Saturday, December 6, 2008


This review originally appeared in Verse, Volume 14, Number 3 (Spring 1998), pp. 147-55.

Eavan Boland. An Origin Like Water: Collected Poems 1967-1987.
Medbh McGuckian. Selected Poems, 1978-1994.
Paula Meehan. Mysteries of the Home.
Rita Ann Higgins. Sunny Side Plucked: New & Selected Poems.

“Unless, of course, you improvise,” Eavan Boland muses in the closing lines of the opening poem of her previous extensive compilation, Outside History: Selected Poems 1980-1990, proposing that what has been lost (a recurring thematic motif of her poems) in her culture’s construction of history can be recovered only through a willful act of creative engagement with the past: only through “the improvised poetic of imprisoned meanings,” Boland suggests in another poem, “The Bottle Garden,” can those events, those persons, those moments which have been excluded from conventional historical discourses be allowed their full resonance. Indeed, many of Boland’s poems, especially those written in the last dozen years or so, admit to being “improvisations” of sorts as she uses seemingly stable moments (personal, familial, historical or mythological events) or tableaus (photographs, paintings) as points of departure for exploring the possible dynamic subtexts to the supposedly static “texts” that conventional historical perspectives might authorize. Obviously, Boland’s primary concern is with investigating “the space / between the words that I had by heart” (as she phrases it in “An Irish Childhood in England: 1951”), especially as that space—that absence, that unrealized potentiality—relates to women’s experience.

One result of this particular concern or interest is that while Boland’s poems may be read individually as “improvisations,” they may be read collectively as “variations on a theme.” In fact, while some readers of Boland’s poetry may complain that the range of reference in her images and motifs is narrowly suburban and domestic, others may recognize that the effect of her verse is cumulative, that she herself does not create a single “stable” text but instead continues to compose and re-compose in the quilt-like “algebras” (to borrow from “The Unlived Life”) of her verse the “sequence of evicted possibilities” (as she puts it in “Listen. This Is the Noise of Myth”) that constitute the unexpressed life “outside history.” Such, at least, is the essence of Boland’s mature work.

Interestingly, her early poems collected in An Origin Like Water—in particular those originally published in the volumes New Territory in 1967 and The War Horse in 1975—give little indication of the direction that her verse would ultimately take. By 1987 when, with the publication of The Journey, Boland began to emerge as a significant Irish voice on the international poetry scene, she had made a decided commitment to truly liberating vers libre—a commitment which she has maintained through the newer poems making up the first part of Outside History and continuing with In a Time of Violence (1994). Surprisingly, then, her earliest poems are consistently (even insistently) formal—not only in their structure and their language but also in their subjects and their themes. Engaging, as in her later volumes, with classical mythology, with Irish history and mythology, with other poems and poets, with paintings, her early poems are yet remarkably unremarkable—much more competent than compelling in their adherence to regularly-rhymed stanzas and in their prudent exploration of rather ordinary thematic territory. In effect, they are set pieces rather than improvisations.

Apparently, Boland herself came to recognize the stylistic and thematic limitations of her early work as she begins her 1982 volume, In Her Own Image—located exactly midway in An Origin Like Water­—with a literal “Tirade for the Mimic Muse.” Rejecting “Eye shadow, swivel brushes, blushers, / Hot pinks, rouge pots, sticks, / Ice for the pores, a mud mask”—the merely cosmetic “tricks” which characterized her previous verse—she declares:

I will wake you from your sluttish sleep.
I will show you true reflections, terrors.
You are the Muse of all our mirrors.
Look in them and weep.

Clearly feeling licensed by this declaration of poetic independence, Boland immediately remakes herself “in her own image,” and the last half of An Origin Like Water­ includes many of the subtly-realized poems which have made her a household name on both sides of the Atlantic. Somewhat unreasonably, however, most of these poems also appear in the last half of Outside History (organized with reverse chronology), making this new collection less-than-essential for readers already familiar with Boland through that earlier book.

Generally, Medbh McGuckian’s Selected Poems provides a more representative—in large part because more distilled—survey of a poet’s career to date. By reputation a difficult poet, McGuckian can sometimes exasperate even an attentive reader with her exotic (some might say eccentric) use of metaphor and other figurative language; as she acknowledges in the title poem of her volume On Ballycastle Beach (1988): “My words are traps / through which you pick your way.” But as the aphorisms which open the earlier poem “Gateposts” reflect, she can also delight a reader appreciative of the inherent disjunction of language and meaning:

A man will keep a horse for prestige,
but a woman ripens best underground.
He settles where the wind
brings his whirling hat to rest,
and the wind decides which door is to be used.

In its own way the equivalent of Boland’s notion of improvising, McGuckian’s negotiation of such disjunction characterizes her poetry early and late.

Describing in “The Dream-Language of Fergus” how “one river inserted into another / becomes a leaping, glistening, splashed / and scattered alphabet / jutting out from the voice” McGuckian in fact hints at an analogy for her own chimerical use of language throughout her career. Thus, in a poem such as “Sea Or Sky?” a phrase like “Wednesday comes out of the rim of bones with a port-wine stain on its face” might in one respect typify McGuckian’s basic poetic strategy of substituting a complex—even extravagant (even baroque)—image or set of images for a commonplace metaphor (in this case, the equation of daybreak with birth); in another crucial respect, however, in the overall context of a poem which seems to be about recovery from a romantic disappointment, it fulfills the more elaborate function of both engaging and disorienting the reader until, as she puts it in “The Dream-Language of Fergus”:

. . . what began as a dog’s bark
ends with bronze, what began
with honey ends with ice;
as if an aeroplane in full flight
launched a second plane,
the sky is stabbed by their exits
and the mistaken meaning of each.

While not mixed metaphors per se, McGuckian’s disjunctive constructions yet produce the effect of same—or of some other intentionally cultivated hybrid, a not-quite-congruous matching of tenor and vehicle: some new mutant form of expression perhaps. When this poetic strategy works, her metaphors actually operate as viable (albeit singular) objective correlatives. When it fails, the result can be that of a purely subjective irrelevance. Certainly the images which open the final strophe of “Scenes for a Brothel” are evocative: “She lets her arm rest, like the tulip’s turn, / on the wheat of her voice.” But evocative of what? Is “wheat” a color? A texture? A flavor? An odor? A source of nurture? Possibly the “answer” can be found several years later in a poem entitled “The Most Emily of All”: “you answer me / by the very terms of your asking, / as a sentence clings tighter / because it makes no sense.”

The larger question related to McGuckian’s poems, though, involves the “philosophy” which underlies her “philology”—her self-evident literal love of words and of the synesthetic potential of language. Reading at times like a telescoped metaphor shattering into a kaleidoscopic conceit, is her poetry ultimately mimetic of a belief in the exponentially polysemous nature of personal experience in particular? The cryptically autobiographical grounding of most of her poems seems to suggest so. But as the selections from Captain Lavender (1994) which conclude her Selected Poems reveal, the elusiveness of her curiously elided images may be especially capable of registering as well the larger complexity of the new territory (for her) of the ongoing sectarian conflict in her native Northern Ireland:

Like an accomplished terrorist, the fruit hangs
from the end of a dead stem, under a tree
riddled with holes like a sieve. Breath smelling
of cinnamon retires into a dream to die there.

In contrast with McGuckian’s poems, which in a sense take Boland’s “improvised poetic of imprisoned meanings” to a literal extreme, Paula Meehan’s intensely personal lyrics collected in Mysteries of the Home record with striking frankness what might be deemed an improvised life. In her first two promising (but somewhat unpolished) volumes published in the mid-1980s, Meehan wrote both out of and about a troubled childhood and adolescence in some of the meanest streets of northside Dublin. A rearrangement of the poems from her two most recent individual volumes—The Man Who Was Marked By Winter (1991) and Pillow Talk (1994)—Mysteries of the Home is actually greater than the sum even of those estimable parts as it presents less a chronicle and more a candid portrait of a mature life which, also disordered by personal crises of varying sorts, openly testifies to the capacity of lyric verse to provide both consolation and restoration. “I bless the power of seed, / its casual, useful persistence,” Meehan concludes this new book in an epilogue extracted (like the prologue) from “Mysteries of the Home,” the concluding poem of the earlier of those volumes, “and bless the power of sun, / its conspiracy with the underground, / and thank my stars the winter’s ended.”

Significantly, however, Meehan chooses “The Pattern,” a stunningly realized depiction of her mother’s authentic life of quiet desperation, as the first substantial poem in Mysteries of the Home. Dedicating the entire volume to the memory of her mother (“At forty-two she headed for god knows where. / I’ve never gone back to visit her grave”), Meehan seems to have dedicated herself to rejecting the example of her mother’s short and sad existence—to rebelling against the social and domestic orthodoxy implied at the end of the poem: “Tongues of flame in her dark eyes, / she’d say, ‘One of these days I must / teach you to follow a pattern.’” Indeed, for the most part, the art of her poems is the act of self-witness—the inscription of her multi-faceted self (daughter, sister, wife, lover, friend) devising and revising an acceptable relationship with the world-at-large. Occasionally, in a poem such as “Zugzwang,” describing in quasi-apocalyptic terms the collapse of her marriage, she will employ the third-person point of view to create distance between poet and poet-as-subject:

She places the flowers on the table.
Any day now she will let go her grip,
surrender herself to the ecstatic freefall.
We are all aware that when she hits bottom
she will shatter into smithereens.
Each shard will reflect the room, the flowers,
the chessboard, and her beloved sky beyond
like a calm ocean lapping at the mountain.

Generally, however, even while employing a variety of strategic conceits—including allegories and dream visions—to raise the transparently autobiographical to the realm of the “poetic,” and even while experimenting with prose poems, folktale structures (and motifs), epigrammatic structures, the long poetic line, Meehan displays steadfast confidence in the validity of first-person expression.

This confidence defines even “Three Paintings of York Street,” one of the few poems in Mysteries of the Home originating outside Meehan’s immediately personal experience. Exhorting a visual artist to stand witness to violence against women, the second of the “Paintings” (“Woman Found Dead behind Salvation Army Hostel”) asserts the responsibility of poet and artist to acknowledge intimate identification with the anonymous victim:

You will have to go outside for this one.
The night is bitter cold
but you must go out,
you could not invent this.

Ultimately, of course, this exhortation extends to the reader of the poem as well; in fact, it fully implicates the reader in the complex symbiosis of the social and the personal—a graphic problematizing of the relationship between and among artist, subject and audience which lyric verse may always aspire to but does not always attain. Subtly but decisively, the final strophe of the poem inscribes this symbiosis:

Your hand will steady as you draw the cobbles.
They impose a discipline, the comfort of habit,
as does the symmetry of brick walls
which define the alley and whose very height
cut off the light and hid
the beast who maimed her.

Considerably less “self”-centered than Meehan’s poetry, the work gathered in Rita Ann Higgins’ Sunny Side Plucked frequently—and perhaps more intrinsically—effects a similar symbiosis in observing and illuminating the improvised lives of the underclass in her native Galway. Written with an insider’s insight, Higgins’ poems even validate those lives, not just investing them with but truly discovering in them a dignity of almost “epic” proportions: “Aphrodite / of the homely bungalow, / cross curtains, / off-white Anglia at the side,” Higgins suggestively begins the title poem of her first volume, Goddess on the Mervue Bus (1986). Indeed, the cumulative effect of these poems is “epic” in the broader sense as well, as virtually anthropological in their range, they capture and preserve their human subjects in the full compass of their mortal being—literally from conception onward. Yet they are also relentlessly—even ruthlessly—irreverent in their witty presentation and interpretation of the codes, the mores and the manners which define the existence of Higgins’ socially and economically marginalized women and men. The answer to the innocent-sounding question at the start of “Light of the Moon,” for example—“Can you tell me the way to the maternity?”—seems cute enough:

Walk on a beach
in the West of Ireland
at four in the morning
in the middle of summer
with a man who’s six foot two
and you’ll get there
sooner or later.

Typically, however, Higgins allows this too-simple explanation to build to a more telling climax:

When he lies on top of you
for the next three-quarters of an hour
shielding you from the light of the moon
the answer comes to you.

Like a flash?

No, like the thundering tide.

Always implicated in the subject of any given poem by virtue of belonging to the underclass that she depicts, Higgins herself is yet a subtly elusive presence throughout Sunny Side Plucked. At times she will appear in the foreground of a poem; in “Poetry Doesn’t Pay,” for instance, she recounts trying to persuade the rent collector that she has “really got something there” with her poems: “All I want is fourteen pounds / and ten pence, hold the poesy,” he replies. On occasion, she will adopt a persona—as in a richly vernacular dramatic monologue like “Mamorexia”:

Cop yourself on—
your shadow looks
better than ya,
pull yourself together
and for crying out loud
go and eat something

something decent.

Usually, though, Higgins remains somewhere in the background of her poems. Sometimes she is “visible”—the sympathetic but unsentimental first-person narrator of her neighbors’ quotidian dreams and disappointments. Written from the first-person plural perspective, the title poem of her most recent volume, Higher Purchase (1996), typifies her ability both to blend into the motley fabric of her community and, from that vantage point, to take note of the poignant details of lives in disarray: acknowledging a certain satisfaction in watching a once-smug family having their household furnishings re-possessed—including “the phone table, / though they had no phone”—Higgins still identifies with the ignominy of being made a public spectacle, especially when “one young skut / who knew no better, shouted, // ‘Where will ye put the phone now, / when it comes.’”

At other times, Higgins’ presence is primarily “audible”—the speaker in the poem functioning more as a center of communal consciousness. In “Philomena’s Revenge,” a poem recording the after-effects of electro-convulsive therapy on a wayward daughter, she is almost godlike in her detachment:

These days
she gets on with the furniture,
wears someone else’s walk,
sees visions in the glass.

She’s good too
for getting the messages;
small things, bread and milk
sometimes the paper,

and closing the gate
after her father drives out,
she waits for his signal
he always shouts twice,

‘Get the gate, Philo,
get the gate, girl.’

Sometimes a poet’s vision and voice can serve even as the humane conscience of her community.

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