, night.” Aside from the simple possibility that the occasions mentioned are plural and, each month, marked as anniversaries, McGuckian's phrasing complicates, and in a characteristic way, the issue. For how can the “first night,” singular, take place on the “third / And fifteenth of every month,” plural? Easily, if every encounter feels like the first or if every time is intended to be the last or if generally there's a denial that meetings occur so often and so regularly. So the little twist in logic carries with it a large knot of recognizable rationalization, in this case an activity not confined to women.
When McGuckian uses figuration, however, her gift for representing complex, often contradictory states of mind, usually associated with sex, is most on display. Again in “Sun and Moon Child” she describes the house in which the affair begins:
The house was impossibly fragile, made Of cloth and glass, the room floated freely Within itself and the bed was let into A recess, like a stitch that is slack and loose.
Every detail adds to the overall emotional truth that pleasure, guilt, fear, and anger are all piled on top of each other. The pleasure is that of complete release (“the room floated freely”) which also triggers a sense of guilt and self-loathing: the bed is recessed and there's a hint of sluttishness about its hidden location. The gap in the wall where the bed hides is like the gap in a respectable life where an affair takes place, hence the allusion to the slack stitch that anticipates the “blow-away / Hem” in the next stanza. Here's where feminine experience comes in: the slatternly associations, enticing and menacing, that women learn from their mothers go with a loose hem, that it's always a sign of loose morals! The psychological picture, however, is even fuller. Fear is implied by the fragility of the house's construction, and possibly anger, certainly some brittle emotion, by the predominance of glass. Cloth and glass together convey the pleasure and the pain. Also, that phrase, “floated freely within itself,” which is exceedingly illogical, uncovers an even deeper layer of feeling. How does something, a room, float within itself? It does if it's a projection of a mixture of sexual ecstasy and utter narcissism. Finally, a single word, the adverb in the phrase “impossibly fragile,” indicates anticipatory grief, the leaden certainty of sure loss.
The previous example may not be extreme enough, replete enough with illogic to prove the point. All metaphor is, of course, strictly speaking illogical. It's the degree to which McGuckian widens the angle between vehicle and tenor that gives her poems their compelling mystery, makes them balance on the brink of dysfunction. Discovering the precise way in which apparently senseless statements make supreme sense if transferred from outer to inner reality shows how they vindicate a woman's way of being in the world. There is no better evidence of this strength than in the poem “Clotho.” Drawing its title from the name of the Fate who weaves the thread of life, the poem is hermetic but seems to pivot on a homoerotic fantasy. It contains one of McGuckian's most baffling set of lines which blossom after reflection into an extraordinary insight. The third stanza reads:
My arms were stretched as high And wide as they could go. A distaff reaching from heaven to earth. But there was nothing to burn My tongue on, not even a broken stalk Of lilac-veined sound behind her broken eyes.
The distaff evokes Clotho but particularly suggests the role this fantasy about a woman is playing in defining the thread of McGuckian's life. Not only is there the faint sketch of a lesbian encounter and the not so faint suggestion of bondage, there is an emotional overlay of sexual frustration that to my knowledge has never been articulated in poetry. The complaint that there was nothing “to burn her tongue on” as it becomes elaborated embraces an ambiguity that involves such honesty and self-awareness it turns this potentially titillating content from sensationalism to art. “Not even a broken stalk / Of lilac-veined sound” has both clitoral and phallic connotations, conveying frustrations both within the bounds of the lesbian encounter and outside it, that it was not more itself and that it was not something else. And “lilac-veined,” with the myopic vision of sexual contact behind the image, conveys intense physical intimacy. Finally, the nonsense of a stalk becoming a sound and then lodging behind eyes converts to the perfect logic of the orchestration of all the senses in orgasm.
By positing sexuality as the central human reality and by inviting the reader to be sexually intimate with her, albeit by conquering her coyness, McGuckian is also a good deal like Whitman, who is anything but coy. Like Whitman, however, McGuckian puts the reader in an uneasy, tense position, making us privy, if we are sufficiently kindred spirits, to truths that only a sexual partner can have. The obscurity is part of a seductive ritual conducted for the benefit of the reader. The merging of reader and writer parallels the consummations described in the poems. The immediacy and excitement of the poems is the product of this relationship produced by the active participation of the reader. Seducing the reader is equally a requisite for Whitman. McGuckian can even sound like Whitman and express many of his thematic convictions, like the absolute correlation between eros and the cosmos. In this description of pregnancy, she uses a Whitmanesque rhetoric that swings between metaphysical and corporeal truths:
I forfeit the world outside For the sake of my own inwardness I am so at one with the scent of its many wills: Its inexhaustible innocency Lapses past me like a future not lived strongly, I abandon myself to its incubative weight.
Whole phrases could be airlifted into a Whitman poem and fit without alteration, like “the scent of its many wills” and “its inexhaustible innocency”; but there is a critical difference too. Whereas Whitman will declaim in “Song of Myself” (Part 7) “All goes onward and outward,” McGuckian has forfeited the “world outside / For the sake of my own inwardness.” Both poets choose a direction for their energies in accordance with sexual dictates. Because they are obeying what for them is the essential life force, everything else is related to it. Sexuality enjoys limitless correspondences; therefore, pregnancy with McGuckian here is a metaphor for the incubation of poetry, for creation per se.
McGuckian has begun to do for female sexuality what Whitman did for male, for the range and complexity of it. Whitman's bear hug of the reader is as determined by his sexual nature as McGuckian's teasing and testing of her reader is. Her obscurity above all is a form of self-protection, of not letting anyone closer than compatibility and sympathy will make safe. This explains the attraction of little girl dress-up games in the poems, her lady of the big house and medieval princess fantasies. In “A Small Piece of Wood,” for example, she appears fetchingly as a figure from a tapestry: “In pale frock and raspberry / Boots, my waist the circumference / Of no more than two oranges / I rode out to the hunt.” Such self-dramatization serves both innocence and adult sexual sophistication at once, permitting both experimentation and protection of the vulnerable child in her. To ask McGuckian to be less theatrical, less secretive, less mysterious is to ask her to abandon her core. We accept these poems on their terms or not at all. This is one way of loving.
Sometimes, however, the reader wearies of the febrile tone and the predictable ploys of secrecy and longs for adult calm, a recognition of mutual ordinariness, even a gender truce. Friends rather than or in addition to lovers would be a refreshment. This seems impossible for McGuckian, largely because she's too aware of her uniqueness, of the pressure of non-understanding. The poetry presupposes that a woman's deepest sexual experiences are still news in the world of poetry. Whitman announces to the world that it is far “luckier” to die than we suppose; McGuckian whispers alluringly to the reader that it's far luckier to be a woman than assumed. She feels, however, for all this, isolated and untranslatable, writing in what she calls “my un-English Language,” (“The Partner's Desk”), a language next-door to English but not it or anything else with a tag. There are many poems in which McGuckian speaks from within the centuries of imposed definitions on women which label their intensity as craziness, their sure knowledge, because it differs from men's, as confusion. McGuckian is vulnerable to these classifications, sometimes worrying for her sanity, but usually demonstrates the self-possession to fight back. In “The Man with Two Women” she asserts that the darkness she contends with, be it death or misunderstanding, a similar loss, doesn't emanate from her: “getting dark / Is the world's fault.” Her own counter-obscurity, therefore, is partly defensive and not without aggression, not without an element of flaunting; but this does not make it a fault, rather an integral part of a buoyant persona.
Finally, the obscurity is a way of cauterizing an old wound: “Such is a woman's very deep violation / As a woman” (“No Streets, No Numbers”). Although the poems stop short of explicitly defining this violation, the hints we receive seem less a smoke screen than all the poet knows consciously of the vague but persistent sources of pain. The clues may not add up but the figures keep circulating in the reader's mind. Why, for instance, does the image of the distaff in “Clotho,” where unconventional sexuality is explored, reappear in “The Partner's Desk” as an allusion to crucifixion: “And he took my hands and stretched them out / As if I were on a cross, but not being punished”? The “he” is ambiguous, incorporating both a lover and the father. Nothing in these poems as, say, in Anne Sexton's or Sharon Olds's, gives the reader permission to deem them autobiography, to construe their content as literal event.
McGuckian is usually fearless and takes her investigations of intuitions to the edge of consciousness. “Venus and the Sea” opens: “When I return from poetry as from a sea-shore / To the streets of dream.” Here is a prime example of the illogical communicating an elusive psychological truth. McGuckian finds her poems at a psychic level beneath dreams, where the content is even more anarchic and amorphous. Dreams, which we usually regard as chartless, with her have streets and are mundane by comparison to proto poems. McGuckian is interested in the uncharted areas of the psyche from which erotic desire comes. In “The Invalid's Echo” she refers to a “parent-poem” which may be a poem to a parent but is more likely a poem of poems, an ur-poem that confronts the ultimate mysteries of identity, particularly sexual identity, bestowed on us by our parents, and grandparents, about whom she also writes. McGuckian is able to be articulate about what she claims defies articulation. Her obscurity at its highest level serves the paradox inherent in words that sit on the border of speech. Regarding it as a miracle that these silences achieve speech, she often portrays the word as having an agent other than her. In “Echo-Poem” she refers to how a “word chooses its meaning,” giving language itself will and agency. At some level she only knows what she's writing when it's written itself.
No poem in her recent collection speaks more candidly about this quality of embodying in images meanings that can't be defined discursively than “East of Mozart.” It also depicts the loneliness of enduring this burden of perpetual latency, like a constant pregnancy. She begins by referring to a “feeling / With no name in actual language, / Which perhaps does not exist except in me.” She ends by observing:
But some words like some notes That never define themselves Are meant for at most Ten people in the whole world Whose oxygen are storms.
We know that Emily Dickinson is a possible reader, she who began a poem “Wild nights, wild nights,” someone whose “oxygen are storms,” someone literate of the unpronounceable. This sine qua non of reader intimacy is the common link between McGuckian, Dickinson, Crane, and Whitman. Their ideal readers are not determined by gender, only disposition, but the chances of locating him or her are rare. If McGuckian's poems in the meanwhile, however, cease to be stormy (and storms do muddy streams), at least temporarily, then they will fail to provide sustenance when this intimate is found. If a reader is constructed by nature or nurture to imbibe McGuckian's unique form of oxygen, these poems can be a life support.
Emily Dickinson, Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge: The Belknap Press), letter #268, p. 175.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8104
SOURCE: Docherty, Thomas. “Postmodern McGuckian.” In The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland, edited by Neil Corcoran, pp. 191-210. Chester Springs, Penn: Dufour Editions Inc., 1992.
[In the following essay, Docherty assesses McGuckian's poetry in terms of its concern with ritual, its “ idealist” subjectivity, and its links with surrealism.]
McGuckian's poetry is pointless, in a sense akin to the way in which Molly Bloom's soliloquy is without point, unpunctuated or unpunctual. A typical sentence meanders around a point, apostrophically veering from it whenever it seems to be about to touch ground, so to speak:
You call me aspen, tree of the woman's Tongue, but if my longer and longer sentences Prove me wholly female, I'd be persimmon, And good kindling, to us both.(1)
It has become fashionable to read McGuckian as a poet whose language, grammar and syntax all serve to question masculinism, and to see her as a poet in a literary lineage deriving from Joyce's Molly. There may be some truth in this, but at the outset it might be worth suggesting that the lines from “Aviary” just quoted provide strong circumstantial evidence for a hunch one has while reading McGuckian. Like another predecessor aligned with a feminist poetic, Emily Dickinson (and also like McDiarmid), McGuckian seems to be a keen reader of the dictionary. The OED, for instance, under ‘aspen’, gives an etymology linking the word to ‘asp’ and offers, as an example of a particular usage of the word, ‘aspen tongue’, meaning ‘the tongue of a woman’. It looks more than likely that these lines were dictated not by any specifically feminist intention preceding the poem, but rather by a reading of the dictionary.
The verse often reads as if the language itself, a language devoid of a consciousness, were directing it:
Asleep on the coast I dream of the city. A poem dreams of being written Without the pronoun ‘I’.(2)
Often it is difficult to locate any single position from which the poem can be spoken. In philosophical terms, we have a kind of ‘blank phenomenology’: the relation between the speaking Subject or ‘I’ and the Object of its intention is mobile or fluid. It reads as if the space afforded the ‘I’ is vacant: instead of a stable ‘persona’, all we have is a potential of personality, a voice which cannot yet be identified. The poetry becomes a poetry of ‘villainy’:
This house is the shell of a perfect marriage Someone has dug out completely; so its mind Is somewhere above its body, and its body Stumbles after its voice like a man who needs A woman for every book.(3)
A recurring feature of McGuckian is an ‘untimeliness’, the sense of a gap between what is said and the voice which says it. There is a fractured ‘unpunctual’ consciousness here. That ‘untimeliness’ is consonant with a current in contemporary philosophies of the postmodern. Deleuze, for instance, often relates his philosophy to the notion that ‘the time is out of joint’, and he considers a Nietzschean untimeliness to be inherent in anything which can be genuinely called ‘thinking’. Similarly, Lyotard indicates that the postmodern art-work exists in a ‘future anterior’ tense and is always contaminated by the artist's own unreadiness for it. If the ripeness or readiness is all, then the artist and philosopher is she or he who is never ‘ripe’:
work and text … arrive always too late for their author, or, what amounts to the same thing, their being put into work always begins too soon.4
In the present essay, I argue for a postmodern McGuckian. She offers the availability of a poetry which is not defined by its relation to a tradition or place; rather, her writing offers a way of breaking away from the ‘place-logic’ which is central to the formulation of a national culture, tradition or lineage.5
The three major collections construct a specific trajectory. The Flower Master (1982) is an initiatory collection. Many of its poems are concerned with different kinds of initiation rites and with the transgressions of borders or boundaries. These borders, however, are not the expected geographical border (though that one is here too), but are more symbolic borders, such as the boundary between infancy and adulthood; the border between an Edenic garden and a secular world, and so on. A concern for our secular (‘fallen’) condition is apparent from the earliest poems such as “Problem Girl” with its Eve-like girl, eating her apple; or “Lychees” delineating a degeneracy from religious life into secularity. From these and other poems, it becomes clear that McGuckian's real Flower Master is none other than the nineteenth-century poet of diabolism, Baudelaire, whose “Fleurs du mal” ghost this text.
Venus and the Rain (1984) has as its dominant trait a concern for space, both inner and outer. The ‘inner space’ is that of the vacuous Subject of the blank phenomenology; the outer space that suggested by the planetary turn of the title poem. Here, one finds traces of another French thinker, the mathematician, philosopher and Catholic Pascal, whose pensées were both thoughts and flowers (pansies), and whose writings interlace in the same fragmentary fashion as McGuckian's poetry, with overlaps from one text into the next. Pascal, of course, was a man terrified by “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis”.6
One might immediately be tempted to think of On Ballycastle Beach (1988) as McGuckian's “North,” for its title refers to a geographical location at one of the northernmost points of Ireland, in County Antrim. But once again, if the reader searches here for the kind of explicit or mythic politics found in other contemporary Irish poets, she or he will be disappointed. These poems are organised around a ‘French-born’ idea, le temps perdu. Temps, meaning both time and weather, allows McGuckian a trope which organises poems obsessed with seasonal change. Here, it is as if the rituals which interest her are the pagan rites which have been latent in all her writing. There is also here a governing figure of ‘seduction’ or temptation, as if the texts were written by a Lilith figure, and as if the texts were an attempt, or essay, at constructing a literary lineage deriving from Eve and her apples.
The present argument falls into three sections. Firstly, I chart some ‘initiations’, to demonstrate McGuckian's concern for ritual and artifice and to probe the resulting idealism in the writing. Secondly, I ‘take the temperature’ or temper of the verse, exploring the ethos of McGuckian's blank phenomenology, her vacuous ‘idealist’ Subjectivity. Thirdly, I link her writing to surrealism and superrealist movements, and through this describe a politics of her postmodern questioning of the real.
A prevalent conception of art is that it occupies a different order from the secular world. Many, following an Arnoldian argument, subscribe to the notion that art is a substitute for religion and that it therefore sets up an opposition between the secular and the sacred. In its crudest forms, this is pure idealism; yet, as Eliade and Girard argue, with some sophistication, there is a sense in which the ritualisation of everyday life is crucial: societies require rituals as markers of time's passage. A simple unmarked flow of time would be difficult to understand as time at all. Time and history have to be narrativised; and narratives organise themselves around temporal markers such as birthdays, funerals, anniversaries, solstices and so on. Kermode argues that the endings of narratives cast sense retrospectively upon them; but these endings are moveable feasts.7
McGuckian is concerned with two such deictic moments. The first is that we call puberty, a shift from infancy into adulthood, from ‘non-speaking’ (infans) into a voice. Hence the first initiation rite is one concerned with sexuality and with language, the acquisition of a voice, the possibility of ‘being listened to’. The second such instant, often located within the first, is a mythic moment of a beginning or birthing of sorts. She often writes of maternity or pregnancy; but these are related to another beginning, the mythic biblical beginning in the fall from grace. This second initiation moment, then, is the moment of the entry into history as such. Both moments of initiation are tantalisingly implicated with each other in the opening poems of The Flower Master.
“That Year” opens with a description of a young woman's discovery of some aspects of her body:
That year it was something to do with your hands: To play about with rings, to harness rhythm In staging bleach or henna on the hair, Or shackling, unshackling the breasts.
A memory, linking “that year” with another, earlier one, follows, introducing the two colours which are important here:
I remembered as a child the red kite Lost forever over our heads, the white ball A pin-prick on the tide, and studied The leaf-patterned linoleum, the elaborate
Stitches on my pleated bodice. It was like a bee's sting or a bullet Left in me, this mark, this sticking pins in dolls, Listening for the red and white
Particles of time to trickle slow …
The memory, linking a moment of childhood play with “that year”, hinges on a red kite and a white ball like a pin-prick. The girl looks at her own body with its elaborate—or laboured—stitches. Then there is the wait for “red and white / Particles”. Given the suggestion in “Slips”8 that poetry operates partly by metaphor and partly by euphemism, it becomes impossible—if we ‘listen’—to miss the allusion here to red and white corpuscles, and hence the suggestion that what is being awaited is a menarche. The ritual nature of this moment, “that year”, is hinted at in the linking of the menarche with magic, the voodoo of “sticking pins in dolls”. Yet there is, of course, also that other year being hinted at: the later year of a birthing, as suggested in those laboured stitches on the bodice, themselves ‘slips’ for a Caesarian birth. The poem closes with the image of a curtained, cushioned woman, brought to bed.
This pubescent initiation is reiterated in “Tulips.” Here is the first tacit appearance of a ‘master’, who is not, as might be expected in this poem, the Wordsworth whose daffodils are tacitly alluded to by the poem's description of flowers dancing “ballets of revenge”. Rather, the second stanza offers an elaborate intertextual weaving into Henry James's novella, The Turn of the Screw, itself a thoroughly ambiguous tale of frustrated sexuality and of a young woman's relations with a ‘Master’. The governess in James was ‘raped’ or ‘carried away’ in London at the Master's house; but this sexual overtone, apparent in the tale as in the poem, is also linked to a linguistic issue. The word ‘metaphor’ means ‘carrying across’ or ‘carrying away’: the sexual initiation is also a linguistic initiation, as here in “Tulips,” another poem in which the reader must listen for the slips.
The poem constantly displaces its reader, and is difficult to read due to the elongation of its sentences and the resulting complexity of syntax. The first part of the first sentence (lines 1 to 6) tempts the reader to come to syntactic and semantic rest some seven times, as she or he searches more desperately for the ending of the sentence (its “that year”) which will enable the retrospective making of sense. The tulips have the presence of mind to defend themselves against the unwanted intrusion of rain which falls into the daffodil. If McGuckian is a reader of the dictionary, she might be aware that the OED offers a definition of ‘tulip’ alongside its meaning as flower with phallic stem: a ‘tulip’ is “a showy person; one greatly admired”—a kind of flower-master, in short. The poem, with this allusion to James's novella, enables the reader to hear the difficult phrase “grocery of soul” as an echo of Mrs. Grose, whose own “grossery of soul” is that she is illiterate: the one character in the James text who cannot read and yet also the one who knows what's going on. Letters—mislaid, stolen, intercepted or unread—form the focus of The Turn of the Screw, a text whose raison d'être is the paralysis of interpretation, the stymying of understanding, as has been argued by Felman and Brooke-Rose.9 The same difficulty arises here, and one suddenly has to read the letters which constitute the poem differently.
Its opening phrase, “Touching the tulips was a shyness”, is an odd phrase as it stands; yet, if one listens to the flower, one can also make a different sense: touching the two-lips was a shyness. Heard in this ‘American’ inflection (à la James), one has the image of a speaker demonstrating her shyness by actually touching her finger to her lips. But, at this point, and given the “absence of mirrors”, one can also begin to hear the feminist input into this dense, complex poem.
Irigaray, especially in Speculum and in This Sex Which Is Not One, has proposed that the entire history of Western thinking has been inescapably masculinist for the primary reason of its prioritisation of the specular gaze and of the sense of vision. If we replace this with tactility, she suggests, we might be able to counter the inevitability of masculinist thinking, which is complicit with a denial of subjectivity and a denial of the voice to woman. Irigaray argues that while men require some external effect to articulate their sexuality (woman, hand, object of sorts), women are always in touch with themselves, for their genitals are formed by two lips in continual tactile arrangement. It is the intrusion of the male tulip-like stalk of the phallus which arrests auto-erotic pleasure and self-presence (or present-mindedness). Given the absence of mirrors in “Tulips,” one might realise that the tactile overcomes the visual here. But now, “touching the tulips/two-lips” is thoroughly ambiguous. On the one hand, touching the tulips might suggest an obvious touching of the phallus; but on the other, it also suggests the woman touching her own lips, both mouth and vagina. The poem thus becomes one of covert masturbation, a “womanliness of tulips”.
The feminist problematic is that of “not being listened to”10. Hence the necessity for circumlocution or ‘slips’, most obviously in the euphemistic language of flowers deployed by other unheard women such as Ophelia or Perdita. In “Tulips,” the touching of the fingers to the oral lips describes the woman as silenced. But, listening to the slips here, the availability of a “womanliness of tulips”, a womanly voice, can be discovered. To hear this voice is the critical task. This poem simply describes the moment of a ritual transgression in which the poet loses infancy in the articulation of sexuality (literally: for sexuality is articulacy, literacy, here).
Initiation, and with it linguistic and gendered authority, implies a rite of passage or transgression of a boundary. This symbolic boundary in McGuckian replaces the geo-political border in other poets' work. She thinks the boundary symbolically, which is conventional enough, deploying a Christian mythology of the expulsion from a paradise into history, the theme which dominates On Ballycastle Beach where the sands of time replace the gardens implied by The Flower Master, after the journey through space in Venus and the Rain. But the symbolic geography opens another issue which haunts the poetry: the construction of an ‘economy’ or law of the household.
This begins in the first collection, where it is as if “Admiring the Furs” gets too close to the political situation for comfort. The passage across the checkpoints in this poem brings to the speaker's mind her “measurements at nine”, a memory of a pre-pubertal state. But this is related to the furs in the window and the violence which brings them there for human warmth and comfort. The animal skin—our own covering—is produced through an act of violence; and in this poem, it is as if the ‘preoccupation’, as Heaney would think it, causes a pain, the pain which “tells you what to wear”.11 The Irish state, bifurcated on a boundary, is an agonising death, a wounded skin which has to be sloughed off. The checkpoint is, like the window-pane, a boundary which serves to cover the presence of pain, that pain which is the wounding of Ireland, the killing of Ireland through the act of partition.
The transgression of this very political boundary is rare in McGuckian. More frequently the boundary to be transgressed takes on a more ritualised and sacral aspect, and operates under a symbolism of domesticity. One example is “Mr. McGregor's Garden,” which alludes—as do all gardens in this poetry—to a primal garden, an Edenic state once lost and always remembered with nostalgia.12 The more immediate allusion—to Beatrix Potter—gives a more ambivalent character to the garden here, and appropriately so, as I will show. The poem starts darkly, with “Some women save their sanity with needles”. On one hand, this might be an item from a domestic lexicon, suggesting knitting-needles used with the pin as in the “pin-prick” of “That Year.” But there is a darker side to this, with the hint of a witch-like injection, and hence the idea of saving sanity through drugs. Attention immediately turns to the mode of saving sanity proposed by the speaker:
I complicate my life with studies Of my favourite rabbit's head, his vulgar volatility.
This “Bunny” becomes her furry comforter later in the poem. But the “vulgar volatility” is the essential issue here. The rabbit's head, of course, is classically used in theories of visual perception to demonstrate a particular boundary in the way we see. The drawing of a rabbit's head is also a drawing of a duck, depending on how we choose to view it. It is impossible to see both at once, yet it is also impossible to see the volatility, the shift as the rabbit crosses the threshold of perception to become a duck.
Perception, sight itself, involves us in a transgression of the very same kind of boundary which caused the pain in “Admiring the Furs.” Here is an articulation of those Irigarayan theories which acknowledge the pain caused to women by perception as we think it, by the prioritisation of the visual as the determining element of modern western culture. McGuckian answers this directly in “Painter and Poet” where she seems to favour not the replacement of vision with tactility as in Irigaray, but rather the replacement of vision with words, language, poetry.
This perceptual transgression operates in much of her domestic imagery, where doors and windows are forever being opened and closed, indicating a threshold boundary which invites danger. Similarly, letters frequently go unread, whether the envelope remains whole or is violently torn open. It is as if the act of reading her letters were itself an act of violence or transgression, an act of the same kind of initiatory violence which causes the personal pain described in “That Year.” Such windows and doors appear, for fine examples, in “The Sofa” or “The Sitting.”
But the window, as Bachelard might say, produces the house.13 The threshold which is a doorway immediately implies not just a threatening outside, but also a domestic interior, of the kind described in “The Flitting” (which also “has cost me” much discomfort) or throughout the poetry in incidental references to domestic scenes, furniture, the architecture of rooms, beds and so on. This becomes of some importance in “The Sun-Trap.” In the greenhouse whose hygroscope says “orchid”, the flower associated with testicles (from the Greek orkhis = testicle), the speaker is:
touched by even the strange gesture Of rain stopping, your penetration Of my mask of ‘bon viveur’, my crested notepaper, My lined envelopes. From your last letter I construed at least the word For kisses, if not quite a kindred spirit.
Reading this last letter, then, there is the suggestion firstly of the “penetration” of the envelope, a transgression of a lining, together with the idea of a sexual relation in those kisses. However, something is not quite right in that the letter cannot easily be deciphered: it is misread, and the reader is searching for a “kindred spirit” while finding only the “word / For kisses”. The letter clearly brings disturbing news, of “the magically fertile German girl / Who sleeps in the bunk above you”, and who
seems To me quite flirtatious
Though you say she's the sort of girl You'd rather have as a daughter.
This reminds the speaker of some previous “near-tragedy” of a weekend spent with a “cousin once-removed”. And at this moment, three things coalesce. Firstly, the trapping of the sun, its capturing within the space of the house, and hence its transgression of a boundary, produces the warmth of an interior set against the sickly rain and threatening weather of the outside: the house, thus, as a site of a mutation or transformation. Secondly, this relates to the search for a ‘kindred spirit’, with its hint of some familial or domestic relation. Thirdly, the near-explicit references to incest, in the idea of the German girl as the flirtatious daughter sleeping in the same room (actually, technically the same bed) as the correspondent, and the unspoken event between speaker and cousin once-removed. Transgression, then, involves the building of a house as a ritual or sacral space called the family which exists as an apotropaic warder-off of death and history. But the production of the house and its interiorised space, together with the necessity of sexual relations as the mode of initiation which makes the house possible in the first place, produces what Freud well knew about, the taboo of incest.
The domestic poems of McGuckian are contaminated thus by the dark and guilty question of endogamy; and it is the guilt associated with this tribal sectarianism which brings The Flower Master more clearly into line with Baudelaire's Fleurs du mal, a collection also dotted with domestic imagery, but a book which was gothically obsessed with the revelation of an evil which lay behind—and indeed founded—the decorous nature of a bourgeois existence. In McGuckian's case, there is a link between the necessity of transgression (sexual initiation and entry into secular history) and the inevitability of an evil introspection, an ‘endogamous’ looking inwards towards a guilt perceived in the space ‘within’, the interior produced by the transgression and its threshold. “Look within” urged the modernist Woolf, famously; and when McGuckian does, she sees guilt. The much-vaunted erotics of her writing are all tinged with the sense of a maleficence, a diabolism, and with the need to find a pure genealogy, but one which in its purity would be uncontaminated by this taboo of interiority, this incestuous thinking and introspection.
A postmodern sublime lies available here. We have the necessity of a transgression, the idea of a breakthrough across some threshold of perception, together with the recalcitrance which that transgression provokes: this is the pleasurable pain of interpretation in McGuckian. It is like the seduction of a letter unread, a letter which remains tantalisingly visible beneath or within its envelope; but the tearing open of the envelope reveals that the letter is not there after all: what we thought was a meaningful missive turns out to be a pattern on the envelope. Throughout the verse, it is precisely at the moment of taking root, or of finding a single place from which to understand a poem, that it melts away again into ambivalence and ambiguity. “A newly-understood poem will melt / And be hard again”.14 And even the point of transgression, the threshold, cannot be properly or adequately identified: “The point when I sleep is not known / By me, and words cannot carry me / Over it”.15
The reader of McGuckian is in the position of the person who moves from the state of being awake to that of being asleep; either she is awake or asleep, and it is impossible to locate her at the precise moment of the change between the two. The ‘checkpoint’, in this way, magically is made to disappear, in something of the same sophisticated way in which death is made disappear in Augustine or Wittgenstein or Camus.16 Yet, of course, the checkpoint undeniably exists: this hovering uncertainly between existence and non-existence is its ‘sublimity’. It is both there and not there, like Venus herself who is described like a Malevich painting: “White on white, I can never be viewed / Against a heavy sky”17 precisely the heavy sky which dominates the “sickly Irish weather”.18
The letter in McGuckian, the text or poem as well as its very constituent letters, is the site of this refusal of representation. Each poem is, as it were, a threshold inviting the initiation of its reader into some meaning; yet it also denies that meaning at the very instant of its perception. This is McGuckian as Malvolio, a McGuckian who does not play ducks and drakes so much as ducks and rabbits. Initiation promises change; and it is the precise moment of initiation which McGuckian wants to locate. Yet, because of its very characterisation as the site of mobility and mutability, as a point of transgression or change, the locus of initiation cannot properly be identified, represented or described. It is, as it were, immaterial, invisible as Venus in the rain. The point of initiation, the ‘checkpoint’, is itself pointless.
One neat mutation central to McGuckian is the linguistic slippage between ‘tempt’ and ‘temporal’. In Christian mythology, Eve, eater of the apples that figure so widely in McGuckian, tempted or tried or tested the apple and Adam's resistance to it. This temptation by and of the woman provokes the fall into temporality, the condition in which McGuckian must now write what Stevens would have called ‘The Poems of our Climate’: that is, poems in which she takes a secular ‘temper’ or temperature, measuring the flow and sequence of the seasons which coordinate or order secular life. But, due to the ‘blank phenomenology’ of her writing, she is condemned to live in a kind of temporal absence. She is always—temporally and temperamentally—at odds with herself: the poems chart a dislocation in their speaker, who always occupies some different temporal moment from the moment actually being described in the poem. There is a gap, a différance, between the moment of the enunication and the moment of the enunciated. As in Heidegger, the poet is always living alongside herself. She is like the character who lives in a cold climate in “Minus 18 Street”:
I never loved you more Than when I let you sleep another hour, As if you intended to make such a gate of time Your home.(19)
As a being-in-time, and one living that time as a gate or threshold of transgression, the poet is never present-to-herself. Caught in a late-or neo-romantic predicament, her voice is always temporally out-of-step with what it says. Her time, like that of Hamlet, is “out of joint”.20
On Ballycastle Beach, despite its parochial title, is among the more exotic of McGuckian's collections, delighting in words derived from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia as well as the more domestic kinds of detail expected after her earlier work. But it is worth starting closer to home, in the poem “Not Pleasing Mama,” whose only ‘foreign’ phrase is the French “à la belle étoile”, meaning “under the open sky”. This poem opens with the odd suggestion that the weather is unsure:
If rain begins as snow, then the weather Has slipped down as between walls, is not To be trusted any more Than any other magic.(21)
This weather is out of its proper place.22 The French speaker who interjects might hear an interlingual pun here: temps as both weather and time. This text, thus, is not to be trusted for it is the site of another ‘slipping’ between meanings, between languages and countries, between cultures. If the weather is misplaced, it is also—to the French voice of the text—a temps perdu; and this opens the text to its interrelation with Proust, whose text begins not only with not pleasing Mama but also with not being pleased by the Mama who withholds the goodnight kiss. Proust, if he is about anything, is about the loss or waste of time, about a time out of joint.
“Not Pleasing Mama,” with its tempting apple, is a key poem: it casts retrospective light on the opening poems of the collection, “What Does ‘Early’ Mean?,” “Staying in a Better Hotel,” “Apple Flesh” and “Grainne's Sleep Song,” all texts which share the Proustian and Wordsworthian seduction by time and weather.
“What Does ‘Early’ Mean?” It means “before the proper or appointed time”. The poem describes a temporal displacement in which a house is out of step with the season: “Yet I think winter has ended / Privately in you”.23 This is related to McGuckian's own writing, which is equally “untimely”:
None of my doors has slammed Like that, every sentence is the same Old workshop sentence, ending Rightly or wrongly in the ruins Of an evening spent in puzzling Over the meaning of six o'clock or seven …
“Early” is a deictic term, depending for its meaning upon a situation: “six o'clock” is not by definition early. Hence the meaning of the term is itself untimely, as if the meaning of the word resided elsewhere or in a different time from that of the word's actual articulation. It also demands a relation between at least two times: to be “early” implies an appointment; yet it also demands a disappointment, a failure of correspondence between the two or more elements destined to coincide at the proper moment. To be early is to be out of place as well as out of time: it is to be ‘flitting’, to be on the nomadic move, between situations. No echoes of Hardy ghost this verse.24
Moreover, “early”, in its implication of (dis)appointment, also demands narrative, for it demands a link to be forged in the plotting of two disparate moments. The narrative of “early” is produced in “Grainne's Sleep Song,”25 in which untimeliness is directly related to “a novel rough to the touch”, presumably the narrative referred to later, that “Uncompleted story, something sterile / I contracted fourteen years ago on the beach, / Entitled ‘Wild without Love’”. The speaker steps out of this narrative, a past moment, to enter a present relation; but the temporal relation between the fourteen-years-old narrative and the situation of “The day that I got up to” is fused and confused. The narrative is incomplete, as the meaning of the poem is also incomplete, falling back to “initials” or beginnings. The sleep-song, then, is once more about the temporal relation between beginning and end; the sleep is a mediation or meditation between the two states or two times, and mutability or uncertainty becomes the order of the day.
It is this which makes McGuckian's poetry a ‘critical poetry’, in the same senses as Kant's philosophy was a ‘critical philosophy’ or Frankfurt School political theory is a ‘critical theory’. All are formulated in a mode of proleptic difference. Deleuze offers the most succinct description of what is at stake here in Kantian and post-Kantian (for which read postmodern) thinking:
Time is out of joint, time is unhinged … As long as time remains on its hinges, it is subordinate to movement: it is the measure of movement, interval or number. This was the view of ancient philosophy. But time out of joint signifies the reversal of the movement-time relationship. It is now movement which is subordinate to time. Everything changes, including movement.26
Movement, the movement of transgression across the ‘door’ hinged by time, is what McGuckian was after in earlier poems. Here, she has discovered the reversal which makes movement itself subordinate to time, secularism. An allegorisation of this in terms of the political scenario—if one is needed—might run like this: there will be no movement over the border so long as time remains on its hinges—so long, that is, as a particular relation to secularity is maintained whereby the secular is but a pale shadow of the eternal or sacred. Movement will not come so long as Ireland remains ‘pre-critical’ or ‘pre-historic’. A critical reversal of priorities is needed which acknowledges that movement over the border will only be possible if such movement becomes subordinate to time—that is, if the being of people on both sides of the border becomes a being-in-time, a being determined by historicity and not by fixed, eternal or transcendental claims upon a true identity, a ‘chosen ground’ for a chosen people. The poetry is a call to a critical historicism: not just an awareness of time past, but an awareness that one must ‘disappoint’ the history or narrative seemingly determined by that time past: time past must be misplaced, perdu.
3. THE FORCE OF SEDUCTION AND THE PLAY OF SURREALISM
The crudity of that allegory of politics in McGuckian does not do justice to the force of her poetry, which finds more indirect—but, I shall argue, more powerful—ways of intervening in the political culture in which she writes. As might be expected in any literature which might be called a literature of decolonisation, there is in much contemporary Irish poetry a concern with power: the ambivalent desire for an autonomous national power even in the very instant when the culture is striving to escape the legacy of a suffering caused by such a power. Mastery, in The Flower Master, is the shape this takes in early McGuckian; but this quickly comes under speculative pressure in the writing.
Power, like temporality, depends upon relation and narrative: power is, as it were, shaped deictically. Specifically, it depends upon ‘under-standing’; yet it is precisely understanding that McGuckian mistrusts. She replaces understanding, with its inherent notion of the availability of stable positions of ‘mastery’ (she who speaks enigmatically) and ‘subjection’ (she who would understand and subscribe to the master), with a notion of mere interrelation. The form this takes is one of seduction. Seduction here is taken in a sense close to that proposed by Baudrillard: it is not simply a sexual event; rather, it describes a state of relation between powers or forces, and one which explicitly excludes production. Production would here mean the end of seduction. Seduction is, for instance, the play of forces which keeps the planets in mutual interrelation: one subject of Venus and the Rain.
“Venus and the Sun”27 describes the pull which the Sun exerts on Venus, and an opposing pull, in the opposite direction, exerted by Mars. Seduction is the play of forces, attraction and repulsion, which enables such relation. The resulting tension produces the entity we call ‘Venus’, or that we call ‘Mars’ and so on. In other words, to identify something as ‘Venus’ is artificially to arrest the play of forces: to make a fiction from a “mécanique des fluides”.28 The important thing is that the forces come first; there is no essence of ‘Mars’, ‘Venus’ or the ‘Sun’ which generates a specific force: those names are but the effect of a configuration of forces. To stabilise them with such a name or identification is a fictive arresting of time itself; McGuckian reverses the priorities of ‘modern’ thinking.
To put things this way, of course, is to add the corollary to the Kantian revolution described by Deleuze. In conventional thought, there already exists a mass called the Sun which exerts a force on other stable and identifiable masses called the various planets. This enables a belief in the stability and identity of ‘Venus’, ‘Mars’ and so on; and by extension, a belief in some essential ‘meaning’ for all the elements of the universe, some intrinsic nature. But McGuckian, whose writing is properly aligned with the postmodern thinking of Deleuze, Baudrillard and others, reverses this set of priorities. There is no Venus without Mars; there is no Sun without these and the play of forces by which they are constituted. Rather than subscribing to some desire to identify what is produced, McGuckian prefers to work at the level of the seduction itself. This way, she questions the modern belief in the availability of identity. The arrangement of matter we call ‘Venus’ is, as it were, the taking root or forming an earth of a play of forces which McGuckian wishes to keep in play and in place; the arrangement of matter may appear stable, but it is invisible (“white on white’); by extension, of course, North would also have no intrinsic meaning, nor would ‘Ireland’, nor would ‘McGuckian’ and so on. “Le monde n'est qu'une branloire perenne.”29
‘Venus’, then, is held together, instant by instant, only through a kind of stasis, internal dissent and tension or civil war. This kind of seductive attraction depends upon gravity, or mass. Much of McGuckian's imagery is drawn from the pull she feels towards a Christian iconography and lexicon. But it is a corollary of her post-Kantian poetry that her aesthetic world must be guided not by a Christian onto-theology, but rather by a pagan consciousness. Paganism, of course, is not atheist, but prefers a heterotheology, a multiplicity of forces called ‘gods’ which activate the world.
A number of poems reveal this paganism and relate it to a hieroglyphic questioning of the letter. “Vanessa's Bower”30 is a poem with a misunderstood letter, specifically the letter “E”:
… Dear owner, you write, Don't put me into your pocket: I am not A willow in your folly-studded garden Which you hope will weep the right way: And there are three trains leaving, none Of which connects me to your E-shaped Cottage. Alas, I have still the feeling, Half fatherly, half different, we are Travelling together in the train with this letter, Though my strange hand will never be your sin.
This E-shaped cottage is like a railway station, from which there run three parallel lines of flight. Seduction here is the gravitational pull away from the cottage and its folly-studded Edenic garden with its weeping tree. That journey is taken with “this letter”, meaning both a missive (the poem, perhaps) and also the letter “E”. Interestingly, the Hebrew letter, which looks like an E on its side, is pronounced ‘sin’. This letter in Hebrew, the language of the Bible, provokes the weeping. But another intertext appears here. Erasmus, in In Praise of Folly, describes this Hebrew letter and its pronunciation in a passage demonstrating the folly of a belief in an original or God-given language (the Word, the logos).31 We are always in flight—or in multiple lines of flight—from such a language, always out of step with it in time and space. It is not the case that the apple-laden language of woman is folly or madness; rather, what is folly is the garden itself and the belief that there ever was one pure or original language of sanity, one Word which was there in the beginning and which was God.
Frequently in her poems, McGuckian makes a turn towards nomadism, towards a chosen ground which is, strictly speaking, nowhere in particular. The nomad simply moves around, with no specific home except a ‘Querencia’,32 the idea of a home, occupying whatever space is needed and available at any given moment. This attitude clearly marks McGuckian off from other Irish poets, like Deane, Montague or Heaney, who have questioned the geography of Ireland as a specific and historically-determined plot of earth or rough field. McGuckian is more interested in symbolic space and in the occupation of a language or a voice. Always in flight, her poems—like her own voice and identity—are never fixed in historical time or geographical space: their meaning is always untimely, never present-to-themselves, and hence never ‘available’. In this way, her text is always ‘temperable’, marked by a promiscuous mingling of different meanings held together in a play of internal forces which allows her never to lose her ‘temper’.
Given this difference from her contemporaries, it becomes apparent that if one were to look for predecessors for McGuckian, it would be an error to search among the Irish poets of the twentieth century. In terms of linguistic styles, she has more in common with both nineteenth-century decadence and with twentieth-century surrealism, both internationalist movements. Much of her imagery could be derived from Neruda or Aragon rather than from Clarke or Kavanagh. Yet there is one way in which she overlaps with a thematics of flight which dominates much Irish writing this century. Yeats, for instance, starts by looking west, then makes successive leaps eastwards to Greece and Byzantium for the sources of his poetry; Joyce and Beckett, famously, exile themselves; Heaney begins from an archaeology of Irish soil, and then, like Yeats, makes a symbolic geographic move eastwards in his alignment of himself with the dissident poets of Eastern Europe. Heaney also leaves the soil in another sense, becoming ‘Mad Sweeney’, the bird among the trees which Yeats had also dreamt of becoming.33 It is this ‘line of flight’ which McGuckian adopts, and in her it becomes a structural determinant of the language and syntax of her writing.
There is an exoticism in McGuckian, very apparent in the vocabulary of On Ballycastle Beach for instance, which literally “unsettles” the text and its readers. The predominantly Latinate and Anglo-Saxon vocabulary of the first two collections is interrupted here by words like “Ylang-Ylang” (Malaysian), “vetiver” (from African languages), “Mazurka” (Polish), “Querencia” (Spanish), “balakhana” (Persian) and so on. McGuckian here reiterates some of the symbolic geographical manoeuvres of Yeats, Heaney and others; but its effects are different.
‘Querencia’, for instance, suggests a kind of ‘land of heart's desire’, or desired homeland; but it is odd that an Irish poet should use a Spanish word to describe this. The word is actually used in Spanish to describe the terrain of the bull in a bull-fight: it is the ‘stamping-ground’ of the threatening and dangerous animal. The term thus provides her with an ambivalent word describing her relation to ‘home’, a home which is ‘elsewhere’, a home riven by stasis or dissent, a home which is desired but which also threatens. “Balakhana” is the word describing the upper storey of a Persian house, the room in which nomadic travellers would be put to pass the night. This balakhana (a near homonym for Ballycastle, of course) is not a stable home either, but a nomadic place of encampment, a temporary abode.
This kind of language works to suggest an alienation in McGuckian's own relation to her language. Like her, the reader has to become a reader of dictionaries in the endless search for meaning, and the language is thus always at odds with the mouth speaking it, always untimely, always a blank phenomenology. There is no single governing Logos, no monotheology of Truth here, no originary language: McGuckian, like the ‘character’ in Christine Brooke-Rose's ‘novel’, Thru, lives increasingly in the space between languages. She does not live between English and Gaelic, but between English and the languages of Europe, Asia, Africa. This linguistic internationalism contributes to the instabilities which enable her work to be characterised as late surrealist.
In the present century, surrealism has had a chequered history. Initially an art dedicated to revolution, it became more and more explicitly reactionary. Yet it has always served one critical purpose well: it always questions the nature of the real. In its later development into superrealism, it is not so much the nature of reality so much as the very principle of ontological reality which is questioned. A superrealist painting, say, proposes the question: ‘which is more real—object or image?’ The postmodern simulacrum, as Baudrillard points out, can question the very principle of reality itself by its parodic duplication; and this is its potentially most radical function. McGuckian is close to this, though her means of achieving it are not through the ‘more perfect than perfect’ mimesis of superrealism, but rather through the contortions of surrealism. Reality in her writing constantly slips away, leaving a reader to puzzle where she or he stands. Her sentences meander from étrangeté to bizarrerie, dislocating metaphor and being ‘easily carried away’ in this language which is dictated by no consciousness, and leaving a reader stranded in flight from multivalent realities. The early writing is concerned with a fall into temporality or secularity; the later with finding a means to cope with that ‘fall’ not by fleeing history but rather by fleeing the principle of a monotheological Reality, which is seen to be imprisoning. All here is image: there is no presence, only representations. It is worth remembering that, in Ireland, there are two Ballycastles.
Medbh McGuckian, ‘Aviary’, Venus and the Rain. OUP, 1984, p. 21.
McGuckian, ‘Harem Trousers’, On Ballycastle Beach. OUP, 1988, p. 43.
McGuckian, ‘The Villain’, Venus and the Rain, p. 19. It is as if a Cartesian ‘cognito’ here has been replaced by a ‘loquor’ as the subject of the voice. For a fuller argument documenting this as a trait in contemporary writing, see my Reading (Absent) Character (Oxford University Press, 1983), pp. 34-6, 87-123 and passim.
Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p. 81. Cf. for instances, Gilles Deleuze, Kant's Critical Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984) (hereafter KCP), and Nietzsche and Philosophy (Athlone Press, 1983).
On ‘place-logic’ in the thinking of Rudolph Agricola, see Walter J. Ong., Ramus: Method and the Decay of Dialogue (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), p. 121. The present essay characterises such place-logic as ‘modernist’. For an argument describing the modifications of space and time in postmodernity, see David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989).
Blaise Pascal, Pensées Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1963), p. 528, no. 201.
See, for examples, Mircea Eliade, Le mythe de l'éternel retour (Paris: nrf, 1949); René Girard, passim; Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, 1956); Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967).
McGuckian, ‘Slips’, The Flower Master, OUP, 1982, p. 21.
Shoshana Felman, ‘Turning the Screw of Interpretation’, in Felman, ed., Literature and Psychoanalysis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), pp. 94-207; Christine Brooke-Rose, A Rhetoric of the Unreal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 128-187
McGuckian, On Ballycastle Beach, p. 51.
McGuckian, Venus and the Rain, p. 40.
This poem works in the tradition of the ‘garden-poem’ which dates at least from the Renaissance.
See Gaston Bachelard, La Poétique de l'Espace (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1957).
McGuckian, ‘Mazurka’, On Ballycastle Beach, p. 22.
McGuckian, ‘A Dream in Three Colours’, ibid., p. 44.
See Augustine, City of God (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp. 519-20; Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6, 4311; Albert Camus, Le mythe de Sisyphe (Gallimard, Paris: nrf, 1942), pp. 29-30.
McGuckian, ‘Venus and the Rain’, Venus and the Rain, p. 31.
McGuckian, ‘The Sun-Trap’, The Flower Master, p. 24.
McGuckian, On Ballycastle Beach, p. 19.
In Romanticism itself, of course, this predicament was that of idealism. The poet typically desires an ontological empathy with the world of the natural which—it is claimed—was enjoyed by the rustic; but the poet, blessed or cursed (or both) with consciousness can enjoy, at best, an epistemological empathy with nature, an empathy gained, however, precisely at the cost of her or his ontological alienation from that world. The autobiographical impetus is thus produced from a project in which the subject aims temporally to coincide with itself, a project doomed, as Sterne had clearly prefigured, to a sublime failure. For an argument characterising this as also a ‘modernist’ predicament, see my ‘Anti-Mimesis’, in Forum for Modern Language Studies vol. 26, no. 3 (1990) pp. 272-281.
McGuckian, On Ballycastle Beach, p. 20.
The French voice which interjects in this text might hear the Rabelaisian joke, “Between walls” is between ‘mur’ and ‘mur’. Rabelais: “ou mur y a et devant et derrière, y a force murmur, envie et conspiration mutue”; see François Rabelais, Gargantua in Oeuvres complètes, tome 1, ed. P. Jourda (Paris: Garnier Frères, 1962), p. 189.
McGuckian, On Ballycastle Beach, p. 11.
Hardy's poetry, especially in the famous instance of ‘The Convergence of the Twain’, is about keeping an appointment with fate; cf. Beckett, whose characters in Waiting for Godot pride themselves on keeping their appointment, but an appointment which is, by the play's formal definition, necessarily a disappointment.
McGuckian, On Ballycastle Beach, p. 16.
Gilles Deleuze, op. cit. (note 4), vii.
McGuckian, Venus and the Rain, p. 9.
Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One (New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 106-118.
Michel de Montaigne, Essais in 3 vols (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1969), vol 3, 20.
McGuckian, Venus and the Rain, p. 10.
Desiderius Erasmus, In Praise of Folly, in John P. Dolan, ed., The Essential Erasmus (New York: Mentor Books, 1964), pp. 151-2.
McGuckian, On Ballycastle Beach, p. 25.
For a more detailed argument making this point, see my After Theory (Routledge, 1990), pp. 173-190.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3961
SOURCE: Fogarty, Anne. “‘A Noise of Myth’: Speaking (as) Woman in the Poetry of Eavan Boland and Medbh McGuckian.” Paragraph 17, no. 1 (March 1994): 92-102.
[In the following essay, Fogarty analyzes the Irish feminist aesthetics of the poetry of Eavan Boland and McGuckian, highlighting both poets' rejection of feminist literary politics.]
Although feminist theory has led to the welcome rediscovery and reinstatement of women's writing in many other European cultures, the attempt to recuperate and map out a specifically female literary tradition and aesthetics in Ireland seems to be peculiarly beset by conflict. Indeed, many critics have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that the Irish feminist scholar who goes in search of her mothers' gardens is doomed to failure. As Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill points out in a recent article, a woman writing in Ireland whether in Gaelic or in English does so in the knowledge that the literary legacy she has inherited is marked by female silence.1 Moreover, the continuing hostility of Irish society to women makes any heroic reconstructions of female creativity seem wrong-headed and anodyne. The move from a backward-looking chronicle of patriarchal oppression and oversight to a forward-looking account of women's own cultural achievements as advocated by Elaine Showalter is nowhere, it would seem, more problematic.2
Notwithstanding this dispiriting outlook, it is the purpose of this article to consider the writing practice of two contemporary Irish women poets, namely Eavan Boland and Medbh McGuckian. Since Eavan Boland is from Dublin and Medbh McGuckian from Belfast the different social and political contexts which colour their work must of course be acknowledged. Nonetheless, many affinities may be detected between the poetry they produce. In part, this shared sense of an artistic endeavour is due to the influence of Boland both as a role model and as a writer on McGuckian.3 The work of these two poets, it will be seen, raises many urgent questions about the politics and status of women's writing in Ireland. Primarily, it illustrates the difficulty of applying current American or indeed European theories of feminist aesthetics to the Irish context. While both writers are intent on reshaping obdurately masculinist poetic traditions in order to create an accommodating space for female experience and language, both are at the same time dismayingly dismissive of any attempt to associate this revisionary work with a feminist literary politics. Thus, their endeavour to distance themselves from feminism is just as marked as their rejection of patriarchal myths of femininity. Above all else, they resist any easy co-optation of female voices and experience.
As a consequence, the writing of these two poets thrives on dissonances and disjunctions. While they themselves insist upon upholding a startling contrast between their public personae and the innovatory nature of their literary practice, their audience is equally at pains to ignore their seemingly retrograde pronouncements and to place emphasis instead on the radicalism of their poetic achievement. It is the purpose of this exploration to explicate the divergence between the aesthetics implicit in the literary writings of these poets and their own account of the creative process. It will be contended that their work calls into question the assumption readily aired in many current accounts of women's writing that the difference of female language may be construed as a sign of its radicalism and subversiveness. McGuckian and Boland succeed in remaking male poetic traditions and in creating distinctive and contestatory literary spaces of their own. They stress their difference of perspective as women but refuse the suggestion that their writing is on these grounds alone radical or other. Through their insistence on a distinction between their real-life identities and their fictional personae they indicate that there is a gap between the materiality of women's existences and literature which their poetry cannot close. Both poets, it will be argued, fear a dissolution of experience into language.
Often, indeed, the female subjectivity which they describe finds no accommodation in language. Through their poetry these two writers set out to dismantle those aspects of ‘femininity’ which place constraints on the female psyche and which disempower women. Yet, at the same time, they both insist on the ineradicable otherness of their female perspective. On the one hand, it is clear that this alterity does not answer to the old dualisms. It is instead a new dissymetry. On the other hand, however, their rewriting of old myths often employs the images and stereotypes which they wish to displace. As a result, their work appears to be stranded in an intermediate zone between traditional patriarchal values and the new and potentially saving ethos of feminism. Their refusal to permit an automatic accession of their poetry to the arena of feminist politics is both a by-product of the misogyny of Irish society which allows scant room for the development of feminism, and also a reaction to the literary traditions which the Irish woman writer inherits. Thus the poetry of Boland and McGuckian troubles and complicates many of the received ideas of current feminist literary theory. Despite its feminism, their work cannot readily be aligned with any preconceived belief in a hidden, radical dynamic in women's language. The writing of these poets is critical but not subversive; it is questioning and challenging, but not radical.
Any analysis of women's writing in Ireland must first acknowledge the fact that discourses about gender are not a purely literary concern. All of the recent upheavals in Irish society, have provided ample evidence that many of the political crises of the state centre around women. Even the referendum about the Maastricht Treaty became an occasion for the discussion of women's rights.4 Views of female sexuality in particular have provided the basis for the most contentious political debates in Ireland. The public vision of women seems forever caught in the dichotomy between images of femininity as pure, virginal, transcendent and disembodied and as dangerously erotic, fallen, pernicious and threatening. Disconcertingly, motherhood acts as a metaphor for this forked and contradictory view of women. It is both the ideal and the counter-ideal. As a result, the Irish state avows that it will protect the interests of women while at the same time declaring that even unborn children have to be safeguarded against the depredations of bad and malevolent mothers. A cursory glance at the paragraphs in the constitution outlining the role of women reveals the anomalous nature of the protective sanctuary granted to them in the Republic of Ireland.5 It is evident that in the ideal polity envisaged by this document a distinction is drawn between a male public sphere and a female private sphere in which the vital but unseen labour of mothering takes place. The invisible presence of women appears to be the fundament of the Southern Irish state.
The propensity of modern Irish male writers to use images of women or indeed to develop a notionally feminine language in their work constitutes one of the primary stumbling blocks for women who also wish to engage in literary production. Moreover, as Nuala O'Faoláin points out, there is a striking discrepancy between the ideals of femininity furthered by the Irish state and the images of women enshrined in modern Irish literature. Whereas political discourse celebrates women who are ‘rural, innocent and the loving servants of males’, literary discourse abounds in female figures who are urban, urbane and powerful.6 By and large, the Irish male writer appears to be involved in what Alice Jardine refers to as ‘gynesis’, that is the representation of woman.7 The ultimate end of this apparently feminocentric writing is to exploit the symbolic ambiguity of the ‘woman-in-effect’. In the work of many recent Irish male poets the variegated undecidability of the discourse of woman serves the purpose of giving contour to male rather than female subjectivity. Even in cases where the poet sets out to interrogate received sexual myths, the new voice of probing uncertainty still reassures the male writer of his mastery and silences and obliterates women. Seamus Heaney's recasting of the encounter with the spectral female figure who transpires to be an image of Ireland in his poem “Aisling” is marked by such a double movement:
He courted her With a decadent sweet art Like the wind's vowel Blowing through the hazels:
‘Are you Diana … ?’ And was he Actaeon. His high lament The stag's exhausted belling?(8)
On the one hand, his revisioning of the poetic tradition of the aisling may be read as an effective and witty rebuttal of the sublimated idealism of this nationalist myth, yet on the other it must be acknowledged that the critical force of the poem is countermanded by the fact that it does little to trouble the gender roles contained in this inherited fiction. The poet in the aisling tradition is generally empowered by his encounter with the beguiling figure of Ireland. His initial discomposure is transformed into certainty when he is given the task of rescuing his country from her distress. Thus his unspoken desire for the dream woman is commuted into political endeavour. Heaney, in his poem, refuses such a transformation by depicting the encounter in terms of animal sexuality.
Likewise the heroic resolution of the aisling hero is replaced by questioning uncertainty. However, this new interrogatory voice is nonetheless at the service of the male poet rather than his female counterpart. Indeed it is noteworthy that he subsumes her identity into his by reporting her words. His own question, tentative though it may be, is related by contrast in direct speech. By identifying him as the stag Actaeon, the goddess dispels his anxieties and corroborates his virility and eloquence. Moreover, the superimposition of the classical legend on the Irish myth has the effect of transforming the heavenly spéirbhean or dream woman into a figure of malevolence. Unlike the benign lady in the aisling convention, Diana is a fierce and vengeful character. She has Actaeon torn apart by her hounds because he spied upon her bathing. The interrogation of a nationalist myth appears to be possible only by substituting one stereotypical view of women for another. The voice of the woman is still eclipsed by that of the male speaking subject. The poet in fact ventriloquizes through his re-imagined dream woman. The goddess may have been pilloried rather than glorified, but she remains an icon of otherness always already lost to herself.
The prevalence of gynesis in the writing of Irish male poets, poses problems for the establishment of a distinctive and separate Irish female poetics. If images of women have been hijacked by men then how can they be given a new resonance by women? Eavan Boland and Medbh McGuckian counter these difficulties by insisting that their poetry is anything but a reactive formation. Both particularly reject the notion that their writing represents an essential or authentic female perspective. They are adamant that things cannot simply be resolved by substituting a female point of view for a male one. Nor do they see themselves as producing that volcanic and depropriating language which Hélène Cixous deems necessary for the liberation of women.9 They endeavour instead to create a zone of equivocation for their poetry. Thus Boland declares that she writes both within and outside of female experience:
I don't think of myself as writing in the voice of a woman. I am a woman and I write in terms of what defines me. Very often I think that I am a human being whose window onto humanity is womanhood.10
In a similar gesture of avowal and disavowal, she announces that she is a feminist but not a feminist poet' and that ‘feminism is an enabling perception but it's not an aesthetic one’.11 McGuckian is likewise reluctant to define her position. She sees herself as writing both in a male and in a gender-free voice:
I think it is a he very much when I'm writing (…) I think of myself as not being male, but as much male as female, or as being sexless (…) not essentially female anyway.12
It is clear that for both these poets essentialism poses far too great a risk. Instead they construe their identity in a shadowplay of feint and counterfeint. While it seems overtly to be the case that their prevaricatory pronouncements are an attempt to placate the patriarchal Irish literary establishment, it is also evident that their denial of all positionality is the only means by which they can license their creativity. They produce a women's language which defiantly resists being equated with the critical force of male gynesis or with the subversive strategies of the language of différance. Thus their poetry is founded on contradictory but nonetheless interconnected moments. On the one hand, they work under the aegis of what Adrienne Rich calls a ‘politics of location’ while on the other they produce that kind of discourse which Luce Irigaray describes as ‘parler femme’ or speaking (as) woman.13 In writing a poetry of location they search for a mimetic representation of the shared truths of women's history and experience while at the same time insisting that any of the truths established by speaking (as) woman are imperfect and temporary. As Irigaray explains, speaking (as) woman is not a matter of producing a discourse of which women are either the object or the subject. Rather parler femme acts out the restlessness and incompletion of female desire. Thus Boland and McGuckian create an essentializing poetics of location and a de-essentializing poetics which resists specific identities and delimited meanings. Their poetry raises questions about the transcendence of the lyric ‘I’ and about the representativity of poetic voices. They challenge the right of male poets to speak to, of and about women but they simultaneously query the prerogative of female poets to speak for and about their silenced, disadvantaged and forgotten sisters. The subject matter about which they desire to write remains stubbornly anterior to and outside of poetry. Because of the way in which patriarchy controls literary structures they are both painfully aware of the fact that the incorporation of women's experience into poetry may be as much a betrayal and a distortion as a triumphant break-through.
A comparison of Paul Muldoon's “Aisling” with Eavan Boland's “Anorexic” provides a useful measure of the distance between the use made of images of the feminine by male and female writers.14 In Muldoon's poem the visionary woman is generic, a vehicle for meanings rather than herself the centre of a felt subjectivity. She sums up the physical and political nightmares of Irish nationalism and acts as an embodiment of death and negativity:
Was she Aurora, or the goddess Flora, Artemidora, or Venus bright, or Anorexia, who left a lemon stain on my flannel sheet?
Muldoon's mock goddess, Anorexia, functions as an allegory of the futility of the actions of Irish republican prisoners on hunger strike. Moreover the ending of the poem represents a vindication of the ironizing voice of the writer: ‘A lick and a promise. Cuckoo spittle. / I hand a sample to Doctor Maw. / She gives me back a confident All Clear’. The poet is left with the reassuring feeling that he is ‘all clear’ because he is firmly dissociated from the diseased and debasing female sphere. By contrast, Boland's poem, “Anorexic”, allows us no such sense of distance. The security blanket of disengagement is removed. The lyric ‘I’ is no longer male, transcendent and universalizing, rather it is female, specific and self-critical. The trauma of anorexia is not treated as a free-floating allegory viewed from a remove, but as a concrete experience depicted with ironic closeness and familiarity:
Flesh is heretic. My body is a witch. I am burning it.
Yes I am torching her curves and paps and wiles. They scorch in my self denials.
We experience this self-questioning portrayal of anorexia from the inside. The reader passes through the permeable membrane of the language of the speaking woman to share her personalized and ambiguous perspective on herself.
In a later poem, “Mise Eire”, which similarly attempts to dismantle traditional representations of women, Boland recognizes that the simple insistence on the tangible immediacy of historical experience is not in itself sufficient for the creation of a new language:
I am the woman in the gansy-coat on board the ‘Mary Belle’, in the huddling cold.
holding her half-dead baby to her as the wind shifts East and North over the dirty water of the wharf
mingling the immigrant guttural with the vowels of homesickness who neither knows nor cares that
a new language is a kind of scar and heals after a while into a passable imitation of what went before.(15)
While an identification with the concrete specificity of the viewpoint of an Irish emigrant woman may be insisted upon, this evocation of a particular female voice remains nonetheless at tension with the words of the speaking woman. The final stanza of Boland's poem shows that the new language of the Irish woman poet, while it might represent a process of scarring and healing, is at the same time scored by the wounds of patriarchy. Complacency or the masking of these wounds would mean capitulation and defeat. Thus, the new language must remain vigilant, outside rather than inside history. Boland, in the final reckoning, insists on a dialectic between the localized voices which her poems depict and the open-ended, questing voice of the speaking woman.
Medbh McGuckian attempts to dislocate the dream women of Irish literature by herself producing a haunting, surreal dream poetry. Her texts weave incantatory and hallucinatory webs of associations and dissociations. Her poem “Harem Trousers” opens with an account of the dislocated language which it would like to conjure up: ‘Asleep on the coast I dream of the city. / A poem dreams of being written / Without the pronoun “I”’.16 Due to this frequently voiced desire to produce a language devoid of all specificities, it is often assumed that McGuckian is intent on writing poetry which replicates the non-hierarchical fluidities of différance.17 However, while her poems construct a blank phenomenology by undoing the fixity of metaphysical categories of space and time and by questioning rigid notions of subjectivity, they are still intent on delimiting a female identity. Thus, her poem “Hotel” gives difference a concrete dimension. In it, the female poet performs the traditional male task of rescuing and conferring identity on a ‘half-asleep’ heroine:
I would bestow on her a name With a hundred meanings, all of them Secret, going their own way, as surely As the silvery mosaic of the previous Week, building itself a sort of hotel In her voice, to be used whenever The tale was ruthlessly retold.
And let her learn from the sky which was Clever and quiet, the rain for all its suddenness, Yes on its own can be a sign for silence, Even from that all-too-inviting mouth.(18)
Although the new process of naming is endless, cryptic and indeterminate, the poet nonetheless sees this language as creating structures or a ‘sort of hotel’ for the female voice. The words produced in this manner may be paradoxically voiceless and silent but as the closing image of the poem suggests they are at the very least tokens of pleasures and satisfactions to come. The hotel of women's language is created from the tension between the beguiling immediacy of the ‘all-too-inviting mouth’ and the mysterious and silent copiousness of the fresh names which it invents.
Similarly, in “Open Rose” McGuckian depicts the new female identity which she strives to imagine in terms of a dialectic between concrete realizations and open-ended intangibilities:
His head is there when I work, It signs my letters with a question-mark; His hands reach for me like rationed air. Day by day I let him go
Till I become a woman, or even less, An incompletely furnished house That came from a different century Where I am a guest at my own childhood.
I have grown inside words Into a state of unbornness An open rose on all sides Has spoken as far as it can.(19)
Here, patriarchal language is discredited because it writes women's signatures for them and yet erases them by turning their names into marks of doubt or question marks. In place of this oppressive process of naming, McGuckian creates structures and a history of her own. The fresh mode of identity which she fashions is tentative but liberating. It breaks away from patriarchal fixities to discover the tantalizing incompletion of female being. The halting speech of the final stanza issues from this open structure. Despite its reticence, it effectively counters the restrictive universalizations of male textuality. The female voice or speaking woman of the poem routs the question marks of patriarchy without itself falling into the trap of creating substitute truths and platitudes.
In conclusion, Eavan Boland and Medbh McGuckian exhibit a profound distrust of gynesis and of all ideological and discursive positionings of women in their work. As a result, they produce a liminal literature which attempts to break down the boundaries between the indeterminacy of speaking (as) woman and the localized determinacies of women's history and experience. They write a poetry of the unseen and belated which despite its refusal of all affiliations with feminism succeeds, in Eavan Boland's metaphor, in being a scarred language, or in McGuckian's phrase in speaking ‘as far as it can’ (‘Open Rose’, 80).
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. ‘What Foremothers?’ Poetry Ireland Review 36 (Autumn 1992). 18-31. This article is a critique of Anne Stevenson's argument that a time-honoured tradition of women's writing exists in Ireland. See Anne Stevenson, ‘Inside and Outside History’, P.N. Review 18:3 (January-February 1992), 34-8.
Elaine Showalter. ‘Toward a Feminist Poetics’, in The New Feminist Criticism, edited by Elaine Showalter (London, Virago, 1986), 125-43.
For Medbh McGuckian's description of her indebtedness to Eavan Boland, see ‘Birds and Their Masters,’ Irish University Review 23 (Spring/Summer 1993), 29-33.
For an account of the rigging and control of political debates about sexuality and reproduction rights by various state bodies and organizations, see Emily O'Reilly, Masterminds of the Right (Dublin, Attic Press, 1992).
Article 41, Bunreacht na hEireann (Constitution of Ireland) (Dublin, Government Publications, 1990), 136-8.
Nuala O'Faoláin, ‘Irish Women and Writing in Modern Ireland’, in Irish Women: Image and Achievement, edited by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (Dublin, Arlen House, 1985), 127-35.
Alice Jardine, Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1985).
Seamus Heaney, ‘Aisling’, in North (London, Faber, 1975), 48.
Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, in New French Feminisms, edited by Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (Brighton, Harvester, 1981), 245-64.
‘Eavan Boland’, in Sleeping with Monsters: Conversations with Scottish and Irish Women Poets, edited by Gillean Somerville-Arjat and Rebecca E. Wilson (Dublin, Wolfhound Press, 1990), 81.
Deborah McWilliams Consalvo, ‘An Interview With Eavan Boland’, Studies 81 (1992), 92; Jody Allen-Randolph, ‘An Interview With Eavan Boland’, Irish University Review 23 (1993) 125.
‘Medbh McGuckian’, in Sleeping with Monsters, 2.
Adrienne Rich, ‘Notes Towards a Politics of Location’, in Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985 (London, Virago, 1987), 214; Luce Irigaray, ‘Questions’, in The Irigaray Reader, edited by Margaret Whitford (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1991), 137.
Paul Muldoon, ‘Aisling’, in Quoof (London, Faber, 1983), 39; Eavan Boland, ‘Anorexic’, in In Her Own Image (Dublin, Arlen House, 1980), 17-18.
Eavan Boland, ‘Mise Eire’, in The Journey and Other Poems (Dublin, Arlen House, 1987), 10-11.
Medbh McGuckian, ‘Harem Trousers’, in On Ballycastle Beach (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988), 43.
For two recent accounts of McGuckian's work in the light of post-structuralist theory, see Clair Wills, ‘Upsetting the Public: Carnival, Hysteria and Women's Texts’, in Bakhtin and Cultural Theory, edited by Ken Hirschkop and David Shepherd (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1989), 130-51; Thomas Docherty, ‘Postmodern McGuckian’, in The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland, edited by Neil Corcoran (Pennsylvania, Seren Books, 1992), 191-210.
Medbh McGuckian, ‘Hotel’, in Venus and the Rain (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1984), 36.
Medbh McGuckian, ‘Open Rose’, in Marconi's Cottage (Oldcastle, Gallery Books, 1991), 80. Further references will be cited in the text: ‘OR’.
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SOURCE: Matthews, Steven. Review of The Flower Master and Other Poems, by Medbh McGuckian. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4750 (15 April 1994): 26.
[In the following review, Matthews praises the revised edition of The Flower Master, commenting on McGuckian's literary method and the volume's content.]
Medbh McGuckian's poetry studiously and notoriously resists paraphrase. It is protective towards its influences and origins, being concerned to present the essence of experience rather than its surface events. This is poetry full of the weather, flowers, the seasons, trees, earth, water, the sun, the moon, shifting light. Images of the familial, of nurture and fructification predominate.
Our experience of reading the poems is of witnessing a phrase or image exfoliate from the previous one. We are shown “Tricks [we] might guess from this unfastened button, / A pen mislaid, a word misread”, and are left guessing, as the poem continues to hold the hiding-places of its fertility to itself. From line to line, from poem to poem, from collection to collection, McGuckian plays complex variations around and through her essential themes in an ever-open, playful, continuing exploration of nuance and possibility. The slightly hallucinatory quality of the writing; the sense of wandering from image to image, almost from sentence to sentence; the sense of slippage between images and sentences: all leave the relation between poem and world suggestively tenuous yet full of potential.
The revisions in this new edition of her first collection, The Flower Master (1982), confirm the intensity and coherence of McGuckian's poetic preoccupations and method throughout the past twelve years. Not only are there poems here which did not appear in the original edition, but twelve of the poems which appeared there have now been dropped. In the process, The Flower Master has become a much tighter, more concentrated book; nearly all of the poems now engage with floral imagery, either as generating idea, or metaphorical resource. The repositioning of poems which originally stood on their own as part of mini-sequences in this new version only furthers the sense of accumulation and concentration among and between the various parts of the book. McGuckian's are poems which always work through dialogue, the one with the other, and the addition of seventeen poems which did not appear in the first version of the collection sharpens the book's range of tones and adds a welcome note of scepticism towards its presiding theme.
The book's revised dedication, “for my mother without my father”, indicates the centre of The Flower Master's concerns, a concentration on the female and the poet's own move through a sense of adolescent potential and exuberance to the attainment of adult love. But even this narrative remains subliminal, oblique. The idea of the flower master that oversees the collection establishes its language of flowers as the language of both the poet's and the poetry's sources. As the title poem has it, here, “We learn the coolness of straight edges, how / To stroke gently the necks of daffodils / And make them throw their heads back to the sun.”
There could be something complaisant about the way such descriptions can always be made to stand as metaphors for the manner and method of the poetry, however, and it is a virtue of some of the new poems that they bring a heightened level of self-consciousness, which allows such slippages around notions of organicism to be questioned. In “Gladiolus”, we are told that this flower's “only aim” is “the art / of making oneself loved”; in “Spring”, a poem which lends weight to the uneasy, frustrated adolescence in the book's early poems, the narrator rises from bed “To stare at the February moon. // … My breathing marbled the pane: / There was my face in the window, / Frosted, so hard to see through.” This is an opaqueness which is alert to the dangers of self-regard in any mastery of image and form, and it enlivens the note of protectiveness which continues in other of the additional poems. “No one knows what goes on inside a clock”, the last line of “My Mother” tells us; it is the achievement of this new edition of The Flower Master that it manages to make McGuckian's continued sense of the untranslatability of the sources of nurture more concentrated, but also more various and more questionable than it was in the book's original form.
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SOURCE: Porter, Susan. “The ‘Imaginative Space’ of Medbh McGuckian.” In International Women's Writing: New Landscapes of Identity, edited by Anne E. Brown and Marjanne E. Gooze, pp. 86-101. Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, Porter examines the similarities between McGuckian's poetics and the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, revealing the ways McGuckian evades co-opting English literary traditions as a Northern Irish woman writer.]
Because she is an Irish Catholic from the North of Ireland, Medbh McGuckian is surrounded by insistent reminders of her national and religious identity. She belongs to a minority within political boundaries that in themselves cordon off a minority in Ireland as a whole, so that characterizing her by national and religious identity at the same time entails a certain marginalization. In addition, as a woman and an Irish poet, her sexual identity makes her a member of a group that has been doubly marginalized, by gender and by nationality, in the British literary tradition. In an early poem, “Champagne,” the threat of marginalization, that is, of having one's identity characterized with an exclusionary aim, is alluded to indirectly: “[T]heir fictions hurt us” (Flower Master, 34) One possible response that such a “hurt” can elicit is hinted at in a more recent McGuckian poem, “Harem Trousers”: “A poem dreams of being written / Without the pronoun ‘I’” (On Ballycastle Beach, 43). The self that writes is hidden or even denied. The poem and the poet are identified as simply a space of writing, and McGuckian's poetry frequently seems to produce this effect of having no identifiable voice or no source in an individual consciousness. In the last stanza of “Harem Trousers” (43), for instance, the “room”
… speaks of morning, A stem, a verb, a rhyme, From whose involuntary window one May be expelled at any time, As trying to control a dream Puts the just-completed light to rest.
(43; emphasis added)
While McGuckian at times seems to “dream” of writing that approaches an “involuntary” expression of the dreamworld or the subconscious and in which consciousness, identity, and intention play little part, at the same time, her poetry clearly involves careful and conscious craftsmanship. Of course, she could not publish her work without the intention of developing an identifiable public voice.
With an awareness of the difficulties that place and identity pose for Northern Irish poets, Gerald Dawe writes about “the imaginative space necessary for their art to thrive”; this space, he continues, “may be the miniaturized world of Medbh McGuckian's domestic interiors” or “Frank Ormsby's increasingly mythic patch of unreasonable Belfast” (85). While Dawe is sensitive to the problems that Northern Irish poets encounter in speaking from their native “space,” the very words miniaturized, domestic, and interior that he uses to characterize McGuckian's work demonstrate that he is less sensitive to the marginalization that customary gender distinctions produce. The terms that he uses here traditionally signal that the particular place from which she writes is feminine, further implying that it is to be regarded as less serious and significant than Ormsby's exterior, “mythic,” and masculine “patch of … Belfast.” A second critic, Michael Allen, alludes more directly to McGuckian's gender when, toward the end of a long and largely sympathetic review of Venus and the Rain, he alludes to McGuckian's “almost ideological insistence on the feminine” (60) but adds reassuringly, “In suggesting that Medbh McGuckian is ‘almost ideological’ in her feminine point-of-view I am not suggesting that she is a feminist” (63). The responses of these two critics to her poetry, for all their sympathy, illustrate some of the attitudes that have worked to inhibit, devalue, or even silence women poets. From Allen's review, one can extrapolate the particular double bind that a woman poet faces: to insist upon the difference of her gender identity serves to brand her voice as marginal, while to assert its centrality is seen as a threat from an “ideological” margin to the centrality of a largely male poetic tradition.
In his analysis of “Ode to a Poetess,” a poem that explores the possibility of a male muse for the “Poetess,” Allen shows his sympathetic awareness that the absence of women poets from a recognized tradition in itself makes it more difficult for contemporary woman poets to be heard. His analysis concludes: “[A]re we not, as readers, being asked to acknowledge (rationally) the provisional nature of the response we should make to an imaginative enterprise for which precedents are as yet in short supply?” (64) The search for a way into a poetic tradition, then, is one aspect of McGuckian's effort to develop a public poetic identity, that is, to find an audience and to make her voice heard. In “Ode to a Poetess,” McGuckian makes direct reference to the search for a female poetic tradition in which to place her work. More indirect references to the dearth of precedents for the female poet's work and the marginal status of her progenitors pervade McGuckian's poetry, although, for the most part, they refer on the literal level to more traditionally feminine arts and only obliquely to women's poetry.
Such oblique reference in itself places McGuckian in the tradition of poets like Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore, in whose writing a bolder claim for the poet's own work is often hidden behind a more traditionally feminine, self-effacing facade. Furthermore, it recalls Dickinson's dictum to “[t]ell all the Truth but tell it slant” (“1129,” 506). Dickinson's poetry has clearly had an influence on some aspects of McGuckian's work, particularly her employment of vivid, dense images, whose logical connections are frequently obscure and whose semantics can be opaque. Placing oneself in such a tradition, however, entails at least two difficulties for McGuckian. First, the tradition itself is often seen as a marginal one because female. Second, “telling it slant” can mean telling it from such an oblique angle that meaning becomes nearly obscured, resulting in a quality in McGuckian's work that Allen refers to her “gnomic tendency” (Allen, “Foetal Tissue,” 36).
The very qualities that enable a poet like McGuckian to challenge a central tradition also serve to exclude her from it by muting the impact of her potentially subversive message. In the face of such an impasse, one function of sympathetic criticism is to unearth or create a critical method that will make her work more accessible to the contemporary reader. In the case of McGuckian, there are similarities between her poetry and the writings of the contemporary philosopher Jacques Derrida (whose prose often seems as difficult to decipher as McGuckian's poetry) that suggest that some of his concepts could be fruitful tools for undertaking an analysis of her poetry. Derrida is concerned with questioning self-identity by insisting that difference inhabits even the most supposedly stable identity. His work endeavors to unsettle systems of thought in which the logic of binary opposition often functions to stabilize the identity of one of a pair of opposing terms by drawing an absolute line of distinction between the two and then by privileging one term over the other. In terms of gender difference, for instance, identifying a thing as masculine or feminine initiates a whole chain of associated opposition such as rational/emotional, active/passive, domestic/public, or central/marginal. At the same time, Derrida, along with such feminist writers as Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva, insists that differences like male/female or central/marginal must not, or cannot be, collapsed. Therefore, a critical approach based upon Derrida's notions about language and meaning can reveal ways in which McGuckian's poetry finally evades the particular obstacles to communication with a wider audience that she faces as a Northern Irish woman poet.
For instance, the first poem in The Flower Master, “That Year,” presents challenges to the reader common to many of the poems in this volume. It opens: “That year it was something to do with your hands” (9; emphasis added), a phrase that has been used by generations of self-deprecating craftswomen. These “somethings” are then described in the poem's four stanzas. For example, stanzas two and three constitute a short catalog of seemingly unconnected childhood activities, chosen with no apparent plan, randomly, as a dreamy young girl might choose them herself:
I remembered as a child the red kite Lost forever over our heads, the white ball A pin-prick on the tide, and studied The leaf-patterned linoleum, the elaborate
Stitches on my pleated bodice. It was like a bee's sting or a bullet Left in me, this mark, this sticking pins in dolls, Listening for the red and white
(9; emphasis added)
The only obvious connection between the seemingly aimless play alluded to in these stanzas and the other activities enumerated in the poem—such as playing with rings or dying one's hair—is that they are all the typical occupations of a little girl who is developing into an adolescent. However, at the center of the poem is a short phrase, “elaborate / Stitches,” that points toward a thematic connection between these seemingly disparate activities. The patterns of stress and alliteration that connect “studied and “Stitches,” “patterned” and “pleated” in the two lines linked by the phrase “elaborate / Stitches” alert one to a second level of reference besides the obvious one of the typically feminine art of stitchery: reference to the elaborate patterns of alliteration, stress, and interior rhyme in each stitch of the poem itself.
The complex web of references in this poem, involving female craftsmanship and poetry, immaturity and adulthood, the past and the present, is, in the terminology of Derrida, “disseminated” throughout McGuckian's poetry. Barbara Johnson's cogent definition of Derrida's use of the term in her introduction to his book, “Dissemination” makes the connection between McGuckian's poetic technique and Derrida's concept of disseminated meaning even plainer: “Multiple coherences.” The unit of coherence here is not necessarily the sentence, the word, the paragraph, or even the essay. Different threads of “Dissemination” are woven together through the bindings of grammar … ‘theme’ … anagrammatical plays … etc.” (xvii). Johnson writes further of Derrida's methods: “Because Derrida's text is constructed as a moving chain or network, it constantly frustrates the desire to ‘get to the point’” (xvi). Similarly, this poem frustrates the desire to “get to the point” by leading the reader in contradictory directions, for to see an allusion to poetic patterns in “elaborate / Stitches” both connects the poet with the feminine domestic arts, such as needlework, and separates her as a poet (traditionally seen as a more masculine occupation) from them. Furthermore, one can begin to see in the trace of a masculine/feminine opposition that underlies the differences between poetry and stitchery the role that dissemination plays in McGuckian's effort to escape the female poet's particular disabling pitfalls. Derrida's disseminated meaning and refusal to come “to the point” arise from his desire to escape two kinds of authoritative determination of meaning. The first involves his refusal to grant the supposed intentions of the source of an utterance the status of the primary authority for determining the meaning of that utterance. The second involves the conclusions of binary, either/or logic in which a thing must be, for example, either central or marginal, male or female, domestic or political, private or public.
Both aspects of Derrida's notion of disseminated meaning are even more clearly illustrated in another poem in this volume, “The Seed-Picture.” A close reading of the poem reveals that the oblique reference to disseminated meaning in the title is not coincidence but that dissemination is characteristic of this poem as it both reflects upon and illustrates McGuckian's poetic technique. For instance, McGuckian writes in lines that refer not only literally to the process of making a seed-picture but also figuratively to the process of writing her poems:
The seeds dictate their own vocabulary, Their dusty colours capture More than we can plan, The mould on walls, or jumbled garages, Dead flower heads where insects shack … I only guide them not by guesswork In their necessary numbers, And attach them by the spine to a perfect bedding,
(23; emphasis added)
The playfulness and the letting-go of authorial domination of meaning in these lines are in the spirit of Derrida's concept of dissemination. The authorial presence is humble, almost self-effacing; and one of the principal subjects of the poem, its reflection on poetry and language, is very nearly hidden, concealed within the description of the seed-picture. In Derrida's term, references to poetry are disseminated among the more obvious references to a simple craft. The creative process in either case, poem or craft, is characterized as guiding the placement of found objects. It entails participation in discovering meaning rather than striving for complete individual mastery of either form or meaning.
References to poetry and language and to “seeds” or “seed-work” in the sense of both the seed-picture and the potential for growth and transformation of seeds are “woven together through the bindings of grammar … ‘theme’ … and play” (“Dissemination” xvii) in this poem: “vocabulary,” “plan,” “jumbled,” “guide,” “guess-work,” “necessary numbers.” Furthermore, all of these terms refer and are connected not only to poetry and the seed-picture but also to children—the quintessential work and production of women:
The children come to me like a dumb-waiter, And I wonder where to put them, beautiful seeds With no immediate application. … the clairvoyance Of seed-work has opened up New spectrums of activity, beyond a second home,”
The phrase “the clairvoyance / Of seed-work” ties together the references to children and seeds, for “clairvoyance” evokes the anticipation of results with which “seed-work,” in the usual sense of planting, is undertaken as well as the anticipation of adulthood that is always a part of child rearing. Then the references in lines 7-14, quoted before, to escaping from a plan and going beyond a plan, “jumbled,” “only guide,” “guesswork,” indicate the limits of predictability and control involved in “clairvoyance” about the child's future form or “application.” Children, indeed, “dictate their own vocabulary.” In all senses of seed, then, and particularly as it connotes children, the work involved is partly guiding and partly knowing that what one guides is ultimately beyond any “author's” control and contains within it, from the beginning, elements that were not subject to her desires or intentions. The woman who is also a poet is prepared by her experience in the female world of “children,” “home,” “jumbled garages,” and “seed-work” for the realization that words and arrangements of words also “capture / More than we can plan” (23) and carry within them the seeds of many and varied meanings.
The poem illustrates as well the second aspect of dissemination: the implications that questioning binary logic and interpretive authority has for the role of the woman poet. The two passages quoted from the first stanza have characterized traditional woman's work as, in some sense, liberating for the poet, but stanza two opens by alluding to aspects of “seed-work” that imply constraint rather than liberation. Bonding and continuity in these lines imply links with ancestral craftswomen but also with contemporary women who are not artists, such as Joanna, whose portrait the seed-picture is, and both sorts of bond with other women here are associations about which the contemporary artist can very well feel ambivalent:
Was it such self-indulgence to enclose her In the border of a grandmother's sampler, Bonding all the seeds in one continuous skin, The sky resolved to a cloud the length of a man?
(23; emphasis added)
In the first stanza, “the clairvoyance / Of seed-work has opened up / New spectrums of activity, beyond a second home” (emphasis added). The final word of the poem is “liberation,” but here at the beginning of the second stanza, at the very center of the poem, we find that the “bonding” within the seed-picture also implies “enclosure.” “Bonding” is, at the same time, a reference to human bonds and to artistic form. The “continuous skin” can be read as self-reference to the poem and its form, which contain the portrait of Joanna and, inescapably, a portrait of the author herself—a poet with her roots in a feminine and domestic artistic tradition. Therefore, it can also be read as a reference to the poet's bonds with contemporary women and her artistic ancestors, whose aesthetic activity has traditionally been limited to domestic arts like the “grandmother's sampler.” While the sky, with its suggestions of limitless aspiration, is reserved for men, women are enclosed in a traditional female space.
At the same time as these female bonds imply being enclosed within a domestic sphere, however, the various enclosures, both the poem and the picture as well as the female heritage, retain within them the seeds of liberation:
For the vicious beige circles underneath. The single pearl barley That sleeps around her dullness Till it catches light, makes women Feel their age, and sigh for liberation.
As a work written about women by a woman, its subject, author, and even its audience can serve to relegate it to a female enclosure even while the poem's pattern of imagery is evoking the possibilities of opening up, splitting, and breaking out of externally imposed limits that fuel the desire for liberation expressed in these final lines of the poem. The seeming impasse between the poem's contradictory effects and implications is alluded to indirectly in the line that immediately precedes the lines about liberation: “the vicious beige circles underneath,” which refers literally to Joanna's eyes in the portrait, but clearly in the context of the poem the reference to “vicious … circles” has wider implications. This impasse between “liberation” and “enclosure” can be seen as a refusal, like those in Derrida's philosophical writings, to “get to the point”; it is symptomatic of the artist's desire for a “liberation” that is also a “bonding” and thus of a desire similar to Derrida's to escape binary logic.
As we have seen, through the “seeds” of meaning that are disseminated throughout the quite conventional syntax and homely diction of this poem, the poet, like Derrida, questions certain kinds of poetic authority, those that are derived either from membership in an authorized poetic tradition or from poetic genius as a quasi-divine source of truth or meaning. Paradoxically, McGuckian could be seen to be claiming a different and characteristically female “authority,” characterized by the letting go of claims about originality and finality. The humility in her refusal to claim mastery of meaning evokes and obliquely criticizes its opposite: the hubris characteristic of high modernist poets, such as Eliot and Pound, who think of themselves as members of a great tradition, or of Romantic poets, such as Shelley, who see themselves as fountains of poetic genius. The title poem of her first volume, “The Flower Master” (35), alludes to this paradoxical claiming and relinquishing of authority in the contrasting chains of association that “flower” and “master” carry with them: the traditionally feminine connotations of vulnerability and submissiveness with flowers and the traditionally masculine connotations of authority and power with mastery. In the body of the poem McGuckian again presents a reassuring front of traditional feminine artistic humility and social decorum by choosing flower arranging, origami, and needlework as her ostensible subjects, but this decorum is being undermined even as it is presented by the poem's erotic and sensual flower imagery. By combining feminine arts and eroticism and utilizing the cultural disorientation created through references to Japanese arts and custom, without having explicitly to defend her world, McGuckian subtly suggests that the reader view the female sphere from a different perspective. McGuckian takes a further risk in making this suggestion in the form of a seduction. The poet seduces the reader with her vivid and sensual imagery into metaphorically “stooping” to see the world from her viewpoint in the poem's play on the female artist as that stereotype of melodramatic fiction, the seductress.
Forcing the “special guest” to stoop to her “low doorway” in “The Flower Master” (35) is only one of the plays on mastery and sexuality disseminated through McGuckian's three published volumes of poetry. In stanza two of “Champagne” (34), for example:
The mayflies' opera is their only moon, only Those that fall on water reproduce, content With scattering in fog or storm, such ivory As elephants hold lofty, like champagne.
If the elephant's lofty ivory is seen as a phallic image, it can represent the illusion of a single source and arbiter of meaning and thus evoke the phallocentrism and phonocentrism whose claim to mastery of meaning is the target of Derrida's attack on binary logic. In actuality, of course, the tusks are not a source of anything; they have no reproductive function. The contrasting image of the mayflies' reproduction serves to deconstruct the illusion of a single, knowable origin of meaning or truth. Because it is, at the same time, a female (related to the “moon”) image and a male image of insemination (“reproduce … scattering … ivory … like champagne”), sexual difference is contained within it; and because the mayflies' seminal potency exists only in their random “scattering,” their reproduction is a paradigm of dissemination.
In Venus and the Rain, McGuckian's second volume of verse, authority, meaning, and difference are addressed more obliquely, but perhaps even more extensively, than in the Flower Master poems. In the two “Venus” poems, in particular, McGuckian further explores an earlier allusion in “The Theatre” (Flower Master, 42) to the sun as a source of illumination set in opposition to another source of illumination, the “bad light, on the stage of the summer theatre” (42). McGuckian's placing poetry and the light of the theatre in opposition to Socrates and the illumination of the sun in this poem is most obviously another reply to Plato's exclusion of poets from his Republic. When it is read in conjunction with the references to alternative sources of illumination (the sun, the moon, Venus, and the stars) in “Venus and the Sun” (9), the possibility also arises that McGuckian's reopening the quarrel between poets and philosophers has certain affinities with Derrida's critique of Plato in “Dissemination”. In this critique, which is part of his continuing attempt to “deconstruct” binary, either/or logic, Derrida moves from simply disrupting an old system of interpreting texts to advocating another system based upon what he calls “undecidables,” a term defined most succinctly in “Positions”: “[I]t has been necessary to analyze, to set to work, within the text of the history of philosophy, as well as within the so-called literary text … certain marks … that by analogy … I have called undecidable … that can no longer be included within philosophical (binary) opposition, resisting and disorganizing it, without ever constituting a third term” (42-43).
In her earlier work, McGuckian was still working largely within the traditional binary sun/moon, male/female, Socrates/poet, philosophy/literature oppositions. The poet's remaining within the framework of these oppositions has the effect of virtually forcing her to be defensive in writing about her position as a woman poet in order to assert the value of both facts about her identity: poet and woman. In the “Venus” poems McGuckian is attempting to avoid this trap by finding a third term or pole of interpretive authority in an effort to undermine binary logic.
There is no doubt that one theme in “Venus and the Sun” is a reallocation of authority:
The scented flames of the sun throw me, Telling me how to move—I tell them How to bend the light of shifting stars: I order their curved wash so the moon Will not escape. … … … … … … … … I am the sun's toy—because I go against The grain I feel the brush of my authority.
It seems obvious as well that the authority in question is the interpretive authority of a woman poet. Venus tells the sun's rays: “How to bend the light of shifting stars: / I order their curved wash so the moon / Will not escape” (9). Venus and the sun are poles of authority that, at the same time, oppose and influence each other. This indirect influence of Venus (whose dense atmosphere is highly refractive) on the sun's illuminating rays is a poetic substitute for the traditional passive reflection of the sun's rays by the moon, a reflection that becomes a feminine image in some contexts and a symbol of poetic imagination in others. The moon and its symbolic associations are not excluded from the poem, but female creative symbolism is relocated in the third heavenly body, Venus.
In the two “Venus” poems McGuckian makes use of both astronomical facts about the planet Venus and mythic associations with the Roman goddess of love. In “Venus and the Rain” (31), the goddess is more human, and her body and the “body” of the planet become a complex of birth symbolism and, by extension, of any human creative potential:
On one occasion, I rang like a bell For a whole month, promising their torn edges The birth of a new ocean (as all of us Who have hollow bodies tend to do at times):
The tangled imagery of planet and woman becomes almost indecipherably dense in the final stanza of the poem:
I told them they were only giving up A sun for sun, that cruising moonships find Those icy domes relaxing, when they take her Rind to pieces, and a waterfall Unstitching itself down the front stairs.
The final line of the poem is especially disorienting as it mingles references to the female body and the planet Venus with references to stitches and stairs, but to anyone at all familiar with McGuckian's poetry, neither sort of imagery is without precedent. The associations between stitchery and poetry (stitches) have already been explored. The reference to “front stairs” recalls “our low doorway” in “The Flower Master,” both images referring to a threshold, a way in and a way out of buildings, of the female body, and ultimately of McGuckian's poetry.
Threshold imagery forms another cluster of references that is disseminated throughout her poetry. For instance, in “The Sofa” (Flower Master, 19): “I begin to scatter / To a tiny to-and-fro at odds / With the wear on my threshold.” In “The Soil-Map” (Flower Master, 29-30) the metaphorical association among poetry, the house, and the female body is further elaborated. This poem abounds with threshold images, of loci that, like Derrida's “hymen” (“I drink to you as Hymenstown”), are “neither the inside nor the outside” (“Positions”, 43), such as “your two-leaf door,” “the petalled steps to your porch,” “your splendid fenestration / Your moulded sills” (29), “Hymenstown” (30).
In “Venus and the Rain,” the threshold, the hymen, the place that is neither inside nor outside and thus serves as one of Derrida's “undecidables,” is also the place of “unstitching,” unraveling in the sense of interpreting or discovering meanings. “Unstitching” also suggests retracing the stitches, unpicking their orderly arrangement, and thus becomes a paradigm of the ending as a return to the beginning. The “to-and-fro” over the threshold then becomes a metaphor that includes the undecidability of beginnings and endings, a particular form of the undecidable that also manifests itself in “Venus and the Sun.”
But the stars are still at large, they fly apart From each other to a more soulful beginning; And the sun holds good till it makes a point Of telling itself to whiten to a traplight— This emptiness was left from the start; with any choice I'd double-back to the dullest blue of Mars.
The undecidability of beginning and ending or of origin and end is consistent with Derrida's notion of “differance” (implying both difference as the producer of meaning and an endless deferral of identity between meaning and utterance). In contrast to the stars, points of illumination that “fly apart” and thus epitomize disseminated meaning, the sun, which is called a “traplight” in “Venus and the Sun” and causes a “burn” in “The Theatre,” represents the dram of self-identity, meaning without difference or, in the terms of these poems, light without necessary shadow. “Venus,” in both of her forms, with all of their implications becomes for McGuckian a complex symbol of “differance.” In “Venus and the Rain,” the planet itself cannot be viewed without difference.
White on white, I can never be viewed Against a heavy sky—my gibbous voice Passes from leaf to leaf, retelling the story Of its own provocative fractures. …
Unlike the moon, Venus appears brightest from earth not when it is completely illuminated but in the “gibbous” phase, when more than half, but not all, of the planet is illuminated. Observation of the deflection of the sun's light in this phase, however, led to both accurate and inaccurate scientific speculation. The deflection of light by heavy cloud on Venus aided Galileo in confirming the heliocentric theory while it also led observers to believe that Venus, which is, in reality, too hot for water to exist, was a planet where it rained continually. The gibbous phase of Venus, as an “undecidable” entity, epitomizes “differance,” the mixture of truth and error, light and shadow in an endlessly changing form whose very changeable, unstable form made it possible for close observers to see a reflection of some part, but never all, of its real physical form.
The effect of introducing Venus as a symbol of “differance” or undecidability into the sun/moon opposition is that it enables McGuckian to avoid the inherent tendency in binary logic to privilege one term (in this case male or female) of an opposition over the other. By using the planet Venus as a symbol of “differance,” McGuckian has also taken advantage of the certain association that her readers will make of the name “Venus” with the Roman goddess of love. When one becomes aware of both associations, an Apollo/Venus/Diana triad becomes another part of the web of dissemination in McGuckian's poetry. In the planetary, imagery Venus, the most brilliant planet seen from earth, because her heavy atmosphere deflects the majority of the light rays that reach it, takes its place along with the sun, the source of illumination, and the moon, a passive reflector of illumination. In the mythical allusions, Venus, a goddess associated with love and sexual union, joins Diana, the chaste huntress goddess associated with sexual abstinence, separation, and even hostility. When Venus becomes a “third term” in the sun/moon, Diana/Apollo dyad, the sexual union implied by the goddess of love aspect of Venus and the separation implied in the mythic associations between Diana and the moon transform the relationships among the three into an image that acknowledges and even insists upon both difference and unity and, most important, repudiates complete domination or submission by any of the three figures. All of the old associations with the sun/moon dichotomy—male and female, source and reflection, reason and imagination—are thus disrupted by the third term.
With such poems as “The Seed-Picture” and The Flower Master, McGuckian has made a place for herself in a female artistic tradition by acknowledging her debt to the female heritage of domestic artistry. Her poetry pushes readers to look at this kind of work again and revalue it, free of prejudice against the domestic, the hidden, and the anonymous. Then in her “Venus” poems McGuckian combats the marginality that identification with a specifically female tradition threatens, by converting the sun/moon opposition into a triad in which each term serves to unsettle any easy identification of simple oppositions. The Venus imagery, with its allusions to illumination that comes as a result of light deflected, recalls again Emily Dickinson's “tell it slant,” along with the attendant danger that such an indirect approach to communication can obscure meaning entirely. The speaker in some of McGuckian's more difficult poetry, such as the “Venus” poems, sometimes seems to come close to this sort of solipsism, but if the poems are read again with an awareness of words and images that recur throughout these two volumes, their obscurity recedes, and patterns of dissemination become apparent that enable the poet to assert difference in a way that need not form a new binary opposition between male and female, the center and the margin, or truth and imagination. Nor need her poems become a victim of the domestic interior/political exterior opposition into which assessments such as Gerald Dawe's would place her work. If her poetry unsettles bipolar opposition per se, it also unsettles this one and in doing so moves inevitably into the political sphere.
In Irish poetry with its always present consciousness of the potential conflict between English influence and Irish heritage, any disruption of the center/margin opposition must be salutary. Read with this literary and political tradition in mind, one can immediately see a new web of reference disseminated in McGuckian's poetry. In “The Seed-Picture,” the “vicious beige circles underneath” that must be broken to achieve “liberation” from all of the vicious circles of her tradition take on a specifically political and historical meaning, as does forcing others to “stoop” to view events from a new angle in The Flower Master. The enclosures in “The Seed-Picture” and “Mr. McGregor's Garden” (Flower Master, 14) imply political (the pale, Northern Ireland) and geographical (the island itself) enclosures as well as domestic ones; and, as my epigram from Marianne Moore's poem “Sojourn in the Whale” suggests, conceiving of the English/Irish difference in terms of a male/female opposition is not without its precedents. McGuckian's “miniaturized … domestic interiors” (Dawe, 85) escape into the public and political world and even far beyond to the cosmic expanse of the Venus poems. The imagery of planets and stars in these poems creates for McGuckian the sort of “imaginative space” necessary not only for Irish poets to thrive but for an Irish woman poet to speak to her political and cultural situation without, at the same time, having her poetic voice distorted or its implications limited by a too easy identification with contemporary factional or ideological debates.
After the cosmic expansion of McGuckian's imaginative space in the “Venus” poems, her most recently published volume, On Ballycastle Beach, seems at first a drastic contraction to the domestic sphere and, even more insistently, to the female body. However, this seeming contraction can also be seen as a form of expansion, for publication. Furthermore, the wider acceptance and acclaim that her work has received have opened up for her a more secure space from which to write about the experiences common to women. She has been able to escape the exclusion from the center that is so often the fate of writers who insist upon the importance of their identity as a member of any group regarded as marginal, and she has achieved this more central position by establishing a public identity that speaks through her poetry. One of the references in Ballycastle Beach that explicitly works to establish the centrality of the female experience is her identifying the “I” of “Sleep School” with “Pomona … Goddess of gardens” (15). Pomona here plays a role similar to Venus in McGuckian's earlier work in establishing a woman-centered body of mythological figures. As a goddess of fruitfulness, Pomona is a figure of female creative power. The goddess is referred to directly only in one poem, but references to female fruitfulness are disseminated in the poetry in this volume through chains of reference to apples and to the female body, particularly to breasts. For instance, in the poem, “Apple Flesh,” she writes: “[M]y body tasted like apple flesh” (13). The allusion to breasts here is subtle but with an awareness of the many other such references in this volume, it is unmistakable. This passage alludes, in part, to the nurturing aspect of women's breasts, and at the same time it also evokes an identity between the female human body and the rest of the natural world, an identity McGuckian has referred to explicitly in a recent interview: “Men don't like to think of themselves as mammals; we have to” (McCracken, 20).
In the Ballycastle Beach poems, female creativity is associated more with a creative force in nature than with the craftsmanship tradition that was a central point of reference in the Flower Master poems. However, as in that volume, a certain humility is still a part of McGuckian's claims for poetic creation; for female creativity here does not imply romantic originality or quasi-divine creation ex nihilo so much as it does a remaking of what was already existing in another form. One example of the way that nature, creativity, and the female body are associated in McGuckian's recent poetry is the chain of reference in “Sea or Sky?” (17):
The athletic anatomy of waves, in their Reflectiveness, rebirth, means my new, especially Dense breasts can be touched, can be Uplifted from the island of burned skin Where my heart used to be, now I'm Seeing eyes that, sea or sky, have seen you.
Women's breasts are more traditionally associated with the nurturing function of motherhood and the womb with creativity, but the reference to breasts here is not so much to the nurturing aspect of milk as it is to the liquidity that identifies mother's milk with the fluidity of the sea. Thus, this passage pictures human creativity as participation in natural processes rather than as domination of the natural world. The woman and the sea merge into one another; the reference of “rebirth” could be to either body. Then, in the last line of the poem, the sea, in its turn, merges imperceptibly into the sky, that same limitless sky that was reluctantly ceded to males in “The Seed-Picture.”
In addition to the allusion in this passage to female participation in the creativity connected with natural processes, the connectedness implied in the merging of one element or one body into another is for McGuckian a further way out of the opposition that defines feminine space as domestic and private, secluded from the world—in the words of Hélène Cixous: “inside a domesticated outside” (565). The way out of the domestic enclosure in “Sea or Sky” is somewhat different from that in the Venus poems, but water and the sky again refer us back to the natural world of those poems, as does the reference to a female mythological figure in the Pomona poem. In the first stanza of “Sea or Sky,” the sun is an “echo of light … Improperly burning,” whose recognizable outline is obscured by “the moisture-laden sky I should be working in” (17). Again, the blurring of any sharp distinction between sun and sea, light and water, emphasizes connection over distinction. The sun's light (with all of the associations it has had in McGuckian's poetry) is absorbed rather than deflected. The expanse of the sky (so often gendered masculine) is also absorbed into the expanse of the (traditionally, feminine) sea. McGuckian's imagery of the body is connected with the cosmic domain of the Venus poems through its association with disseminated references that begin inward with the female body and extend outward from clothing to houses, then to natural phenomena (especially the sea and water), and ultimately to the sky and the sun.
The political aspect of place is even more subtly alluded to than its natural aspect in the Ballycastle Beach poems. Ballycastle Beach itself is a threshold place between Ireland and the world beyond the “French-born sea” (59), and in one of the last poems in the book, “The Dream-Language of Fergus” (57), dissemination itself is given a specifically Irish political cast:
No text can return the honey In its path of light from a jar, Only a seed-fund, a pendulum, Pressing out the diasporic snow.
Ireland, too, has suffered from a diaspora because of the pressures, economic and political, to emigrate that have prompted so many to leave the Irish homeland. At the same time that emigration entails leaving a homeland, however, it also leads to the dissemination of elements of that place into new lands. Without being conquerors, emigrés have sown seeds of Irish culture over a wide part of the world—particularly through the power of Irish word craft, of poetry.
The poem just quoted also alludes even in its title, “The Dream-Language of Fergus,” to a further sense in which her poetry in this last volume could be seen as a wider expansion of her imaginative space: further into the realm of dream and the subconscious. One of the central oppositions with which this volume plays is that between sleep and waking or between the subconscious and the conscious mind:
So Latin sleeps, they say, in Russian speech, So one river inserted into another Becomes a leaping, glistening, splashed And scattered alphabet Jutting out from the voice,
Sleep and dream enter language and poetry as one river joining another. In McGuckian's poetic domain, “A poem dreams of being written” (43), and dreams and “dream-speech” both precede and inhabit poetry (29). In “The Dream-Language of Fergus,” the not “I” of both the subconscious inner world and the natural outer world inhabits the “I” of individual identity and consciousness. The dream poem, written without “the pronoun I” (43), works paradoxically both to question and to establish McGuckian's unique poetic identity.
McGuckian's approach to creating woman's language has much in common with that of feminist language theorists like Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva in that she has moved beyond unsettling conventional oppositions toward asserting the value of those elements so often placed on the feminine half of the gender divide, oppositions such as feminine dream/masculine consciousness or feminine irrationality/masculine logic. She has said of her poetic language: “I don't think my language is irrational; it has its own logic which may be the opposite of men's since we are of the opposite sex” (McCracken, 20). McGuckian's “dream-language,” the “leaping, glistening, splashed / And scattered alphabet” (57) through which her woman's logic speaks, has much in common with Julia Kristeva's notion of the “non-speech, of a ‘semiotics’ that linguistic communication does not account for,” a “semiotics” that commonly finds metaphoric expression as “milk and tears” (174) or, in terms of the disseminated references in McGuckian's poetry, the breast and water (rain, snow, rivers, the sea). In Kristeva's writing, the nonverbal has both mystical and natural maternal connotations; she finds this association between motherhood and the breast and mysticism exemplified in the phenomenon of the Christian mystic “who assumes himself as ‘maternal’” (162). Similarly, McGuckian has made explicit associations between the sensual and erotic dimension of her poetry, and its religious or spiritual implications: “[I]f I'm erotic, maybe agape has a lot to do with it” (McCracken, 20). In this same interview, she further associated eroticism and Christian love with dreams of childhood and innocence: “People say the first seven years of life are the source of all poetry, and my state then was centrally Christian. I was baptized and sinless; dreams go back to perfection and that's what you aim for” (McCracken, 20).
McGuckian's spirituality is grounded in the female body, in the dreamlike, erotic, and yet innocent immediacy of the relationship between a child and its mother, which is suggested, above all, by the references to the breast disseminated through this most recent volume of her poetry. Without explicitly referring to any obvious traditional Christian symbolism, then, McGuckian's poetry places itself in a tradition of Christian mysticism and thus reveals its source in the remaining aspect of her poetic identity or her imaginative space: her Catholicism. Thus, once again, McGuckian has both retained her differences, her Irish nationality, her female sex, and her Catholic religion and also associated herself with a central tradition, the tradition of maternal imagery associated with mysticism. Whether the mystic be Protestant or Catholic, male or female, such imagery has traditionally been used to express the nearly inexpressible, and in McGuckian's poetry it becomes a foundation for poetic experimentation at the frontiers of linguistic communication where language shades into nonlanguage and private systems of symbolism shade into solipsism. Thus, her most recent poetry further explores the divides of traditional binary reasoning that would oppose speech to silence, consciousness to dream, public to private, male to female. In opening up this space of exploration, McGuckian's body of published poetry has provided her with both a distinctive voice and an attentive audience. She has acquired the two essential aspects of a poetic identity and of an authoritative poetic voice: the private imaginative space and the public poetic persona that make it possible for the poet both to engage in such experiments and to rely upon a sympathetic audience for her work.
Allen, Michael. “Barbaric Yawp, Gibbous Voice.” The Honest Ulsterman 77 (1984): 60-63.
———. “Foetal Tissue.” The Honest Ulsterman 72 (1982): 36-43.
Cixous, Hélène. “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays.” Trans. Betsy Wing. Contemporary Critical Theory. Ed. Dan Latimer. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989, 558-78.
Dawe, Gerald. “Checkpoints: The Younger Irish Poets.” The Crane Bag 6.1 (1982): 85-89.
Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
———. Positions. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Dickinson, Emily. “1129.” The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge: Belknap, 1955, 506.
Kristeva, Julia. “Stabat Mater.” The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, 160-86.
McCracken, Kathleen. “An Attitude of Compassions.” Irish Literary Supplement 9.2 (1990): 20-21.
McGuckian, Medbh. On Ballycastle Beach. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
———. The Flower Master. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
———. Venus and the Rain. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1984.
Moore, Marianne. “Sojourn in the Whale.” The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore. New York: Macmillan, 1981, 90.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13922
SOURCE: Haberstroh, Patricia Boyle. “Medbh McGuckian.” In Women Creating Women, edited by Patricia Boyle Haberstroh, pp. 123-58. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Haberstroh evaluates the language and style of McGuckian's poems in light of specific conflicts and ambivalences encountered by the contemporary Irish woman poet.]
Medbh McGuckian's poetry has elicited a great deal of interest since the publication of her first major volume. The Flower Master, in 1982.1 Born in Northern Ireland, she was the first woman to be recognized among the “Northern Voices,” the Ulster poets who came to prominence in the 1970s. Chosen as first woman poet-in-residence at Queens University in Belfast, McGuckian has been described both as “the most white-hot Irish poet since Yeats” (1990, 210) and as a writer whose work “cheerfully and explicitly ignores the risk of choking on its own exclusivity” (1992, 20). By 1991, McGuckian had published three other volumes: Venus and the Rain (1984), On Ballycastle Beach (1988), and Marconi's Cottage (1991). In another volume, Two Women, Two Shores (1989), McGuckian's poems are collected with those of the Irish-American poet Nuala Archer.2
From the beginning McGuckian's work sparked a variety of critical responses.3 Reviewers praised the striking quality of her imagery, generally agreeing that her poems had something to do with “womanliness.” Struck by the associative nature of her images, readers also found her poetry discursive, oblique, and, in some cases, incomprehensible. McGuckian had given them ample fuel for this fire with her very dense and complicated style.
In a 1982 review in Encounter, Alan Jenkins summed up some of the problems he saw in The Flower Master: “discontinuities of sense; sudden changes of grammatical subject and tense, shifts in personal pronoun and the consequent indeterminacy of the speaking voice; startling juxtapositions and ellipses; the subverting of expectations set up by the apparent direction of a sentence; qualifying or elaborating phrases proliferating endlessly” (57). Jenkins expressed an ambivalence toward McGuckian's work echoed by other readers; calling some of her poems “stunning,” he also accused her of “rhetorical posturing.” In a fall 1992 review of Marconi's Cottage in the Irish Literary Supplement, Denis Flannery demonstrates a similar impatience with McGuckian's work when he argues that “the language and the self are omnivorous in their relation to the world around them” and that the poetry “manages to be self-obsessed while refusing to be intimate” (21).
Concentrating almost exclusively on style, Jenkins, as well as some other readers, failed to recognize the connections between idea and style in McGuckian's poetry. This is not to say that every one of McGuckian's poems works, nor is it to downplay the difficulty that confronts the reader. But if we are to understand the “idiosyncrasies” of a poet labeled both “original” and “brilliant” by readers who also admit to sometimes being baffled by her poems, we might start with the assumption that she is writing as a woman about women's experience. Every McGuckian poem embodies, directly or indirectly, the conflicts and ambivalences of a woman poet trying to understand the multiple facets of her life, and McGuckian's language and style must be examined in light of this.
Reading McGuckian's poetry, it is helpful to draw on feminist literary theory and descriptions of “womanwriting” and écriture feminine. McGuckian herself encouraged such a reading when she suggested, in an interview with Kathleen McCracken in the Irish Literary Supplement, that her poetry has “its own logic which may be opposite of men's”; that, because language has been devitalized, “poetry must dismantle the letters” (McGuckian 1990, 20). The charge of solipsism leveled against McGuckian may arise from our failure to consider that her experiments move beyond conventional definitions of poetic voice, language, and self.
Hélène Cixous's description of “invention” sheds some light on McGuckian's approach: “there is no invention possible, whether it be philosophical or poetic, without there being in the inventing subject an abundance of the other, of variety: separate-people, thought-people, whole populations issuing from the unconscious, and in each suddenly animated desert the springing up of selves one didn't know” (1989, 103). Though Cixous maintains that female writing cannot be “theorized, enclosed, coded” (109), McGuckian presents an interesting illustration of the way in which poetry may reveal the “invention” Cixous describes. Multiple layers of meaning and numerous associations suggest both a deconstructed language and a deconstructed self.
If Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin struggled to create an “I” in her poetry, McGuckian suffers from the opposite problem: at times there are so many Is and yous addressed that we have trouble knowing who is who. Likewise, McGuckian's hes and shes seem to defy our attempts to keep the genders separate and in place. We should note, however, that these are all personal pronouns, and the person is what McGuckian is trying to redefine. Her pronouns often fracture selfhood into many components: her personae see in themselves both the conventional feminine and masculine, and they have multiple and variable personalities. Refusing to be limited by a fixed “I,” McGuckian's poetry demands that we go with her into new territory, even if, as Kate Newmann suggests, “just as you are about to read the compass the needle disappears” (1992, 173).
In describing the characteristics of écriture feminine, Luce Irigaray, like Cixous and Julia Kristeva, connects language with sexuality. Describing what she defines as “womanspeak,” Irigaray, a psychoanalyst drawing on the work of Derrida and Lacan, sees woman's language as decentered, irrational, and nonlinear, unlike the logocentric, hierarchical expression of patriarchy. In “When Our Two Lips Speak Together,” Irigaray describes woman as remaining “in flux, never congealing or solidifying” (1985, 215), and argues that women must invent a language that expresses their difference: “Stretching out, never ceasing to unfold ourselves, we have so many different voices to invent in order to express all of us everywhere, even in our gaps, that all the time there is will not be enough” (213).
McGuckian's imagery reflects such different voices, as well as the “cracks,” “faults,” and “flux” Irigaray describes. Multiple figures continually appear and disappear in McGuckian's poems. Sisters, female and male lovers, husbands and wives, parents and children come together and separate, are born and die, in the landscape of McGuckian's world. Speakers move in and out of shadow and mist, confront the day and hide in the night. Ghosts, mirrors and looking glasses, dream sisters, and phantom lovers materialize and dissolve. Weather, the elements, planets, houses, flowers, and ships take on gender to embody McGuckian's themes. One speaker's assertion in “Prie-Dieu” (1984, 29), that “This oblique trance is my natural / Way of speaking” and another's claim in “Aviary” (1984, 21) that “my longer and longer sentences / Prove me wholly female” signal that McGuckian's style may indeed be a challenge to logocentric thinking and conventional grammar and syntax.
Difficulty arises from the multiple meanings emanating from McGuckian's words and images, especially her personal pronouns. While the “I” and the “you” in a poem like “From the Dressing-Room” (1984, 14) are described as a woman and a man, numerous Is and yous materialize to complicate matters. Sometimes the speaker apologizes for her “surrenders” to a “you” she addresses, as in “The Sofa” (1982, 19):
… If you were friend enough To believe me, I was about to start writing At any moment; my mind was savagely made up, Like a serious sofa moved Under a north window. My heart, alas,
Is not the calmest of places.
Temptations, referred to as “disasters,” “surrenders,” “loss” (and evoking suggestions of seduction by a lover) undercut her commitment to start writing. In the final lines, the speaker, focusing on the personal pronoun “I,” imagines “herself” as a missing actor: “A curtain rising wonders where I am, / My books sleep, pretending to forget me.” Ironically, McGuckian has written a poem about not writing a poem, and her speaker embodies both the “you” and the “me” (displacing the missing “I”), with the final stage metaphor reinforcing the different roles she plays.
As Catherine Byron says, McGuckian's “‘I’ is never to be taken for granted … it is always to be understood afresh in each poem, as is her ‘you’” (1988, 16).4 Multiple meanings emanate from McGuckian's pronouns; “I” and “you,” “he” or “she” can be read on many levels. Complicated experimentation with personal pronouns, what Jenkins calls the “indeterminacy of the speaking voice,” is indeed difficult to follow. However, when we recognize how McGuckian's pronouns and images express the complex interaction among her multiple figures (those “different voices” Irigaray describes), we marvel at both the originality and success of her achievement.
In an essay on “Postmodern McGuckian,” Thomas Docherty associates McGuckian not only with feminist poetics, but also with postmodern literary techniques:5 “Often it is difficult to locate any single position from which the poem can be spoken. In philosophical terms, we have a kind of a ‘blank phenomenology’: the relation between the speaking Subject or ‘I’ and the Object of its intention is mobile or fluid. It reads as if the space afforded the ‘I’ is vacant: instead of a stable ‘persona,’ all we have is a potential of personality, a voice which cannot yet be identified” (1992, 192). Suggesting the effects of this “blank phenomenology,” Docherty maintains that McGuckian “is always—temporally and temperamentally—at odds with herself: the poems chart a dislocation in their speaker, who always occupies some different temporal moment from the moment actually being described in the poem” (201-202).
McGuckian's numerous speakers appear in many guises, as writers, lovers, wives, mothers, and the mediation among and between them is at the heart of most of her poems. We see, for example, the housewife and mother in “Power-Cut” (1982, 47) showing how her multiple lives overtake one another as day dissolves into night in her kitchen:
My dishes on the draining-board Lie at an even keel, the baby lowered Into his lobster-pot pen; my sponge Disintegrates in water like a bird's nest, A permanent wave gone west. These plotted holes of days my keep-net shades, Soluble as refuse in canals; the old flame Of the candle sweats in the night, its hump A dowager's with bones running thin: The door-butler lets the strangers in.
Reading McGuckian, we become familiar with opening and closing doors, one scene dissolving as another comes into focus. McGuckian's images here detail aspects of a woman's life: babies, dishes, nests, the permanent wave. For this mother, however, the disappearance of day life has ominous overtones. The baby in his “lobster-pot pen” suggests the sacrifice of one part of her life for another; the disintegrating sponge and the “holes of days” as “Soluble as refuse in canals” reinforce how one life dissolves into another.
The images in this poem depict different states in which this unstable persona exists: the domestic day world of sink, sponge, and baby, and the imaginative night world of the poet, identified with the flame of the sweating candle. Intruding strangers recur in McGuckian's poetry, and passages from night to day, day to night, season to season, waking to sleep describe the movement from one state to another.
In McGuckian's poems mothers are juxtaposed with lovers, and love-making has many dimensions: the union between lovers can be an image for the intercourse between man and woman or between a speaking “I” and an “other” voice within the self. In “To the Nightingale” (1984, 13), McGuckian writes:
I remember our first night in this grey And paunchy house; you were still slightly In love with me, and dreamt of having A grown son, your body in the semi-gloom Turning my dead layers into something Resembling a rhyme. That smart and Cheerful rain almost beat the hearing Out of me, and yet I heard my name Pronounced in a whisper as a June day Will force itself into every room.
Our first reading of these lines suggests a woman describing love-making and her lover's wish for a son. But the title, “To the Nightingale,” refers us to Keats, and the body and voice helping to create “something / Resembling a rhyme” take on another meaning as McGuckian compares the intercourse between poet and muse to that between man and woman. The “you” addressed is not another person, but another voice within the speaker, one struggling to be heard; the consummation of “you” and “I” will create the child/poem. When we understand this, the initial confusion over pronouns is cleared up and we can see McGuckian revising Keats: “To the nightingale it made no difference / Of course, that you tossed about an hour, / Two hours, till what was left of your future / Began.” Embedded in these lines also is another kind of intercourse, between poet and poet, as McGuckian's female speaker consorts with the male Romantic poet who inspired the poem.6
In her early poems there is less experimentation with pronouns, but McGuckian's images have a logic of their own. One of the most startling aspects of her first volume, The Flower Master, is its focus on sexuality and the ways in which gender lines are sometimes blurred. Like Eavan Boland in In Her Own Image, McGuckian continually stresses the sexual nature of the subjects and speakers of these poems, and her flower images suggest both sex and gender roles. “Womanliness” is highlighted in McGuckian's “Tulips” (1982, 10); the flowers, the poem tells us, close up at night, declaring their independence from sun and rain:
such present-mindedness To double-lock in tiers as whistle-tight, Or catch up on sleep with cantilevered Palms cupping elbows. It's their independence Tempts them to this grocery of soul.
In this poem, as well as in many others, McGuckian gives the sun and the rain male qualities. The speaker sees the “lovelessness” of the light that opens the tulips as a “deeper sort / Of illness than the womanliness / Of tulips,” for the controlling sun (a flower master) undermines their independence. Like their human female counterparts, and like fictional governesses, tulips can also be “carried away.”
The flowers in another poem, “Gentians” (1982, 25), can be contrasted to the tulips in one respect:
No insects Visit them, nor do their ovaries swell, Yet every night in Tibet their seeds Are membraned by the snow, their roots Are bathed by the passage of melt-water; They tease like sullen spinsters The dewfall of summer limes.
The gentians' spinsterly qualities fascinate the speaker; their “independence” links them to the tulips. Clearly suggesting female sexual organs (“something precious / Deep inside, that beard of camel-hair in the throat”), the androgynous gentians also exhibit male characteristics: “their watery husbands' knots.” Not subject to the mastery of the day sun, as are the tulips, the gentians reproduce at night, without swollen ovaries. We do not have too far to go with a theory of correspondences to see the links McGuckian, makes between the natural and the human worlds. The relationships between women and men, female and male lovers, reproduction and motherhood are all embodied in these images. Questions of mastery, of dependence and independence, and of gender constructions, continually arise.7
Sometimes, as in “The Swing” (1982, 31), McGuckian turns to mythological images to suggest the potential consequences of sexual activity:
Each evening the Egyptian goddess Swallowed the sun, her innocent Collective pleasure, never minding his violent temper, His copious emissions, how he sprinkled The lawn of space till it became A deadly freckled junkyard.
These lines describe the stars in the night sky as emissions of the sun, but in the sexual intercourse they suggest there is another meaning. Freckles evoke the image of children, and “deadly” and “junkyard” both hint at the latent consequences of the sun's “copious emissions” and the goddess's “innocent” pleasures.
The image of an “invisible child” at the end of the poem, recalling the “deadly freckled junkyard” of the earlier lines, creates a deliberate ambiguity. The strange weather, the drought, and the Egyptian goddess in the opening lines identify a speaker very much concerned with the relationship between lovemaking and childbearing, with the consequences of her actions and decisions. The title image of the swing, suggesting movement back and forth, reinforces the ambivalence we hear in the speaker's voice and illustrates McGuckian's repeated use of images of suspension between states of mind or action.
This potentially precarious side of lovemaking and childbearing, however, is offset by a more affirmative one, described by other speakers in The Flower Master. The mother-to-be in “The Sunbench” (1982, 32), for example, meditates on the value of motherhood. The speaker explains to the child in her womb what she has given:
This is not the hardness of a single night, A rib that I could clearly do without. It is The room where you have eaten daily, Shaking free like a hosting tree, the garden Shaking off the night's weak appetite, The sunbench brown and draining into fallow.
The male's part in this creation, whether the phallic “hardness of a single night” or the expendable rib Adam supposedly gave Eve in another garden, is slighted here in favor of the longer and more difficult female work of sheltering the child in a “room” in the mother's body/house. As the hosting tree, this speaker, another flower master, recognizes that her “control” as host is temporary.
The role of gardener (or flower master) has not traditionally been assigned to women, as a poem like “The Heiress” (1982, 50) reveals. Commenting on the “husbandry” that the fields before her reveal, the speaker acknowledges the “delicate adam work.” Explaining that she has recently delivered a son, she stresses the value of Eve work, though she notes that “the birth / Of an heiress means the gobbling of land.” Challenging her role, this heiress, who has been told to stay out of the fields, nevertheless walks along the beach, dropping acorns among the shrubbery.
McGuckian has said that she had Mary Queen of Scots in mind when she wrote this poem, which lends a historical dimension to the volume's focus on mastery and control of the land and to questionable issues of heirs, ownership, and gender in English and Northern Irish history. At the same time, the poem suggests the ways in which women have been denied not only the right to own property but also comparable acknowledgment for their work as wives and mothers. The adjective “unruly” can be applied both to Mary Queen of Scots, who also “lighter of a son” found herself involved in the “gobbling of land,”8 and to all women who try to move beyond and reimagine the domestic life and subordinate roles defined for them.
Much of the conflict expressed by the speakers in The Flower Master grows from their movement into spheres other than lover and mother. The most frequent of these involves the woman as artist. Over and over again, McGuckian pictures women as makers and subjects of works of art. “Some women save their sanity with needles. / I complicate my life with studies / Of my favourite rabbit's head,” announces the speaker in “Mr McGregor's Garden” (1982, 14). Ticking off the creatures in her garden, she also describes the “fungi,” the “dry-rot,” the “slimy veil” under some flowers. Most curious is her hedgehog who, moving out of Beatrix Potter's world, turns into a male version of a harried housewife: “very cross if interrupted, / And returns with a hundred respirations / To the minute, weak and nervous when he wakens, / Busy with his laundry.” Suggesting that her studies might reveal much about herself (and also about Beatrix Potter), this speaker is one of many artists and poets in The Flower Master for whom art is both an escape from their more mundane lives and a form of self-expression.
“The Seed-Picture” (1982, 23) is a good example of such a poem and a fine illustration of the ways in which McGuckian fuses the different image patterns in The Flower Master. The female artist here “masters” flowers in the portrait she creates from seeds. The poem begins with the barest outlines of a narrative:
This is my portrait of Joanna—since the split The children come to me like a dumb-waiter, And I wonder where to put them, beautiful seeds With no immediate application. …
Working from the image of children as seeds that need nurturing, the speaker tries to create a seed picture of Joanna. Maintaining that seeds have their own “vocabulary,” sometimes expressing more than one intends, the speaker tells us that she can only “guide” them. Still she questions what she is doing:
Was it such self-indulgence to enclose her In the border of a grandmother's sampler, Bonding all the seeds in one continuous skin, The sky resolved to a cloud the length of a man? To use tan linseed for the trees, spiky Sunflower for leaves, bright lentils For the window, patna stars For the floral blouse? Her hair Is made of hook-shaped marigold, gold Of pleasure for her lips, like raspberry grain. The eyelids oatmeal, the irises Of Dutch blue maw, black rape For the pupils, millet For the vicious beige circles underneath. The single pearl barley That sleeps around her dullness Till it catches light, makes women Feel their age, and sigh for liberation.
In this portrait, words and images allude to a potential narrative: the “Dead flower heads where insects shack” might be a metaphor for a home; the artist's attempt to attach the seeds “by the spine to a perfect bedding” an ironic commentary on the marriage bed after the “split.” Adjectives and nouns reverberate with multiple meaning: the more negative “tear-drop apple,” “pocked peach,” “wrinkled pepper-corns,” “black rape,” and “vicious” circles underneath Joanna's eyes counterpoint the more positive “gold / Of pleasure for her lips” and “irises / Of Dutch blue maw.” The image of the “sky resolved to a cloud the length of a man” suggests that we read the poem as a portrait of a woman's life with husband and children.
On another level, however, the poem deals with the speaker's artistic work, and McGuckian's use of the term “vocabulary” encourages us to broaden the definition of artist to include writers, who “guide” words. Likewise, McGuckian's tendency to fragment the poetic voice leads us to read the images and pronouns as different sides of one woman. With her question “Was it self-indulgence … ?” McGuckian returns to her theme of the conflicts women writers and artists confront, and it is not hard to imagine the two women here as wife/mother and artist/poet, with the artist/poet worried about abandoning her domestic and maternal duties. The poem opens with the maker of the seed picture anxious about Joanna's children (“I wonder where to put them”) and closes with an image of women who, recognizing the “dullness” of Joanna's life, “sigh for liberation.” Making a seed picture, “Bonding all the seeds in one continuous skin,” like creating a child, can bring “light” to a woman's life, but it can also lead to stress as she juggles the roles of mother and artist.
Highlighting the value of women artists whose subject is women, whether in folk-art seed pictures or “portrait” poems, “The Seed-Picture” is one of McGuckian's finest poems. The speaker explains that the seed work has opened “new spectrums of activity,” but it seems also to have created problems. Her question about whether such work is self-indulgent gets directly to the heart of the matter: over and over again, women in The Flower Master ask how they can balance the traditional life of a woman, with all of its attendant expectations, with the artist's career.
On the other hand, as Susan Porter demonstrates, the mother and the poet in. “The Seed-Picture” share similar experiences:
In all senses of seed, then, and particularly as it connotes children, the work involved is partly guiding and partly knowing that what one guides is ultimately beyond any “author's” control and contains within it from the beginning elements that were not subject to her desires or intentions. The woman who is also a poet is prepared by her experience in the female world of “children,” “home,” “jumbled garages,” “seed-work” for the realization that words and arrangements of words, too, “capture / More than we can plan” and carry within them the seeds of many and varied meanings.9
As Georgia O'Keeffe's The White Trumpet Flower, on the cover of some editions of The Flower Master, suggests correlations between the sexual connotations in O'Keeffe's paintings and McGuckian's poems, the illustration on the cover of Venus and the Rain, Jan Toorop's 1892 work The Younger Generation, leads us into McGuckian's second volume. Noted for his symbolism, the Dutch painter experimented with surrealism in the 1890s. Some of his scenes of Dutch fishing villages, The Younger Generation among them, include nursing mothers and melancholy women.
In the illustration on the cover of Venus and the Rain (1984), a young woman stands in a doorway opening into a garden, where mysterious figures appear in shadowy foliage. Creating a multiple perspective, Toorop places the hinges on what seems to be the wrong side of the door, so that we are not sure whether it is opening in or out: the door appears to open on one side as it closes on the other. The young woman's face is indistinct; we cannot see what lies behind the door at which she is standing; and the elaborate facade appears to be both attached, and at a right angle, to the door. In the disconcerting garden outside the door, railroad tracks and a warning light frame a scene in which a tree spirit hovers above a child sitting in a chair. Toorop experiments here with the modernist's technique of simultaneity: planes and worlds interpenetrate as he blends detailed linear, representational images with the more ambiguous, fantastic, and shadowy curves of the garden. Foreground and background are not clearly delineated, and the demarcation between house and garden, represented by the door, is deliberately blurred.
This illustration gives us several visual clues to the landscape McGuckian creates in Venus and the Rain. As we have seen in The Flower Master, her women move from one realm to another in an often frustrating attempt to live several different kinds of lives, and houses, doors, and rooms are prominent images. Like the almost faceless woman standing in the doorway in Toorop's picture, McGuckian's speakers are often suspended between worlds; at times, they speak of disappearing or “rising out.” While there is a danger in reading too much into the relationship between the cover illustration and the poems, much of McGuckian's imagery encourages us to do so. Houses, doors, gardens, trains, and infants show up frequently in these poems.
Outside the door the blending of the ordinary with the fantastic expresses the fusion of the mundane and the mysterious we often see in the lives of McGuckian's personae. The tracks, like McGuckian's staircases, suggest the journey from one of these worlds to the other, and the warning lights hint of the problems involved in such transformations. Toorop's work reinforces a point McGuckian demonstrates: that images, whether in poetry or the visual arts, can illustrate the multidimensional lives women lead, so that what first appear to be strange associations among these images are not necessarily so. Toorop's modernist technique, in which he connects images to one another in an associative, nonrepresentational way, is similar to McGuckian's; both fuse seemingly unrelated images into an artistic and symbolic whole.
In Venus and the Rain rooms appear and disappear, doors open and close, and windows reflect both in and out. McGuckian's subjects move from one part of the house to another, locking and unlocking doors as they go. Houses expand: some are tethered; others cannot be anchored. And McGuckian's gardens, like Toorop's, can be frightening places: they are “ragged” in one poem, “desolate” in another, and in a third, emblems of change and death where “once you have seen a crocus in the act / Of giving way to the night, your life / No longer lives you.”
In talking about Venus and the Rain, McGuckian has said that when she was writing these poems she was at home “going crazy,” and “stuck in the house with babies.”10 Given these circumstances, we can understand why images of houses appear so often. But McGuckian's images have additional meanings, and the confinement and expansion of houses, the shifting of boundaries within them, quite often reflect the woman writer's struggle with words. Such is the case in “Isba Song” (1984, 23), in which the speaker sits at a desk:
Beyond the edge of the desk, the Victorian dark Inhabits childhood, youth-seeking, death-seeking, Bringing almost too much meaning to my life, Who might have been content with one storey, And the turned-outwards windows of the isba.
An isba, a note to the poem explains, is a Russian one-story dwelling, and the writer here, with “two hands free,” meditates on what lies beyond the edges of the desk, beyond the “turned-outwards” windows. She tells us she has heard in the darkness the voice of another woman who had been eager “to divide her song.” We soon realize that “storey” refers not only to the levels of a dwelling but also to the many “stories” a poem might express, and that the windows, like Toorop's door, turn both inwards and outwards.
The two subjects here, an “I” and a “her,” are separate but fused: one lives beyond the perimeters of the desk, the other sits as the locus of everything beyond the desk, but there is interaction and sharing between them, a shifting of boundaries, as it were.11 A part of this “other” voice (“the first syllable of her name”) survives in the woman at the desk, who sees the effect of borrowing as “a gentler terrain within a wilder one,” or “as wood might learn to understand / The borrowings of water, or pottery capitulate / Its dry colours.”
The wild, the dark, or the fluid coming into form evokes images of the artist creating (the wood to be sculpted, the wet pot before it is dried) and connect directly to the speaker whose desk is the locus of the darkness that surrounds her. In the final lines she describes the value of listening to this other voice, drawing on the multiple connotations of “I” and “me,” as McGuckian often does: “Otherwise I might have well / Ignored the ground that shone for me, that did enough / To make itself rebound from me, out of which I was made.”
Positioned between the darkness beyond the desk and the light that shone for her, the woman at the desk is another version of McGuckian's metamorphosing persona.12 The woman in the darkness, willing to “divide her song,” is essentially a maternal figure and the final image is one of birth. Phrases like “death-seeking” and “mournful locus” and “almost too much meaning to my life” suggest that there is also a darkness of mood, a gloominess that must be challenged for the poetic voice to emerge. These phrases can also be connected to the process of writing, illustrating that “invention” of different voices to “speak all of us” that Luce Irigaray describes as “womanwriting.”
Venus, the volume's presiding deity, has both mythological and planetary significance: McGuckian alludes to the goddess of love who rose from the sea, but Venus is also the second planet from the sun, shrouded by thick clouds and distinguished by a unique backwards rotation.
In the opening poem, “Venus and the Sun” (1984, 9), McGuckian turns to astronomy for her imagery. “I am the sun's toy—,” the planet complains, yet it also claims to have its own influence: “because I go against / The grain I feel the brush of my authority.” Orbiting the sun, Venus follows a fixed path within the solar system; nevertheless, because it rotates backwards, it has its own “authority.” The planet's role in the interplay of gravitational forces is described in the opening lines:
The scented flames of the sun throw me, Telling me how to move—I tell them How to bend the light of shifting stars: I order their curved wash so the moon Will not escape, so rocks and seas Will stretch their elbows under her.
These images remind us of the power of the sun in The Flower Master, especially in the way it undercuts the independence of the tulips. Frustrated by the restrictions of orbiting within a solar system, Venus contrasts its role to that of the stars, who are “still at large” and can fly apart from one another. Venus describes the sun as a “traplight” and imagines the sun and moon as opposites, positing a murky middle ground where its own influence lies.
From one perspective McGuckian's astronomy can be read as modeling a woman's struggle to balance dependence and independence, to be connected to others but maintain a course of her own. Her “direction,” or freedom of movement, is often controlled by the roles she plays, like orbiting a man, reflecting the light of the “brighter” star. Yet this Venus stresses her own unique identity, the force of her backwards rotation and its influence upon the other planets in the system. The conflict between these roles provides the source for much of the imagery and many of the themes in Venus and the Rain.
Venus in her mythological role as goddess of love inhabits many of these poems, highlighting as they do the sexual lives of their speakers. The relationship between sexuality and art is stressed in poems like “The Sitting” (1984, 15):
My half-sister comes to me to be painted: She is posing furtively, like a letter being Pushed under a door, making a tunnel with her Hands over her dull-rose dress. Yet her coppery Head is as bright as a net of lemons, I am Painting it hair by hair as if she had not Disowned it, or forsaken those unsparkling Eyes as blue may be sifted from the surface Of a cloud; and she questions my brisk Brushwork, the note of positive red In the kissed mouth I have given her,
Familiar with McGuckian's imagery, we can read the half-sister as one of the speaker's selves, what the poem calls “something half-opened.” In Venus and the Rain, openings and apertures are associated continually with Venus: on one level, they allude to Venus emerging from the sea; on another, they suggest female sexual organs; on a third, they express the artist's ability to open up hidden parts of herself. Pictured here as “a letter being / Pushed under a door,” the “half-sister” sits reluctantly, prudishly, with her hands forming a tunnel over her “dull-rose dress.” She is more comfortable with “sea-studies” (the unseen, unformed, non-sexual Venus) than with the colorful and sensual image (“coppery,” “blue,” “red”) the painter creates. This poem may delineate the difficulties of a woman painting herself, analogous to a woman poet writing about herself.
Venus and the Rain is packed with “doubles”: two sisters inhabiting one house, sister planets, ghosts, mirrors. Alice and Alice in the Looking Glass. The narratives of these poems interweave the complex situations of speakers with multiple lives: a woman who longs for union with her husband but demands a life of her own; a mother who describes both the joys and the burdens of bearing and raising children; a poet who consummates her relationship with her muse. These figures sometimes have both traditional male and traditional female qualities, for McGuckian's images often challenge conventional gender distinctions in search of a middle ground.
Images of intercourse, conception, birth and rebirth multiply in this volume; generation and regeneration occur in the speakers' sexual, maternal, and poetic lives. Significantly, McGuckian links poems about pregnancy with those about writing poems—the difficult process of creation expressing different versions of similar experiences. McGuckian's personae take us through stages of fertility—from intercourse, with lover or with muse, through the difficulties of carrying to term (both baby and poem), to the release that birth represents.
If we listen carefully to the numerous women's voices, we discover that fertility has advantages and disadvantages; it is both pleasurable and burdensome, attractive and dangerous. “The inhabitants of Venus / Are constantly in love, and always writing verses—,” the speaker in “A Day with Her” (1984, 48) tells us, and therein lies their problem. Like the planet that orbits backwards within the gravitational boundaries of the solar system, they seek both union and separation. The movement from one state to another is imagined in “The Rising Out” (1984, 35) as both a death and a birth:
My dream sister has gone into my blood To kill the poet in me before Easter. Such A tender visit, when I move my palaces, The roots of my shadow almost split in two, Like the heartbeat of my own child, …
Children in this volume are a source of both pleasure and anxiety for the woman writer. The speaker in “Sabbath Park” (1984, 54-55) describes her guilt, portraying herself as both mother and temperamental child:
Broody As a seven-month's child, I upset The obsolete drawing-room that still seems Affronted by people having just gone, By astonishing Louisa with my sonnets, Almost a hostage in the dream Of her mother's hands
The domestic world of children, houses, and furniture here provides, as it does for most of McGuckian's work, the background for a poem about writing poems, and the mother's gift of her sonnets to her daughter—an ironic sharing with a child who is hostage to her mother's dream—expresses clearly the conflict and ambivalence of many of McGuckian's speakers.
But other speakers describe the advantages of motherhood, as in the beautiful poem “Confinement” (1984, 42), in which a mother and a child are alone in “a half-unpeopled / household”:
Child in the center of the dark parquet, Sleepy, glassed-in child, my fair copy, While you were sailing your boat in the bay, I saw you pass along the terrace twice, Flying in the same direction as the epidemic Of leaves in the hall. Our half-unpeopled Household, convalescent from the summer's leap, That indiscreetly drew the damp from walls, And coaxed our neighbour, the forest, into this Sorority, how could I share with you, unpruned And woebegone? A swan bearing your shape Re-entered the river imagery of my arms.
In this short poem McGuckian brings together many of the ideas and images of the other poems in Venus and the Rain. Developing the imagery of boundaries, which recurs throughout the volume, this poem portrays a mother confined to the house with her “fair copy,” who is positioned in the center of a dark floor. If we associate the mother here with the female grayness so prominent in the rest of the volume, the child is a point of light to which her eyes are drawn. This light-shadow motif connects “Confinement” to the sun-Venus imagery in other poems, the image of confinement echoing, for example, the “traplight” of the sun in “Venus and the Sun.”
The child's circular “Flying” around the terrace reminds us, likewise, of the planetary images in “Venus and the Sun” and other poems. McGuckian illustrates the interdependence of mother and child while demonstrating their individuality: the child's world is glassed in, separating mother from child; but in flying around the terrace, the child also orbits its mother. The mother's question “how could I share with you?” makes this “confinement” ironic by revealing her love for her child, the “unpruned” and “woebegone” offspring transformed into the beautiful swan. The final image of the swan reentering the river, the child moving into the mother's arms, is a beautiful expression of the opening up of self, as mother embraces child in a simple act of love, counterpointing the confinement suggested by the title. The swan, an animal sacred to Venus, also alludes to the goddess of love.
If we look back to the earlier poem, “Isba Song,” we can read “Confinement” in still another way and see the child and mother as a variation of the interacting women. Like the one woman who borrows from another willing to “divide her song” in the earlier poem, the mother and child in “Confinement” are united at the end. The repetition of the central image in both poems not only links the mother with the writer but also suggests the way in which numerous components of a woman's life flow into one another. The river imagery of the mother's arms in “Confinement” echoes the “two hands free” of the writer in “Isba Song”; the conversion from woebegone child to swan expresses the transformation of personal experience into poem, the “glassed-in child, my fair copy” described in the opening lines. As I suggested earlier, every McGuckian poem directly or indirectly deals with multiple roles women play.
McGuckian's 1988 volume On Ballycastle Beach covers similar ground but also signals a new direction for the poet. Recurring images of houses, alter egos, colors, and weather accrue new meanings as McGuckian continues the self-explorations begun in her earlier poems. But the title alerts us that we are moving into a more specific regional landscape, Ballycastle being the birthplace of both McGuckian and her father,13 and into the murky territory of the “Northern” question. While this is not immediately clear from an initial reading of the poems, On Ballycastle Beach merges the personal with the political to embody a woman poet's commentary on the problems in her homeland. Because the volume is so dense with images and so packed with ideas, McGuckian's political message becomes part of a larger framework constructed from a very broad definition of “home.” Issues of time, territory, gender, language, and art emerge from images of homes, dreams, rivers and fountains, children, mothers, ships, and colors. Repeated readings yield new connections as McGuckian continually breaks down and redefines boundaries.
Again, the cover illustration on some editions, a Postimpressionistic Jack B. Yeats painting of a person standing on a beach dwarfed by a merging sea and sky, is closely related to poems McGuckian calls her “seascapes.” In the painting the lines between sea and sky, and between sea and land, are not clearly delineated, and Yeats blends colors into one another as numerous shades of blue, enhanced with white, black, yellow, red, and other colors, create the image we see. The barest outlines of a human shape define a person standing on the shore, with feet in the water. The more we look at this illustration, the more the boundaries separating the natural elements from one another, and the human figure from nature, tend to disappear.14
This illustration relates to the poems in many ways. On the most obvious level, it alludes to personal territory and to Ballycastle as a birthplace from which the poet moves away but to which she is still anchored. It also represents a place in Northern Ireland, shores to which English ships sailed hundreds of years ago, drawing new boundaries not only between England and Ulster but also between Northern Ireland and the Republic. As what one poem calls “a child of the North,” McGuckian sees the effects of such boundaries, and the poems deal with several dimensions of the personal and social realities of the Northern landscape. Numerous images of water and boats emphasize Ballycastle as a place from which one can leave and to which one can return. In the opening poem, “What Does ‘Early’ Mean?” (1988, 11), a house across the way evokes images of “ships and their wind-blown ways,” and in the final and title poem, a ship comes into harbor. Between these two, McGuckian takes us on a journey but never leaves “home.”
Yeats's painting also reinforces McGuckian's colors, one of the most intriguing and difficult of her image patterns. When asked what blue means in her poems, McGuckian has said that readers should look at the context in which the blue appears. A poem like “Scenes from a Brothel” (1988, 48-49) illustrates what she means more specifically:
Any colour lasts a second, three or four Minutes at most—and can never be repeated. So few words for so many colours. This blue, this blue, an enfeebled red, The child of old parents. Though it is immutable, it has no more lustre Than the moon in its first quarter, Or the wall above the coat-stand.
The paradox of transient immutability is a key to much of what McGuckian writes about in On Ballycastle Beach, and she gives colors as many meanings as she creates contexts for them. There are warm colors—reds, golds, and browns—and they are associated with many things, including but not restricted to the sun, dying leaves, blood and bloodshed, men, wind, dreams, death. The coolness of blue appears in images of skies and water but is also often associated with women and with art: “Blue Vase,” “The Blue She Brings with Her,” “Woman with Blue-Ringed Bowl.”
That these properties of color also apply to words is confirmed, not only by the speaker in “Scenes from a Brothel,” who complains that there are “so few words for so many colours,” but also by the frustrated poets who speak, like the one imagining herself as a disintegrating painting in “Through the Round Window” (1988, 52):
I feel the room being torn to pieces, till no black Is connected to any other black, my yellow Pencil, my green table, can never be lit again. Each poem in my alchemist's cupboard That was an act of astonishment has a life Of roughly six weeks, less than half a winter Even in the child's sense of a week. …
The passage of time, and our attempts to capture, stop, or control it, appear in many of the poems in On Ballycastle Beach. In her explorations into the nature and limitations of time, McGuckian covers a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from Ireland's history to a vision of her own mother's death, and she ties them together in the volume in remarkable ways. Although the speaker in “Through the Round Window” describes how quickly, like color, the “act of astonishment” fades, many of the other poems in the volume focus on the staying power of art. Like many other poets, including Jack B. Yeats's brother, McGuckian presents art as one of our few defenses against the ravages of time and death, even if it does not always provide the reassurances we need.
As a tribute to that staying power, McGuckian turns to the Romantic poets, and to imaginative dream landscapes that outlast the dreamer.15 In “Coleridge” (1988, 34), boundaries of time and space collapse as a contemporary Irish woman poet meets her nineteenth-century male counterpart:
In a dream he fled the house At the Y of three streets To where a roof of bloom lay hidden In the affectation of the night, As only the future can be. Very tightly, Like a seam, she nursed the gradients Of his poetry in her head, She got used to its movements like A glass bell being struck With a padded hammer. It was her own fogs and fragrances That crawled into the verse, the Impression of cold braids finding Radiant escape, as if each stanza Were a lamp that burned between Their beds, or they were writing
Their poems in a place of birth together
McGuckian's equation of the birth of a poem with that of a baby turns Coleridge into a female, who having “fled the house” discovers “some word that grew with him as a child's / Arm or leg.” We recognize in this image a persona we see in many of McGuckian's poems, one who finds in the night, away from the duties of mother and housewife, her poetic self. In separate beds, an allusion also to their own respective English and Irish birthplaces, these two poets nevertheless merge as his English lines echo through her head to be transformed by her Irish “fogs and fragrances.” Like many other poems in On Ballycastle Beach, “Coleridge” touches on questions of language and borrowings, how the Northern Irish female poet might change the language of the English male poet. Ultimately, this poem brings into focus one of the larger themes of the volume: the way in which poetry and art in general can transcend political, historical, and geographical boundaries.
In another, more overtly political poem, “Little House, Big House” (1988, 33), McGuckian again uses the images of houses and rooms to picture the way in which art can break down boundaries. Alluding to the big houses inhabited by English settlers, and the small homes of the Irish cottagers, the speaker imagines a different kind of house, where
On the ground floor, one room opens into another, And a small Matisse in the inglenook Without its wood fire is stroked by light From north and south.
Here the house becomes an image for Ireland, described in the opening lines as “half-people, each with his separate sky.” But as the lines quoted above remind us, the same sun shines both north and south. If the Matisse painting, which represents the world beyond borders, replaces the fire in the inglenook, which suggests the conflict in Ireland, the light from both parts of Ireland can shine upon it.
The speaker in this poem shows how such an image affects her:
That started all the feelings That had slept till then, I came out From behind the tea-pot to find myself Cooled by a new arrangement of doorways
From earlier poems, we are familiar with McGuckian's shifting doorways, but in this volume the opening and closing of doors expands to include the borders of Ireland. Thinking about the house's “minstrel's gallery,” the speaker looks beneath the “tangled” house to its foundation: “our blood / Is always older than we will ever be.”
Many of the images McGuckian used in earlier poems to suggest a fractured self appear in this volume as metaphors for a divided Ireland, or for the troubled relationship between Ireland and England. Throughout the volume, the green, white, and gold of the flag of the Republic, and the blue, red, and white of the British flag, also have political significance.16
A reappearing woman on a beach is part of a larger pattern of imagery involving ships and travel.17 These images sometimes suggest a “flight,” like the earls described in “The Bird Auction” (1988, 50), whose leaving helped to create many of the troubles Northern Ireland has suffered. But they have other implications as well. In modern times many of Ulster's better-known poets have left, overwhelmed by the violence around them. In this context the meaning of home, and McGuckian's role as the best-known of Northern Ireland's women poets, takes on added significance, for the value she continually gives to house and home becomes a political statement as well. McGuckian has said that she was often tempted to leave but chose to stay because of family connections, roots, and a sense of belonging (1993a).
“But none of my removals,” says the speaker in the aptly-titled “Girls in the Plural” (1988, 42), “Was in any sense a flight,” contrasting herself to those “boys,” earls or poets, who have deserted Northern Ireland in its troubles. As Clair Wills says in her review of On Ballycastle Beach, “This is no mere abstract argument—other poets, such as Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon, in the grand tradition of Irish writers, have left Northern Ireland.” Quoting other lines from the volume, Wills explains that “McGuckian's abiding obsession with seeds, and her association of the womb with the growth of both words and children, suggest the possibility of a new type of ‘plantation’” (1988, 915). Even if she stays home, the McGuckian persona explains in “Four O'Clock, Summer Street” (1988, 31), her rooms can fly, given the right color: “I kept insisting / On robin's egg blue tiles around the fireplace / Which gives a room a kind of flying-heartedness.”
That McGuckian sees a difference between men and women on this issue is confirmed by the images in “For a Young Matron” (1988, 41):
An aeroplane unlike A womb claims its space And takes it with it. It says, Once it wasn't like this.
But wood grows Like the heart worn thin Within us, or the original Spirit of October.
The frustrated young matron speaking is a poet in the top floor of a house (which can “grow” from wood), listening to a “he” who asks her:
Why not forget this word, He asks. It's edgeless, Echoless, it is stretched so, You cannot become its passenger.
But McGuckian's women, especially her poets, do travel on words, always seeking an edgeless world. The rivers they move on lie within them; their flights are those of the imagination. Like the womb that encloses the life within it, they create worlds within themselves. And these women are anchored, as the poet herself is, to houses and to Ballycastle Beach.
The value of such anchoring appears in McGuckian's own mother, the subject of “Woman with Blue-Ringed Bowl,” (1988, 58), one of the final poems in the volume. Seeing her as the subject of a many-colored portrait, fit for a pen “that wrote in four colours,” McGuckian presents her as an Irish woman who maintained a home despite difficulties:
Though six vigorous soldiers have occupied her house, She has cried out only once, and laughed without a wrinkle. As wine comes stepping from stones, adding death to death, A quarter of her blood shows like a scar at moments Of excitement through her belted dress of dusky grey. You would think it grey, but I think her dress Is worthy of her mind, the semi-darkness Of a poem composed after illness.
That evening, when I printed “THE END” in my black, Floral, author's hand, on the blended orangey page, I gave my youth to my mother, whose heart is not Supposed to beat, even on the stairs, and said to the Moroccan April, stay the way you are.
A gust of wind and colour flies to the door That cannot be kept so narrow, my notebook lies Useless as a womb on my knees. The blue ensnared Is a careful, sad, a Marie-Louise blue, And she has remained both woman and flaxen page: But, when I saw the picture again, the sun had gone.
Having learned from an earlier poem that “any colour lasts a second, three or four / Minutes at most—and can never be repeated,” we understand the poet's response, and her own awareness that her mother's life, “ensnared” for a moment in color, is drawing to a close. In the face of death, womb and notebook, sources of creation, seem useless, as does the loving gesture of an enlightened child trying to give “youth” to her mother. Although she would like to keep her mother behind one of those doors her personae are always locking, the speaker here understands that when the sun is gone, “THE END” always comes, and nothing, even a Moroccan April, ever stays the way it is. Hence, the painter and the poet must try to catch the light: “Hold me in the light, she offers, turn me around, / Not the light controlled by a window, but the cool gold / Of turning leaves after their short career in the sky.”
While there are many themes, motifs, and images in this volume, “Woman with Blue-Ringed Bowl” encapsulates the unifying idea that ultimately we are all victims of time. The opening poem, “What Does ‘Early’ Mean?,” focuses our attention on the passage of time; and whether McGuckian is writing about domestic, political, or artistic life, whether she is describing seconds or hundreds of years, time is always an issue. Art, and especially poetry, become for her speakers a momentary defense against time, and the worlds of sleep and dream represent their entry into a timeless world of the imagination. As often as not, these women are waiting, not traveling in the usual sense, but staying home, finding themselves in what lies around them.
The ultimate message of On Ballycastle Beach is that leave-taking inevitably involves loss, an idea reinforced in the final and title poem (1988, 59), in which a child wandering on a beach is carried home to be read to:
I would read these words to you, Like a ship coming in to harbour, As meaningless and full of meaning As the homeless flow of life From room to homesick room.
Ship and house merge here, and the value of home, with its multiple meanings and many ramifications, comes through in the words and poems written by a “child of the North.”
The relationship of one generation to another, of children to parents, always a central theme in McGuckian's work, is also the subject of many of the poems in Marconi's Cottage (1991), and the problem of time is again central. The volume draws its title from a two-room cottage McGuckian purchased at the end of Ballycastle Beach. McGuckian says that she knew this house as a child and attaches a political significance to the fact that the cottage gives her a space in a landscape where the “Queen owns the other rocks.” Describing the spot as fostering her father's roots, McGuckian also sees the cottage as a peaceful alternative to the “hell of Belfast,” explaining that it became a retreat for her after a trip to the United States and a particularly trying time away from Ireland. Familial, political, and artistic themes surface in the volume as McGuckian explores both the personal and public meanings embedded in the image of the cottage.
Ballycastle has been associated with Marconi since 1898, when the scientist was struggling with the problem of transmitting wireless messages over water. Marconi's assistant, George Kemp, came to Ballycastle to see if it were possible to receive signals from a lighthouse on Rathlin Island. If so, ships at sea could signal to Rathlin and then to the mainland, where a telegraph office had been set up. Degna Marconi, in My Father Marconi (1962), describes the success of this venture: “At Ballycastle a 70-foot pole was erected and on August 25, George Kemp and an assistant named Glanville went to Rathlin. Near the lighthouse they put up a wire, first to 80, then 100 feet to clear the lighthouse. The assignment was accomplished and considered a marvel because there is a high cliff between Torr Head and Ballycastle” (63). The success of this venture showed that the wireless could cover great distances and make land-sea communication possible.
The metaphoric possibilities of such an image provide rich lore for McGuckian's poems. Marconi's cottage, as the backdrop for these poems, has significance on many levels. In evoking Marconi, McGuckian says she imagined the sea speaking to him and sees his work as an illustration of the way he responded to and understood nature.18 Voices coming over telephones and answering machines appear in these poems, and numerous poems suggest an analogy between Marconi's wireless communication and the work of the poet and artist. Allusions to Rilke, Rodin, Gwen John, Yeats, Balzac, Charlotte Brontë, and Sylvia Plath, among others, reinforce the need to see this volume as concerned with the artist's struggle to create and communicate.
Marconi's Cottage, like McGuckian's other volumes, is full of multiple voices, highlighting the tension arising from a woman's double role as mother and poet: the desire, on the one hand, to have another child, and, on the other, to commit herself fully to her writing. As is typical of McGuckian, these two roles intersect; the yet unconceived child dreamed about in the first part of the volume becomes the child celebrated in the later poems. Parallels between this child and the unwritten and written poem are developed throughout the volume.
The last poem, “On Her Second Birthday” (1991, 107-108), dedicated to McGuckian's daughter, Emer Mary Charlotte Rose,19 brings many of the preceding ideas and images into focus, reinforcing the imagery and tone of earlier poems. Sea, child, and poem merge as McGuckian's persona describes a characteristic process of change from mist to light. The speaker meditates:
It seems as though To explain the shape of the world We must fall apart, Throw ourselves upon the world, Slip away from ourselves Through the world's inner road, Whose atoms make us weary.
The result of this fragmentation, this journey, is seen in the second half of the poem, where the image of a shadow materializes as the speaker “ripened” into light. Like a message over water, a part of the speaker moves towards the sea:
But I flow outwards till I am something Belonging to it and flower again More perfectly everywhere present in it. It believes in me, It cannot do without me, I know its name: One day it will pass my mind into its body.
This image of conception and birth, of a part of self moving into something else, has numerous applications, not the least, given the dedication of the poem, to the daughter that this mother has produced. Lines in the beginning of the poem also allude to writing: “The wind like a soul / Seeking to be born / Carried off half / Of what I was able to say.” Like Marconi's message floating over water, however, the end of the poem suggests that the poet will “flower again” as her “mind” passes into the “body” of the poem.
Several other poems, including “Oval of a Girl” (addressed to “near-child, much-needed”), and “The Carrying Ring” (1991, 88-89), also highlight the birth of a daughter, emphasizing the parallel between different types of creation. Imagining the visible as “the carrying ring / For the invisible,” McGuckian describes in the latter poem the process of waiting, for a poem and a child:
Each languageless flake Of that night-filled mountain is a sleep And all that labour is to have An awareness of one's being Added to one's being, like a first daughter:
The cloudy, the overcast, then Something shone upon.
Repeating the imagery of night to day, darkness to light, shadow to shape that recurs frequently in her work, McGuckian emphasizes the value of waiting, until the sun shines through the clouds and the “child” is born.
If “On Her Second Birthday” and others celebrating the birth of a daughter create one tone in Marconi's Cottage, another pervades the volume as well. Linking birth with death, and beginnings with endings, many of these poems reflect McGuckian's awareness of the approaching death of her father, who was ill while she was writing these poems. One of the most lyrical and elegiac, “Echo-Poem” (1991, 67-69), represents a new direction for McGuckian in the simplicity of its language; it is also one of the most moving poems in the volume.
Acknowledging her meeting with a female figure of death, the speaker describes the consequences:
Now that I have kissed Her sound awake, She alliterates With my father, She unmoors him; though I modify His name by fond Diminutives, she ties Him to her stern.
If by conceiving a child, a woman sends off some part of herself into the world, in the death of her parent, she loses another part. Words associated with language and literature (“alliterates,” “modify,” “diminutives,” “war-odes,”) accentuate the link to writing, as does the identification of the figure of death with writing:
She will choose Her body freely, As a word chooses its meaning Her shoulder-twist And cleavage feeds Some foam-born Germ in me.
In the image of unmooring, McGuckian suggests that the writer may have as little control over words (“a word chooses its meaning”) as humans have over death.
In other poems, like “The Invalid's Echo,” “The Watch Fire,” and “The Rosary Dress” (where a father's death is compared to “a new kind of winter”), the awareness of a coming death appears in images of night, winter, invisibility. But death is also tied to new life in this volume; the last lines of “Charlotte's Delivery” (1991, 83) tell us: “In the wrecked hull of the fishing-boat / Someone has planted a cypress under the ribs.”
McGuckian herself suggests the cyclical structure of Marconi's Cottage and points to two poems, “Swallows' Wood, Glenshesk,” and “The Partner's Desk” as pivotal. In “The Partner's Desk” (1991, 70-71), a daughter and father both appear as the speaker mediates between them, McGuckian's familiar middle ground. Imagining a yet-to-be-born child, she describes a future where her own father is dead: “When I teach the continents / To my favourite daughter, my father is there / Though I do not see him.” Although the father's “mood is towards evening,” the bond between father, daughter, and granddaughter will survive. Reinforcing the generational links, the speaker's father, very much aware of his own mortality, tells his daughter of her own conception and birth: “‘The finest summer I can ever remember / Produced you.’”
In the final lines of “The Partner's Desk,” a persona speaks of the renewed rousing of her fingers, a metaphor for writing, as she describes the complicated feelings engendered by the overlapping birth of a daughter and death of a father:
… He will leave me The school clock, the partner's desk, the hanging Lamp, the head bearing the limbs, as I will leave her The moonphase watch and the bud vase. I restart My diary and reconstruct the days. I look upon The life-bringing cloud as cardboard And no reason for the life of another soul, yet still Today is the true midsummer day.
Images of time, of clocks and watches, of seasons and months, of days and diaries, of generational inheritances, reinforce the overwhelming sense of time passing in this poem and throughout the volume. The “yet still” of the penultimate line, the coming to terms with what time delivers—both good and bad—illustrates one of the many structures on which Marconi's Cottage rests.
There are numerous images of writers and artists in Marconi's Cottage, a good number of the allusions focused on the hardships individual artists endured.20 The struggle to create within a framework of other obligations, as well as the difficulty of persevering through the intense process of creation, is highlighted in these allusions. In “East of Mozart” (1991, 64-66), the musician's tempestuous isolation is compared to the poet's:
But some words like some notes That never pronounce themselves, Are meant for at most Ten people in the world Whose oxygen is storms.
Two female artists who appear in these poems, the painters Paula Modersohn-Becker and Gwen John, also struggled with some of the same problems McGuckian's personae express. Both are pictured in difficult relationships with male artists, John with Rodin, Modersohn-Becker with Rilke.
Paula Modersohn-Becker, who died after giving birth, was a close friend of Rilke's and the subject of his poem “Requiem für eine Freundin” (Rilke 1982, 72-87). In her study of Rilke, Patricia Pollock Brodsky explains that the more successful she became, the more the artist “feared being swallowed up, neutralized, by the traditional expectations of her family, husband and society” (1988, 17). Rilke's poem addresses these issues, lamenting the fact that her maternity led directly to her death. At the end of the poem, Rilke moves into more general questions about the relationship between life and art.21
In “To Call Paula Paul” (1991, 16-19), McGuckian calls attention to Modersohn-Becker's work. The speaker “embraces” the painter and suggests that they share “mother-to-be dreams,” and an important image is the artist's wrist. The speaker describes her relationship with this other woman artist:
I did nothing, I didn't cry: I held the permanent bangle on her wrist For a long time. In the bright July My window seemed too big, all day Long to insult me, with its pale heaven, Putting supple hands around my throat.
The image of a strangled voice suggested in the last line above is reinforced when Paula's face is seen in a “sordid light” and the mouth of the wind “outshouts” the speaker who identifies with Modersohn-Becker's conflict.
There can be no doubt here that the relationship between the artist and the mother, with Modersohn-Becker's tragic death after childbirth in the background, influences not only this poem but others in Marconi's Cottage as well. A woman's concern over bearing another child, and its effect on her writing career, is clearly expressed in this poem. Turning Paula into Paul, the masculine name suggesting the more traditionally “male” career of writer, McGuckian explores the conflict between the artist and “mother-to-be dreams,” an intercourse the speaker and subject of this poem share.
In another poem, “Road 32, Roof 13-23, Grass 23” (1991, 42-43), McGuckian considers the tangled life of Gwen John. To identify tones, John had developed a color system based on combining the numbers 1, 2, and 3, recording in notebooks the colors in each of her paintings. The poem's title refers to this system, one we can connect with the recurring colors that take on numerous meanings in McGuckian's poems.
A number of characteristics would attract McGuckian to John: she shared the turmoil McGuckian describes in so many of these poems; many of John's paintings feature rooms and interiors, which figure so prominently in McGuckian's work as well; and, as Mary Taubman explains, John's “closely woven interaction of self and subject is a unifying theme running through her entire oeuvre from youth to maturity (1985, 11).22
McGuckian's poem begins as a portrait of John, highlighted by its color, which emphasizes the woman's suffering:
The dark wound her chestnut hair Around her neck like the rows of satin trimming On a skirt with three flounces. She pressed firmly down the sides of her eyes The colour of the stem of the wild geranium And of the little ball holding the snowdrop petals.
In this poem, as in others in Marconi's Cottage, red is identified both with art and with suffering, the connection reinforcing the theme that the artist's life is often fraught with pain.
John met Rodin in 1904 while working for him as a model, and they soon became lovers. John's relationship with Rodin greatly influenced her melancholic life, though the significance of her work seems not to have been acknowledged between them.
McGuckian describes a conflict between different women embodied in John. Rodin knew one as the woman who wrote daily, loving letters to him; McGuckian imagines the other as totally different:
She slept with his letter in her hand, And the longest letter she wrote Was on the back of his letter To a woman who never existed.
The darkness and mists so prevalent elsewhere in Marconi's Cottage appear in this poem as well, suggesting how John's gloomy, sunless life was overshadowed by Rodin:
She did not light the lamp or the fire, Though he lit a station of candles
In wine bottles for their first kiss; The candlelight left a film of woodsmoke Over everything. Her fear of light began While his coat still hung over a chair, The window seemed a picture eased out of her, She did not want her own face there.
On one level, the images in this poem allude to Rodin and John and the struggles she had combining two lives. But they also connect to recurring images in all of McGuckian's work: images of dark, light, smoke, mist, rain, letters, doors. The woman artist and writer, who in McGuckian's poems must close one door in order to open another, is epitomized in figures like Gwen John and Paula Modersohn-Becker.
The tone and imagery of Marconi's Cottage consistently demonstrate that the struggle to create and communicate involves pain. Drawing on the conventional association of winter with death and spring with rebirth, McGuckian sees art as the offspring of suffering, poetry as the fruit of winter, and the garden the reward for having come through. The seasons and months of the year, as well as the cycle of conception, birth, life, and death, unify the volume and express ultimately that for every loss there is a gain, for every death a birth. The final poems in the volume portray a woman who has survived, who has confronted both the power of death and the difficulty of writing. In “Teraphim” (1991, 104-5), the mystery is accepted, and the ordeal of waiting through the difficult times is described as the “mist in which we are swallowed” that “allows a garden to be planted, / To breathe with our breath.” This breathing alludes to the image of the child which appears often in the volume and to the work of the artist, more specifically the poet.
In the title poem, “Marconi's Cottage” (1991, 103), the speaker addresses the cottage: “Maybe you are a god of sorts, / Or a human star, lasting in spite of us”; in “Red Armchair” (102), another speaker says: “If my father dies in the wasted arms of summer, / The sudden warm flood of his melted life / Will make new constellations.” At its most universal level, Marconi's Cottage is about gods and stars, about the possibility of light when darkness seems overwhelming. This is an elemental volume, with earth, air, fire and water prominent images. In “The Watch Fire” (53-54), McGuckian tells us, “When spring hesitates / We must wait for it.” For McGuckian's female personae the end result of this waiting is new life: both the child and the poem.
As we can see, consistent themes and images run throughout McGuckian's work, and, as I suggested in the beginning of this chapter, her subject is almost always the relationship between the different facets of a woman's life. Her poetry, especially the more recent work, is decidedly autobiographical, and details, if one is willing to accept her linguistic experiments, the most profound human experiences. McGuckian is much concerned with the role of the woman artist, but within the larger framework of women's multiple lives.
In one of her more subtle but extremely significant responses to the male tradition of Irish writing, McGuckian introduces a new image in the poem “Sky-Writing” (1991, 79), as she alludes to Yeats's famous poem, “Leda and the Swan.” Talking from the sky to the town below her, Leda becomes a typical McGuckian heroine, describing her escape: “I forfeit the world outside / For the sake of my own inwardness.” Like Yeats's Leda, McGuckian's speaker is swept away, but she is making her own choices: “I abandon myself to its incubative weight,” she says, distinguishing herself from the helpless Leda over whom Zeus has total power. Again seeing writing as intercourse with her muse, Leda here poses the Yeatsian question: “Being seen like this by you, / A steeply perched, uplooking town, / Am I the same in a more strengthened way?” The final lines of this poem rewrite Yeats's drama, as a woman poet expresses how she feels after this union:
I am on the point of falling Like the essence of rain or a letter Of ungiveable after-love into the next degree Of spring, its penultimate tones: Shall I ever again be caught up gently As the rustle of a written address by the sky?
In this new version of intercourse with the gods, Leda is speaking, not spoken about. She has become the female poet, not the subject of the male poet, and is willing to abandon herself to the “incubative weight” of her own inwardness for some “Sky-Writing.” The struggle described in this poem is a far cry from Yeats's image of a woman raped, and an important difference arises from the fact that in this poem Leda appears not as passive female but as willing participant in the development of her own “inwardness.” In this poem, as in much of McGuckian's other work, the value of a very complex female consciousness, with all its multiple voices and variants, cannot be overestimated. “Sky-Writing” is about pregnancy and poetry.
Two earlier publications, Single Ladies and Portrait of Joanna, were issued in 1980.
Nuala Archer's other works, both published in Ireland, include Whale on the Line (1981) and The Hour of Pan/Amá (1992). Born in the United States of Irish parents, Archer has also lived in Ireland and Latin and Central America. Her extensive travels are reflected in the varied settings and experimental techniques of her latest poems.
The Flower Master won both the Rooney Prize and the Alice Hunt Bartlett Award.
Byron also notes the originality of McGuckian's work as she compares her to Emily Dickinson, a woman poet misunderstood in her time:
the image-areas she draws on are astonishingly similar to Emily Dickinson's: the house, the room, its windows and its furnishings; snow, and the voyaged-over sea; exotic places, exotic (and native) flowers; extremes of pain and love expressed in terms of the tension between male and female; light, whiteness, the colour blue. The list could continue, and be refined. But what is perhaps most striking is the way in which the McGuckian voice speaks from this nexus of images with the dizzying swings of reference and the syntactical high-wire acts so reminiscent of her predecessor.
Although time, nations, and distance separate these two poets, the similarities Byron describes point to the value of exploring the ways in which women poets not only relate to one another but also circumscribe a world different from that of male poets.
James McElroy (1989) takes a similar theoretical approach.
The struggle involved in this union with the muse recurs in many poems. In “Ode to a Poetess” (1984, 11-12), McGuckian makes it clear that although Keats is in the background, she is seeing the problem from a woman's point of view:
Now you are in a poem of your own cold Making, on your second fret, your life knit Like a bird's, when amid the singing Of the Sparrow Hills, you yourself could not sing. It is ten o'clock, I am thinking of those Eyes of yours as of something just alighted On the earth, the why that had to be in them. What they ask of women is less their bed, Or an hour between two trains, than to be almost gone,
the woman “almost gone” (a postmodernist reading might also describe her as “almost there”) is the most pervasive motif in McGuckian's poetry. Michael O'Neill in a review of Venus and the Rain argues that in “Ode to a Poetess” McGuckian “insists mockingly on the absence of the ‘male principle’ from the poem” (1984, 63).
The ambivalence McGuckian's women speakers feel toward sexual desire, the sharing of the self, and the potential for swelling ovaries, recurs as a theme in the volume. In “Ducks and Drakes” (1982, 20), for example, a woman acknowledges how she freely gives herself to a man, declaring: “Not … / That I needed persuading / Even my frowns were beautiful, my tenable / Emotions largely playing with themselves, / To be laid like a table set for breakfast.” The final lines of the poem reinforce the mixed emotions a woman may have about intercourse and childbearing. In another poem, “The Dowry Murder” (1982, 38), the speaker, very conscious of her sexual desire, imagines “a last kiss, your clutch on my ordinary stem, / Then your head falling off into a drawer.” McGuckian has said that she intended here not only the traditional linking of intercourse and death but also the mixed feelings that a woman might have toward the object of her desires.
Mary Queen of Scots was forced to abdicate in favor of her son, James VI of Scotland, and was later executed.
See also Beer 1992, which draws on Sara Ruddick's Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace to examine McGuckian's work.
These comments and others in this chapter not otherwise attributed are from conversations I had with McGuckian in 1990 in the United States and in 1992 and 1994 in Ireland.
We might see these as versions of Cixous's “separate people” mentioned earlier, “the springing up of selves one didn't know.”
Eileen Cahill, offering a valuable reading of McGuckian's “middle voice,” a “position of greyness” that “allows McGuckian to interrogate oppositions” (1994, 266), points to a number of poems in which this “grayness” is a central image.
On Ballycastle Beach is dedicated to McGuckian's father, Hugh Albert McCaughan, and her son, Hugh Oisin. Venus and the Rain is dedicated to her mother, Margaret Fergus, and her mother-in-law, Mary McAuley.
Yeats's fusion and blending of colors, the blurring of lines in the painting, reinforce themes in the volume as well. The blue of the sea and the sky is actually a combination of colors. Sea, sky, and beach interpenetrate and, while we see them as separate, the boundaries between them are not always clearly defined. From a knowledge of McGuckian's earlier poetry, in which boundaries are continually shifting, we can see parallels between the two artists' work. For more on Jack B. Yeats, see White 1971.
Calvin Bedient maintains that McGuckian is not “Catholic Ireland's daughter, after all—or not enough; when it comes to push and shove, she's the heir, however captious, of the Romantics” (1990, 196).
In an interview with Susan Shaw Sailer conducted in Belfast in 1990 (1993a) McGuckian said that the poems “The Dream-Language of Fergus” and “A Dream in Three Colours” were both political poems, the first concerned with her son learning English, not Irish, the second with her wish that “we could all be English and all Irish and all Europeans.”
These women include the mythic figures Grainne and Pomona. Though there are several ships, and even some airplanes, they do not sail or fly. McGuckian's “First Letters from a Steamer” (1988, 28) is a poem about a steamy spring that comes after four perfect springs. As the sea this season “turns on / Another light,” the speaker learns, on her own voyage of discovery, how to borrow some sunlight to get through foggy days. Likewise, in “Lighthouse with Dead Leaves” (1988, 32), the speaker never leaves the house, even though “All wounds began to glow, / And lighthouses sprang to mind.” This woman sets out on the kind of journey we are used to in McGuckian's poetry: “I have locked my bedroom door from the inside, / And do not expect it to be mutilated. / My garb is chosen for a dry journey.”
McGuckian discussed Marconi's Cottage with me in Galway in July 1992. Some of the following comments and quotations draw on that conversation.
McGuckian already had three sons.
For example, the poem “Journal Intime” reminds us of the writer Henri-Frédéric Amiel's Journal Intime, his account of long years of suffering. Amiel's continual search for the relationship between the real and the ideal, his fascination with the invisible shadow world McGuckian explores in many of the poems in this volume, is reflected in his journal.
Amiel's journal entry for October 4, 1873, parallels some of the feelings reflected in McGuckian's poems:
I have been dreaming a long time while in the moonlight, which floods my room with a radiance, full of vague mystery. The state of mind induced in us by this fantastic light is itself so dim and ghost-like that analysis loses its way in it, and arrives at nothing articulate. It is something indefinite and intangible, like the noise of waves, which is made up of a thousand fused and mingled sounds. It is the reverberation of all the unsatisfied desires of the soul, of all the stifled sorrows of the heart, mingling in a vague sonorous whole, and dying away in cloudy murmurs.
Many of Amiel's images appear likewise in McGuckian's poems; they share a world of dreams, ghosts, mystery, moonlight, sea, waves, and clouds, a state where sorrow reverberates, and “analysis loses its way” and often “arrives at nothing articulate.” It is not hard to see Marconi's Cottage as McGuckian's own Journal Intime. Mrs. Humphry Ward's introduction to her translation of Amiel's Journal Intime provides a good nineteenth-century view of Amiel's work.
Brodsky provides more details on this subject. Rilke often wrote about death, and many of his poems are requiems. Brodsky describes the influence of Jens Peter Jacobsen, saying that Rilke “came to believe that each person has a death of his own, as uniquely his as his life had been. He also frequently uses the image of death as the core or seed of a fruit: death is placed within us to ripen. For women, giving birth also implies bearing a death along with each life they create” (1988, 30). In a poem written in 1900 about Paula Modersohn-Becker and the sculptor Clara Westhoff, later his wife, Rilke warns both women about giving up their art (which he defines as a feeling in their wrist), for the more conventional life of a woman. These concerns are central to McGuckian's poems as well.
McGuckian's attraction to late Victorian and turn-of-the-century life and art (like Gwen John's) is also illustrated throughout her work.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12114
SOURCE: Batten, Guinn. “‘The More with Which We are Connected’ The Muse of the Minus in the Poetry of McGuckian and Kinsella.” In Gender and Sexuality in Modern Ireland, edited by Anthony Bradley and Maryann Gialanella Valiulis, pp. 212-44. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Batten explores the thematic and stylistic effects of “nothingness” or “absence” in the poetry of McGuckian and Thomas Kinsella.]
When we make nature over again, The experience not bright, the thought not red, The soul being a substance cannot explain Just that red as felt in the room or bed:
Or how the rest of the merely understandable World, whose art of persistence is to be dead, Enters like twilight perched in her disrobing The more with which we are connected.
Medbh McGuckian, “Vibratory Description”
The sterile: it is a whole matter in itself.
Fantastic millions of fragile
in every single
Thomas Kinsella, “All Is Emptiness, and I Must Spin”
Medbh McGuckian and Thomas Kinsella might seem (depending on one's disposition) either to represent the healthy diversity of poetic productivity in Ireland or the perversities of its feminine and masculine extremes. McGuckian, in “Vibratory Description,” builds from “not” to “not” to “cannot” to a “more” that connects at the very moment when “red”—having rhymed with “bed” and “dead”—finds a feminine ending, and a compelling surplus, in “connected.”1 Kinsella's unstated, and implicitly unconnected, single drop of semen in “All Is Emptiness …” nevertheless delineates, negatively, a “wholeness” that awaits it at the locus of potential life where it may fail to arrive.2 Writing poems that challenge current critical approaches to poetry, gender, and reproductivity, these poets blur the distinctions between the hormonal home place and demiurgic workshop, returning—in surprisingly similar ways—poetry to its sources in an embodied or even sexualized imagination.
They have both written about “home” as though it is transient, permeable, incompletable, and, surprisingly, replete with procreative processes. In Kinsella's “His Father's Hands,” the stump into which so many cobbler's grandchildren drove practice nails comes alive with spermatozoal life.3 Family—its past and its future—seethes even as it mulches in that deconstructing memorial, regardless of the “dispersals or migrations” that preceded it or that will ensue. Indeed, the uprootings that characterize his family's (and in this sense his country's) history offer to this poet certainty only that the body's code moves from one still-unknown, self-destructive place to the next. McGuckian, in an essay entitled “Home,” similarly connects familial migration with the driven nail. Opening with a description of her unfinished house in Ballycastle, McGuckian calls this dwelling “A grave into the ground.” Its funereal attributes are soon subsumed by more fetal (but not more familiarly domestic) properties: “The house grew; its brain began; its grey matter formed meaning. It took something and gave something back, added and subtracted.” But subtraction, like the unknown, is substantive, she concludes, as she recalls her family's persistence in twice rebuilding a home (which once belonged to Protestants) that her Catholic family had first to take apart in order to inhabit:
There was a deep unspoken sense of intrusion into a foreign place, advertised not in The Irish News but The Belfast Telegraph, a tense and furtive awareness that the building we were dismantling plank by single plank in the chill of the late fifties had belonged to a non-Catholic family in an area unknown and unvisited by day. … after the two farm summers it flew across the glen to where it stands now, or continues to fall.4
McGuckian and Kinsella understand that a muse of the minus presides over unfinished life both in its beginnings and in its endings, and they both evoke and imitate the spaces and processes of this matrix who can so often seem to be also, to use Kinsella's term, a predatrix. It is a genuinely uncanny space of nothingness (or less) but also of surplus, haunted by both the foreign and the familial. Yet the minus in the poetry of McGuckian and Kinsella may be characterized as “feminine” and “maternal” only at the risk of underrepresenting the importance of fathers, and particularly of a father's hands, to two poets who so often enact, in poems, the process of putting hand to pen, fingers upon keys, and words onto paper.5
In the interlocking absences of “The Time before You,”6 which McGuckian has said she wrote as “a funeral rite for Paul [Muldoon] leaving Belfast,”7 the speaker links the “littering” of “a new poetry” with the process of simultaneously fingering the keys of an accordion and expanding or contracting an enclosed space, opening and shutting “both doors.” “Litter,” a noun that designates both detritus and surplus birth, is in Kinsella's “Worker in Mirror, at His Bench” inseparable from the secret of creation; “emptiness” is in fact the “peace of fullness.”8 A “guardian structure” whose authority is “elaborate, and wasteful,” the “mirror effect” both nurtures (“peace nursed out of wreckage”) and “lacerates” (for mirrors, of course, also break into shards) as it “arouses” a “structure” that is, I will argue, feminine.9
Kinsella's lifework typically has been judged to be an act of “structuring” that separates the poet from the psychic shattering that might have ensued had he remained within the matriarchal imaginary. Yet one might argue that the Jungian psychoanalysis that has been so often invoked to explain this poet has more often illuminated the scholarly drive for order than the poet's urge to re-order.10 In part this is because Jung's work can be accommodated—as Kristeva, the later Lacan, and even Freud (after Laplanche and Pontalis) cannot be—to humanist critical models that defend the value of poetry through reference to its capacity to help poet and reader engage in acts of “individuation” that lead to a “whole” or “complete” self. Poetry, according to this view, in promoting self-development, enables the conscious mind to actively assimilate and thereby to master the collective and unconscious materials that are feminine, archaic, or “immature” versions of the “self.” In presuming that Kinsella's objective as a poet is to unify the self by exposing and then disempowering whatever matriarchal forces lie hidden from public view, Kinsella's best scholars have followed the gendered biases of established cultural hierarchies. Keenly attending to Kinsella's interest in the public sphere, they underrepresent the ways in which the public and the historical not only overlap but also interpenetrate the private, the familial, and, indeed, the feminine.11
Yet in his negotiation of the spaces of nation, art, and self, Kinsella insists on the significance, not of assimilation, unification, development, or achievement, but rather of an ongoing, “polyglot” resourcefulness in which process, waste, and (arguably) regression (what Freud called the repetition compulsions of the death drive) figure largely. The “mother-pit” or “predatrix” whose place is both the “All” and the “emptiness” that the male poet/spider imitates in “All Is Emptiness,” is not a mirroring and incommensurable other but rather the containing structure, or matrix, that is simultaneously form and matter, whole and hole. Insofar as this orificial structure may be sexualized, it would seem to be female: its form—zero—is what it is, and what (until invested with semen) it contains.12 The Worker, far from banishing and thereby surpassing the feminine or (to use a Freudian term) “working through” his regressive attachment to her lost, if spacious, matriarchal presence,13 imitates her “random / persistent coherences,” her “Emptiness, / is that not peace?” The face into which the Worker stares as a final “mirror effect” returns in later poems as the shila na gig whom neither priest nor philosopher can banish from sacred space in “Out of Ireland,” and as the feminine other14 who creates, destroys, and judges in Kinsella's latest “Invocation”:15
Sweet mother, sweet muscle, predatrix,
always in the midst yet walking to one side
silent, reticent, rarely seen yet persistent,
we implore—the subsequent bustling in the previous:
Judge not. But judge.
Turning, through a single negative, a command into a countermanding order, Kinsella then reverses both effects with a conjunction that reverts—or regresses—to the original, maternal authority. The effect is both to deploy the resources of linguistic predication that found the symbolic order (what Lacan calls the Name or Law of the Father) and to negate them.16 In such lines Kinsella delineates the negative contours of a maternal space whose “vertical smile,” “dwelling” like the Worker in Mirror “upon itself for ever,”17 structures spatially and temporally a poetry of process in which the “stony” will of the Worker at last melts “to ineffable zero”18 in the face of the persistent minus and its instructive intelligence.
Kinsella's “motherpit” may seem remote from the McGuckian mother-poet whom her advocates, in relentlessly promoting the “feminine” attributes of her poetry, have constructed. Modulating the “Deathly nameless angel” of her “Teraphim”19 into a secular, middle-class, and eminently ordinary household goddess, McGuckian's readers have, for the most part, underrepresented the fact that McGuckian describes the motivations, processes, and ends of her art in terms of her self-avowed kinship with Blake and Yeats.20 Her scholarly readers, seeking in poems written by an English-speaking woman a mirror for something recognizable, or even familiar, as they lay claim to a feminist poetics of identity, have, not surprisingly, found there—or, one might even say, misrecognized there—the familiar details of a Western, middle-class, and heterosexual woman's domestic life.21 While McGuckian herself, in interviews, typically endorses rather than refutes such reassuringly representational readings of her poetry, she has, nevertheless, also made it fairly clear that she believes her authority, indeed her gift, as a poet originates not in her capacity to create life as we know it within the body's space, or even to sustain life there, but rather in the restructuring of imagination. That process began for her in the morbidity (indeed, the nearly infantalizing helplessness) of postpartum depression.22 In the aftermath of that psychic collapse, her descriptions of pregnancy and birth are anything but conventional in their deployment of terms from the gothic or from science fiction. Describing pregnancy as “This ravenous thing. … At the very moment when she has life within her she's marked for death,” as a mother, she concludes, “You are being eaten.” The fetus, which a more ordinary mind might characterize as enclosed and protected within the mother's earthbound body, McGuckian sends “Orbiting, like it was a space world.” Yet if pregnancy, in McGuckian's terms, is perilous for both maternal-host and child-hostage, the delivery of a baby is “not just a physical death, it's a mental death” for the mother and, perhaps she is saying, for the child as well.23
Remembering that psychic crisis,24 McGuckian claims that she discovered, in a visionary experience that confirmed her kinship with Blake, Yeats, Hopkins, and Eliot, resources not only for her emotional recovery (which allowed her to resume responsibilities as a mother) but also for her writing. In seeming contradiction, she has also described her poetry as impossible for the male reader (and, implicitly, for the male poet) to understand; she calls her writing “all moody and menstrual,” locating her “brain” in her “womb.”25 Yet McGuckian, on these occasions, seems less interested in ratifying a sexual poetics of separatism than in expressing gratitude and encouragement to those of her readers who supplement their scholarship with Luce Irigaray's critique of masculinist philosophy, Cixous's seductive essentialism, and Kristeva's dialectical, sexualized (and poetically productive) linguistics. In this sense the McGuckian scholar who seeks paradigms for her readings of the poetry in poststructuralist psychoanalysis (and I do not hesitate to include myself in this group) would seem to share motives (if not paradigms) with the Kinsella scholar who has sought reassurance for his or her readings in Jung's paradigmatic humanism. In McGuckian's case as in Kinsella's, however, the context one chooses may not only overdetermine the way the poetry is read but also lead to a diminution of the poetry's original and, indeed, disturbing negation of familiar and consoling symbolic constructions.
Death—gendered as female, rendered as archaic, violent, and matriarchal—is often present in poems by McGuckian and Kinsella. It appears at the very moment when either life or words are “delivered” in such poems as McGuckian's “She Which Is Not, He Which Is”: “Carry me who am death / Like a bowl of water / Filled to the brim / From one place to another.”26 Death is there as the “more” that connects the hand that mourns the dead in Kinsella's “The Messenger” through an autoerotic act that “conceives” in its various senses. In the decay of the father's body (“A dead egg … pearl in muck”), death guides the speaker to “conceive” “an impossible Possible / and exhausts in mid-reach. / What could be more natural?”27 It leads to a poetry that regresses even as it progresses until at last the “eggseed Goodness” moves, at the funeral, from the waste-matter of the dead to “Our scattered tribe”: “grandchildren, colourful and silent.” Perhaps it is not possible to distinguish death from the “All” that is itself (in Kinsella's predication) an “emptiness” of pure potential, or to understand the morbidity that haunts the significant silence that he calls, in “Minstrel,” “an enormous black beat.” In sending forth messages to that outer space, we await, from inner space, a reply that can only be a “missed” or “black beat” of dark “matter” that evokes also mater.28
In similar fashion, both poets describe poetry as a paradoxical effort to represent the matrix or “shape” of reality that requires of the poet a “falling apart,” as in the following poem by McGuckian:
It seems as though To explain the shape of the world We must fall apart, Throw ourselves upon the world, Slip away from ourselves Through the world's inner road, Whose atoms make us weary.(29)
Kinsella in “Hen Woman”30 encounters “the vast indifferent spaces / with which I am empty,” and through which, he says, a smashed “egg of being” will fall “until I die.” The poet who negotiates such spaces must be simultaneously a driver of the carriage horse of language and an imitative inhabitant of its empty geographical and linguistic “address.” “I drive words abreast / Into the interior of words,” McGuckian writes in “Sky in Narrow Streets,”31 “knife-rest or a spoon-rest / For your winter's love, the hollow bitten / Into the midday dream of your address.” Writing poems adequate to a postempirical (and postimperial) Nature, McGuckian and Kinsella find in the negative realm that Kinsella has called the “zero” of the “land of the dead” and that McGuckian has designated by such negative addresses as “Minus 18 Street” or “No Streets, No Numbers” an unapprehensible “matter” that is bodily, and in Lacan's sense “Real,” insofar as it is absent.32
“Absence” in contemporary theory leads, of course, to the term “desire,” yet because desire in its various guises is made so explicitly an object of investigation in the poetry of McGuckian and Kinsella (and because difference and deferral figure so largely, and so self-evidently, in their poems), the critic accustomed to delivering “differénce” (with a short lecture on the futility of finding origins) as her closing speech will find that the poetry has made such roles redundant. Similarly, the now-familiar terms of the Oedipus complex relinquishes, in these frank and troubling poems, its cathectic grip (or critical point). In poems about the sexuality of parents (and grandparents) or about a child's sadistic curiosity, Kinsella and McGuckian deliberately and productively confuse the poetic speaker with his or her origins or offspring.33 In so doing, the speaker in such poems may seem to identify with the dead or with the unborn, whether it is the dead father's “root” which the poet's hand seeks in his own lap, or, in McGuckian's “Breaking the Blue,” a “deluged” yet “womb-encased” child's “unspeaking likeness,” “leaf to my / Emptying shell,” “the spaces between words in the act of reading.”34
Kinsella, having twice faced with his wife the possibility of her death (and the risk she accepted in bringing three children into the world), has said in interviews that his first genuine poems were those inspired by what we can only, through the poetry, imagine to have been an uneasy rapprochement of desire, sympathy, fear, anger, and awe before Eleanor Walsh's masterful reading of the body. She would have known intimately that the body may yield life even when ravaged by disease. Death and the processes that lead to the creation of poetry have been, Kinsella says, preeminent concerns throughout his career. His interest in “primal creation” derives, Kinsella suggests, from what he perceives as both a thematic and formal problem for contemporary writers. Given the difficulty of communicating to a presumed audience in an age when what “we share is a general sense of unease and distress, betrayal and disappointment,” Kinsella claims he learned from Lowell's Life Studies to “rely [on] the few things we actually share: the fact that we are human beings, have mothers, fathers, uncles—families in general … taking a single consciousness and moving it step by step out among the grades of shared being.” In Notes from the Land of the Dead, Kinsella continues, he sought “to start almost before consciousness and let the dawning of individuation control what is happening.”35 While this statement may seem to ratify a humanist interpretation of Kinsella's project, the poet in fact concludes with a far from optimistic understanding of the difficulties of universal claims to truth and/or beauty. Poetic communication can never be less than difficult because the genesis (the “dawning of individuation”) of the poem begins,36 and the poem itself is resolved, before the reader enters the memorial to a poet's (now past) experience. The published poem that washes up on the beachhead of the reader's imagination is in fact a shell that the hermit-poet has long since evacuated. Citing “Worker in Mirror, at His Bench,” Kinsella suggests that a poem comes into being for the poet as what we might call an imaginary object.37 Into that object the artist projects or invests his experience; insofar as the poem itself has life, it is always a haunting, long after the fact of its purpose to the self-reflective artist of mirrors. What the Worker calls “waste,” Kinsella, in this interview, calls a “by-product”: the poem, “evidence that a further stage” in the poet's understanding of the “self” has occurred and that the poem (by implication) is no longer necessary to the poet for that purpose. When the reader, in Kinsella's words, enters the shell-poem, he or she “‘puts on’ the poem, so to speak, puts on this poetic sensitivity, engaged at this given time, with all its contexts, and extends his self … so as, in his turn, to ingest and understand.” The “imaginary object,” in other words, is ingested as well as inhabited.
The relationship between ingestion, or incorporation, and language is, throughout Kinsella's oeuvre, psychoanalytically complex, and apt.38Notes from the Land of the Dead opens with an explicit connection between reading, writing, thinking—what he will call in Songs of the Psyche a “burrowing” into the domicile of knowledge—and eating, an association that further links the poet/creator both with “mother liquid,” whose nutriment is “welling up from God knows what hole,” and with alchemical mystery—being created and creating out of a “ceasing” to “exist.” Like the hen (or the grandmother) the speaker broods, redundantly, not only on but also in what he calls “my shell of solitude”: a shell that is not unlike one that has been cracked for cooking, for while preparing to create he eats “forkfuls / of scrambled egg.”39
In this introductory poem to the volume, Kinsella explicitly associates the number “zero”—the egg-shaped numeral designating the original invasion of Ireland (before the second invasion, itself numbered “one”)—with an unspecified source of surplus: “—what shall we not begin to have, on the count of …” The word “zero” in the text is, at this point, supplanted by an over-sized illustration of an egg, zero, or uroboros (images of closure that are also empty), anticipating (in this volume) such poems as “All Is Emptiness,” which uses aposeopesis40 to imply presence through absence (in this case, the missing referents are “semen” and “drop”) and “Hen Woman,”41 where loss is “all the one.”
In the latter poem, dropping and falling are the moments just beyond zero when (as in the poem that opens “an egg of being”) the egg emerges from the maternal sphincter while, simultaneously, a cailleach figure emerges from the dark door of a sunlit house. The creation upon which she (like the narrator, as boy and as adult) “broods”—“a tender blank brain / under torsion, a clean new world”—begins its “drop to the shore” only to “smash,” wasted. At that moment of failure, meanwhile, a dungbeetle pushes its own piece of waste matter, which promises, larvally, the life that has gone from the egg. “It's all the one. / There's plenty more where that came from!” exclaims the old woman, suggesting that in waste lies plenty. The poet, in mirroring identity with her and with the egg/brain/wasted life upon which he also feeds, understands that the time before the fall—the minus of zero, of mother-liquid—possesses seemingly infinite plenitude or, alternatively, an incompletable narrative:42
I feed upon it still, as you see; there is no end to that which, not understood, may yet be noted and hoarded in the imagination, in the yolk of one's being, so to speak, there to undergo its (quite animal) growth, dividing blindly, twitching, packed with will, searching in its own tissue for the structure in which it may wake.
“Hen Woman” echoes two earlier poems that are indispensable for understanding the relationship in Kinsella's poetry between incompletion, or even waste—the fecundity of “the vast indifferent spaces / with which” the narrator is (like the brooding hen or grandmother) empty—and acts of incorporation into, or invasion of, that space. “Ballydavid Pier”43 recently has been characterized in Thomas Jackson's thorough study of Kinsella as “No mere emblem … of the outrageous rot Time relentlessly throws up”; given the authority of Jackson's readerly repugnance, he might well speculate “There is something beyond stoicism here”:44
Noon. The luminous tide Climbs through the heat, covering Grey shingle. A film of scum Searches first among litter, Cloudy with (I remember) Life; then crystal-clear shallows Cool on the stones, silent With shells and claws, white fish bones; Farther out a bag of flesh, Foetus of goat or sheep, Wavers below the surface.
“Allegory forms of itself,” begins the next stanza, until “the more foul / Monsters of life digest.” Dillon Johnston, in a reading of this poem's references to “allegory,” concludes that it is allegory, “this unborn idea, rather than the bag of flesh whose features are submerged, that is ‘lost in self-search’ and which remains embryonic. The thought of this creature defines itself only ironically.”45 That reading is very much to the point of Kinsella's project in several poems: the abrupt interruption or cessation of the delivery of meaning (which halts the “replacing” of “one world with another”), the delay of symbolic movement from object to word as from creator to created object to reader. Yet it does not fully evoke the abhorrent authority of that object which refuses to be digested by language, or by understanding: a “misbirth,” an aborted or miscarried product of an uncannily visible maternal space. The poet asks “Does that structure satisfy?” and this space is, indeed, a structure, an enclosed absence which is supposed to create an object and, like language, to deliver it. Like the egg upon which the poet feeds in Notes both literally and imaginatively, the “bag of flesh” that “Wavers below the surface” can almost (but not quite) be buried for it is indispensable to the Worker's art. A mirror, it “glistens like quicksilver,” “Lost in its self-search / —A swollen blind brow” that is before (and like) the poet who himself returns endlessly to his own “ghost tissue,” a time “unshaken / By the spasms of birth and death.” Simultaneously nothing and too much, this womb mirrors not only the thinking (reflective) poet but also, premonitorily, the harbor that, when “empty,” betrays its burials (memories, memorials). “The vacant harbour / Is filling; it will empty,” repeating ceaselessly life's sources and depletions.46 The indigestible and unallegorical materiality of the maternal will surface repeatedly as its failure, which is itself, paradoxically, a kind of fecundity.
The fetal sea becomes nearly endlessly replenishing in the volume's subsequent poem “Phoenix Park,” yet it remains in the realm both of the maternal and of death:
The dream Look into the cup: the tissues of order Form under your stare. The living surfaces Mirror each other, gather everything Into their crystalline world. Figure echoes Figure faintly in the saturated depths; …(47)
In this unconventional variation on Wagnerian eroticism and metaphysical love poetry, an ordinary pint of Guinness becomes an ordeal cup in which life breeds beneath the brooding mothers who hover above its cauldron. Offering this strange brew to his beloved not, the speaker tells us, as a song,48 he describes it, rather, as a mirror in which “tissues of order / Form.” “Your body,” he says to his lover, “would know that it is positive / —Everything you know you know bodily.” “Law” and “structure”—attributes associated so often for readers of Kinsella with a patriarchal persona—are here attributed by the poet to his wife, Eleanor; the hands, that so often in Kinsella's poems, pick, prod, or engage in acts of knife, fork, or pen, become at this moment attributes of a woman whose intelligence is indistinguishable from her body's wisdom and its generosity. “Life is hunger, hunger is for order,” the poem continues. “And hunger satisfied brings on new hunger.” If the waste of life that obtrudes in the reflecting surfaces of water in “Ballydavid Pier” is not altogether assimilated into the dream of “Phoenix Park”'s teeming cup, it is at least echoed in the death of childhood (a death the poem has already prepared us for in the subsection “The preparation,” in which a child, “devouring mushrooms straight out of the ground” receives “the taste of death”).49
This cup-held vision of birth and mortality, out of which emerges the urge, through bodily union, to give form to the not-yet-living who are also the once-alive, returns to Kinsella's poetry almost three decades later. “Morning Coffee” appears, appropriately, at an intimate and underground site in From Centre City (1994).50 The fetus-belly from “Ballydavid Pier,” the “Phoenix Park” cauldron, and the zeroes, invasions, and settlements of Notes from the Land of the Dead all return inn the deft and startling opening lines that were added after the poem first appeared in the Peppercanister volume Madonna and Other Poems (1991):
We thought at first it was a body rolling up with a blank belly onto the beach the year our first-born babies died.
A big white earthenware vessel settled staring up open mouthed at us.
The first few who reached it said they thought they caught the smell of blood and milk.
Soon we were making up stories about the First People and telling them to our second born.
The original opening of “Morning Coffee” follows an asterisk, with a description of a boy with wings and an “empty quiver,” “vanished, but remembered.” Recalling Kinsella's description of the soul's entry into the maternal egg in “The Messenger” (a winged “gossamer ghost” whose “tail-tip winces and quivers”), this subsection is followed by the closing of section I, in which the speaker gazes into his reflection in a well (“a thirsty thing to mine, / I think I know you well”); in section II he sits “late in the morning dark, … the cup hot in my hands,” suggesting the forming, yet once more, of life, as the poet's hands imitate the porcelain matrix before he abandons “my cup for the woman waiting.”51 Once again the ordeal cup, in the poet's hands, suggests renewed generative powers.52
Let us turn now to a poem by McGuckian that also concerns the loss of a child and a morning “cup.” “No Streets, No Numbers” differs from McGuckian's “Minus 18 Street” in tone and (although it can be perilous to make such claims in reading this poet) in relation to a topic the two McGuckian poems share: prenatal existence. The “minus” of the latter poem pairs two absences: the dreaming sexual partner's “gate of time” where he kneels before an image of fertility that “quarters,” and the speaker's speechlessness (“The breeze and I breakfasted / With the pure desire of speech”).53 Across the chasm of difference and deferral that conjoins these different spaces blow “The wedding-boots of the wind.” Replacing the gentle and silent breeze, the wind's heavy, metric breaths “Blow footsteps behind me, / I count each season for the sign / Of wasted children.”54 But if one partner's “sleep” wastes the possibility of fertilization, it also leads to an increase: it is not the “more” of desire (associated here, as in Lacan, with absence) or the “more” of the life that germinates through desire's expression. Rather, it is the “more” of a homelier connection: “love,” expressed as an extra syllable in the line that follows “more”: “I never loved you more / Than when I let you sleep another hour.” A near-rhyme of “more,” the word “hour” literalizes extra time and, poetically, extra measure.
The breeze's speechless desire discovers an object only to abuse it in “No Streets, No Numbers.” In the opening line the “blow” of the wind, the force of spirit or annunciation, takes place in an absent rhyme and at an absent object, where “wind” would have become its site of passage: window. This negative space becomes, as the poem progresses, the displaced site where fetal life appears to have been delivered prematurely.55 Various poems in On Ballycastle Beach and Marconi's Cottage imply or allude to an interrupted or not-yet-completed delivery or “post”: the sunrise of a canceled stamp (“A Conversation Set to Flowers”);56 “A letter breaking / The bounds of letters” (“The Book Room”);57 a card that arrives and is “folded” to be read later (“Through the Round Window”).58 Windows and doors elsewhere in these poems are open to insemination or closed in rejection or in pregnancy.59 In various poems “blue” (or blew) is drunk by and absorbed into a house, into a speaker who resides there, and even into a not-yet-delivered (or undeliverable) new life, a ghostly daughter grown into a boyish, self-destructive, underage muse. As the speaker tells us in another unlikely “address” poem—“Four O'Clock, Summer Street”60—“I knew she was drinking blue and it had dried / In her; she carried it wide awake in herself / Ever after, and its music blew that other look / To bits.” In bringing together such resonances, “No Streets, No Numbers” uses its non-address, in the most general sense, to remind McGuckian's readers that, in part, her poetry's opacity derives from simultaneous and overlapping absences: a poem may lack a clearly defined subject who speaks, a clearly defined referent, and a verifiable addressee (“reader”) to whom the words are delivered.61 More helpfully, and more specifically, this poem transforms the failure of delivery into a material loss: miscarriage, where carriage is troped as “Two men back to back carrying furniture” across a street from one “room” to another.62 The image materializes the root meaning of the word “metaphor” (to bear away or carry across), which suggests birth but also pallbearing; indeed, the object dies only to be reincarnated as word, in the passage we call language. Annunciation leads to enunciation, an overripeness “like an unsold fruit or a child who writes / Its first word.” But this is a poem about the failure of both, the “Double knock of the stains of birth and death.”
The blows of the bootstepping wind bruise and stripe the curtains' skin “like” soon-perished fruit, “like” a child who has been dealt a blow, and “like” writing (whose markings end, in a sense, childhood), but only several lines later does the speaker allude to “a woman's very deep / Violation as a woman.” “Later, later” becomes the erosion, rather than the fact, of difference and deferral—“the wall / Pulled down” of a womb that, in delivering prematurely, drowns its occupant long before it can become a child who will no longer remain a child when it “writes its first word.” The “blue stripes” succeed to a belated rain; indeed, the stripes may also signify the residue of a previous drenching no less than the wind's bruising and drying. Probing or exacerbating rather than relieving the persistence of an inner, “sandribbed” desert-like space of desertion, “missed rain” becomes itself a kind of weather, personified as a girl whose too-old eyes are empty, a wound that signifies a now-missing knife. A failure of condensation, “missed rain” seems to require in this stanza compensatory feminine rhyme endings that rhyme or slant-rhyme “rain” and “stain”: “desolation,” “vegetation,” “violation”; “rain,” “stains.” Around something missing, “a life crystallizes.”
From that crystal forming in a violated space, the second stanza moves to a diamond lizard “brooch” that holds together a “breech.” The space of desolation itself—an enclosure that has been broken open—becomes an inner place, still furnished but inappropriately so, into which the speaker may peer:
But I'm afraid of the morning most, Which stands like a chance of life On a shelf, or a ruby velvet dress, Cut to the middle of the back, That can be held on the shoulder by a diamond lizard.
Brooches in McGuckian's poems suggest both the infertile, unnurturing crevices of an older, death-bearing muse and various objects that make “breeches” tolerable: in “Echo-Poem” the “cleavage” of “Death” “feeds / Some foam-born / Germ in me”;63 the “large china brooch / Of fivefold crimson” implies renewed fertility in that same poem; a “brooch in the shape of an anchor” appears in “Through the Round Window”;64 and a ring inside a pocket (emptiness within emptiness) becomes, in “Shaferi,” a “book-shaped / Brooch.”65 Seduction, in these images, crossed with “attachment,” seems appropriate for evening; if the morning does not arrive with a message, delivered by semen or by “post,” then the “chance of life” remains, immoveable, on its “shelf.” It is “post,” after the fact.
From the stone of the lizard-jewel that holds together a severed dress, “No Streets, No Numbers” shifts to a severed life. Inside that negative address a small body, as impenetrable as stone, is nevertheless vulnerable beyond the “curtain” (still striped) of “ribs.” It will drown within a blue, “sea-coloured dress” that will too soon turn tidal:
A stone is nearly a perfect secret, always By itself, though it touches so much, shielding Its heart beyond its strong curtain of ribs With its arm. Not that I want you To tell me what you have not told anyone: How your narrow house propped up window After window, while the light sank and sank. Why your edges, though they shine, No longer grip precisely like other people. How sometimes the house won, and sometimes The sea-coloured, sea-clear dress, Made new from one over a hundred years old, That foamed away the true break In the year, leaving the house Masterless and flagless.
“Stone” in the later (and eponymous) poem “Marconi's Cottage”66 describes the safekeeping of that house's “castle-thick walls” (stone which the speaker will “open” her “arms” to embrace). In “Brothers and Uncles”67 “stone” characterizes a room associated with adapting bodily interiors (“The stone of a room will digest the half-bared / Moonlight”). But in “No Streets, No Numbers” the secretive stone is nearly existentially alone (“always / By itself”) and self-defensive: “shielding / Its heart beyond its strong curtain of ribs / With its arms.” When its defenses fail, the “break” engendered becomes displaced, by the speaker, to the minus-time of a not-yet-new year:
… That dream Of a too early body undamaged And beautiful, head smashed to pulp, Still grows in my breakfast cup; It used up the sore red of the applebox, It nibbled at the fortnight of our violent Christmas like a centenarian fir tree.
Even the lunar promise of the recurrence (and subsidence) of an egg's fertility in the menstrual or postpartum “sore red” is “used up” by a dream that (like the fetus it recalls) “nibbles” at the end of the year when “nativity” is usually celebrated.
The breaking does not end with the smashed egg of the cup vision, for the next lines evoke a broken “roof” of shelves and then a “clicking-to” of porcelain: “dawn-blue plates.” Here the “hands” are “refusing to let go” even as the inevitable breakage happens. At last the speaker asks:
And how am I to break into This other life, this small eyebrow, Six inches off mine, which has been Blown from my life like the most aerial Of birds? …
The “blue” of the jay has from the beginning suggested the violence of annunciation, whether dove or swan. If this most “aerial / Of birds” has like an egg been “smashed,” McGuckian nevertheless concludes, as Kinsella does in “Hen Woman,” with a more optimistic avian allusion. In an inversion of the uningestible contents of the morning cup, the speaker will later drink from other cups at a different address where a bird, if not its egg, survives: “On the pavement of Bird Street,” whose “warmth” and “patch of vegetation” may have inspired this poem-long reverie, she may drink the blue that will bring forth “the voice reserved for children.”
There are several poems in On Ballycastle Beach and Marconi's Cottage that concern the breakage of porcelain, perhaps uterine, vessels. As in “No Streets, No Numbers,” these already fragile structures can metamorphose disconcertingly into clothing or other forms and, from there, into irretrievable (and perhaps un-addressable) loss. “To the Oak-Leaf Camps” seems a nearly direct statement concerning not only the writing of poetry as impregnation but also the loss that may follow or even abort a poem's gestation. Like “papa's,” the hands of a poet may, at a critical moment in labor, be rendered useless. In the filidh-like process that the speaker describes (“Both of us lie in the dark to compose”), the gestation of a poem leads to thoughts of “a child you know will be born dead / At three minutes to ten.” The “sore-red” of the applebox becomes “Blood in the mouth, red of red” but also “read”: “As a book read robs you of the fever / You had when you were writing it.” The poet, in a final stage, puts on the “garment” of (in various senses) creation: “Your sky is as close to me / As some particular garment.” Yet only after the appearance of yet another avian image: “To know that must be to crush / A small bird to death every morning.”68 In “First Letters from a Steamer” the speaker describes sunlight as “A red coat I'm still a little afraid of” as she paints “A broken vase I loved,” remembering “Fruit that won't go into your jars.”69 “Blue Vase,” the poem that follows, begins with a description of “My overblouse,” “a roving ache,” then shifts to a description of the rhyming “My house,” “a small blue vase,” mishandled “by my own / Determined touch”; as a result, the poem leaves us to conclude, a ship “dims … Early in the voyage.”70 What might seem metaphors that are easily associable with the life-giving (or life-shattering) womb, McGuckian transforms—with dizzying rapidity—into a shawl, dress, or other garment that the speaker herself inhabits, or perhaps sheds. Such a garment may be the life she carries within her either to term or (perhaps) to premature or even failed delivery, or it may be a death that recalls the beginnings of life in that intimate space, where it once put on (as in “No Streets, No Numbers”) a “sea-coloured dress.” In “The Rosary Dress” the speaker describes “A white armless dress, a cloak of roses / A coat of morning as August grows. / I must install myself inside that seed.”71 In “Four O'Clock, Summer Street” the speaker “would shine in the window” of her absent child's “blood like wine, / Or perfume, or till nothing was left of me but listening.”72
Into garments, in McGuckian's poems, are often sewn distended or secret pockets that serve as alternative spaces to the metaphor-like crossings of what she calls, in “On Ballycastle Beach,” “the homeless flow of life / From room to homesick room.” One of McGuckian's most powerful poems, “On Ballycastle Beach” opens with an address to a lost child discovered near a sea that was “born” of “France.” In rapid succession both he child and the words used to reach the child are transformed into a ship that at first seems not to “dim” or sink—failing in or refusing its delivery—but, instead, reaches its destination.73
If “words” flow, like children growing inevitably beyond the speechlessness of innocence, or (one might add) like the dying departing into a realm beyond words, then the reverse might also be true: to acquire words is, in a real sense, to leave home in an inevitable journey that can only end in the “homesick room” of the grave. Indeed, words are casually yet magically translated, in the stanzas that follow, into the sheltered and sleeping objects of the speaker's love; yet they remain (like true orphans) “just beyond my reach.” At last words, like the lost child, drown in a “mid-August misstep” where the “toys and treasures of a late summer house,” a maternal home in a womb-sea by the sea, are forsaken for the “snow” that lies beyond McGuckian's revision of MacNeice's “bay” window. Yet while a “breakdown” of the Atlantic—literally a breaking of the blue—has begun, an older language nevertheless is both recovered and recovered in its Atlantis-like sinking: “a city that has vanished to regain / Its language.” The “words” that seemed first in this poem to serve as objects of comfort and consolation even if they were distant (“The words and you would fall asleep, / Sheltering just beyond my reach / In a city …”) metamorphose from “children,” into “traps,” into the contents of a book packed with DNA code that lies buried inside the lost city/child: “My forbidden squares and your small circles / Were a book that formed within you / In some pocket, so permanently distended / That what does not face north, faces east.” From daybreak or the sea's edge words are heard as the “faithless” voice of the “water” that “escapes” (breaks from?) home until, at last, the voice of a once-again lost child is delivered. It is “the longest I heard in my mind,” this “water's speech, faithless to the end.” With or without words, that voice remains in the speaker's “mind,” even if the “breakdown” is perhaps locatable there as well.74
If we return at this point to the seashore of Kinsella's “Ballydavid Pier” and “Morning Coffee,” where miscarried life similarly refuses to submerge into the allegorical (and therefore consolatory) waters of “words,” we might recognize that McGuckian's poem—no less than Kinsella's several poems on seacoasts that lead to the delivery of life or the invasions of insular peoples—concerns “delivery” at the level of political, as well as familial, bodily, and linguistic, meaning. Neither level is subsumed into (or, one might say, drowned by) the other. At this point, some information concerning the publication of On Ballycastle Beach is illuminating. McGuckian planned to include in the volume an epigraph concerning the writings of Roger Casement, whose family came from the poet's original (and now second) home on the Antrim coast. In the epigraph, Casement recalls the exhilaration of landing on Banna Strand, even though he foresaw the fate that awaited him. Oxford University Press chose not to publish the epigraph. Were Casement associated with the various opened and closed “casements” in the volume, or his unsuccessful effort to deliver arms by sea on Banna Strand linked to other miscarriages implied in the poems, then we might well conclude that the linguistic proximity of “On Ballycastle Beach” to On Baile's Strand encouraged McGuckian to consider (as did Yeats) how a parent's destruction of his child at the margin of land and sea may be likened to an empire's miscarriage of justice in its relations with a colony that is seeking to be reborn as a nation.75 In this, the waste, failure, and surplus that are thematized in McGuckian's poems may be likened to Kinsella's own poetry of seminal and national migration, invasion, and re-creation.
That the archaic muse who both inspires and is the locus of such invasions, evictions, and plantations carries associations of the grave as well as the womb, or that the aisling who calls young men to arms is also a cailleach, morrigen, or crone, might seem simply a given of Irish, as of western European, literature. Robert Graves drew heavily from Celtic mythology for his portrayal of a “triple muse,” an archetypal goddess of birth, fertility, and death. Yet in Kinsella's portrayals of a maternal muse who may turn murderous or be murdered, and in McGuckian's “Clotho,” “Brothers and Uncles,” and “Teraphim,” we glimpse the contours not of a perennial virgin/hag but rather of a creative maternity that has been banished to the perimeters of ordinary language. She is neither “body” to the masculine poet's “mind,” nor bearer (like Eve, Persephone, or even Psyche) of the seeds of mortal death, nor wielder of the scissors that slit the thin-spun life. Rather it is we, these poets tell us, who murder her.76
In Kinsella's “Ely Place” a boy in a fit of unspecified rage takes his “pen-knife” to a woman's throat, ghosting her “spirit” in the “spirting gullet.” “Vanishing,” she “disappears, buried / in heaven, faint, far off,” her body food for “brief tongues of movement / ravenous, burrowing and feeding, / invisible in blind savagery.”77 “Feeding” and “burrowing,” incorporating and being incorporated into a maternal source of nutriment and habitation, these infantile and original connections to a maternal body remain, in Kinsella's poetry, acts of reading and thinking that revive in the adult poet an abiding maternal aspect of the masculine (no less than the feminine) imagination. Without access to her presence, then to “cower close / on innermost knowledge,” to “burrow with special care,” may seem inevitably to lead to plunder: “they have eaten / and must eat.”78 The intellectual act that forswears the feminine may conversely evoke a plundering predatrix that has been evoked by masculine acts of violence: the pens and knives that, in pursuit of truth, dissect the body and that, in pursuit of nurture, feed on flesh, in A Technical Supplement, transform a “serious read” into an encounter with the maternal “more” that lives within, and beyond, the text—not as a “nutrient smile” but, instead, as a black-hearted morrigen.79
If at last we are to learn to connect this dark wing-beat with the affirmative “black beat” of “returning matter” that hearkens to the poetic impulse in “Minstrel,” Kinsella in “Out of Ireland” suggests that we must first connect the “distinct” pens of the toiling, burrowing scholar (“long library bodies, their pens / distinct against the sinking sun”) with the indistinctness of a sexual union that he describes not as phallic presence but as feminine absence: “ineffable zero.”80 Such the speaker learns from the wife who once taught him, in “Phoenix Park” that the “Fragility echoing fragilities / From whom I have had every distinctness” may “Accommodate me still, where—folded in peace” the poet is “undergoing with ghostly gaiety / Inner immolation, shallowly breathing.”81 Extending the lessons he once learned as a boy in the minus domain of decimals (“I am going to know everything,” the speaker exclaims in “Model School Inchicore”),82 “Out of Ireland” represents the schoolmaster's negative knowledge as neither beyond nor better than the wife/muse's instruction—once again—in what he called in “Phoenix Park” her “Laws of order.” As she restores to him what Kinsella called in “Good Night” the “psyche in its sweet wet,”83 the speaker in turn kisses with dry lips her “rain-wet hair.” Refusing to erect distinctions between structure and flux, between a “resurrection” that is a “returning into God's light” from the bodily fire and generation of his union with his wife/muse, he also resists separating the truth this muse of shape and form has imparted to him from what he has learned in this day visit to the stone ruins of Eriugena (who died, literally, by the pen).
Kinsella's association of the muse with “music” leads him, in such poems, back not only to his wife/muse but also to Sean O'Riada, metamorphosed into a masculine and Mahler-rapt morrigen. Such an association also occurs in McGuckian's “Clotho,” which begins “Music is my heroine.” This muse, however, soon becomes a soundless, broken idol with whom the sympathetic speaker can communicate only without words: “not even a broken stalk / Of lilac-veined sound behind her broken eyes”; “I dropped three-quarters / Of my words for I did not need them.” The muse is associated in this McGuckian poem both with a “satellite” which “is never / anything but feminine” and a “Radioactive moon” that is “Past childbearing.”84 The now-sterile satellite, the speaker writes, has “a horror of touch,” yet this poem about the muse of the distaff, the moon, and music makes of “hands” a condensation of the horrors, the widescale waste, of modern mass extermination. “The most expensive white,” the speaker observes, “Of all those pairs of hands” are “born,” yet they are brought forth only “for a few sealed railway trains.” Clotho, the speaker concludes, is “My house god, my all-powerful / Mistress of tone” yet she is in this poem abused as a servant. The speaker causes her muse to “moan” and, at last, to speak “as if translating.”
In “Teraphim,” however, the poet restores the authority of the feminine god of domestic interiors. Encountering her not in enclosure but rather in a lost paradise of mist, garden, and breath whose “openness” the poet claims to imitate, the speaker says to her teraphim “only you can take me back / Beyond yourself” to an absent “earlierness / Now forever forsaken,” “a natural radiance, / Or a story we were not born into.”85 From this apostrophe to a “Deathly nameless angel” the poem moves to an “unborn” story and then to a space “in the garden we have felt before / That makes itself, where even the ground speaks.” In this sense “Teraphim” bears comparison with “Open Rose.” In that poem the speaker declares “I have grown inside words / Into a state of unbornness,” having discovered through her muse the words and stories of a poetry that is as open as her matrix of life and death. Its “folds” of petals bear, pudenda-like, “the lost / Strangeness of our namelessness.”86
In the umbilical, underwater language of Marconi, which relies of course on touch (the tapping of keys with the hands, in a manner closer to typewriting than to speech), the poet has found in Marconi's Cottage an apt model for an art that confounds distinctions between absence and presence. For the successful, if until then unlikely, delivery of messages that Marconi invented bears close resemblance to the speaker's description in a “A Dream in Three Colours,” from the earlier volume On Ballycastle Beach, of her broken, yet miraculously deliverable, messages:
Every hour the voices of nouns Wind me up from their scattered rooms, Where they sit for years, unable to meet, Like pearls that have lost their clasp,
Or boards snapped by sea-water That slither towards a shore.(87)
Marconi's Cottage concludes with a poem in which a successfully delivered child recalls a kind of wholeness from which she has, in her words, “fallen apart.” In this poem titled “On Her Second Birthday” an infant daughter implores her adult reader to remember the wisdom of an innocence that survives the perilous passage of nonbeing into a prenatal life where an embryonic Eve-like spirit is guided by a maternal Nature (the watery matrix whom Eve, according to Milton, mistook for her own). In McGuckian's revision of Milton's mirroring matrix, the maternal looking glass is inseparable from the voice of divine spirit “between the trees” that Milton's Adam heard as his masculine God. The infant speaker was, like the Word, “In the beginning.” Yet she was also, in this paradoxical opening line, “no more,” already a ghostly apparition:
In the beginning I was no more Than a rising and falling mist You could see through without seeing. … … … … … … … … …
Suddenly ever more lost Between the trees I saw the edge of the forest Which had no end, Which I came dangerously close To accepting for my life,
And followed with my eye a shadow Floating from horizon to horizon Which I mistook for my own. It grew greater while I grew less, Gliding like a world, a tapestry One looks at from the back.
The more it changed The more it changed me into itself, Till I regarded it as more real Than all else, more ardent Than love. Higher than the air Of a dream, A field in which I ripened From an unmoving, continually nascent Light into pure light.(88)
From that union with the shadowy and maternal figure who ghosts both child and living mother even as she is the “field” in which the not-yet-life germinates, the embryo acquires sufficient strength not to break but to be born. The contours of that maternal “more” (“The more it changed / The more it changed me into itself / Till I regarded it as more real / Than all else”) persists even beyond birth, even though the infant's union with “it” has become imperfect. In this relationship of process—“flow,” “flower”89—in which the “Deathly, nameless angel” can be (but is not) named, maternal shadow and living daughter echo each other's absences as a promise of, one day, “more”:
But I flow outwards till I am something Belonging to it and flower again More perfectly everywhere present in it. It believes in me, It cannot do without me, I know its name: One day it will pass my mind into its body.
In the ungendered “it” of the lines with which I am concluding, let us leave literally open, as do the poems of McGuckian and Kinsella, the negative space of an embodied creativity. Available regardless of the genders that our bodies acquire, such creativity cannot “do without” the “me”-ness of incarnation, however quickly the “something” may end, as it began, in nothing.
Medbh McGuckian, “Vibratory Description,” Marconi's Cottage (Old-castle: Gallery Press, 1991; Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 1992), 95.
Thomas Kinsella, “All Is Emptiness and I Must Spin,” Poems, 1956-1973 (Winston-Salem, N.C.: Wake Forest University Press, 1979), 54-55.
Thomas Kinsella, “His Father's Hands,” Peppercanister Poems, 1972-1978 (Winston-Salem, N.C.: Wake Forest University Press, 1979), 67.
Sophia Hillan King and Sean McMahon, eds., Hope and History: Eyewitness Accounts of Life in Twentieth-Century Ulster (Belfast: Friar's Bush Press, 1996), 210-11.
See especially McGuckian's “Lighthouse with Dead Leaves” (On Ballycastle Beach [Winston-Salem, N.C.: Wake Forest University Press, 1988; Old-castle: Gallery Press, 1995]) and “The Unplayed Rosalind” (Marconi's Cottage) and Kinsella's “Soft Toy” (Poems, 1956-1973) and “The Little Children” (Blood and Family [Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988]).
McGuckian, “The Time before You,” On Ballycastle Beach, 43.
Interview with Kathleen McCracken, Irish Literary Supplement 9.2 (Fall 1990).
Kinsella, “Worker in Mirror at His Bench,” Poems, 1956-1973, 178.
This process is quite close to Kinsella's description, in interviews with Daniel O'Hara and John F. Deane, of his own processes. See Daniel O'Hara, “An Interview with Thomas Kinsella” [Contemporary Poetry: A Journal of Criticism 4.1 (1981): 1-18] and John F. Deane, “A Conversation with Thomas Kinsella” [Tracks: Thomas Kinsella Issue 7 (1987): 86-91]. As David Kellogg suggested in a paper delivered to the Southern American Conference for Irish Studies (“The Spaces of Kinsella's Childhood,” February 1996), a consideration of Kinsella's poetry in relation to Lacan's delineation of the mirror stage would constitute a full study in itself.
Carolyn Rosenberg, in her dissertation, “Let Our Gaze Blaze: The Recent Poetry of Thomas Kinsella” (Kent State University, 1980), reports that Kinsella began reading Jung in the early seventies when his American students told him of parallels between Jung's studies of unconscious materials and the poet's exploration of the mythic origins of an insular people (Rosenberg, 48). Interestingly, in response to readers who ask Kinsella to discuss the influence of Jung on his work, he focuses less on the process of individuation than on “process,” period:
I can't pretend to have been in any sense soundly influenced by Jung, because I simply haven't read that much of him. I've taken ‘cuttings’ out of him, especially things having to do with artistic creation and the imagination. I can feel him being right about the processes of poetry.
(O'Hara, “An Interview,” 8)
Such disparate readers of Kinsella as Thomas Jackson (in his appreciative The Whole Matter: The Poetic Evolution of Thomas Kinsella [Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995]); David Kellogg (in “Kinsella, Geography, and History,” South Atlantic Quarterly 95.1 [Winter 1996]: 145-170); and Bill McCormack (in “Politics or Community?” Tracks: Thomas Kinsella Issue 7 : 61-77) are united in their underrepresentation of the body as they explore the interconnectedness of intimate and public spaces in Kinsella's poetry. The “place” that “receives our life's heat,” even at the moment when, as Kellogg suggests, Kinsella is making a straightforward observation about addiction problems in a local neighborhood, proves also to be the cutaneous (and subcutaneous) orifice opened by a poet who is injecting his scribal penpoint into the tender flesh. See the opening poem of the sequence “St. Catherine's Clock” in Blood and Family, 69. One may appreciate Kellogg's argument in “The Spaces of Kinsella's Childhood,” that Kinsella's concern, in his portrayals of older relatives as versions of the cailleach or morrigen, is to expose the cultural forces in Ireland that misshape such lives. Yet we might leave open the possibility that Kinsella understands that such cultural forces also depend on the ideological shaping of a “consciousness” that defines itself in relation to an abjected “other,” a consciousness that excludes such lives in order to believe in its own “health.”
It might also, arguably, be homosexual; “All Is Emptiness …” derives from Whitman, after all. To the degree that our culture automatically assigns the feminine gender to absence denotes not only a devaluation of the female but also, of course, a corresponding demotion, or even denial, of the orifices associated with male homoeroticism.
The Worker's goal, according to Rosenberg (“Let Our Gaze Blaze”) and Jackson (The Whole Matter), is not only the assimilation of these allegedly “feminine” unconscious materials but also a “mature” surpassing of both mater and the material.
In this sense Kinsella recognizes the persistence of the feminine other as what Lacan, in crossing through that designation, describes as her/its connection with the “Real”: that which cannot be represented or signified in language.
Kinsella, “Invocation,” Blood and Family, 23.
Julia Kristeva in Revolution in Poetic Language calls the linguistic deployment of the death drive “semiotic,” a key aspect of the dialectical struggle between the negative forces of the bodily drives and the ideological authority of the Symbolic Order. She calls this dialectical engagement “poetic language.” See the translation by Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).
Kinsella also refers to “her two nutrient smiles” (“Her Vertical Smile,” Blood and Family, 55).
“Out of Ireland,” ibid., 62.
McGuckian, “Teraphim,” Marconi's Cottage, 104-5.
An investigation of McGuckian's references to “rose” and to versions of the lapis stone in relation to mystical traditions might lead to interesting conclusions.
In this sense, despite their own disparate—and otherwise defensible—critical dispositions (from Patricia Haberstroh's politics of identity to Clair Wills's postmodern and postcolonial perspective), these readers share a presumption that McGuckian writes poetry primarily in order to express what makes women's experience “different.” to recognize that this presumption limits McGuckian's poetic aims and accomplishments is not, however, to disparage the scholarly achievement, and sheer usefulness, of work undertaken by these scholars who have been consistently sympathetic to a poet who has to often been attacked on spurious grounds vaguely associated with her gender. Neither is it to diminish the importance of what Ann Beer, Arthur McGuinness, and Wills define as McGuckian's political commitments to (respectively) “peace” and the de-colonization of the female, or what Wills, Susan Porter, Thomas Docherty, and Eileen Cahill have described as a commitment to a deconstructive and postmodern poetics (one also inflected for these critics with postcolonialism). My point is that to overrepresent a “feminine” poetics and politics, whether it allegedly promotes “nurture” and/or allegedly expresses a nonunitary self and sexuality, may misrepresent a poet whose deconstructiveness also disrupts the spaces of maternal sustenance. It further diminishes McGuckian's willingness to figuratively explode the structures through which late capitalist economies enclose the imaginations of both genders by promulgating images of bourgeois domesticity that inspire private, homebound consumption. “You can't even step in the door but you've been barraged with false images of satisfaction,” McGuckian notes in an interview with Susan Shaw Sailer [Michigan Quarterly Review 32 (Winter 1993): 111-27, citation 118], and “[t]he words: then are a battle, always a battle against these forces.” See essays by Ann Beer [“Medbh McGuckian's Poetry: Maternal Thinking and a Politics of Peace,” Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 18 (July 1992): 192-203]; Eileen Cahill's sophisticated use of Irigaray and Derrida [“Because I Never Garden’: Medbh McGuckian's Solitary Way,” Irish University Review 24 (Autumn/Winter 1994): 264-71]; Thomas Docherty [“Initiations, Tempers, Seductions: Postmodern McGuckian,” in The Chosen Ground: Essays on Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland, ed. Neil Corcoran (Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour Editions, 1992), 191-212]; Patricia Haberstroh [Women Creating Women: Contemporary Irish Women Poets (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996)]; Arthur McGuinness [“Hearth and History: Poetry by Contemporary Women,” in Cultural Contexts and Literary Idioms in Contemporary Irish Literature, ed. Michael Kenneally (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1988), 197-220]; Susan Porter [“The ‘Imaginative Space’ of Medbh McGuckian,” Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 15 (December 1989): 93-104]; and, in the richest study of McGuckian to date, Clair Wills [Improprieties: Politics and Sexuality in Northern Irish Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)].
An unlikely nurturer at this moment in her maternity, she was (she tells us) spoon fed by her husband. See “Comhrá,” a conversation between Medbh McGuckian and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, facilitated by Laura O'Connor, Southern Review 31 (Summer 1995): 581-614, citation 595.
McGuckian reached a climactic resolution of postpartum crisis in a moment that, as she describes it, involved composition, sleep, the movement of hands, and an opening up—themes that haunt her recent poetry:
I was just so distressed. I decided I would try to compose myself for a sleep, and maybe I would sleep and get away from this awful thing. Suddenly my whole body … suddenly without wanting it the hands went like this … went into this attitude of prayer. And yet at the same time, my whole body seemed to open up in orgasm. At one point I relived the whole twelve-hour birth process, the breathing and the baby coming out. And at this moment I felt an absolute conviction that birth, death, and orgasm were all exactly the same sensation. I felt that … other people have explained this. Poetry is full of this. … because of this praying and Virgin Mary thing I went to Mass, and the experience was exactly like it had been with my grandmother a long time ago. The preconceptual. … That was when I began to realize what poetry could be. I realised I had some kind of message to hand on and that I was in some degree a priest, from having been through this awful sacrificial thing.
(Southern Review, 595-96)
Characterizing her relationship to poetry as “mystical,” McGuckian defines that relationship as “Embracing everything that has been, or will be”:
It ties in with the notion of the Muse. I certainly feel when I'm writing at the peak of my capacity that I'm not writing it at all, that it's being written through me. There is a flow happening beyond my control. … It gives me a feeling that the poetic power you call up is timeless. It can see ahead. It can see back. It can see forwards. It is totally underestimated. It's reduced. It's made into a description of your experience or it's made into some kind of exercise. You play around with words, and something comes out that is external to you.
(Southern Review, 597)
Readers might have been prepared for these revelations; in another interview, she puts herself on the “Tree of Poetry on the same limb as Blake and Yeats,” but, in a metaphor that is McGuckianesque in the palpable presence of its absent referent (“trunk”), says she's “many phone calls below them.” “I've been called religious and it is Blake who says God is the true subject of all art. I think it is fair to say I feel part of that heritage, closest to Hopkins and Eliot, with a sense and sensuousness clashing with sensibility. … I hope I don't preach or moralize, but if I'm erotic, maybe agape has a lot to do with it” (Interview with McCracken).
These citations are from, respectively, the McCracken and the Sailer interviews.
McGuckian, “She Which Is Not, He Which Is,” Marconi's Cottage, 93. In compelling ways, this poem is a rewriting of Keats's “To Autumn”: “My words will be without words /. … / This face, these clothes, will be a field in autumn / And the following autumn, will be two sounds, / The second of which is deeper.”
Kinsella, “The Messenger,” Peppercanister Poems, 1972-1978 (Winston-Salem, N.C.: Wake Forest University Press, 1979), 119.
“Minstrel,” in ibid., 66.
McGuckian, “On Her Second Birthday,” Marconi's Cottage, 107.
Kinsella, Poems, 1956-1973, 136.
McGuckian, “Sky in Narrow Streets,” Marconi's Cottage, 100.
For a full and fascinating discussion of the rise of reason and of idealist philosophy at the expense of a “materialism” replaced by such “paterialism,” see Jean-Joseph Goux, Symbolic Economies: After Marx and Freud, trans. Jennifer Curtiss Gage (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).
I find astonishing Docherty's progression in his analysis of McGuckian's poetry from what he claims to be her masturbatory “hands,” to a masculinist delineation of the (probably female) speaker's “oedipus complex,” to a humanist reading of what he alleges to be her resignation to “the Fall,” to a conclusion that her intention is to demystify ideology in the manner of “Kant” or “Deleuze”: “she has discovered the reversal which makes movement itself subordinate to time, secularism. … there will be no movement over the border so long as time remains on its hinges—so long, that is, as a particular relation to secularity is maintained whereby the secular is but a pale shadow of the eternal or the sacred. … The poetry is a call to critical historicism” (“Initiations, Tempers, Seductions,” 204).
McGuckian, “Breaking the Blue,” Marconi's Cottage, 84.
O'Hara, “An Interview,” 4, 7.
This raises a question as to what does constitute the “community” to which McCormack (“Politics or Community?”) presumes that Kinsella gestures.
See note 9. I also mean by this—and I think Kinsella himself implies this meaning—the psychoanalytic sense of “imaginary” as the mirror stage that begins with an infant's search for origins and self-completion and that continues in the adult's work of the imagination that, if self-knowing, recognizes it can never be complete. The relationship between Kinsella's lifelong investigations of the mirror and the artistic act—what else, finally, is the “established personal place” that can both “receive our lives' heat” and “give it back // to the darkness of our understanding”—would require us to consider its associations with the “regressive” behaviors of the death drive and of melancholia that we need not follow Freud in condemning.
See especially the similarities between Kinsella's various representations of incorporation and the maternal body and Julia Kristeva's discussion of “abjection” in Powers of Horror: Essays in Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).
Kinsella, “hesitate, cease to exist, glitter again,” from Notes from the Land of the Dead, in Poems, 1956-1973, 129.
Dillon Johnston makes this observation in Irish Poetry after Joyce, 2d ed. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997), 114.
Kinsella, “Hen Woman,” Poems, 1956-1973, 134.
The cave, and the sense of a narrative that might survive history by retreating, periodically, to such maternal (and funereal) enclosures, returns in the poem “Survivor” (Poems, 1956-1973): “The cavern is a perfect shell of force; / the torsions that brought this place forth / maintain it. It is spoken of, always, / in terms of mystery—our first home …” (155). Kinsella's use of the cave in this poem bears comparison with Irigaray's inversion of Plato in The Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985).
Kinsella, Poems, 1956-1973, 80.
Jackson, The Whole Matter, 39.
Irish Poetry after Joyce, 107.
Kinsella, Poems, 1956-1973, 80-81.
The association of song, throat, and nursing breast remains an important theme, from “A Hand of Solo” to “Out of Ireland,” a poem to which I will turn at the end of this essay.
Kinsella, Poems, 1956-1973, 120, 120, 118.
Thomas Kinsella, From Centre City (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 50. See also Kinsella, Madonna and Other Poems (Dublin: Peppercanister Books [The Dedalus Press], 1991), 14.
Indeed, in a poem that follows “Morning Coffee,” the poet as Hephaestus-figure presents a finely wrought cup to his mother (Kinsella, “At the Head Table,” From Centre City, 54).
Kinsella described that cup in an interview as an “emblem” in which the poet “contains” “matters” that are “processes … enabling processes,” the end of which, he concludes (acknowledging his departure from Jung on this matter) need not be “life after death” (need not be, he continues, the necessity not to “waste” the perfecting of the life and art) but, rather, an “end” to that “process” (O'Hara, 10-11).
McGuckian, “Minus 18 Street,” On Ballycastle Beach, 19.
“The wind,” the speaker says in another poem that uses this traditional trope for poetic inspiration and vocalization, “is at its cruellest at breakfast.” See McGuckian, “To Call Paula Paul,” Marconi's Cottage, 16.
That McGuckian's rebus-like poems employ displacement, condensation, and other elements of Freud's dreamwork has become a commonplace of her scholars, but a detailed study, with several close readings of poems, remains to be done.
McGuckian, “A Conversation Set to Flowers,” On Ballycastle Beach, 16.
McGuckian, “The Book Room,” Marconi's Cottage, 46.
McGuckian, “Through the Round Window,” On Ballycastle Beach, 52.
See Wills's different interpretation of the troping of such closures in “Medbh McGuckian: The Intimate Sphere,” Improprieties, 158-93.
McGuckian, “Four O'Clock, Summer Street,” On Ballycastle Beach, 31.
As McGuckian has said in interviews, a friend's circumstances may appear in a McGuckian poem but remain unrecognizable even to that friend.
McGuckian, “No Streets, No Numbers,” Marconi's Cottage, 39.
“Echo Poem,” ibid., 67.
McGuckian, “Though the Round Window,” On Ballycastle Beach, 52.
McGuckian, “Shaferi,” Marconi's Cottage, 29.
“Marconi's Cottage,” ibid., 103.
“Brothers and Uncles,” ibid., 27.
McGuckian, “To the Oak-Leaf Camps,” On Ballycastle Beach, 47.
“First Letters from a Steamer,” ibid., 28.
“Blue Vase,” ibid., 29.
McGuckian, “The Rosary Dress,” Marconi's Cottage, 55.
McGuckian, “Four O'Clock, Summer Street,” On Ballycastle Beach, 31.
“On Ballycastle Beach,” ibid., 59.
Perhaps in response to Yeats's “blood-dimmed tide,” McGuckian offers several intriguing tropes of mind, sea, and madness. In “Apple Flesh” (On Ballycastle Beach, 13) birds “died in the brainwashed sea”; “the sea went out of its mind.”
Wills suggests that there are echoes of On Baile's Strand but she presumes that McGuckian differs from Yeats in her poetic relationship, as a “mother,” to a son lost in sea battle. I am suggesting that, in fact, McGuckian—through her interest in Casement—takes a more overtly political interest in this lost son.
This bears comparison with the process that Julia Kristeva describes in Black Sun as “matricide,” the process by which the child separates from the mother, in an act of death-driven aggression that he or she in turn projects upon the figure of the mother. See Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).
Kinsella, “Ely Place,” Poems, 1956-1973, 166-67.
“Songs of the Psyche, IV,” Blood and Family, 25.
Note the proximity of this description of Kinsella's discussion of poetic audience in the interview with O'Hara cited earlier. The “encounter” (as in “Ballydavid Pier” and “Morning Coffee”) of a “life not of our kind” is also uncannily, of course, of our “kind.” At the moment of reading, the maternal muse as aisling (a projection, he supposes of “my own nervous nakedness”), becomes a black-hearted cailleach.
Kinsella, “Out of Ireland,” Blood and Family, 59.
Kinsella, “Phoenix Park,” Poems, 1956-1973, 123.
Kinsella, “Model School Inchicore,” Blood and Family, 19.
Kinsella, “Good Night,” Poems, 1956-1973, 171.
McGuckian, “Clotho,” Marconi's Cottage, 50-51. McGuckian's various uses of lunar imagery bears comparison with Kinsella's “Nightwalker” (Poems, 1956-1973, 101): “There it hangs, / A mask of grey dismay sagging open / In the depths of torture, moron voiceless moon” (102).
McGuckian, “Teraphim,” Marconi's Cottage, 104.
“Open Rose,” ibid., 80.
McGuckian, “A Dream in Three Colors,” On Ballycastle Beach, 44.
McGuckian, “On Her Second Birthday,” Marconi's Cottage, 107.
In this variation on the themes of Blake's illustrated “Infant Joy” (“I happy am / Joy is my name.— / Sweet joy befall thee!”), a poem of innocence that anticipates an imminent fall by employing the oxymoron of an infant who names, mother, child, and winged spirit are enclosed in a flower. See William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience [The Illuminated Books, vol. 2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), plate 25].
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3794
SOURCE: McGuckian, Medbh, and Sawnie Morris. “Under the North Window: An Interview with Medbh McGuckian.” Kenyon Review 23, nos. 3 and 4 (summer/fall 2001): 64-74.
[In the following interview, originally conducted in July 1998, McGuckian talks about her writing process, the politics of her poetry, the influence of Emily Dickinson and Seamus Heaney on her work, and her place within the Irish poetic tradition.]
Medbh McGuckian was born in Belfast in 1950, where she now lives for most of the year with her husband and their four teenagers. Her poems have won the English Poetry Society Competition (1979), an Eric Gregory Award (1980), and the Bass Ireland Award for Literature (1991). She earned her B.A. and M.A. degrees in English from Queen's University in Belfast where she was later the first woman to be named Writer-in-Residence. She has also been a Visiting Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. Her collections include The Flower Master and Other Poems (1982, 1993); Venus and the Rain (1984, 1994); On Ballycastle Beach (1988); Marconi's Cottage (1991, shortlisted for the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Irish Literature Prize for Poetry); Captain Lavender (1995); Selected Poems (1997); and Shelmalier (1998).
I met with the poet in July of 1998 in the coastal town of Ballycastle (Baile an Chaisil) on the northern shore of Ireland, where the Atlantic Ocean and the Irish Sea meet. The water was the dark slate color one would expect from such latitudes, though now and again, for a few hours, the sun would make an impromptu appearance, creating a stunning flash of cerulean amid the gentle, incoming waves and the sounds of vacationers splashing about the shore, their pant-legs hitched up to their knees, their dogs barking.
In June three young boys had been murdered, only an hour or so away, by firebombing. The death of the Quinn boys was much on the poet's mind as we spoke. Later, in August, I would read in the Herald Tribune of the explosion of a mall in Omagh, and worry—until scanning the list of names—in that more intimate way we respond once we have come to know something of the people and the places behind the headlines.
Medbh McGuckian's poems not only invite but require intimacy between the imaginative realities of poet and reader. For three days she and I met in a small room of the Hilsea Hotel. The poet cheerfully recalled a childhood game she and her siblings had played in which they would knock loudly on the street-side windows of the hotel's downstairs breakfast room, racing away before they could be caught. Upstairs, we sat each day, tucked between the narrow closet and a sink and mirror, with the corner of the bed serving as a desktop for her books and my tape recorder. The dark trunk of a single tree rose up the side of the building, while linen tablecloths and variously patterned aprons hung on the line to dry.
After a couple of hours we would separate, agreeing when to meet for dinner, or where to hear Irish music in a local pub.
McGuckian's stone cottage, situated at the very edge of the water a few miles from town, was once home to Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the first wireless, though the cottage is, ironically, without telephone. This seems delightfully consistent for a poet who in the computer age writes by hand, employing a typewriter only when the poem is ready to go out into the world.
[Morris]: You have been lauded by at least one critic as “Ireland's Emily Dickinson.” Do you feel an affinity with Dickinson?
[McGuckian]: Oh yes, of course. She was a revelation for me. She gave me strength to believe it was possible to be a woman and to write. She was so bright and intelligent and witty and herself. I've read various lives of her, but I don't think any of them have got into her mystery. She always protected herself, and yet she lets you into her real being—in the sense that poetry is her real being. To me, poetry is the immortal soul, even before we start worrying about all the other things. There is Shakespeare's soul. What else is it? It was done with his body, but what is saved is his soul.
R. J. C. Watt speaks of your poems as a form of political resistance to “the tyranny of English lucidity which seeks to control the very ways in which it is permissible to create meaning.” In what way does “mystery” intersect with “resistance” in your poems?
English is an imposed imperial language. I see it as a tyrannical force, the words themselves, so I take them, I squash them, I throw them back. There is an anger.
At the same time, words are only sign posts. Words are not the destination. Even that word there, [she gestures toward the hotel sign hanging outside the window] “Hilsea.” That sign is only a guide into this place, which is not the sign. Words are to me what I think Seamus Heaney would call “stepping stones into reality,” or not even into reality, but out of reality.
I don't know if you've noticed the neighborhoods of the Orangemen [an all-male order of Protestant Loyalists], but they are trying to say they are English and united to Britain with twice as many flags as there are houses. This wildly extravagant fashion of putting is so Irish it belies the point. No English person wanting understatement would do that.
In Irish music, equally, the difference is in the “Lis-do-lis-do-lis-do-varna,” or the “tura-lura-lura-lura.” That kind of emphasis on saying something nonsensical, but it means everything. It means sex, really. Life. The mystery of the world is contained in those nonsense phrases. And the Irish song will reiterate that. It will go over the top in sentiment.
The title of your forthcoming book, Shelmalier, sounds like a place name, but I am not familiar with its meaning. Would you mind explaining the significance and its relation to the 1798 Rebellion which served as inspiration for the book?
Shelmalier is an Anglicization of the Irish phrase “Siol Malure,” which is the seed, the people, the race, the tribe.
I knew the word “Shelmalier” from hearing the songs “Boolavogue,” and “Kelly, the Boy from Killane.” During the Victorian and famine years of the nineteenth century, the truth of what happened to the Irish went into the songs. Those songs are very emotive. They still cannot be sung certain places.
“Kelly, the Boy from Killane” is a song that, until studying the Rebellion, I always thought was faintly comic, a drunken song at somebody's party, a rabble-rousing, mock heroic—but no, it's not mock heroic. The fellow was really a hero. The Presbyterians of the North led the rebellion against the British. In 1798 Protestants fought alongside Catholics.
To write a poem for a Protestant hero, as I do in Shelmalier, was very liberating for me, took me out of my own bigotry. It also made me realize even more how damaging British influence has been here. Instead of trying to let the people cohabit the country, the British have been able to maintain rule by separating them. Even as we speak they are spending thirty thousand pounds building a wall right behind my house to divide the Catholics and Protestants.
In the first section of Shelmalier, there are a great many references to trees. Could you speak about “The Rose-Trellis.” In particular, these lines from the second stanza:
Without looking at me the trees speak into this anxiously protected room, their moving lips almost seeing how they have lost their way, how their lace light is really made of clouds.
The rose is the ancient code-symbol for Ireland itself and for national identity. A trellis is a support made of wood for the flower, so the trees represent all the rebels and heroes executed, cut down or hanged from trees for the cause of liberty. I wrote the poem about the Irish language of our dead ancestors buried in the soil from which trees are nourished. There are ghosts demanding to be heard, demanding that the truth be said, that I as a poet should confront the past of my country which the school curriculum has avoided like the plague.
Learning the truth about the  Rebellion was like a jigsaw puzzle falling into place for me [she pauses to quote from the first half of the final stanza],
Everything that more or less fits is leaving the house, slipping its third life on as if it were inalterable, like elastic girls whom birth has shattered, each in a different way, closing slowly in the warm housewinds that forced them open and have fallen into them:
The experience was as traumatic as having a child. It's as if I'd slept with the trees that love me [she reads the conclusion of the poem]:
till the dense sound that wraps up the meaning of an act of love and cannot be cut, remains, and stands up straight.
The last image in the poem is a phallic but also a military one. Ireland cannot really be cut in two like a tree. It's a kind of salute. The language can be destroyed but the race and the bloodline persist.
Part of what is so remarkable about your poems is that they make no distinction between the human psyche and the natural world. This was especially noticeable in your fourth book, On Ballycastle Beach, in which “children” and “motherhood” are ongoing presences in much the way that the Irish heroes are in Shelmalier.
The first four books were written during my childbearing years. I had a breakdown due to the first birth. The poems I was writing before it were not the same style. The breakdown came six weeks after the baby. Up to that point everything is still in the old style of thinking, thinking—and trying to explain to people who are just stupid. They believe in their own masks so much, and if you take your mask off in any way, if you try to be naked they will be so horrified. Which is what, in the poem, you are—you are being completely naked and completely stripped until you get to the truth. You get sort of hysterical because you're doing it on your own and there's nobody willing to go on that journey with you.
How, specifically, did your breakdown affect your relationship to language?
It was all tied up with religion. When I was growing up, the mass was in Latin. Even though I didn't understand what they were saying, when they suddenly became English the mass seemed to lose a lot of its mystery. The years of hearing the mass in Latin were the first years of my life.
[By the time I was in the hospital] I had stopped practicing the faith for about ten years. I thought, “OK I'll give it a try”—and I went to mass. Because of the state I was in, the words of the ceremony that I'd heard all my life and got so used to became very powerful. The English didn't grate on me so much. That was a very short-lived experience, but it was at the root of the thing. A lot of things had got very broken in me. A lot of things had lost any value for me. I woke up again and became a child again.
How were you able to write a book like On Ballycastle Beach, given the political context? I found its very interior lyrical and even domestic sensibility liberating in terms of a refusal to be destroyed by war, or caught up in responding to it on its own terms.
The instinct to write poetry was very much bound up with self-defense, with the mind somehow conquering this awful emotional gut feeling of fear and anger.
The first professional poem that I put out was for Bloody Sunday. On that day, in 1972, I wrote the poem and took it to Seamus Heaney, who was teaching me at the time. It was in response not to just a political, but a military event that threatened our very existence, and the feeling that the state was not being the nurturing force that would protect us from invasion. No. The state would, in fact, turn 'round and destroy us.
The Bloody Sunday poem I wrote was clumsy, but I got more and more subtle. Bobby Sands died just after one of my babies was born. We moved into a house and I have a lot of moving-into-a-house poems around that time; but, they're all thinking about Bobby Sands. You wouldn't know they were about Bobby Sands because I made him into a kind of icon. I idealized him. I romanced him. He was my lover. I have always written love poems to people, instead of diatribes against the people who killed.
I use messages in my poems. “A” never equals “B.” Even to use the word “Ballycastle” … I agonized about using the real word. I asked myself, Is this going to make this place vulnerable? Is this going to make me vulnerable? I have written a poem for Gerry Adams, but in the poem he would be called Mercury. I use different names for people, not just on a political level, but on a personal level as well.
On the other hand, your fifth book, Captain Lavender, contains a decided tonal shift and an openly declared recommitment to country and the Irish cause. For example, these lines from the poem “The Albert Chain”:
I am going back into war, like a house I knew when I was young … I am learning my country all over again, how every inch of soil has been paid for by the life of a man, the funerals of the poor.
What inspired the shift?
It was obviously the date. The present Troubles, alas, began in 1968, when I was eighteen. It's now been a thirty-year war. I was able to come out in Captain Lavender as what I was, merely because British and Unionist domination was ending, in so far as it could end. It was basically just slightly safer to be clear about where you stood. You were not seeing soldiers and armored cars every other minute. Understand, you'd be thrown in jail for saying “Up the Rebels” until recently.
When you speak of writing love poems, “My Brown Guest” comes to mind. I'm recalling the opening lines:
Beyond all nervousness I loved That aging athlete, the hurricane, Who left his screams behind him like a scarf.
I had a very particular person in mind when I wrote that poem. Though there are others. I was trying to discuss the sadness and the difficulty of relating to him who's on the opposite side of the political thing, and yet I just loved him as a poet and felt ashamed that he saw me differently.
What is the poetry community like in Ireland?
The poetry scene is very much dominated by the academic circles, which are dominated by Unionists. When I bring out a new book, it's not really mentioned here. For example, Heaney is Catholic but he lives in the South now. I have read in his company in Dublin and in America, but I would never be asked to read with him in the North. The two of us here would just be too much.
Can you imagine living and working as a poet in the United States?
The condition of exile was imposed as a punishment by the British, historically. To go into voluntary exile—even somewhere as sympathetic as America, or to live somewhere in Europe—would be a kind of luxury. Having lived in the States for three months … I think if I lived there I'd become less introverted about my own country and its problems, and I'd see your problems in a different way. You have terrible problems, and I might end up not writing. I think your problems are the really difficult problems of the modern world. Our problems here are of the past—in trying to bring the past up into now. Whereas your problems are the problems of the future, and I don't know if poetry can do anything about that.
What you are saying suggests yet another affinity with Dickinson in terms of a self-imposed exile to home, in this case to Northern Ireland. Is there a corollary between the writing of your poems and the intimacy of your personal home?
I have to be with my family to write a poem. I've never actually written a poem without my husband being in the house. I'm the aerial, but he's the earth pin, the grounding rod. He has to be wandering around downstairs and I have to be upstairs writing. And yet, the poem will be almost antithetical to him. I'll base it on the fact that he is there, but I'm wanting freedom from him, in the poem. Which is a strange paradox.
There are lots of different conditions necessary to writing the poem. Very often it would be in response to some awful event. Or, it would happen if I meet another artist or another poet—usually male, though sometimes female—whose work would really touch me. Someone who is a very strong person, who would have a certain power, and probably in a sexual way. I would write a love poem for that person. But only on the grounds that I'm earthed.
I write at night because it's quiet. I would have a hoard of words that I liked at that time. I'd have gathered them like a squirrel, like a little parcel of gems. It's just like making a necklace. I pick and sort and thread and it would normally fall into place fairly quickly. There's a certain amount of leg-work—looking for rhymes, moving the words around a bit to get them in some sort of logical sequence. The mind is elsewhere, though. It's almost like I don't think. Sometimes I'll look at all the separate words and see them instantly in a pattern and push them into place to create this picture.
The absolute happiness is using all the words.
Did you always work that way?
No, with “The Singer” and some of those early poems from The Flower Master I didn't do that.
The language in “The Singer” is fairly prosaic:
In the evenings I used to study At my mother's old sewing-machine, Pressing my feet occasionally Up and down on the treadle As though I were going somewhere I had never been.
A few pages later, another poem, “The Sofa,” begins similarly until we get to:
… my mind was savagely made up, Like a serious sofa moved Under a north window.
In those lines you make the shift to language I think of as more typically McGuckian. What happened?
“The Sofa” was really this young girl's persona I took on. In the poem the “you” is a wayward lover—probably betraying her. I thought, “I am a sofa. I am just a piece of furniture with nothing on it as far as you're concerned.”
And the “north window” is a colder window?
That was the first time I began to think about where I lived, and where I was in Ireland relative to England. I was using the word “north” to define my identity. This is where I am. It is a cold, chilly, bleak outlook. This was in the seventies when we moved our furniture away from the windows a lot because the windows were always coming in.
You frequently use the word “snow” …
“Snow” can mean the Troubles, often, or anything to do with that north window stuff.
Does it ever have anything to do with actual cold, as in temperature?
No, not often. [laughter]
How about revision? Do you have anyone whom you show your work to for comment?
No, I usually know myself if it's road-worthy. Quite often the person who engendered the poem is the person it's sent to.
You send it to the actual person?—unless he is dead, obviously.
Sometimes even if they are dead! As in the case of Henry Joy McCracken, who was a martyr in 1798. I'd send it to someone like Kevin Whelan who loves him. Someone for whom that person was a real living being.
Who were your early influences?
The Northern poets, Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon and Michael Longley and Ciaran Carson, and not very many from the South. Also, I suppose, Yeats and Kavanagh. Male Irish poets, mostly contemporary to me, a little older than me. Certainly, Heaney's work was always the warmest. I admired Paul's work, but I always felt an emotional distance from it because it was so clever—it was too clever. Seamus was never so clever. And, politically I could relate to Seamus.
There is a great deal of music in Heaney's language.
Oh, he would put more value on love than the others. Seamus has a very large and more feminine awareness of what love is. Whereas Michael would have a fairly masculine approach to love in his poems—which I could appreciate, but I couldn't copy.
What was the most important thing you gained from studying Heaney's work?
The courage of his convictions and the confidence with which he defined his status. The way he could keep what was fine and valuable in the English literary tradition without losing his own sense of Gaelic ancestry. Reading his work you could see a native energy and native truth going back to the earth and land. His sensibility was not only Irish; it was Northern Irish. It was Ulster. It was to do with the predicament of the lost tribe here, the cut-off people. He was the first to speak for them. I could identify with him.
You've been heralded as Ireland's first great female poet. What do you think of that?
The Irish women poets were buried. I've compiled an anthology of their writing from the eighteenth century on—though it has not seen the light of day yet—and when I compare myself with those women, I don't come out all that wonderful. Some of them are real poets, like Emily Lawless. And Laetitia Pilkington was as good as Pope. She's very funny. A brilliant woman with tremendous character.
The Irish bardic tradition makes either Ireland or England into the female lover. The lover as Ireland, with whom the singer will be united, and the lover as Queen, who betrays the bard or the singer. As a female poet writing love poems to political martyrs, you turn the tradition on its head.
I'm speaking back as Ireland, to the poet, to the bard, to the martyr.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5436
SOURCE: Daniels, Kate. “Ireland's Best.” Southern Review 35, no. 2 (1999): 387-402.
[In the following essay, Daniels compares and contrasts the themes and style of Shelmalier with those of Eavan Boland's The Lost Land and Derek Mahon's The Yellow Book, delineating each poets’ relationship to the patriarchal traditions of Ireland.]
If one were to compose a scale of oppositions upon which to consider contemporary poetry by Irish women, the Dublin poet Eavan Boland (b. 1944) would appear at one end, and Medbh McGuckian (b. 1951), from Belfast, at the other. Although their work is fundamentally different—Boland the mistress of a highly cadenced, formalistic verse that favors “a lyric speech, a civil tone” (to use her own words), and McGuckian the wielder of nonlinear, surrealistic pieces—both women share a preoccupation with the liberation of Irish poetry from the historical grip of male readers and writers. As well, their work assaults on many levels the patriarchal assumptions engendered by the history of the Irish nation, its state religion, and its literature, all of which—until recently—have fairly successfully inhibited female literary expression. Boland, of course, has written at length, in poetry and in prose, of her intense struggle with this:
By luck, or by its absence, I had been born in a country where and at a time when the word woman and the word poet inhabited two separate kingdoms of experience and expression. I could not, it seemed, live in both. As the author of poems I was an equal partner in Irish poetry. As a woman—about to set out on the life which was the passive object of many of those poems—I had no voice. It had been silenced, ironically enough, by the very powers of language I aspired to and honored. By the elements of form I had worked hard to learn.
McGuckian has spoken more informally of the deeply ingrained, gender-specific assumptions of Irish poetry, characterizing its exclusively male environment in the 1960s as a “closed shop” and “like a secret-society meeting.” She first came to public recognition when she was awarded a major poetry prize in the '70s. Her winning composition was quite calculated. Having determined that previous winners had tended toward “narrative poems of about forty lines,” she scribbled three in this mode and invented an androgynous pseudonym for herself. The trouble began when it was discovered that McGuckian was not only female but six months pregnant as well. Eventually, the contest sponsors reallocated the prize money so that McGuckian received less than the second-place winner, who was a “well-known [male] literary figure.” McGuckian says: “I didn't care. I was pregnant and I had won this. But TLS cared. They created a huge fuss for weeks, wanting to know whether my prize money had been cut from £1,000 to £500 because I was Irish, or Catholic, or a woman” (Southern Review, “Comhrá”).
For readers on this side of the Atlantic, Boland's and McGuckian's plaints are recognizable versions of the dilemma Adrienne Rich found herself in as a young American poet struggling to emerge from the grip of New Criticism in the self-satisfied, narcoleptic culture of the '50s. Rich was a bit more assertive and hard-edged than the Irish women in pointing out the deficiencies of the inherited tradition for the female poet:
I had been born a woman, and I was trying to think and act as if poetry—and the possibility of making poems—were a universal—a gender-neutral—realm. In the universe of the masculine paradigm, I naturally absorbed ideas about women, sexuality, power from the subjectivity of male poets—Yeats not least among them. The dissonance between these images and the daily events of my own life demanded a constant footwork of imagination, a kind of perpetual translation, and an unconscious fragmentation of identity. Every group that lives under the naming and image-making power of a dominant culture is at risk from this mental fragmentation and needs an art which can resist it.
(Blood, Bread, and Poetry)
A young mother of three and the wife of a Harvard professor, Rich wheeled her baby carriages right to the edge of madness before she discovered the way out. Her engagement with the civil rights and antiwar protests of the '60s led her directly into the women's movement and a new woman-centered poetry—from separatist lesbian poet, to feminist reclaimer, to postfeminist matriarch. Though she has not vanquished what she calls the male-inscribed “oppressor's language,” she has certainly reconfigured a huge portion of our poetic discourse to make a place for female voices and experience.
One might think that today's Irish women poets could draw inspiration from Rich's example. Hampered by the virtual absence of women poets in Irish literary history, and hobbled by the culture's profoundly masculinist bent, which has been so powerfully reinforced by Catholicism, Irish women poets are sorely in need of models and heroines. Yet though Boland often quotes Rich, there is almost always an edge—if not an outright challenge—in the invocation:
What is [the female writer] to make of the suggestion by a poet like Adrienne Rich that “to be a female human being, trying to fulfil female functions in a traditional way, is in direct conflict with the subversive function of the imagination?” … Separatist thinking is a persuasive and dangerous influence on any woman poet writing today. It tempts her to disregard the whole poetic past as patriarchal betrayal. It pleads with her to discard the complexities of true feeling for the relative simplicity of anger. It promises to ease her technical problems with the solvent of polemic. It whispers to her that to be feminine in poetry is easier, quicker and more eloquent than the infinitely more difficult task of being human. Above all, it encourages her to feminize her perceptions rather than humanize her femininity.
Tangled lines connect but obfuscate the similar struggles of Irish and American women poets. Separatism, in the context of American history, connotes our most deeply impressed national image: our Revolutionary War for freedom from Britain. Most American liberation movements—for example the utopian colonies of the nineteenth-century; the Black Panthers in the 1960s; Adrienne Rich during the 1970s, as she sought to bring to prominence images of women and minority peoples that had long been submerged—have, early on in their development, utilized the techniques of separatism. The indelible connection between individualism and separatism—the individuals's right to separate—is perhaps the most vital aspect of our collective democratic consciousness.
But in Irish history, separatism suggests the opposite of our American ideas: partition, the Troubles, the presence—rather than the absence—of British rule. Whereas American women poets have had the great fortune of claiming as their original Muse an eccentric female unencumbered with (shall we say) “issues around separation,” Irish women are only now beginning to ponder the image of themselves removed from the context of patriarchal history. The struggle of Irish women writers to define themselves both individually and collectively without disowning their extraordinary national literary history is what connects the wildly different poetries of Eavan Boland and Medbh McGuckian.
Two prominent American poets, both male, have confessed to me that they do not care for Eavan Boland's poetry. “Frankly,” said one, “I don't see what all the excitement is about—it's so quiet, so flat.” Yet Boland's poetry has garnered both critical respect and a large readership in the United States. As far as such things go, she is one of the most celebrated poets writing today.
Her work is, as our anonymous poet suggested, somewhat “flat.” She has always preferred a short, strongly end-stopped line highly dependent on monosyllabic words. She favors midline caesuras created by periods or dashes. She is partial to free verse. If her voice is flat, it is the flatness of authority—no nonsense, take-no-prisoners. It is a voice that must be reckoned with, that will not shrivel up and disappear in the face of disagreement or disapproval. On the surface, then, with its unadorned lineation, its well-modulated voice, and its simple, dignified vocabulary, it might appear “quiet.” And yet Boland's poetry is a classic example of that which walks quietly but carries a big stick. Two sticks, in fact: an extraordinary gift for large metaphor, and a deeply historical, but revisionary, consciousness. Paired, these features identify one of the most important bodies of poetic work presently being created.
Boland has again and again, in prose and poetry, made her case for the emerging work of Irish women poets. Indeed—although a certain kind of reader may not realize it—that is her central subject. And in The Lost Land, her new collection of twenty-nine poems, she brings together two narrative strands she has not heretofore connected by performing a paradoxical task—inserting women into the predominantly male cast of recorded history and myth, and removing herself from the autobiographical script of her life as a mother. This is the “lost land” of the title, what Boland calls a “ghostly territory” where “human experience [—lived, but lost; lived, but unrecorded—] comes to be stored.” Thus the book is a kind of celebratory dirge about both loss and gain, exile and residence—the loss of motherhood through the agency of daughters grown to womanhood, the gain of historical representation through an investigation of historicized images of absence and loss.
What is a colony if not the brutal truth that when we speak the graves open.
And the dead walk?
Daughters of parsons and of army men. Daughters of younger sons of younger sons. Who left for London from Kingstown harbour— … Who took their journals and their steamer trunks. Who took their sketching books. … I see the darkness coming. The absurd smallness of the handkerchiefs they are waving as the shore recedes.
I put my words between them and the silence the failing light has consigned them to:
I also am a daughter of the colony. I share their broken speech, their other-whereness.
No testament or craft of mine can hide our presence on the distaff side of history.
(“Daughters of Colony”)
In “Colony,” the long, twelve-section poem that composes the book's first half, Boland explores the related ideas of colonization and exile. The narrative persona here is aware that the psychic territory possesses public as well as personal resonance, and so the voice—perhaps the voice that has turned away some male readers—has shed some of the cozy, homemaking tone that characterized earlier volumes. Gone are the tea cozies and pram sheets. In this book there is less visual detail emanating from the domestic and maternal worlds; there are fewer characters claustrophobically sealed into small environments—cottages, gardens, nurseries—with demanding young children. Within the more abstract dimensions of this new world, the settings are primarily metaphorical, so when Boland allows herself the embellishment of concrete details, the effect can be breathtaking:
Head of a woman. Half-life of a nation. Coarsely-cut blackthorn walking stick. Old Tara brooch. And bog oak. A harp and a wolfhound on an ashtray.
One of the book's best poems, “Unheroic,” appears in this first section. Here Boland recounts the story of an ordinary Irishman, a resident manager in a hotel where the narrator has a summer job. This man suffers from a highly metaphoric medical condition: a wound that refuses to heal. Each day, in private and without speaking of it to anyone, he cleans and re-bandages his injury:
How do I know my country? Let me tell you it has been hard to do. And when I do go back to difficult knowledge it is not to that street or those men raised high above the certainties they stood on— Ireland hero history—but how
I went behind the linen room and up the stone stairs and climbed to the top. And stood for a moment there, concealed by shadows. In a hiding place. Waiting to see. Waiting to look again. Into the patient face of the unhealed.
The counterpart to this poem, “Heroic,” appears in the second half of the book.
The patriot was made of drenched stone. His lips were still speaking. The gun he held had just killed someone.
I looked up. And looked at him again. He stared past me without recognition.
I moved my lips and wondered how the rain would taste if my tongue were made of stone. And wished it was. And whispered so that no one could hear it but him: make me a heroine.
In the figure these two poems make, we see the full sweep of Boland's challenge to Irish history. By animating the symbolic stone statuary of the conventionally heroic and by restoring stature to the wounded, disenfranchised people the history books have effaced, she goes about creating the “undivided speech” of an undivided land and a fully participatory citizenry that her work has called for. In the book's penultimate poem, “Formal Feeling,” Eavan Boland's “quiet,” “flat” style affords her an authority rarely achieved by any poet, man or woman:
Eros look down. See as a god sees what a myth says: how a woman still addresses the work of man in the dark of the night:
The power of a form. The plain evidence that strength descended here once. And mortal pain. And even sexual glory.
And see the difference. This time—and this you did not ordain— I am changing the story.
Medbh McGuckian once described her poetry as “almost totally autobiographic … a continual, continuing diary. … I don't write about anything beyond that.” For anyone familiar with her work, this statement elicits either disbelief or hilarity. In fact, McGuckian's is one of the most challenging and unusual poetic oeuvres being produced in English today. Her hermetic narratives, her mysteriously encoded imagery, and the syntactic disruption and nonlinear approach to the sentence radically remove her poems from the realm of the identifiably everyday. The problem for critics has been to say anything at all decisive about her subject matter. While it's possible to characterize her style of writing (though one gropes for accurate adjectives), it's hard to pin down what any one poem seems to be about. What is indisputably clear, however, is that—despite her claims to the contrary—McGuckian's poems do not address the everyday as most people imagine or experience it.
McGuckian's Selected Poems, culled from five volumes, give a good idea of her unique conception of the poem. Some will label her work Ashberian; the terms surrealist and associative will rise immediately to the lips of others. Overall, though, McGuckian's work features neither the despairing cynicism of Ashbery nor the slashing, aggressive posture of much surrealist art. Her poems, for all their apparent inscrutability, have more thematic cohesion than the work of the American L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, to which they might also be compared.
For readers hoping to acquaint themselves with her work, a selected edition seems a good idea. But McGuckian's earlier volumes—challenging though individual poems may be—display an overarching structure of placement and position that is absent from this anthology. As a result, this book put me in mind of the experience of eating one's way through a food fair: though each poem tastes good, one longs to sit down to a full meal. Still, this brief mention of the Selected allows me to share my favorite McGuckian poem, “Four O'Clock, Summer Street,” originally from On Ballycastle Beach (1988):
As a child cries, all over, I kept insisting on robin's egg blue tiles about the fireplace, which gives a room a kind of flying-heartedness.
Only that tiny slice of the house absorbed my perfume—like a kiss sliding off into a three-sided mirror—like a red-brown girl
in cuffless trousers we add to ourselves by looking. She had the boy-girl body of a flower, moving once and for all past the hermetic front door.
I knew she was drinking blue and it had dried in her; she carried it wide awake in herself ever after, and its music blew that other look
to bits. If what she hunted for could fit my eyes, I would shine in the window of her blood like wine, or perfume, or till nothing was left of me but listening.
Medbh McGuckian's work appeals to me on so many levels that I hardly know what to praise first. Perhaps her luscious approach to language—the tremendous excitement of her word couplings:
Like birds that return to a tomb yearly, shoals of slow soft rustling convent clouds split their aching distances to form a sort of mouth or little smouldering gold window in your chest.
(“La Bien Cercada; the Well-Walled,” from Shelmalier)
or her strange metaphors and the repetitive motion of her figurative universe:
Now you have stopped the movement of my outgoing breath with yours incoming, I offer my breath into yours as a sacrifice.
The inside of a breather is a double well, white-rimmed, druidic, one book's poverty flowing into the world-knot of the other.
My garden of desire trees is older and more clothed than your perfectly rounded field, a line comes out of you into God's hand as a thread.
Or the discourse of colors in her poems, white, blue (particularly blue), brown, and black recurring and recurring.
Second, I love the raw and luscious femaleness of these poems—the delight in the female body and its ways, simultaneously common and mysterious, vulgar and awe-inspiring. Third, her obsessive, unapologetic focus on domestic life and the hermetic, relational environment of mother and child. “[M]y womb is almost my brain,” she once boldly announced to an interviewer. McGuckian's work has been treated unkindly by some male critics, but she wears the yoke of antifeminist criticism very lightly—another cause for admiration. Responding to constant characterizations of her work as nonlinear and associative (read: female), she refuses to take offense. “I guess I do work through association,” she has said, “but I think it's so female that it doesn't help much to talk about male predecessors.” So much for turning the enemy on its ear!
As there was a primordial quality to Emily Dickinson's experiments with language and syntax in mid-nineteenth-century America, there is a similar feel to McGuckian's poems, emerging at the end of the twentieth century in Northern Ireland. Though she has resisted the politicization of her imagination, the poetry, like Dickinson's, rebukes all that has come before it, calling into question the most basic assumptions about traditional Irish poetic discourse—whose needs are served, whose lives are represented. In addition, McGuckian strives to reclaim the English spoken by the Irish people from the damage caused by the British occupation. “I'm lying like a corpse under … my [British] education that has been shoved onto me,” she says. “And so every time I use a word I'm shovelling off … I mean even the words ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Wordsworth’—at some level I'm rejecting them, at some level I'm saying get out of my country.” What has been called the difficulty of McGuckian's poetry is really something quite different, then, akin to Dickinson's stripping-down of sentence structure, her radical displacements for the sake of a new way of seeing.
Shelmalier, McGuckian's most recent release, suggests that the poet of just a few years ago—who said that she could never write about the Troubles—has experienced a change of heart. Shelmalier (a barony in Co. Wexford and the archaic name for an ancient group of waterfowl hunters) evokes one of the most emotional episodes in Ireland's turbulent past—the bloody uprising of 1798, during which thirty thousand people died, many in barbarous ways, over the course of a few weeks. McGuckian lives up to her reputation for abstruseness and difficulty by suggesting the book's historical context—through title, an epigraph by Jemmy Hope (one of the first United Irishmen), and Author's Note—and then never explicitly mentioning it again. Still, there are many indirect links to the subject, and the poet encourages us, in her Author's Note, to respond to them:
I found that what I had written … fitted like an egg into its shell that previous whirlwind moment when, unbelievably, hope and history did in fact rhyme. … The theme is less the experienced despair of a noble struggle brutally quenched than the dawn of my own enlightenment after a medieval ignorance, my being suddenly able to welcome into consciousness figures of an integrity I had never learned to be proud of.
Shelmalier is very long—120 pages of poems divided into five sections. The volume commences with several poems in which the narrator seems to comment, in a sidelong way, on her own previous indifference to history: “The world shovels snow / into a pond without an echo. // … Some part of my pine-wooded / mind sleeping or dead / was a tightened-up light / I was sheltering for years” (“Dream in a Train”). The formerly uncompelling dead, several poems further on, assume the identity of “pearls that have got / into my clothes, they stir about / briskly with a form of tenderness / like a bird on its nest” (“The Sofa in the Window with the Trees Outside”). For much of the rest of Shelmalier, McGuckian incubates those pearls, much like a mother bird herself. Her method here is effective, if oblique. Thematically, the poems conjure the historical narrative, but the settings are most often contemporary, and the voice autobiographical. This results in an interesting juxtaposition of past and present:
For those who sit in the darkened doorways of their dwellings devoid of doors, the trouble-adding sound of bells can mean whatever you want it to—mobilization, a warlike tempo, passive defence.
Over my head a bat unfolds its wings like hands that seem to seek each other's warmth, or an eyelid opened in the pulse of a glove, as in the coat of arms of my native city.
The next-to-last section is especially beautiful. Here, each poem has a ghostly quality, as if McGuckian has resuscitated the spirits of the many who died in '98. Her access into history has been through a newly achieved personal identification with its victims. The empathetic imagination of the poet gives us a kind of living graveyard of marvelously affecting characters:
The prisoners, with washed faces, were walking aft, one by one.
Like a sub-citizen perpetually with me, your sleek body suits you with its soldier-silk everywhere, destroyed horizons that re-form themselves. …
(“More than a Letter”)
Though I strongly suspect that many of the elegiac poems in Shelmalier arose from the death of McGuckian's father (to whom she was deeply attached and by whom she was reared), she has achieved the beautiful effect of poetic pentimento by uniting her personal grief with her country's history.
Throughout the book there are references to the current Troubles in Northern Ireland, where McGuckian, a Catholic, has lived her whole life. A stint as a poet in the prisons apparently changed her mind about the possibility of writing about politics and mayhem in her homeland. Many poems in Shelmalier resound with her newly awakened consciousness of the ways in which the prolonged and intractable violence of her region has affected not just the conditions of daily life but the imagination of the Irish people. The best of these is “The Society of the Bomb”:
The sleep of her lover is her sleep: it warms her and brings her out to people like half-making love or the wider now, exceptionally sunlit spring.
Before violence was actually offered to us, we followed a trail of words into the daylight, those palest and clearest blues, and all the snow to come.
Shelmalier's final section, entitled “Shannon's Recovery,” begins with an invocation to the feminine: “Moon-plunge / into the still river-like / womb-opening.” In the poems that follow, we move from labor and birth to life, death, and finally to a kind of resurrection. Is McGuckian's lovely meditation in the closing poem, “Sky Portrait,” her prayer for Ireland? Is she suggesting that a turn to the feminine principle is the necessary corrective for a society that seems to be stalled and suffering because of its destructive predilection for the masculine? In her challenging, elusive, and deeply interior work, McGuckian is doing not only what Boland does in her prose—making a case for the female voice and experience in Irish literature—but she is also, in her radical reconfiguring of English poetic conventions, imaginatively liberating the language of Northern Ireland from its old agonies. If there is a more audacious and important poetry being written today, I have not read it.
If he were not such an internationally renowned and lyrically gifted poet, I might be inclined to begin this assessment of The Yellow Book with the words, Poor Derek Mahon! This elegiac collection of twenty-one poems, portending the approach of the twenty-first century and bemoaning the “pastiche paradise of the post-modern,” seems to be asking for some kind of sympathetic cluck from readers. But why would such a richly endowed poet need it?
The title alludes, I believe, to Robert Browning's masterpiece The Ring and the Book, and Mahon embraces that work's vision of the poet as wizard or alchemist. If Mahon had his choice, he would make it all go away—the tawdriness of the century—and reappear polished, burnished, gleaming with new luster and old, unshakable meaning. Estrangement has long been at the heart of Mahon's aesthetic, but this pitched quarrel with the age seems a bit over the top. “Those were the days,” he writes in “shiver in your tenement”: “now patience, courage, artistry / solitude things of the past.” Does he really mean this? And how might he respond to the assertion that these are the very qualities most needed in the cacophonous marketplace of the postmodern? When was it ever simple to be a poet? When was it ever comfortable?
Poem after poem here condemns our era's degeneration of artistic standards and the proliferation of popular culture; poem after poem portrays this lapse in mythical dimensions that—I can't help it—just seem silly:
Bring on ivy and goatskin, pipe and drum, For Dionysus son of Semele is come to tell us our long servitude to the sublime is over, no further resistance offered by the medium, the whole history of creative tension a waste of time. Goodbye now to the ‘tragic sense of life’, all we want is a soap serial and a dirty laugh who have had our fill of horrors and prefer a rock opera or a midsummer night's sex comedy to the death of kings. Bring on the new regime. …
(“At the Gate Theatre”)
Of course, he is being ironical—deeply so. We mark Mahon's verse by his capacity for irony and his attractive emotional restraint. Still, addressing himself to such a subject—the decline of high culture, the attack upon aesthetic imagination—are these condescending dis-missives enough for a poet to offer? “[T]he whole history of creative tension” has been a waste of time? The irony here seems suicidal.
It is disappointing to find a poet as accomplished and talented as Mahon wasting himself in lines like “All anyone does now is fuck and shit” or “Maybe I'm finally turning into an old fart / but I do prefer the traditional kinds of art.” At its worst and most self-indulgent, this approach approximates—for American ears—the kind of cranky comedic rant our consumer-driven culture disgorges daily. Americans are so habituated to irreverent and ironical talk about the most important matters in our lives (both public and private) that Mahon's tirades ring, if not hollowly, at least all too familiarly on our ears:
Everything aspires to the condition of rock music. Besieged by Shit, Sperm, Garbage, Gristle, Scum And other ‘raucous trivia’, we take refuge From fan migrations, police presence, road rage, Narcotics, Abrakebabra, festive rowdytum, From Mick and Gazza, Hugh Grant, paparazzi, TOP TORIES USED ME AS THEIR SEX TOY. …
(“At the Chelsea Arts Club”)
While this sort of thing—of which there is plenty in The Yellow Book—is easy and disappointing, large sections of the poems collected here display the exquisite musicality and intellectually demanding cultural criticism that we have come to expect from Mahon. Packed with literary allusions, epigraphs, sinuous syntax, and rich vocabulary, the poems offer repeated glimpses into Mahon's saturated literary consciousness. One might think that his fascination with intertextuality might serve as an avenue into the postmodern. The self-referential nature of the relations between his epigraphs and the texts of his poems suggests another foray one might have expected him to undertake. But Mahon is no more interested in the techniques of postmodernism than in its substance. Is it too much to ask that he engage these issues seriously? What exactly is wrong with the scrapping of old privileges, with the erasure of the separations between “high” and “low” culture that post-modernism trumpets? Had he not initiated the discussion, we might not be inclined to ask.
In one (and perhaps only one) way, the task of Irish women poets like Boland and McGuckian is easier than that of their male counterparts: merely in speaking, they break new ground. Shut out for so long, they have only to open their mouths to be seated—immediately—at the table where the intelligentsia's global dialogue about multiculturalism and gender equality raves on. In this context, as Boland has so persuasively pointed out, even the personal, domestic content of poems by women assumes a profound political dimension. And when a woman poet proceeds in another direction, utilizing—appropriating?—historical narratives for the personal settings of her poems, as McGuckian does in Shelmalier, the effects can be staggering. When she practices the art of linguistic brinkmanship so deftly and daringly, always dancing on the edge of meaninglessness, a traditional poet with his conventional approaches, allusions, and laments cannot hold a candle. Mahon's plaints run the risk of seeming, by contrast, irrelevant.
In a crucial way, Mahon does not see this. To be fair, he is not the only poet, male or female, Irish or American, who has missed or refused to acknowledge the recent changes that have so unmoored old approaches to both reading and writing literature. If one is still going on unselfconsciously about the “god-familiar hills,” the womanly Muse, and how one's own yellow book is a “real book” while the rest is garbage, “lit(t)erature,” then it is clear that the cognitive shift in Western culture and in the concomitant intellectual-political discourse over the last twenty years has failed to make a dent. However pleasant it is to live in the old world of books and art, it is just not possible in the same way anymore. The global community (how Mahon must hate that term!) militates twenty-four/seven against that kind of provincialism.
If I sound peeved at Mahon, the ire stems from disappointment. For Mahon is a prodigiously gifted poet, one of the few capable of regularly delivering the stab to the heart, the blow to the gut with which permanent lines of poetry have always wounded us. And, disillusioned though I was by the time I reached poem number XIV, “Rue des Beaux-Arts,” I was still laid low by the sheer power of his descriptive language:
The new art is everywhere with its whiplash line Derived from pre-Raff ivy and twining vine, its biomorphic shapes, motifs of cat and moth; base metals and industrial design, outside and inside, in themselves uncouth, aspire to the carnal life of pond and bower— and you yourself, old trendy that you are, have exchanged the silvery tinkle of champagne for muddy clouds of absinthe and vermouth, bitter herbs self-prescribed to make you whole.
And when I read, early in the book, “like a storm lantern the wintry planet swings,” my heart responded to the metaphor sympathetically, with both despair and delight. It is the delight that Mahon jettisons for most of this volume. That he should dissipate his gift in vitriol is deeply dispiriting to me. We do not look to our poets to take their balls and go home:
… and if you want to workshop mere materialism, that modern god we have ourselves invented, I leave you to the delights of modern life.
(“The Idiocy of Human Aspiration”)
True champions—male or female—remain in the game until the absolute end, regardless of what they imagine or fear the outcome to be. If Mahon is not quite the “old fart” he accuses himself of being, he might be on the way if he does not redirect his splendid gifts to help create the English-language poetry of the next millennium.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1257
SOURCE: Wills, Clair. “In Time's Turning.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5009 (2 April 1999): 26.
[In the following review, Wills evaluates the style and themes of Shelmalier.]
Some years ago, the Northern Irish poet Medbh McGuckian made the startling confession that “I began to write poetry so that nobody would read it. Even the ones who read it would not understand it, and certainly no other poet would understand it”. There could hardly be better ammunition for those who accuse contemporary poets of wilful obscurity. And even readers sympathetic to McGuckian must sometimes find themselves fighting off a sense of exasperation. Take these lines from “Shelmalier”, the title poem of her new book:
Looked after only by the four womb-walls, if anything curved in the ruined city his last hour it was his human hands, bituminous, while all laws were aimed at him, returning to the metre of a star: like a century about to be over, a river trying to film itself, detaching its voice from itself, he qualified the air of his own dying, his brain in folds like the semi-open rose of grief.
If, like me, you are clueless as to what these lines might be about, the safest response may be to stop trying to make sense. Perhaps we should simply enjoy the unexpected shifts; the flow of evocative images. Yet the most provoking thing about McGuckian's work is that there seems to be more to it than this. We catch glimpses of a pattern of meaning, albeit one which we can scarcely decipher. The difficulty is not just syntactical—although there's plenty of that—but that McGuckian appears to be relying on some hermetic scheme of reference. Maybe it would all add up, if we could only find the key. Perhaps, in some other world, those tantalizing veiled correspondences might suddenly become clear.
One way of accounting for the extreme difficulty of McGuckian's work has been through notions of “feminine language”. She has a loyal following among women readers, for whom this fluid, densely metaphorical poetry offers a powerful representation of distinctively female experiences, in particular those of childbirth and motherhood. Yet this approach to McGuckian, which assumes that the tenor of her work is predominantly confessional or autobiographical, doesn't take us far. This is not just because, in truth, the poems seem to hold back as much as they reveal about the author. More importantly, it misses the densely literary and allusive nature of the writing.
There has been some controversy recently over McGuckian's reliance on literary essays and biographies. Whole poems may be assembled out of interwoven quotations, leading some readers to question their originality. Certainly, McGuckian's previous books have engaged in an ambitious dialogue with writers such as Mandelstam, Rilke, above all Tsvetaeva (the poet McGuckian most resembles). But while persistence can untangle these connections, Shelmalier poses difficulties of another order. Even the most well-read critic will find the book tough going, since the texts with which it is intertwined are the various histories of the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion, and the writings and speeches of the protagonists themselves.
The title of the volume itself is a conundrum. The work derives from a name for and Irish clan in Wexford, the sìol malure, a people who were wiped out by repeated English incursions into the county. It was anglicized as the name of a barony in Wexford during the Ordnance Survey of Ireland in the early nineteenth century. The name appears in two well-known nineteenth-century ballads commemorating 1798. In one song celebrating the actions of the warrior-priest Father John Murphy, it's the name of the place in Wexford where the rebels gathered before their successful attack on Wexford Town; in the other, it's a term for a member of the peasant insurgency (“What's the news, what's the news, O my bold Shelmalier?”). There were, apparently, Shelmaliers on both sides, both yeomen and peasantry, and it may be this ambiguity, as much as anything else, which draws McGuckian to the name. Either way, the term is firmly associated with the rebellion in Wexford, in the Irish Republic, which was echoed by a rising of the Unitedmen in Ulster.
So we can glean, at least, that the fundamental gesture of the volume is inclusive. Shelmalier links Irish and English, North and South, the present Troubles and the past. It also breaches the confessional divide. Like Tom Paulin in his 1986 volume Liberty Tree—though the poetry itself couldn't be further from Paulin's blend of toughness and clarity—McGuckian's imagination is caught by the confluence of Presbyterian and Catholic in the rebellion. It is the Protestant leaders of the United Irishmen, Theobald Wolfe Tone, Lord Edward Fitzgerald and, later, Robert Emmet, whose declarations echo obliquely through McGuckian's lines. In “The Feastday of Peace”, McGuckian is-called by the dead, who offer guidance to the poet:
Deep in time's turnings and the overcrowded soil too familiar to be seen, the long, long dead steer with their warmed breath my unislanded dreams.
Shelmalier, we might conjecture, is an act of remembrance—one which also seeks to be an act of reconciliation. Apparently a meditation on suffering and failure, it nevertheless resonates with the new possibilities which the political détente of the 1990s has brought to Ireland.
But it would be a mistake to overstress the political earnestness of the book. Take the mischievous historical double-exposures, for example, 1998 looks back not only to 1798, but also to another fin de siècle, that of the 1890s. The painting on the front cover is a late nineteenth-century scene of a woman tending a wounded poacher, and we are reminded that the two Shelmalier ballads are Victorian creations, not contemporary, with the uprising. McGuckian both foregrounds the sentimental images which filter our access to the past, and suggests it would be naive to think we could simply discard them. What we can do perhaps is rewrite them, just as McGuckian may be rewriting Yeatsian heroics as the wounded, feminized masculinity which the cover illustration depicts.
It is easy to overlook the playfulness of McGuckian's work. In the past, she has often turned tricks with etymology. Here she toys with the possibilities of traditional poetic forms and devices. Shelmalier incorporates sonnets, and even rhyming couplets, such as those of the introductory poem, “Script for and Unchanging Voice”:
The leaves are tongues whose years of blood are locked in the wrong house, time feels unclocked
or has been dead too long by now to cast its freshly slaughtered shadow from the past.
Here the neatness and finality of the rhymes suggest the blockage of the future, both political and poetic. I can do things that way if you like, McGuckian seems to say, but it really won't get us very far. Yet rhyme is not just a clamp on innovation in Shelmalier, for McGuckian—more traditionally—also plays with rhyme as a way of reconciling disparate elements. Despite the obscurity of the lines I quoted at the beginning, we can make out in them the form of a half-rhyming octet. The sonnet to which they belong concludes almost exuberantly: “This great estrangement has the destination of a rhyme / The trees of his heart breathe regular in my dream.”
Estrangement as reconciliation, location as dislocation: McGuckian has always been concerned with ambiguous marginal states, with interiors which lie beyond, and invasions from within. In earlier books, these themes were often focused through bodily experience. But for McGuckian the intimate sphere is shot through with collective memory, and in Shelmalier the politics of memory comes to the fore.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4875
SOURCE: Blakeman, Helen. “Metaphor and Metonymy in Medbh McGuckian's Poetry.” Critical Survey 14, no. 2 (May 2002): 61-74.
[In the following essay, Blakeman studies the role of metaphor and metonymy in McGuckian's poetry with respect to the theories of American linguist Roman Jakobson and French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan on the same topics.]
What this essay offers is not a definitive way to read a McGuckian poem, as not only is this an unfeasible task but it would compromise McGuckian's deliberate refusal of a single voiced, univocal reading. Rather, what this essay provides is a consideration of McGuckian's application of metaphor and metonymy in relation to the work of Roman Jakobson and Jacques Lacan, which takes into account the indeterminacy and displacement of meaning that is a predominant feature of her work. Roman Jakobson's study ‘Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances’ led to the formulation of the metaphoric and metonymic axis of language, a formulation which significantly influenced Lacan, for like Lacan, Jakobson's focus rests ‘not on the object of reference, but on the relations of the signifying elements in the sign itself’.1 A brief overview of Jakobson's study is thus both valuable in relation to McGuckian's poetry and provides the foundation from which a movement into a Lacanian reading becomes possible.
Jakobson's distinction between metaphor and metonymy is founded on the Saussurean differentiation between the syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations between signs. When we compose a sentence we employ both the practices and conventions of grammatical regulations (the syntagmatic chain of combination and contiguity), and make choices regarding the possible variations between signs at each moment of composition (the more flexible paradigmatic chain of selection and substitution). Jakobson aligned the process of selection and substitution with metaphor, and combination and contiguity with metonymy, claiming that both are needed for meaningful communication and constitute the axis on which all language rests. Jakobson also maintained, however, that as much can be learned from linguistic communication when it ceases to function effectively, as when it is intact. The impairment of the metonymic axis of language, states Jakobson, can lead to combination deficiency, a condition which privileges the paradigmatic dimension of language and suppresses the relation of contiguity between terms. For the combination aphasic, grammatical co-ordination and ties between terms are lost, resulting in word connections which defy rules of logic, or the absence of any interrelation between parts. In relation to the poetry of Medbh McGuckian, Jakobson's distinction between metaphor and metonymy is most informative when considered in relation to his discussion of ‘combination deficiency’. ‘The Long Engagement’ from McGuckian's early collection The Flower Master (first published in 1982) provides an apposite example of how Jakobson's work can inform an exploration into McGuckian's complex use of language.
Astonishment, surprise and confusion are characteristic effects of McGuckian's poetry, and metaphor is often employed to the detriment of grammatical regulations and metonymy. In ‘The Long Engagement’, the disjunctive ‘or’ and conjunctives such as ‘and’ are frequently omitted, creating a staccato run of clause elements, and a chain of images. The first stanza, for example, begins ‘In my all-weather loneliness I am like’,2 a simile that is followed by three alternatives, given without any disjunctive or preference between them. The images evoke the feelings of hunger, loneliness, and emptiness, which prove pervasive throughout the poem. A lack of personal pronouns also attenuates the lack of clarity or stability within the text. The second stanza begins: ‘Occasionally, as Sunday silver, sit / In a quiet, eastward-facing room’. The alliteration of ‘Sunday silver, sit’ sounds phonetically harmonious and yet it somehow feels grammatically deviant. If it is read as a request, that one should occasionally sit in a quiet eastward-facing room, then it is grammatically accurate, and yet if it refers to an action regularly undertaken, then the lack of a personal pronoun creates the effect of grammatical in-completion. It is possible, however, that the initial ‘I’ of the first line functions as a delayed predicate indicated by the semi-colon after ‘kiss’, the ambiguity serving to destabilise the linearity of the reading process. The omission of the pronoun also accentuates the simile of being like a ‘dark cicada’ (an insect with transparent wings), and the vacuous ‘empty space’ from the previous stanza. The cicada also makes a loud and rhythmic chirping sound, thus providing an apposite metaphor for the persona of the poem who, as the poem unfolds, appears to be physically unsatisfied, and wishes to attract attention, if not physically, then audibly. The imagery evoked at the close of the second stanza marks the onset of the poem's progressive obscurity commencing with an enigmatic use of numbers:
And make a thread from the fibres of the five signs Leading to the eight valleys, my lush palace gate.
(The Flower Master, 18)
The ‘five signs’ remain unnamed, yet the use of the definite article ‘the five signs’, distinguishes them from all others and imbues them with particular importance. The ‘fibres’ of these signs lead to the ‘eight valleys’ and ‘my lush palace gate’, an image that suggests both a mysterious and concealed location, and is invested with underlying sexual connotations. Marjorie Perloff's comment on the ‘Antipaysage’ in Rimbaud's Illuminations, provides an apposite gloss on the landscape evoked here by McGuckian. Perloff states:
These dream landscapes, at once present and absent, concrete and abstract, are composed of particulars that cannot be specified, of images that refuse to cohere in a consistent referential scheme.3
McGuckian's landscape, however, is even more indeterminate than Rimbaud's as it appears totally esoteric, without any identifiable referent, and furthermore, the persona is not merely contemplating the landscape but is physically part of it. The ‘Romantic distinction between subject and object […] collapses’ (Poetics, 59) with McGuckian's use of metaphor.
The second section of this poem is pervaded with personal recollections which are similarly imbued with sexual metaphoric undertones. Once again, there is a marked elimination of connectives, as the contextual relation between the images, and the integration and combination of terms, is given secondary consideration. The lack of connectives in conjunction with the enjambment over the stanza break compels the recollections to be read in rapid succession, as though each recollection is easily substituted by another from a potentially endless paradigmatic repertoire.
I lie down thirsty from the thunderstorm, Visualising first this book, the objects on the tray, Then you asleep, my loosening Towards your pointed ceiling,
Through half-open lids your hand, Repeat your name …
(The Flower Master, 18)
An atmosphere of tension between longing and frustration suffuses the lines, expressed through the metaphor of the persona ‘loosening’ towards the lovers ‘pointed ceiling’. There is similarly a (con)fusion between dreaming and nostalgia which intensifies the already pervasive ambiguity. The second section ends with the persona falling backwards ‘through the salted folds, the spring of your door’, implying the recollection of an orgasm, or conversely, a contemporaneous self-induced orgasm, experienced in the absence of the visualised other. The sexual imagery within this section suggests extreme frustration with an unconsummated love affair. Read in this context the title ‘The Long Engagement’ constitutes a deliberate play on words, the emphasis resting on ‘long’, infused with both a bitter and ironic tone. In an equally possible reading the overall poem expresses a lack of (sexual) satisfaction in marriage, the title once again providing an ironic gloss on a serious problem, the relationship resembling more an engagement (without sexual consummation), due to the lack of matrimonial intimacy.
The final section of ‘The Long Engagement’ retains the self-contained staccato images, and is increasingly devoid of lucidity. Metaphoric associations pervade the lines as the section begins ‘You overflow’ given without any indication of the context, although each metaphor is significantly imbued with sexual undertones as to provide the reader with an understated implication of what is being inferred. We are given three successive metaphors, each suggesting confinement and restriction in contrast to the ‘overflowing’ other:
My lap is bent upon itself, my bulbs Are fleeced, my wishbone wings are tied.
(Flower Master, 19)
The poem's final stanza ends with an ambiguous metaphor in the form of a question. The persona asserts that ‘perhaps my worry beads need sanding’, the beads acting metaphorically for both the persona's emotions, and the female genitalia. The animated beads ‘ask’ to be ‘lifted from their winding / Cold, the subsidence of their avenues’, the enjambment skillfully splitting the clause. This device serves to create a disruption between the regional sense of the line and the wider syntactical sense, whereby the line sense indicates that ‘winding’ operates as a verb whilst the syntax sense destabilises this understanding by insisting ‘winding’ be read as an adjective appertaining to cold. Such ambiguity exemplifies how McGuckian problematises seemingly discrete and functional linguistic units. In relation to the persona's emotions this request can be read as a plea for warmth, contact, and security, and in relation to the overall theme of sexual longing, the poem concludes with a final plea for sexual fulfilment.
As I have exemplified, ‘The Long Engagement’, hovers between sense and non-sense, or as Thomas Docherty states ‘it is precisely at the moment of taking root, or of finding a single place from which to understand a poem, that it melts away again into ambivalence and ambiguity’.4 McGuckian's use of language manipulates stylistic techniques, displacing coherence and grammatical co-ordination. Identifications are primarily of a metaphoric kind, often alluding exclusively to each other, and working independent of the underlying context. Although McGuckian's poems share many points of contact with the combination aphasic, who is restricted within the paradigmatic axis of language, McGuckian is able to communicate in both metonymic and metaphoric terms: her poems do not entirely discard the activities of combination and contiguity. Rather, what McGuckian's poetry demonstrates is a concern for the code (the network of relations between words), rather than the message (the point of contact between words and meaning) or context. McGuckian's idiosyncratic use of the code, however, often problematises the clarity of the message, as the choice of words can make sense as a grammatical sequence (such as subject, verb, object), but, as with her use of metaphors, effect bizarre connections between terms. McGuckian undermines the reader's expected use of the code in relation to the message, rendering her, in Richard Bradford's terms, a ‘Jakobsonian poet’, who ‘deliberately and consciously creates imbalances between the syntagmatic and paradigmatic chains’, whilst remaining ‘capable of commanding and controlling the consequent effects’.5
Lacan builds on Jakobson's distinction between metaphor and metonymy in his ‘return to Freud’, linking metaphor with the mechanism of condensation and metonymy to the mechanism of displacement. In his essay ‘The agency of the letter in the unconscious or reason since Freud’, Lacan cites metaphor and metonymy to be the two functions through which the illusion of a signified is produced. Meaning is constantly being displaced as ‘no single signifier is definitely attached to a single signified’.6 It is this main tenet of Lacanian thought which brings an added awareness into the way all language functions, and is invaluable in relation to the poems of Medbh McGuckian. This is a reciprocal interaction however, for not only does Lacanian theory provide new ways of considering McGuckian's poetry, but McGuckian's poetry equally provides new ways of thinking about some difficult Lacanian concepts.
Throughout McGuckian's poetry there is an implicit awareness of the Lacanian notion of the perpetual deferral of meaning, and lack of any fixed signifier or signified. ‘For a Young Matron’, for example, from McGuckian's collection On Ballycastle Beach, (published 1988), contains the lines:
Why not forget this word, He asks. It's edgeless, Echoless, it is stretched so You cannot become its passenger.(7)
The word is described as ‘edgeless’ and ‘echoless’, evoking a sense of the formless and indistinct, and yet the lack of fixed boundaries works to resist closure and prevent an arrested meaning. The word itself remains significantly unspecified and is referred to repeatedly as ‘it’, thus with-holding any specific meaning. The alliteration of the ‘eh’ sound and the repetition of ‘less’ ironically provides an echoing effect, the ‘less’ working as both suffix to ‘edge’ and ‘echo’, and also as a compound word evoking a sense of loss or lack. The stanza ends with the declaration that the word ‘is stretched so / You cannot become its passenger.’ The positioning of ‘so’ creates a hinge in the statement that contains the implicit allusion that the word has become stretched and so cannot be owned. That one may be a ‘passenger’ to a word inverts the assumption that subjects own and control language. The subjects in McGuckian's poetry are not in control of language or meaning, for as advocates of Lacanian theory advance, ‘the subject no longer constitutes language or functions as its master, but conversely, is constituted as a subject by language’.8 There is a pervasive sense of loss and regret that runs throughout ‘For a Young Matron’, and the implicit collapse of love is paralleled by the collapse of language. What was once considered concrete and controllable is rendered transient and indefinite and both the signifier and signified have been exposed as precarious and unstable.
‘Echo-Poem’, found in the volume Marconi's Cottage (published in 1991), similarly undermines signification as fixed and stable. The title Marconi's Cottage alludes to the actual two-roomed cottage in Ballycastle on the north coast of Ireland where Marconi experimented with transmitting radio waves across the sea to Rathlin Island. McGuckian owns Marconi's Cottage and a preoccupation with various forms of communication is apparent throughout the volume. In ‘Echo-Poem’ death is personified as a female force, who is both feared and desired. The relationship between death and the persona of the poem is thus invested with sexual metaphoric undertones. It is the persona's father who is tied to death's stern, however, transforming the sexual tension to an implicit sense of loss and longing. Stanzas three and four generate an almost palpable sense of expectation.
Death is heavy-footed, Bedfast; I feel Sought by her, I meet her In the darkest part Of staircases, In regions where time Can be accurately kept.
She will choose Her body freely, As a word chooses Its meaning. Her shoulder-twist And cleavage feeds Some foam-born Germ in me.(9)
McGuckian likens the apparent freedom of death to choose her ‘body’ to the ability of words to choose their own meaning, thereby commenting on and drawing a parallel between the mutable and arbitrary condition of signification, and the unpredictability yet certainty of death. Paradoxically, however, once death has chosen her ‘body’ there is an inherent (biological) finality, which throughout McGuckian's oeuvre the play of signification endures beyond. Symbolic termination is postponed through its refusal to arrive at a specific signified and finalise the play of serial displacement.
Due to the lack of any fixed or determined meaning, reactions to Medbh McGuckian's poems are diverse and often extreme, ranging from the parsimonious comments of Patrick Williams who accuses her of ‘teasing solipsistic metaphors’ with ‘specious authority’,10 to the defensive Catherine Byron, who responds to Williams with the declaration that ‘Medbh McGuckian's poetry is “difficult”, but it does not have the hermetic difficulty of the poetry of many an introverted, self-referential coterie of the elect’.11 Although exactly who Byron considers to be a member of ‘the elect’ remains unclear, her repudiation of ‘the expected naturalistic photographs of the “so what” or anecdotal school of poetry’, in favour of McGuckian's ‘new way[s] of seeing’ demonstrates her desire to applaud poetry that moves beyond the pellucid and mimetic, a desire antithetical to Williams' own. Notwithstanding such disputes what is generally accepted by both critics and readers alike, is the difficulty of reading McGuckian's poetry due to the lack of any stable referents or reliable and consistent narrator. McGuckian's employment of metaphor and metonymy is similarly complex, as she works at the level of indeterminacy, ambiguity and polysemy. Rather than providing the reader with additional help, metaphors and similes generally propel the poem even deeper into a web of linguistic complexity. Each sentence, clause, and even word within the poem thus needs to be considered separately, as well as a constituent of the whole, and McGuckian even states that ‘I like the title to be a little poem itself’.12
A Lacanian understanding of metonymy is not based on any ‘real contiguity between objects’, but rather the ‘contiguity on which it depends is purely linguistic’ (Ecrits, 99). In the incessant movement of signification from one term to another, Lacan also recognised the condition of desire, which is similarly based on a chain of substitution. Desire is metonymic, for it consists of the endless search for the (lost) object along the indefinite chain of unsatisfactory substitutions and metonymic displacements. In relation to the poetry of McGuckian, Thomas Docherty's essay ‘Postmodern McGuckian’ contains some apposite comments regarding McGuckian's use of seduction. He states that:
rather than subscribing to some desire to identify what is produced, McGuckian prefers to work at the level of seduction itself. This way she questions the modern belief in the availability of identity.
(‘Postmodern McGuckian’, 212)
The ‘force of seduction’ in McGuckian's poetry is diffused along the metonymic chain of signifiers. Her poems seduce the reader into believing an essential ‘truth’ will be revealed, and yet meaning is ‘constantly deferred: sometimes, by a careful twist’ and ‘placed out of reach after the reader thinks it has been grasped’.13 Furthermore, as the second half of Docherty's comment indicates, not only is there no unified or stable meaning, but there is also no unified or stable self.
The Lacanian subject is inherently split and alienated from him/herself, a condition that can never be amended. Throughout McGuckian's oeuvre there is no fixed or stable ‘I’, as personal pronouns merge into each other undermining any sense of a unified subject and furthermore a stable and authoritative narrator. In ‘The Rising Out’, for example, the ‘dream sister’, can be read as the persona's inner voice, the poem playing out tensions between different aspects of the same psyche. The poem begins:
My dream sister has gone into my blood To kill the poet in me before Easter. Such a tender visit, when I move my palaces, The roots of my shadow almost split in two, Like the heartbeat of my own child, a little Blue crocus in the middle of a brook, or the hesitant Beginning of a song I knew, a stone-song Too small for me, awaiting a drier music.(14)
The ‘sister’ can be read as the surfacing of the subject's unconscious anxieties, displaced onto a mythical ‘other’. Throughout this first stanza conflict is juxtaposed with fragile images, such as the child's heartbeat, a ‘little blue crocus’ and the hesitant song. The dream sister is potentially destructive and yet provides the essential seed of creativity, thus creating the atmosphere of tension that permeates the poem. In stanza three the persona states how ‘In my mind, / I try and try to separate one Alice from another’ (Venus and the Rain, 36), the repetition of ‘try’ suggesting that such a feat is ultimately impossible. The self, for McGuckian is composed of many identities, and a completely ‘knowable’ self is unrealisable. McGuckian is not providing a composite scene and linear narrative, but rather, like a dream, elements are broken, fragmented, and ignorant of the ‘rules’ that regulate ordered verse. The inconsistency of voice adds to the overall ambiguity and indeterminacy. As the poem unfolds, therefore, any ‘revelation’ anticipated by the reader becomes an increasingly unlikely prospect. Interrelated with the ‘unknowable’ self, there is a notable refusal to ‘name’, both in relation to others, and also in relation to the ‘I’ of the poem who recognises a fundamental alienation from the ‘self’. The persona in the poem ‘The Invalid's Echo’ states how ‘my name … comes / from nowhere and is ownerless’ (Marconi's Cottage, 13), and in ‘Smoke’ the subject declares that ‘I am unable even / to contain myself” (The Flower Master, 11). It is not, however, such recurrent declarations of a fractured identity that is most disturbing in McGuckian's poetry, rather, what is unsettling and disturbing is the regular dissolution of identity. The persona of the poem is not only rendered unreliable but can merge into objects, and even experience synaesthetic dissolution. ‘Harem Trousers’, exemplifies a wish to discard the ‘I’ of a poem completely, and in ‘Four O'Clock, Summer Street’ the ‘I’ slowly diminishes, leaving only the ability to listen: ‘I would shine in the window of her blood like wine / Or perfume, or till nothing was left of me but listening’ (Ballycastle, 31). The world McGuckian evokes is heterogeneous and punctuated with contradictions, thus questioning the reader's reliance on conventional representations of ‘reality’.
As with the Lacanian understanding of metonymy, metaphor is not based on any real similarity between terms, but rather signifiers are united through a ‘third term’ which enables ‘the substitution of signifier for signifier’ (Ecrits, 164). Metaphor halts the ‘indefinite sliding of meaning’ and freezes the signifier, confining it to the unconscious where it is no longer subject to movement and modification through other signifiers. It provides a synchronic ‘point de capiton’ (Ecrits, 99), an anchoring point where the chain is punctuated to produce meaning, however temporary it may be. McGuckian's poetry is replete with different types of metaphor, which effectively fuse together seemingly disparate things. Her notable employment of ‘paralogical’ metaphors, increase the level of obscurity through connecting ideas and images that have no clear resemblance to each other. There is also an expansive use of synaesthetic metaphors which fuse together sights and sounds. The poem ‘Death of a Ceiling’ begins with the abstract stanza:
The sounds that shapes make in the air, The shapes that sounds make, matter Whenever a stone or pocket-knife Is rocketed through water.
The sibilance and reversed repetition of ‘sounds’ and ‘shapes’ evokes a feeling or sensation rather than any clear meaning or narrative. There is, however, a regular rhythm within this first stanza providing an element of consistency beneath the inexplicable surface. McGuckian does not discard all sense of syntagmatic and paradigmatic stability, therefore, but provides tentative footholds from which the reader may navigate. The rhythm in conjunction with the sibilance creates a mimetic effect, the rhythm and hissing sound imitating the water it describes. The half-rhymes of ‘matter’ and ‘water’ are also significantly made by Wordsworth for whom it constituted a full rhyme in a Cumbrian accent. Any allusion to language and dialect by an Irish poet is inherently contentious and McGuckian scatters such subtle references to identity politics throughout her oeuvre. Thus, whilst absolute meaning itself is destabilised, there exists a residual and local territorialisation of meaning that prevents a complete dissolution and opacity.
Applying Lacanian theory to poetry is complex, and yet there are increasing attempts to do so.15 What can be discussed is how McGuckian's concerns are comparable with those associated with Lacan, concerns such as the acquisition of language, the configuration of subjectivity, and the interplay between the conscious and unconscious, guilt and anxiety, death and desire. McGuckian's poem ‘Isba Song’ in her collection Venus and the Rain (first published in 1984) discloses these concerns, and, furthermore, the tension that is frequently exposed in McGuckian's poetry between metaphor and metonymy. The poem begins:
Beyond the edge of the desk, the Victorian dark Inhabits childhood, youth-seeking, death-seeking, Bringing almost too much meaning to my life, Who might have been content with one storey.
The declaration that ‘Beyond the edge of the desk, the Victorian dark / inhabits childhood’, implies a realm of repression which governs our infantile memories and experiences. There is an initial feeling of unease, however, accompanying this metaphor as it is the ‘Victorian dark’ which ‘inhabits childhood’, situating the dark as the prominent focus, which, moreover, embodies the ‘youth-seeking’ and ‘death-seeking’ impulses which Lacan states defines human subjectivity. Any recognition of the tension between these drives, or the surfacing of repressed childhood memories threatens to bring ‘almost too much meaning’ to the subject's life, ‘Who might have been content with one storey.’ There is a play on words here between the double use of ‘storey’, as it refers to both the Russian one-storey dwelling, the isba, and also suggests a contentment with accepting only one ‘storey’ of the psyche, the surface, the conscious. The reference to the ‘turned-outwards windows of the isba’ is also significant here in relation to the persona's psyche as it suggests an openness to the ‘outside’, the external, rather than an engagement with a deeper psychic level. The ambiguous use of ‘storey’ provides an apposite example of the constant tension in McGuckian's poems between metonymy and metaphor.
Also within this poem, there is a moment of subjective fracturing as the persona recognises in her desire to be renamed ‘the sound of another woman's voice, / Which I believed was the sound of my own.’ It is the externalised ‘other’ who wishes to ‘divide her song’ and yet the ‘I’ of the poem ‘took nothing but the first syllable of her name’, thus accepting her ‘split’ condition alongside the implicit knowledge that a fully realised self consciousness will never be gained. McGuckian is also providing a multilingual pun on her own first name here, as the Irish name ‘Medbh’ contains the English word ‘me’. The personal and the political have merged as McGuckian plays with the use of English and Irish words, skillfully representing a troubled sense of identity. McGuckian has an ambivalent and volatile relationship with the English language as she feels constantly in battle with what she feels is an ‘imposed’ tongue.16 McGuckian is opposing the need to name in order to ‘fix’ meaning, cohere the world, and repress what may be incomprehensible.
The ‘effect’ of the subjects limited knowledge is likened in the poem to a ‘gentler terrain within a wilder one’, an image which appositely captures the configuration of subjectivity cloven between the conscious and the unconscious. The poem concludes as enigmatically as it began, with the assertion that:
… Otherwise I might have well Ignored the ground that shone for me, that did enough To make itself rebound from me, out of which I was made.
The ambiguous use of ‘Otherwise’ here attempts to justify the choices taken throughout the poem, the contentment ‘with one storey’, and the acceptance of only ‘the first syllable’ of the woman's name, and yet ironically, the choices have only confirmed the subject's inability to ever know that out of which she was made.
As this paper has exemplified, McGuckian's poetry exhibits a concern with how language functions and signifiers interact, and the deliberate ‘play of signifiers’ contributes to the frustration which McGuckian's poetry ceaselessly engenders. McGuckian is demonstrating how ‘freed from their “normal” channels of reference, words can shed their natural and conventional associations’ (Poetics, 55), to (re)embody an indeterminate meaning. As a Lacanian reading has helped to elucidate, meaning slides ceaselessly through the lines as each signifier relates only to another signifier, denying the reader what is most desired, (and yet what Lacan would state is never present), a fixed and determined relationship between signifier and signified. Meaning in McGuckian's poetry, however, is not absent as despite the open play of signification there is an always disputable but nevertheless intractable relationship between the floating signifiers as they are structured within the edifice of the poem. McGuckian is inviting the reader to consider how meaning is always produced, in progress, and subject to revision, thus looping back on itself, unravelling and reforming, for as she states in ‘Pulsus Paradoxus’, ‘a word has only an aroma of meaning’.17
Richard Kidder, ‘Jakobson, Roman Osipovich’, in (ed) Irena R. Makaryk, Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993), 375.
Medbh McGuckian, ‘The Long Engagement’, in The Flower Master, (Ireland: The Gallery Press, 1993), 18-19. All subsequent references from this edition are cited parenthetically.
Marjorie Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981), 45. All subsequent references from this text are cited parenthetically.
Thomas Docherty, ‘Postmodern McGuckian’, in Neil Corcoran ed., The Chosen Ground: Essays on Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland, (London: Seren Books, 1992), 200. All subsequent references from this text are cited parenthetically.
Richard Bradford, Roman Jakobson: Life, Language, Art, (London: Routledge, 1994), 18.
Elizabeth Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction, (London: Routledge, 1990), 95. All subsequent references from this text are cited parenthetically.
Medbh McGuckian, ‘For a Young Matron’, in On Ballycastle Beach, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 41. All subsequent references taken from this edition are cited parenthetically.
Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, (London: Tavistock Publications Ltd, 1977), 97. All subsequent references taken from this text are cited parenthetically.
Medbh McGuckian, ‘Echo Poem’, in Marconi's Cottage (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books Ltd, 1992), 67-68. All subsequent references taken from this edition are cited parenthetically.
Patrick Williams, ‘Spare That Tree!’, Honest Ulsterman, 86 (1989), 50-2.
Catherine Byron, ‘Such Declarations May be Routine Enough in the McGuckian Household: Response to Patrick Williams’, Honest Ulsterman, 87 (1989), 87.
Susan Sailer Shaw, ‘Interview with Medbh McGuckian’, Michigan Quarterly, 32:1 (1993), 126.
R. J. C. Watt, in Tracey Chavalier (ed), Contemporary Poets: Fifth Edition, (St James Press, 1991), 630.
McGuckian, ‘Rising Out’, in Venus and the Rain, (Ireland: The Gallery Press, 1994), 36. All subsequent references taken from this edition are cited parenthetically.
See Paul Bentley, The Poetry of Ted Hughes: Language, Illusion and Beyond, (Harlow: Longman, 1988).
See Kimberly S Bohman, ‘Surfacing: An Interview with Medbh McGuckian’, Irish Review, 16 (1994), and Laura O'Connor (foreword and afterword), ‘Comhrá: Medbh McGuckian and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’, Southern Review, 31:3 (1995).
Medbh McGuckian, ‘Pulsus Paradoxus’, in Shelmalier, (Ireland: The Gallery Press, 1998), 40.
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Brandes, Rand. “A Dialogue with Medbh McGuckian.” Interview: Studies in the Literary Imagination 30, no. 2 (1997): 37-61.
Brandes provides an overview of McGuckian's writings and career, particularly the poet's decision to conduct a poetry workshop for prison inmates.
D'Evelyn, Thomas. “Verses for a Troubled Time.” Christian Science Monitor (3 April 2003): 20.
D'Evelyn discusses the range of poems in The Soldiers of Year II, commenting that McGuckian's “art, notable for the fission of its imagery, rises to each occasion, lifting it to terrible beauty.”
Gonzales, Alexander G. “Celebrating the Richness of Medbh McGuckian's Poetry: Close Analysis of Six Poems from The Flower Master.” In Contemporary Irish Women Poets, edited by Alexander Gonzales, pp. 43-63. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Gonzales assesses the poetic achievements of six poems from McGuckian's The Flower Master.
Mahaffey, Vicki. “Heirs of Yeats: Eire as Female Poets Revise Her.” In The Future of Modernism, edited by Hugh Witemeyer, pp. 101-17. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.
Mahaffey demonstrates how McGuckian uses her poetry to assert her definition of Irish female sexuality.
Murphy, Shane. “Obliquity in the Poetry of Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian.” Éire Ireland 31, nos. 3 and 4 (fall-winter 1996): 76-101.
Murphy explores the functions and effects of obliquity in the poetry of Paul Muldoon and McGuckian with respect to postmodern intertexuality.
O'Connor, Mary. “‘Rising Out’: Medbh McGuckian's Destabilizing Poetic.” Éire-Ireland 30, no. 4 (winter 1996): 154-72.
O'Connor examines how McGuckian' s poetry uses patriarchal and national literary conventions in order to subvert them.
Welsch, Camille-Yvette. “New Irish Poets.” Women's Review of Books 20, no. 9 (June 2003): 17-18.
Welsch provides an overview of recent works by several female Irish poets, including McGuckian, noting that The Soldiers of Year II “enacts the linguistic chaos of a mind still at war with itself.”
Additional coverage of McGuckian's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers Supplement, Vol. 5; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 143; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 48; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 40; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poetry; Literature Resource Center; and Poetry Criticism, Vol. 27.