The Sixco Kids: why Belfast poets are still writing about the Troubles.

It is fifty years since I lived in the North of Ireland and I still don’t know what to call it. I am sensitive to my status as no more than an interested outsider when I come to write about poetry and literary issues in the Six Counties.  My attention was caught by the apparent cancellation of the novelist, Rosemary Jenkinson, following publication in Fortnight magazine of an article where she argued that young writers should stop writing about the Troubles and that to do so was a form of regressive cashing in. The article met with a degree of outrage in some quarters and was followed by the cancellation of the writer’s publication contract with Doire Press which the publishers denied was a consequence of the article.[1] Nevertheless, this was a deplorable occurrence and while I disagree with Jenkinson’s views, I see no reason why she should not express them. At the same time as I heard about this controversy, I was reading the recent poetry collections of Padraig Regan and Gail McConnell, two young Belfast poets. Then came the war in Ukraine and the pronouncements of the Moscow Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, justifying the Russia invasion as a defence of ‘Holy Russia’ and Orthodox Christianity against liberalism and LGBTQ+ values, [2] suggesting that in the West there was organised genocide of those who refused to allow Gay Pride Parades.  Such opinions are equally familiar from the far right evangelical Christians of the United States whose influence has become global and has, indeed, long been part of the ideological fabric in Northern Ireland.

Padraig Regan and Gail McConnell were both nurtured in the Seamus Heaney Centre of Queen’s University, Belfast.  Both would claim Ciaran Carson as a guiding influence and mentor. Yet both are generationally different from either Heaney or Carson. Both belong to the LGBTQ+ community but one has a Protestant heritage, the other a Catholic. These are two contemporary poets writing in an idiom which is 21st century and yet both are steeped in the experience of the Troubles.  How could this be otherwise when the truth of what happened is still suppressed and, if the British Government has its way, will continue be suppressed, and, as a result, peace and reconciliation seem as far off as ever?  

Padraig Regan’s first full collection, Some Integrity, (Carcanet ,2022) contains at its centre a prose essay ‘Glitch City’ which ponders queerness and violence and the uncertainty of boundaries, taking in the mass shooting in a gay nightclub in Orlando in 2016, the vagaries of Pokémon computer gaming and finally the fractured weirdness of the city of Belfast.  The three conditions of queerness, the nowhere land of the computer game’s Glitch city, and a Nationalist Catholic identity in a divided community, overlay each other so that the poet can write:

I thought to myself I’m used to this.  I am as much at home in a fractured maze of visible & invisible walls as anywhere. I’ve learned what every little queer must learn: to be alert, to be aware of where you are & are not safe.

The consciousness of being ‘not safe’, which recent events have made ever more prevalent, permeates this collection of guarded, aesthetic and ambiguous poems in which boundaries are never certain and shapes are constantly changing. The opening poem, ‘50ml of India Ink’ is a manifesto as it describes how the lac-bug discovers a new existence and significance as ink which makes meaning on paper:

            It performs its tiny fractal

            creep through the paper’s

            knitted capillaries,

            & finds itself astounded

            with significance. It means

            I am not yet dead.

So far, so good, one might think, but then the writer backs away from statement or assertion, with the classic ‘not un-‘ formation of the cautious:

            I was not untempted

            To leave this blank.

I did wonder if Regan, with this very emphatically black ink, was obliquely alluding to or challenging the notion of ‘white ink’ found in theories of écriture féminine developed by Hélène Cixous. Be that as it may, many of the poems in the book take up this theme of shifting identity, something particularly evident in the food poems, where transformation is necessarily key. In ‘A Machine for Harvesting Olives,’ the anthropomorphised olive tree laments for its denatured children, once so securely the signs of themselves: ‘You think I do not know/what happens in the press? There my children weep & die;/ their oily souls are wrung/from the pulp that once/they called their selves.’  There is violence and terror here, but it is subverted by the final Mandy Rice Davies allusion, ‘Well,/ it would say that, wouldn’t it?’  Well no, it wouldn’t, because it’s an olive tree and olive trees don’t talk. ‘Risotto’ sets out to disgust us with ourselves, our own bodies and how we transform or subject others to metamorphosis. This must be a chicken risotto, although I think I have read that Regan does not eat meat; certainly, this is enough to convert the faint-hearted to vegetarianism: ‘I try to stop my thoughts from turning/ to the bird whose bones I’ve commandeered & put to use in a way quite unintended.’ Regan recognises the process of cooking as the destruction of identity: ‘Everything I do, I do to rob them of their nature.’ Form, shape and identity are presented as fragile and impermanent; this could be, and is elsewhere, a recognition of the fluidity of sexuality and gender.  In this poem, the poet/cook/human is greedy, tyrannous and full of self-disgust: ‘I add the fat I’ve stolen from some calf I’ll never meet.’…”I eat it & I think about the moment that it will become// not it but I. & not without regret, I feel this process taking place.’ This is literally visceral and feels like too much information. The poem ends: ‘I hate/ my commitment to making more self to hate. It is not without regret.’  At one level, this sounds like the declaration of an anorexic; at another, we notice how these destructive and self-destructive lines are elegantly styled in a form of chiasmus, which perhaps reflects the contradictions inherent in haute cuisine and fine dining. 

The poet is writing about bodies, bodies of mushrooms, squid, chicken and even rice grains making us aware how vulnerable they, and by extension we, are to degradation and change. ‘A Roast’ is an extraordinary reflection on the crucifixion, where Christ becomes identified with a spatchcocked chicken in a way which manages to be both ironic and sacramental. The poet weaves two narratives, the cooking and eating of the chicken with work on ‘a study of ‘The Christ of the Foundations’: /the crucifix Saint Teresa carried /from Avila to Arévalo’. The medium is charcoal, itself a denatured material and it is ‘on my fingers & on everything now’. I connect the charcoal to the ‘smudge of shadow where His ribs/meet His abdomen’ so that boundaries once again are blurred; the smudging of charcoal makes everything unclear.  The pervasiveness of the charcoal also suggests guilt, or even sin, the shame which accompanies the eating of the chicken, presented through juxtaposition:

            There is a scraping of forks on plates,

            a clicking of knives.

            I’ve been having trouble with His face.

The poem reminds me of ‘The Feast’ by Robert Duncan (Passages 34) in Ground Work (New Directions, 1968). 

            –but the true measure is hidden in the fingers’ feel for the taste of it—

  and garlic

  rosemary   ground in the mortar

              salt, pepper, and drops of oil      workt into the emulsion…

                                    We have come to the Festivities!

 In both poems we are made to recognise that at the back of celebration, ritual and festivity is the eating of the sacrifice: in Duncan’s poem it is a lamb (possibly the Paschal lamb) ; in Regan’s, it is downgraded to a chicken.  At the end of the poem, there is a typical pulling back as we find ourselves outside, in what should be the real world:

            The buddleia creaks over the back wall

            & the moon, for the occasion,

            has dressed as the moon.

However, the literalness of the scene is subverted by the linking of the moon to the light which has preoccupied the previous stanza, and by the suggestion that the moon is not so much itself but has ‘dressed’ as itself, which takes us back not only to the various symbolic significances of the moon but to the notion that all identities are forms of posing, or passing or dressing up.

We could say that Regan’s poetry dresses up as the work of an aesthete, relishing the finer things of civilisation, art, literature, the pleasures of the table while it explores violence, sexuality, what it is to live in a body, disgust and fear.  A very large proportion of the poems relate to food and many others are to some extent ekphrastic, connecting in some way to works of art. The poem which ends Section II of the book and precedes the prose essay is ‘The Barberini Faun: A Partial Reconstruction’. Reconstruction is a particularly apt title because the classical sculpture has been patched and reconstructed by a number of artists since its rediscovery in the 17th century.  Perhaps what draws Regan to this image, apart, obviously, from its erotic beauty, is the inauthenticity  or lack of integrity of the body which is presented. It is a body which can be what its audience, owners, exploiters want it to be, from the time when, reputedly, it was used as a weapon and hurled at the beseiging Ostrogoths because ‘stone//was stone & useful/ for its own hard quiddity’. Regan moves from a summary of the various repairs done to the statue to a meditation on what they can read into it: the hair is ‘calligraphic’, demanding to be read, the ‘nubbed horns’ are there if you are looking for the satyr, as is ‘the twisted cord/ of his diminutive tail’, if you can actually see it; the ‘one //remodelled foot’ is indeed human not cloven. We can see the poet approaching and withdrawing from meanings: ‘I’d rather not believe//that he would spend/ his waking hours/knee-deep in rape, /despite the evidence.’  What evidence? Is this a reflection on war, on sexual violence as represented in art through satyrs or fauns? Is it a wistful hope that this powerfully physical image of male sexuality can be other than cruel or rapacious, despite the physical ‘aleatory’ mutilation of the phallus.  In the last section, the poet invests the statue with their own desires.

            Confronted with this

            immanent tonnage

            taking the shape

            of my desires

the poet considers their own reactions and interpretation,  the possibility of ‘one more revision// on the disputed/ & brutal text/that is his anatomy –‘.  The words ‘disputed’ and ‘brutal’ are almost antithetical; ‘disputed’ recognises the ambiguities of the figure while ‘text’ acknowledges that it no more than the uncompleted sum of different readings, but then ‘brutal’ takes us back to perhaps inescapable realities about physicality, sexuality and power. In the final lines of the poem, the poet concedes an intractable otherness:

                   …if he woke & saw

            the way I gazed at him

            he would break my neck

            as soon as look at me.

Section IV has more fruit and vegetables, much of it fairly squishy, although there is a ‘meat-shaped stone’ which might seem more resistant to deconstruction, except, of course, it is already something masquerading as something else. ‘A Pumpkin’, at the end of this section, is an extended sexual metaphor where violence and bad faith are again toyed with. This pumpkin is raped with a knife, but it ‘wants to split’ (my emphasis); it was asking for it: ‘It exposes its creamy interior.’ The poet enacts a violence on the pumpkin which is made more horrifying by its sensuality:

            & because I want a violence

            more intimate, I do this with my hands

            & feel its wet potential turn to pulp

            beneath my nails.

They then declare ‘a vicious sympathy’ with their victim, confessing a ‘want’ to ‘hold a space/ at the centre oneself, & have it filled;’ there is an unfulfilled wish for sexual union, ‘to bend the self around the presence / of something not-quite-other, not -quite-I’.  The eviscerated pumpkin is further mutilated, ‘I cut the pumpkin’s two bright domes/to crescent moons’ and this is done:

                                                …in the hope

            that when the resurrection comes,

            everything I have subjected thus

            will be returned inviolate

            & I’ll be nothing & forgiven.

This sounds like a wish to be unfallen, or possibly never to have existed in the fallen world of mutability, eating or being eaten. 

‘Ireland’ a two page poem in the final section is at once a train journey and something like a dream or nightmare sequence where nothing is as it is expected to be and nothing holds its shape. Again, there are a lot of vegetables, here behaving grotesquely, though I’m not sure why.  There are phallic carrots and macho ‘steroid-bulked marrows’ as well as pretty lettuces ‘graceful in their long dresses’ and pregnant turnips with ‘rippling bellies’ – although they might just be overweight. Regan seems pursued by human bodies but not at all comfortable with them.  I take this train journey to be from Belfast to Dublin or perhaps the other way around and the city which features in the poem with its references to ‘North Street’s burnt arcade’ and the ‘itinerant rivers’ I take to be Belfast, which for the poet is possibly as problematic and inescapable as the body.  ‘Ireland’ is a powerful poem where the use of fog and phantasmagoria convey the sense of uncertain and shifting identities at the proprioceptive and political levels.

Gail McConnell’s book, The Sun is Open (Penned in the Margins, 2021) is at first glance, much more avant garde at least in terms of form. However, it does not tolerate the nebulous ambiguities of Regan’s collection; rather, it battles against them in a mode which is as much that of investigative journalism as of poetry. McConnell’s collection is really a long poem where she explores, not for the first time, her father’s murder. William McConnell was a deputy prison governor at the Maze prison, where many IRA prisoners were held. He was shot dead by the IRA in 1984 outside the family home, in front of his wife and three-year-old daughter, Gail.  The full story has never been made clear, any more than have the details of his role inside the prison. An earlier long poem, ‘Typeface’, describes the poet’s compulsive trawling through the internet trying to find answers more satisfactory than those provided by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) report.  The quest for truth beyond the endless official fudges and whitewashes is what drives this book-length poem. It is only with truth, however uncomfortable, that the individual can find peace and reconciliation, but in the six counties, as for this poet, the truth remains elusive.

The difficulty in working out what the truth is from the fragments available to her is evident from the very first page and reflected in the forms the poet chooses. Here she uses a mixture of grey and bold text to describe her own method, which is outlined in the bolded words: ‘easier to/take what I have found and break/it up…glue it back/ the wrong way…’ (p.11). The book becomes the DAD BOX (p.23) where she keeps old documents relating to her father and memories of childhood all of which appear fragmentary and lacking in coherence; the poems do not so much achieve order and coherence as present the experience of incoherence in an ordered way.  Various typographical and formatting devices emphasize how hard it is to get at the truth: there is what appears to be part of an incomplete witness statement from the poet’s mother, but a combination of erasure and vertical lines suggest that this statement has been suppressed. (p.60-64) Erasure is also used to undermine existing texts, such as the 23rd psalm which loses its quality of reassurance to become threatening.  I have photographed page 48 to convey the effect.

Elsewhere, pp.78-79, the pages are made up almost entirely of vertical lines, to give the effect of massive redactions or prison bars, again suggesting the difficulty of reaching the truth.

McConnell looks back at a childhood where the huge stain of her father’s death taints everything she experienced; on page 18, she writes about Brian, ‘our neighbour six doors down’ who may also have been her own alter ego, ‘there was a time when I was/ Brian’. The poem explains how ‘we knew not to say [Brian’s dad] was in the police’ and continues

            that day he must have been dead

            scared hearing the shots they’re

            coming now for him for me

Again and again, the poet returns to the murder which she cannot actually remember. Images of terror and violence permeate everything from computer games to dreams, as memories are interspersed with newspaper fragments, legal documents and papers belonging to her father.  The book conveys very successfully the experience of growing up in the Protestant community of Belfast. The family was apparently devoutly evangelical, Baptist in allegiance, so that Gail grew up in an atmosphere of Bible classes and summer holiday seaside missions. The writing is steeped in scripture references, and memories of church going.  On p.106 there is a description of baptism through total immersion, while earlier there is a visit to a friend, Katherine’s church, presumably Church of Ireland ‘mum says it’s higher’; it has angels and ‘men in white dresses’ but it is still within the Protestant fold.  The curious thing about this book, as also of Regan’s, is that there is almost no reference to the other community, except in vague and general terms. Regan’s essay referred to ‘Sandy Row, one of those gaps in my mental cartography of the city, where I rarely go and if I were to venture to I would affect a name less revealing of my background…’. What the poet does not say is that Sandy Row is a notoriously Protestant Loyalist working class street.  Similarly, McConnell refers several times to her father’s murderers, but always anonymously; she never mentions the words IRA or Catholic.

            Around noon, the men sent out

            for fish and chips and as they sat

            eating they watched the lunchtime

            news to find out if they had 

            killed their target

It is as if, like in The City and the City, the novel by China Miévillethe circumstance of two different communities living in the same place had become so existential as not to merit mention.

McConnell’s poem worries endlessly at the circumstances of her father’s death, showing how its impact on her has carried through her childhood and into adulthood. There are emotions of anger and loss at the absent father who becomes identifies with or confused with the ‘Father in Heaven’:

            O Father

            my father

            my Father in Heaven

            Father alone

                        who remains in me

                                                            p.94

However, at the same time the poet is trying to work out who her father was, a man she hardly knew and can barely remember.  She needs to know what her father did but the pain in exploring the reasons for his death, his job as assistant governor in the Maze prison, notorious for its brutal regime and repression of Republican prisoners, means that her approach is oblique. The word ‘screw’ appears first on p.22 where it refers first to the screw worm, apparently a flesh-eating fly, but then to a ‘screw eye’ which is a type of metal fastening but which introduces the idea of looking, searching, prying into that which is underneath – the slaters (woodlice) hiding under tiles.  The poet recognises that there is or has to be ‘dirt underneath my nails’ and towards the end of the book she attempts to deal with the dirt. On page 73 there is what seems to be a summary of the contradictions in the personality of a prison officer, who might or might not be her father.

            an eminent Christian worker

                                                            a bad man 

            a man of high morals, honest, loyal, dedicated

                                    organised and directed beatings in the jail

Then, on page 80, the word ‘screw’ returns, this time with the primary meaning of ‘prison officer’.  

for so long it was hard

to mourn thinking from that side

of things bad bastard screw

in the mechanism the

panopticon     the architecture

of brutality knowing the theory

the cruel ingenious cage thinking

shit that’s him on the wrong side

of the gaze

The greyed words (bolded here because I can’t do grey)in the text are followed by grey bars or vertical lines which continue to the bottom of the page, again closing off the truth.  It is much easier to write about the past from the position of victim, much harder when you think you may have to identify with the oppressor, if that is indeed what your history is.  At the heart of O’Connell’s book is the need to know the truth, the whole truth.  Only by fully understanding her father’s role in the Maze, can she hope to reconcile her grief with her anger.  The book ends by returning to the image of the slaters in a present where violence is still an everyday reality

            as the robin sings the 

            lunchtime news reports another

            crash a bomb scare …

The slaters are at home, scurrying across the

            greening grouting lining tiles to

            what lies underneath it all

            comes up and out and in

            the window to the bit without

            the sun is open

The poem ends with the words of the title, insisting that what lies under must come up however much that entails dirt under the fingernails. Both these poets were born long after the Troubles began, both are adults in a supposedly post Troubles era.  For both, however, the Troubles are very much part of their present reality. Regan writes about the condition of precariousness which is reflected in the precarious society in which he lives; McConnell digs up and worries at what cannot be honestly left buried.  It would be bad faith for either poet to turn their back on the troubled history of Belfast or Norn Iron.


[1] https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/rosemary-jenkinson-hits-out-at-publisher-who-dropped-her-after-controversial-article-1.4802892

[2] See article by Rowan Williams: https://www.newstatesman.com/world/europe/ukraine/2022/03/putin-believes-he-is-defending-orthodox-christianity-from-the-godless-west

An Orca on the Lawn: two books by Stephen SextonStephen Sexton

I have come late to Stephen Sexton’s magnificent book-length poem, If All the World and Love were Young,which won the Forward Prize for the best first collection in 2021.  This book astonishes by its range and coherence, even though I don’t understand half of it.  The book is an elegy for the poet’s mother but has for its structure the computer game, Super Mario.  As my own knowledge of that game is confined to a hazy image of a dumpy, moustachioed Italian plumber occasionally glimpsed on a child’s Gameboy or Nintendo consol (and I’m not even sure I’m using the right terms here), most of the specific references to the game are lost on me, and I have no inclination to remedy that deficit.

The poem may make me feel old, but I welcome the way the poet has successfully and unobtrusively used strict form in a novel and exciting way.  His long lines despite their appearance and frequent absences of punctuation and elliptical transitions are all 16 syllables in length and if Joyce can use the Odyssey as the structure for a novel, why shouldn’t a poet use the levels of the Mario games as the framework for his poem?

You can open this book anywhere and be rewarded with a frame/stanza/ section which on its own stimulates the imagination with its multi-layered language and levels of reference> Take this, for example:

            Chocolate Island 2

            As Dürer sees it under the hides of carburised iron thick

            as armour plating fixed in place with rivets pinned along the seams

            a polished gorget at the throat the rhino is mainly passive.

            What he got wrong hardly matters since he’d never seen one himself

            having just a poem a sketch imagination to go on

            making magic of the mundane.  And so the sun sets in the west

            which is to be expected there over the marshes and deltas

            I should like to describe to you having never seen them myself.

Even after googling Chocolate Island 2 and discovering how to find the secret exit, I am none the wiser about how the poem relates to the game.  But it doesn’t matter. This is a self-conscious piece of meta-writing where the poem comments on itself.  Dürer, like the poet, goes beyond the everyday real world to present something which may not be a rhino but which is an imagined construct based on a rhino as the Mario world characters and obstacles are also imaginary constructs derived from aspects of reality. The poem justifies our right to make things up and to use them to communicate: ‘I should like to describe to you having never seen them myself.’  Conversely, the poet’s use of Super Mario imagery conveys meaning to readers who have never seen it themselves.  The language used to describe the rhino also seems to straddle the two worlds of imagination and reality; the rivets and armour plating suggest heavy industry and, without too much of a stretch, may evoke the Belfast shipyards, while the ‘polished gorget’ suggests the armour of knightly romance.  Perhaps the sun setting in the west is mundane but the extension of the vista through the imagination ‘over the marshes and deltas’ has rendered it magical.

The necessity and interrelatedness of the two worlds is one of the continuing themes which gives the work its coherence and consistency.  However, it is the momentum of the long lines, simultaneously waves of energy and surges of grief, which carry us onward through this extended threnody.  The poem is double-faced, celebrating life and imagination while recognising and mourning a death; this is reflected in the second-hand title, If all the World and Love were Young, taken from Sir Walter Raleigh’s response to Christopher Marlowe’s poem ‘The Passionate Shepherd to his Love’. The hypothetical conditional admits the possibility of the two worlds -the fantasy world of pastoral, not unlike the fantasy world of Super Mario, and the real world of everyday life, suffering and death.

Perhaps the Super Mario world is escapism, offering a brightly coloured and safe alternative to reality, where death can be cancelled: ‘once I was falling to my death/once I survived the fall landing in a trench scooped and jigsawed out/of the earth hello earth nice to see you amazed to be alive’. This alternative world is ‘as shallow as a pane of glass’; there is even a touch of nostalgia or self-pity in the way the writer looks back at his boyhood self:

            I remember myself being remembered a little lotus

            a cross-legged meditant for whom the questions floating in the air

            are for a future self to voice decades from now…

The passage refers to a photograph the poet believes to have been taken of him sitting in front of the television screen playing Super Mario; the unreliability of the memory is typical of important moments of childhood which we are often unsure whether we really remember or only think we do because we have been told about them. The Super Mario game is obviously presented as a form of comfort food, or like a brightly coloured familiar teddy, something which allows the protagonist to muffle the pain he is experiencing: ‘the beloved is gone but there is always the story.’  However, this is only one layer of what the game represents; the persisting story is the persisting imagination which is implicated through references to high and popular culture, Dante to Roy Orbison. The affirmative, inclusive nature of the poem, ‘I adore you I adore you world’ makes it very different from other kinds of elegy, such as the unremitting gloom of Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Nevertheless, the poem has almost unbearable moments of sadness like the memory of the mother halving a grapefruit:

            my mother who cannot sleep halves a bright grapefruit whose feet whose toes

            whose hands whose fingers whose ankles whose head she says are on fire

The brightness of the grapefruit intrudes like a technicolour splash into the dark pain of the night and the mother’s illness. Something about the slightly misplaced relative pronoun makes us linger on the fruit before recognising the extremity of suffering endured by the mother.  The final poem seeks but does not quite manage to reconcile the two worlds: the coffin cannot quite become the television and the bright world of fantasy is relegated to the past, as the ‘if’ becomes ‘when’ and hypothesis or memory become equally unreal in the past indicative ‘was’:

                                                                        And now I think I 

            remember what I meant to say which is only to say that once

            when all the world and love was young I saw it beautiful glowing

            once in the corner of the room once when I was sitting in its light.

After an achievement on this scale, it is difficult to see where the poet could go next, and it was with some trepidation I approached his second book, Cheryl’s Destinies. Certainly, this collection is a collection rather than a single poem and because it lacks a single driving subject, it is probably more difficult to read. Again, Sexton’s imagination makes links which the reader cannot always follow, or, at least, a reader of pensionable age, living in Oxford.  Sometimes I recognise this is a failure of my imagination; sometimes, I feel excluded by a private or coterie frame of reference. For example, ‘O Lavery’s’ which appears to be about the game of pool will, I suspect, mean an awful lot more to its dedicatee, Dane Holt, than to me. The poems I do get, I like; ‘My Second Favourite Locked Room Mystery’ made me laugh. I don’t know about ‘The Burdens’, but I do know the goat in the ‘piebald sweater’; and I can recognise the possibilities of escape to other worlds only just suggested in the last stanza. ‘Café Cependant’ and ‘Romantic’ read like holiday poems. However, I am in danger of being too disparaging. In all these poems, even when they seem most obscure, there are brilliant moments of  observation captured through the language: ‘an apprenticeship/of skateboarders chiselling/shivers of concrete from our civic spaces’ (The Impossible).  

I don’t get Part II which purports to be ‘composed in collaboration with Georgie Hyde-Lees (1892-1968), who revealed to me the identity of one of her many ‘communicators’ and the influence of The Smashing Pumpkins on the poetry of W.B. Yeats.’   This is a collage of quotations from Yeats, his wife and the lyrics on The Smashing Pumpkins album, Siamese Dream.  Perhaps you need to be a Smashing Pumpkins fan, perhaps you need to be more invested in the poetry of Yeats. Each poem in the sequence is titled by the length in minutes and seconds of each of the songs on the album.  It is probably very clever and it does take in some by now familiar ideas about imagination dissolving the space-time constraints of reality:

            Is this heaven, says W. B. Yeats.

            Virtually, says Billy, this is Georgia.

                                                                        ‘4:58’

Why are there two poems in the collection with the same title, ‘Orthodox’, one in the first and one in the third part of the book?  Are they about the same person, a playground bully in the first poem: ‘with his middle knuckle breaking rank/the boy jabbed me in the thigh’. In the second poem, he, or someone like him, has died: ‘the circuit breaker/faulty.’ The death and the memory of the boy’s physical violence prompt a reflection on the nature of physical identity when considered in relation to the ‘alien body-brain/of the octopus,’ which we are now told is highly intelligent but which experiences consciousness in a completely different way from us. 

The third section ‘Mysteries’ is the part  I found most rewarding. It includes a number of moving and effective elegies, including the powerful poem for Ciaran Carson, Sexton’s mentor, which concludes the book. ‘Gomez’, another elegy, is in ‘affectionate memory of Raul Julia’, the actor who played the part of Gomez Addams in The Addams Family. The two things to notice are that it is ‘affection’ which makes all these elegies remarkable, even when they swing furthest from reality; and secondly, how strongly the poet is influenced by the fictional worlds of film, tv and videogames, and how he acknowledges the truths they offer.

‘Mysteries’, contains many poems I do not understand but which nevertheless some part of me gets. They tell me stories and show me pictures which take me to places I don’t know but where I am moved and enchanted, without knowing why. Such poems are ‘The Dancers’ with its wonderful last lines, like the closing scenes from a foreign language film:

            And you’ll say what a thing to share this flake of time

            In their company, what a thing wild lavender

            Can still flourish in the grounds of the derelict church.

I don’t know how the first stanza and the second relate to each other and I don’t know why the first word of each line is capitalised, as is customary in pre-20c verse though not usual here, but I don’t care, because the poem has lifted me up into its own world which is derived from the joys, sorrows and injustices of the real world.  Similarly, I love ‘Terror’ which tells a tale of persecution and haunting which leads to a family abandoning their home to protect their son: ‘For Albert we left./ The world still has a big soft place for him/so we packed our things and set out for it.’  What convinces about these poems is, as Sexton himself has suggested, following Marianne Moore, these are fictional narratives with real toads in them, although in Sexton’s ‘imaginary garden’ there is an Orca on the lawn.  In this poem, a family was driven out by persecution perhaps inflicted by their neighbours, who perhaps experience remorse

            some tomorrow morning the people

            stand naked in their mirrors

            saying I’m sorry, for everything. I’m sorry.

As in Sexton’s first book, the worlds of dream, of fiction, of video games are not, in the end, an evasion of reality, but a method of accommodating and acknowledging truth. 

NO FAR SHORE by Anne-Marie Fyfe

Anne-Marie Fyfe

A whole year without seeing the sea. Last year, I was lucky: I went to St David’s in Wales, to the coastal path of Cornwall and to the Island of Elba, off the coast of Italy in the Mediterranean. Not to Ireland, not last year – too complicated and too expensive.  Now I’m sitting at my computer, browsing ferry prices, contemplating running the gauntlet of Covid and the weather, in a last-minute effort to get to Ballycastle beach. Inland, in Oxford, as far as it is possible to be from the sea in England, I have been surfing the Internet, browsing poets and making unexpected links.  So it was, by a process of one thing leading to another, that I came across Anne-Marie Fyfe and her 2019 book, No Far Shore.[1] I have known of Fyfe for many years, but I have not read her poetry; nor did I know until now that she grew up in Cushendall. It was this fact as well as her enthusiasm for the work of Elizabeth Bishop which drew me in. I have only just discovered Bishop’s poetry, in the sense of ‘getting’ it, although I had in the past read a number of her poems with nothing more than polite admiration.

No Far Shore is a mix of memoir, poetry and travel writing. It touches on what is familiar to me, the Antrim coast and the Achill Islands, writers like Bishop and Melville and MacNeice but also introduces places and writers I don’t know or have never visited, like Martha’s Vineyard, Nova Scotia and the work of Robinson Jeffers, whose writing I barely remember from my Faber anthology of American Literature at university. Usually, I don’t like mixtures of poetry and prose, because I find that I need to change gear when moving from one to the other, which I find uncomfortable and often leads to paying less attention to the poems than they deserve. However, I enjoyed this book, partly because of the combination of the familiar with the unknown, and partly because of what the poet had to say about the sea, which, if you have grown up close to it, exerts a magnetic influence all through life. Although I grew up in Belfast, Ballycastle, on the other side of Fair Head from Cushendall, was almost a second home for me, in childhood, adolescence and even into my twenties.

Fair Head, seen from Ballycastle beach

Fyfe pays attention to coasts as liminal places, the border between water and land, but also acknowledges the pull of the horizon, that sense of boundlessness that the sea offers and which we fear and yearn after. She explores this in the title poem, which is taken from an earlier collection, Late Crossing:

            NO FAR SHORE

            It will be winter when I untie

            The boat for the last time:

            when I double-lock the back door

            on an empty house,

            go barefoot through bramble

            & briar, measure each 

            stone step to the slipway.

            It will be night-time when I row

            to the horizon,

            steady in the North-Star light

            the darkened house at my back.

            It will be winter when I draw

            each oar from the water,

            shiver,

            & bite the cold from my lip.

Another interesting poem, which accompanies Fyfe’s exploration of the idea of North, is ‘NORTH HOUSE’.  Although Fyfe’s take on North is very different from that of Seamus Heaney, this poem reminds me of Heaney’s ‘Storm on the Island’, which, despite its place on the GCSE syllabus, has always struck me as portentously heavy-footed.  Like Heaney’s poem, Fyfe’s appears to be allegorical and is one of the few places where she addresses the political context as she refers to ‘A mansard dwelling that guards its northernness’ and ‘Our north-wing corridors are the iciest in history.’  She does also write about her grandparents’ mixed marriage in relation to the building of the Titanic.  Her grandfather was a Protestant and therefore able to work in the shipyards where Catholics were not welcome. 

This is not a review and I have not worked out in my own mind how I feel about the poems in this book. However, I have been encouraged to look further at Anne-Marie Fyfe’s work and inspired with a longing to return to the sea, best evoked for me by lines from Seamus Heaney, which although they do not refer to the Antrim coast, catch the magic of light on water and of the opening up of vistas.

            And some time make the time to drive out west

Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,

In September or October, when the wind

And the light are working off each other

So that the ocean on one side is wild

With foam and glitter, and inland among stones

The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit

By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,…

As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

                                                            ‘Postscript’ from The Spirit Level


[1] Seren,2019.

W.B. Yeats: quarrelling with himself

‘We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.’[1]

Yeats

This famous statement by W.B. Yeats reflects the appeal of his most powerful poems. The poems which I go back to or am rediscovering often possess this quality of emerging from the writer’s internal struggle, which not only elicits an emotional empathy but also creates a dynamic which carries the poem forward. It is this sense of struggle that I responded to as I reread Eliot’s Four Quartets and which I recognise again in Yeats.

 

I was brought up on Yeats, particularly the early poetry and the drama, so, in one sense, his work feels as if it were part of my DNA.  On the other hand, I find many of his ideas antipathetic, offensive or just plain daft, and I have no wish to immerse myself in them.  I have read many demolitions of his romantic ideas about big houses and the role of the aristocracy as well as articles challenging his status as an Irish writer, given his Protestant Ascendancy background, and these have flavoured my attitude over the years. Rereading him now, I recognise that he belongs indisputably, wilfully and complicatedly, to Irish history and culture; I recognise also the heights of sheer brilliance he reaches in language; finally, I recognise and respond to the element of struggle which runs through so much of his poetry but which is perhaps most apparent in his later work.

 

At a philosophical level, this struggle has been described as dialectic, a process which Yeats inherited from the Romantics, most particularly William Blake, who remained one of his heroes and whose work he championed: ‘Without contraries, there is no progression’. At the emotional level, we might think of Keats and his ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, where the conflict between the desire for the ageless immortality of art is set against the warm but fragile flesh: ‘breathing human passion’ versus ‘Cold pastoral”. Keats’ poem seems very much a fore-runner of Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.

 

Given the breadth, depth, range and sometimes passionately controversial nature of writing on Yeats, I feel reluctant to offer any analysis of his work beyond an attempt to explore this idea of personal struggle or felt conflict in a few poems. ‘The Stolen Child’ is a very early poem which I have a vague memory of reciting in choral speaking lessons at school and the chorus remains in my head:

Come away, O human child!

            To the waters and the wild

            With a faery, hand in hand,

            For the world’s more full of weeping than you

 can understand.

Aside from its wisps of Celtic Twilight, the poem presents the conflicting attractions of the purity and primacy of Nature with the comforts and sociability of human society. The Nature which is shown is that of Ancient pre-Christian Ireland, rich in wildlife and fruit.  As in Keats’ faery world in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, nothing here is cooked; only in the last stanza, which describes the world the child is leaving, is there mention of human crafts and artefacts: ‘the kettle on the hob’ and the oatmeal-chest’.  The ancient but persisting natural world is offered as an escape from the trials of human life which the child has not yet experienced. Yet all the attractions of the outdoor faery world which stretches from lake to hill to ocean and which is mapped in Irish place names, ‘Sleuth Wood’, ‘the Rosses’, ‘Glencar’ are matched by the security and warmth of the limited homestead evoked with yearning in the final stanza:

He’ll hear no more the lowing

Of the calves on the warm hillside

The poem opposes the longing for freedom, space and unity with Nature or what is beyond to the physical and joys and pains of being human.

 

In ‘When You are Old and Grey and Full of Sleep’, Yeats’ version of a sonnet by Ronsard, Love (or the rejected poet) ‘fled/ And paced upon the mountains overhead/And hid his face amid a crowd of stars’. Although the opening of the poem follows Ronsard quite closely, in these final lines Yeats moves away from the French which has a carpe diem theme:

Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain:

Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.

 

Yeats, on the other hand, shows both lover and beloved left wanting. The beloved woman is left with nothing but dreams of the past as she nods by the fireside, while the lover/poet has retreated to what is lofty and beautiful, the mountains, stars and grandeur of nature but has lost the possibility of physical human love and companionship.

 

The dialogue or debate poem has a long history in the context of Christianity, where, as Marvell put it, the ‘resolved soul’ is in conflict with ‘created pleasure’.  This struggle between the soul’s heavenward aspirations and the physical joys of materiality reappears, minus the Christianity, in ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’ published in The Winding Stair and Other Poems, in 1933, when Yeats was already in his sixties.  The conflict between Self and Soul in this poem has variously been described as between intellect and lust, mind and body, life and death.  Part 1 of the poem is self-consciously embellished with Yeatsian tropes such as Sato’s sword, ‘emblematical of love and war’ or ‘the tower/Emblematical of the night.’ Most of this part of the poem could be described in Yeats’ own terms as ‘rhetoric’.  The argument is balanced and the language and pace stately rather than passionate. There are vague expressions such as ‘the basin of the mind’ and reference to philosophical abstractions such ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’ which signal but do not evoke. In places, the passion and the poetry break through and in doing so, reveal the poet’s profound ambivalence.  “The winding ancient stair’ is a symbol Yeats chose to make real in his purchase of the tower at Ballylee. The paired adjectives ‘winding, ancient’, ‘broken, crumbling, ‘breathless, starlit’ accentuate the difficulty of this ascent.  ‘Breathless’ seems ominous, foreshadowing death, while the darkness ‘where all thought is done’ and is finally indistinguishable from the soul signifies the annihilation of the individual self.  The soul seeks its own extinction, something the self recoils from. Indeed, such is the self’s rejection of the soul that it is banished from the second part of the poem, where the passion of the ‘living man’ shines through. Yeats seems to be considering the possibility of some form of reincarnation where the unredeemed or unenlightened self would have to repeat his life. The first stanza of Part II is a rending recapitulation of childhood and growing up which through its devastating frankness becomes recognisable beyond that individual self and time:

 

 

What matter if I live it all once more?

Endure that toil of growing up;

The ignominy of boyhood; the distress

Of boyhood changing into man;

The unfinished man and his pain

Brought face to face with his own clumsiness;

 

Here is the sense of struggle and of pain which makes us cherish the poem; in the third stanza, he continues to switch between relish and disgust: ‘I am content to live it all again… to pitch into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch.’ This is the very antithesis of ‘starlit air’ or ‘beautiful, lofty things’, but there is pleasure and even profit in it as revealed by the surprising adjective ‘fecund’: ‘that most fecund ditch of all,/The folly that man does/Or must suffer, if he woos/ A proud woman not kindred of his soul.’  Isn’t this another way of saying that poetry comes out of personal conflict?

 

At the end of the poem, in the view of Carol Rumens, ‘the poet finds resolution by discarding remorse in favour of self-forgiveness’. She applauds the conclusion`:

The final, gloriously childlike “We must laugh and we must sing” rings out after all the turbulence like the Ode to Joy at the end of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.[2]

However, I am less convinced by the ending; it is not so easy to banish remorse and the language which is a reprise of Blake’s  ‘For everything that lives is holy’ sounds forced:

We are blest by everything,                                                                                                 Everything we look upon is blest.

‘Forgiv[ing yourself] the lot’ can only be a very temporary sweetness and is only convincing in the presence of its contrary.

In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ from the earlier collection, The Tower (1928), the overt opposition is between the mortal, subject to age and decay, and the supposed ‘artifice of eternity’. The poet seeks to escape the natural world and the aging process by moving to Byzantium where he will be transformed into a singing golden bird.  This resolution is obviously faulty since the equation of artifice with eternity is false. In the story of The Emperor and the Nightingale by Hans Christian Anderson, the artificial singing bird breaks, and we know that works of art are subject to decay, even if the process is slower than in nature. Behind this desire to be transformed into a work of art, we hear the demands of Soul to survive the body it is shackled to: ‘An aged man is but a paltry thing…unless/Soul clap its hands and sing’. However, the real quarrel the poet has with himself in this poem is revealed in the phrase where he describes his heart as ‘sick with desire’.  The sickness of desire is produced from the powerful conflict between desiring and desiring not to desire. Despite conjuring the sages to ‘consume [his] heart away’, the strength of desire and the poet’s longing to be able to fulfil his desires are displayed in the gorgeous lines of the first stanza:

 

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,

—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.

 

Compared to the abundant list of living things, the monuments of intellect seem stony and unappealing even when, as if for reassurance, they are referred to again in the next stanza. Yet, as the poem proceeds, it enacts itself as a ‘monument of magnificence’. From his quarrel with his own mortality and the effects of age, Yeats creates a splendid fiction. We do not need to believe in Byzantium, the golden bird, or the poet’s elaborately constructed philosophical system; the bird of ‘hammered gold and gold enamelling’ is the metaphor for what the poem becomes.

 

‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ is a difficult poem on whose interpretation no two critics seem to agree[3]. Although it reflects feelings of disappointment, anger and horror in its “Thoughts upon the Present State of the World’ (the original title), it may be regarded as rhetorical in that the poet’s quarrel here is more with the times than with himself. It is significant that the dominant personal pronoun is ‘we’ as he places himself alongside his peers who, in the days before World War 1, before the Eastern Rising, before the Civil War, hoped and planned for a better world, ‘but now/ That winds of winter blow/ Learn that we were crack-pated when we dreamed’. Set against these regrets is Yeats’ belief in historical repetition which he expresses elsewhere in his theory of the gyres and alludes to here with his reference to ‘the Platonic year’ which ‘Whirls out new right and wrong,/Whirls in the old instead’.  This poem has much in common with ‘The Second Coming’ with which it shares the expectation of the end of an era and the advent of a new barbarism, but it would be wrong to call either apocalyptic since they do not anticipate the end of time but its continuation, albeit in unwelcome ways.

 

The first person singular ‘I’ only appears in the third section of the poem; the poet declares his satisfaction with the comparison of the solitary soul to a swan, describing the image he would choose:

The wings half spread for flight,

The breast thrust out in pride

Whether to play, or to ride

Those winds that clamour of approaching night.

This is an odd image for the soul, in that it seems both egotistical and supremely physical. The reader cannot but be reminded of ‘Leda and the Swan’ which appears in the same volume. This is perhaps where the quarrels with himself re-emerge, in the conflict between the spiritual and intellectual search to divest selfhood and the temporal in the journey towards death: ‘if our works could/But vanish with our breath/That were a lucky death’, an idea which seems at variance with the assertive image of the swan. The poet switches from the quietist idea of ‘ghostly solitude’ to an annihilating rage ‘to end all things’. In the same way, we feel the pull between public and private: this poem is a public statement, a verdict on the times, made by someone who has been involved in public life; at the same time, it is private, even esoteric.  The end of the poem is prophetic and rhetorical but filled with references to Yeats’ own elaborate and almost hermetic system of symbols. The last five lines seem to undermine their threat by the obscure reference to Robert Artisson and Lady Kyteler[4], so that the poem is simultaneously public and private. The final line, with its suggestion of perverted sexuality and black magic, evokes a brutal return of barbarism and irrationality, but through symbols of male beauty. Is this another way of saying the noble will be sacrificed to the rogues and rascals, that ‘ingenious and lovely things’ will be lost? If so, it is revelatory of the cast of Yeats’ mind rather than the conclusion to his argument.

Helen Vendler says that where ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is philosophical, ‘Among School Children’ is autobiographic. Certainly, it is a poem where Yeats looks back over his life, although the autobiographical elements have been scripted for dramatic effect. I find Vendler’s reading of the poem convincing, so I will hold back from extended comment. In the first stanza Yeats seems self-conscious and ill at ease in his skin as he presents himself from the outside, ‘A sixty-year-old smiling public man’. The ‘comfortable kind of old scarecrow’ which the world sees is at odds with the poet’s passionate and self-tormenting memories and reflections. The increasing sense of the futility of all human endeavour and activity is arrested in the final stanza where in Vendler’s words there is

a massive re-conceiving of life. Hitherto, life has been indexed by its two determining points- its promising inception and its betrayed close. Now, with a mighty effort, Yeats begins to think of life in two new ways.[5]

The two images he turns to in celebration of creativity and the life force are the chestnut tree and the dancer.

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Although these lines are famous as an affirmation of life, they are almost disjunct from the rest of the poem and the fact that they are framed as questions suggests that they represent a hope or an aspiration rather than a certainty. The struggle and disillusion, the bruised body, the beauty born out of despair, the blear-eyed wisdom, all survive into the last stanza.

 

There is a recording on You Tube[6] of Yeats reading his own poetry where he refuses to read his work as if it were prose, because it took him ‘a devil of a lot of trouble’ to get it into verse.  I don’t think he was just talking about versification. What I value in Yeats is the sense that a resolution like that in ‘Among School Children’ has been hard fought for in a battle to shape his disparate and messy realities into an art which is the product of life, not distinct from it.

 

 

[1] ‘Anima Hominis’ in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, 1918.

[2] Poem of the Week, The Guardian, Monday, 11th February, 2008

[3] See, for example, Eamonn Dunne in J.Hillis Miller and the Possibilities of Reading: Literature after Deconstruction,(Bloomsbury ,USA, 2010) and Foshay, Toby A., and Toby A. Forshay. “Yeats’s ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’: Chronology, Chronography and Chronic Misreading.” The Journal of Narrative Technique, vol. 13, no. 2, 1983, pp. 100–108. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30225063. Accessed 13 July 2020.

 

[4] Yeats did provide an explanatory note when the collection first appeared, but the last lines remain vague in their menace, although they seem eerily prescient in the present trepidatious times:

There lurches past, his great eyes without thought

Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,

That insolent fiend…’

[5] Helen Vendler, ‘The Later Poetry’ in The Cambridge Companion to W.B. Yeats edited by Marjorie Howes and John Kelly, C.U.P., 2006.

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2FT4_UUa4I

Changing my mind about Fothermather

 

In the most recent edition of the poetry magazine, Acumen, Patricia Oxley comments in her editorial on the nature of the submissions she had been receiving since the outbreak of Covid-19. She contrasts “‘clever-clever’ poems which needed the cryptic brain of The Times crossword solver” and “poems of warmth and contact”.  Although this is a very blunt distinction, we know instinctively what she means, and we can shuffle much of contemporary poetry into one pack or the other. Reducing the categorisation to an even more basic level, we could describe this as the difference between poets who prioritise form and those who prioritise content.  At this point, the distinction reveals itself as false, since, in Robert Creeley’s adage, ‘form is never more than an extension of content.’ Creeley modified this statement in a radio interview in 2003:

What I meant, whatever that means, is that what’s coming to be said — it’s like William Carlos Williams’ wonderful insistence, “How to get said what must be said…” — that need, that impulse, that demand, is what I would call the content’s finding a form for its own realization, recognition, substantiation.[1]

 

For some contemporary writers, form or language have themselves become content because they have recognised that neither language nor the form in which it is organised can be transparent windows on content.  However, sometimes the preoccupation with language will have an alienating effect if the reader is unable to perceive a shared experience. A number of very successful contemporary poets have pursued their interest to language to a point where, although neither their intelligence nor their skills are in doubt, their audiences may lose patience, feeling they are being asked merely to solve riddles rather than engage with a perception of the world.

 

This long preamble is an attempt to express my own contradictory feelings about the poetry I read and how I feel poetry should be written.  I have been drawn to experimental and avant-garde writing and endorse the exploration of new ways of saying. However, sometimes it seems that poems become so concerned with the mechanisms of language as to become almost totally self-reflexive and therefore impenetrable. The concepts may be interesting but often the poems are not. Nevertheless, I find this kind of formalism more interesting than another contemporary trend which is the production of poems in traditional European, more exotic or even invented forms where success is often measured in obedience to strict rules.  The first time I read a specular poem, which was Julia Copus’ ‘Miss Jenkins’,[2] I thought it ingenious and intriguing.  Now, I simply find these poems irritating. And why, I ask myself, except as an exercise, would anyone want to write a sestina? The very best of these contemporary efforts disguise their form or offer variations of it, as Paul Muldoon has, over a poetic lifetime, offered variations on the sonnet.

 

While I may be frustrated by my failure to grasp or appreciate some of the more linguistically experimental poets, the poems of  warmth and contact’ are often worthy but dull, exploring relationships with humans and often with nature but in language which is unironically clichéd. The best, or at least the most interesting, poets continue to push formal and linguistic boundaries but at the same time they do have something to say.

 

Perhaps you need to have time on your hands to give difficult poetry the attention it deserves. Since I retired, I have revisited the work of Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian, reading them with much more enjoyment and appreciation. Muldoon’s poetry, in particular, has been a revelation as I have gone from considering him an irritating clever-clogs to a deeply serious poet who uses his huge range of reference and idiosyncratic sense of humour to present poems which are (often, not always) intellectually and emotionally profound.

 

I was intrigued, therefore, when I read a brief notice of Fothermather, a pamphlet-length poem, by Gail McConnell.(Ink Sweat and Tears, 2019)  It seemed that this was a poet who, like Muldoon and McGuckian, had something to say but who was choosing new ways of saying it.  When I read the blurb on the back of the book, I became slightly apprehensive. There was the endorsement from Vahni Capildeo, currently the darling of the poetry establishment and herself highly experimental[3]. There were the references to concrete forms and erasure which warned that this was not going to be straightforward to read.

My first reaction to the work was disappointment. It seemed too elitist, too self-indulgent, too based on the writer’s own range of reference devoid of explication. However, when I picked up the book again, I felt I had been wrong. Certainly, there is much in it which eludes me; at the same time, I became aware of strength of feeling and a refusal to compromise on the difficult, either emotionally or intellectually.

 

McConnell experiments with form in the struggle to discover or create her identity in relation to her son of whom she is neither the biological father or mother through a series of reflections on his gestation and birth. At times she resorts to traditional forms such as the sonnet and the villanelle, both of which she executes with great skill. Here, the difficulty of the formal task is matched by the difficulty of what is trying to be said, so that the poems go far beyond mere technical fireworks. Her sonnet “Shell Notes’ derives from a poem by Francis Ponge, a recurrent presence in the sequence, but the poem is self-sufficient and does not require knowledge of the French poet.[4] In it, McConnell explores ideas about form and substance in the context of her own efforts to reimagine forms and create names for new relationships. She takes the image of a skull ‘at sea’ which recalls Shakespeare’s ‘Full fathom five’ and another idea of the father; the skull adapts to become a shell, or shelter for a ‘not-too-social mollusk’, thus becoming a mother rather than a father. Shell as womb occurs in other poems.  The fluidity of form signalled in the octave gives rise to ‘uneasiness’, so the sestet proceeds to demonstrate how all form is taken or adapted from somewhere else: ‘Adjustment is true/genius. Less man from ape, than boy from body.’ The final line is an image of physical childbirth, but it is also a linguistic parturition which may reflect the poet’s ambition to establish a non-biological way of parenting her son which grows out of language and through this sequence of poems.

The Freud erasure poem is also extremely successful, partly because it is so very much a willed and authored piece.  Some erasure poems employ randomising rules for how the rubber is used, but in this one McConnell is clearly challenging a statement by Freud that she finds troubling and problematic: ‘I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.’ The poem appears in two versions on facing pages; in the first, erasure is employed to explore a relationship with a missing father, and it is relevant to know that McConnell’s own father was murdered in front of her when she was three years old.  The erasures are skilfully chosen to create a moving sense of loss which manages to subvert itself:

 

I                       a                                                                                  father

need

 

da

da

 

 

Sigmund Freud

 

The double meaning of dada is unlikely to be coincidental.[5] The poem continues, on the second page, to offer an entirely different version of gender, based on the curious example of the male seahorse who gestates his partner’s eggs.  The seahorse, which is the image on the front cover, is an emblem of range in gender roles and in parenting. This section of the poem begins and ends with a series of bubbles or non-verbal ‘o’s in upper and lower case which are visually extremely effective.

 

The aim of McConnell’s sequence is to celebrate the arrival of her son, ‘Finn, the brilliantist’ and to discover or establish a way of being towards that son which adapts, reshapes and challenges received ideas about parenthood. It is not, however, a propaganda poem for same sex parents, but the deeply felt quest of an individual to work out her relationship with the child of whom she is neither father nor mother in any traditional sense, yet with whom she clearly feels a very strong bond, to an extent where I felt slightly sorry for the partner and biological mother who is barely addressed and almost excluded. The poet creates linguistic links based on poems, on etymological explorations of words, including the child’s name, ‘Finn’, which imitate the absent DNA inheritance.

 

The poem convinces because it is not propaganda and because it deals with the difficult and in so dealing it pushes the limits of traditional and more avant-garde poetic conventions. The poet wants to bring into words something that has not yet been said and my own initial reaction was most probably a defensive one. McConnell has made me confront ideas that I find difficult and unsettling and along the way she has forced me to find out more about a lot of things, from Ponge to the sex life of cuttlefish. (I already knew Captain Calamari!)

 

[1] https://jacket2.org/commentary/robert-creeley-conversation-leonard-schwartz

[2] The World’s Two Smallest Humans, Julia Copus, Faber, 2012

[3] Capildeo is also a poet who definitely has things to say, but whose work may have encouraged a shoal of poetasters who do not.

[4] Incidentally, Ponge also appears in Still Life, the valedictory collection by Ciaran Carson, a more senior Belfast poet and colleague of McConnell. Still Life is a wonderful book, which I recommend without qualification.

[5] The lineation is difficult to reproduce accurately.

Does it matter if you don’t understand Medbh McGuckian?

Unknown

Who knew? Marine Cloud Brightening, the title of Medbh McGuckian’s most recent collection is actually a thing, the name for an experimental programme that would seek to make clouds brighter by reflecting some of the sunlight they absorb back into space and so reducing global warming, or at least that is my lay person’s understanding of it. The discovery that this phrase has such a clear reference clashes with the cover of the collection which presents a painting of cloud, sky and land in a seascape which looks both generically Irish and tonally emotive but vague.

 

I have been trying once again to get on terms with this poet, both through her new Selected Poems, The Unfixed Horizon, (Wake Forest University Press, 2015) and Marine Cloud Brightening, (Gallery Press, 2019). McGuckian’s work resists interpretation but her poems have a weight and a rightness which refute hostile assertions that they are beautiful nonsense, apolitical, too political, plagiarising, restrictively female and hermetically private. Nevertheless, I think it is impossible to seek for a singular valid reading for any of her poems and the attempt to achieve this is misguided though always tempting in the way that we are always tempted to construct meaning for a Rorschach blot.

 

Like McGuckian, I grew up in Belfast although she is slightly younger than me. For me, as for her, the special place has always been Ballycastle. Our experiences have been totally different, not least because I am a Protestant and she is a Catholic and because she stayed in Northern Ireland and I have lived most of my adult life in England. Nevertheless, there is that uncanny and symbolic awareness of two titles to the same place which means that sometimes her words crawl around the inside of my skin. In the title poem of her collection, Marconi’s Cottage, I recognise lines and phrases from my own memories of many visits to Marconi’s cottage, the place where the coast road stops on the way to Fairhead. When she describes it as ‘Small and watchful as a lighthouse’ and as ‘Bitten and fostered by the sea/and by the British spring’ she is speaking my memories and my conflicts. I do not know whether she is writing about a house or a person or even a plant; in the last stanza the object of address has acquired leaves. Nevertheless, I read this as a love poem which refracts my own love for the same place.

 

Herein lies the danger or the opportunity of poetry so wilfully obscure. Readers are forced either into a process of pedantic search for sources or to impose their own reading of the texts in front of them. Some critics have gone down the route of an exhaustive exploration of sources. Others have defied the writer by hunting for a definitive singular reading. An interesting exploration of both these strategies was adopted by Kenneth Keating in his article: ‘Medbh McGuckian’s source texts and the challenge to authorial identity in “The Good Wife Taught her Daughter”’[1]. Keating turns to Jacques Derrida for his underpinning rationale:

According to Derrida’s différance, as a signifier no word has an ideal             relationship to the signified, all words, through their positioning within a chain    of signifiers which find meaning in opposition to one another, inherently       represent an absence of that which is signified. All terms, as Derrida declares,           are dependent upon one another for their meaning, reliant on the chain in its entirety to gain understanding, and yet this chain is infinite and in constant           flux, therefore a complete understanding is impossible. External to the chain,             outside of this process of differentiation, the signifier is meaningless. As a        result of this, there is no single pure meaning of a word, and it is this             impossibility to find such a meaning which thus applies to all linguistic acts,         of which McGuckian’s poetry is one. Différance refers, therefore, to the        difference which is held within a single term and the multiplicity of meaning            which composes all linguistic acts. McGuckian’s uniquely opaque and          challenging poetry encapsulates this différance as it continuously interrupts            itself and prevents a reductive, singular coherent interpretation. Multiple        interpretations are to be found within a single text just as within that text multiple meanings of a single word or phrase are to be found. As Derrida’s   deconstruction works within Western metaphysics in order to undermine it            and render a single transcendental truth possible, McGuckian works within   poetic language and symbolism to undermine it and render a single absolute          interpretation impossible.[2]

 

Although McGuckian’s own comments on her work are almost as impenetrable as the poems, she might seem to be signaling an acceptance of this approach through gestures like the title of her most recent Selected Poems, The Unfixed Horizon.

 

Keating goes on to provide two readings of ‘The Goodwife Taught Her Daughter’ which, on the face of it, is a relatively unpuzzling poem:

 

The Good Wife Taught Her Daughter

 

Lordship is the same activity

Whether performed by lord or lady.

Or a lord who happens to be a lady,

All the source and all the faults.

 

A woman steadfast in looking is a callot,

And any woman in the wrong place

Or outside of her proper location

Is, by definition, a foolish woman.

 

The harlot is talkative and wandering

By the way, not bearing to be quiet,

Not able to abide still at home,

Now abroad, now in the streets,

 

Now lying in wait near the corners,

Her hair straying out of its wimple.

The collar of her shift and robe

Pressed one upon the other.

 

She goes to the green to see to her geese,

And trips to wrestling matches and taverns.

The said Margery left her home

In the parish of Bishopshill,

 

And went to a house, the which

The witness does not remember,

And stayed there from noon

Of that day until the darkness of night.

 

But a whip made of raw hippopotamus

Hide, trimmed like a corkscrew,

And anon the creature was stabled

In her wits as well as ever she was biforn,

 

And prayed her husband as so soon

As he came to her that she might have

The keys to her buttery

To take her meat and drink.

 

He should never have my good will

For to make my sister for to sell

Candle and mustard in Framlyngham,

Or fill her shopping list with crossbows,

 

Almonds, sugar and cloth.

The captainess, the vowess,

Must use herself to work readily

As other gentilwomen doon,

 

In the innermost part of her house,

In a great chamber far from the road.

So love your windows as little as you can,

For we be, either of us, weary of other.[3]

 

McGuckian clearly signals her use of other source texts by her retention of middle or early modern English usages, so the charge of plagiarism does not arise. More interesting, perhaps, is the question of how far the extracts from the source texts have directed the poem and how far authorial choice has been exercised in selecting and collaging them in the new work.

 

In Keating’s first interpretation of the poem, he embarks on an erotic reading which, in my view, stretches the text to breaking point, as when he suggests that the word ‘talkative’ implies open lips, therefore vagina and that ‘be quiet’ is an allusion to the female orgasm. In the second reading, he provides an interesting number of sources, but in neither reading does he offer any sort of certainty. This is totally in keeping with the thesis of his article that McGuckian’s poetry resists determined or singular readings. Keating provides a convincing argument against dismissive and reductive approaches to the poet’s work, but his own readings are so personal, so tentative and so hedged with qualifiers like ‘somewhat’ and ‘almost’ as to undermine the validity of his effort, even though that , to some extent, is the point.

 

Much has been written about McGuckian’s use of intertextuality, as well as her reading and working practices. I have read that she notes down phrases from her reading and crosses them off as she employs them in her poems. I don’t know if this is true and, in any case, I doubt if she is systematic in her selection of sources. I suspect, like many poets, she absorbs what is to hand during the process of gestating a particular poem, in a process like that described by T.S.Eliot in his essay on the metaphysical poets:

When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly                    amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is                   chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and      these two experiences   have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of              the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences              are always forming new wholes.[4]

 

Eliot’s description is perhaps too mechanical and objective in that it plays down the process of interaction and change by suggesting that the poet’s mind is a vessel within which these activities take place with the outcome of ‘wholes’ which are discrete in the world. It might be better to think of the poet’s mind as an organ interacting with the external world so that both it and externality are changed through poems which are never fully detached. This is not to say McGuckian’s poems are unfinished; on the contrary, her endings, although often unfathomable, are nearly always totally convincing. It is more that every poem is a process which may end in a very different place from where it started. One example is the poem quoted above. Another, more recent, is ‘A Handstitched Balloon’ , which concludes with two mystifying but intuitively right lines:

 

as a stove can be disguised as a statue of love

and, in place of her breasts, two flowers.[5]

 

Although the quest for a theoretical underpinning to justify or explain McGuckian’s project can be helpful or even reassuring, for me it is more interesting to explore what is happening in the poems themselves, to use the procedures of close reading, not to offer an interpretation which proposes a single meaning, but to clarify the procedures by which the poems come into being and link those to what they may mean or say to the reader and also, perhaps to explore what is being withheld.

 

The idea of hand-stitching a balloon is counter-intuitive but suggests love and intimacy; perhaps a gift for the dedicatee: ‘for Michael, in Ward One South’. As the poem appeared in a tribute volume to Michael Longley published in 2009 (Love Poet, Carpenter: Michael Longley at Seventy edited by Robert Robinson) we may assume that the poem is written for Michael Longley. The connection of the title to the body of the poem is unclear, but it may be picked up in the image of the moon which opens the poem: ‘Arils of peace-engorged late moon freezing/on the water,’. An aril is a biological term referring to an extra seed casing as with a pomegranate, a lychee or a yew seed. Arils tend to be red and this together with the adjective ‘engorged’ suggests that the moon is red, thus perhaps like a balloon. (Something which is red and engorged clearly has sexual connotations but I can’t do anything with this, so I have chosen to park it.) Moons are seen as red during a lunar eclipse, a relatively common occurrence; ‘peace-engorged’ could also be one of McGuckian’s oblique political references to a Northern Ireland post Good Friday agreement. The sense of late time is reinforced by the repetition of ‘late’ in the first two lines, ‘late moon’, ‘late dawn’. Of course, ‘late’ also connotes death. The opening of the poem also traces the passage from night into day which may make us think of a bedside vigil or may lead us to the idea of star-watching or astronomy which is associated with the ‘he’ who we take to be the focus of the poem.

 

At this point, I was seized by anxiety and the need to connect Michael Longley with astronomy and/or trees; the urge to discover sources and find external points of reference is, I think, mistaken. My reading of the poem needs to be made from where I am, not based on an attempt to worm myself inside the poet’s head. We know that McGuckian’s work responds to and interacts with other Irish poets, especially those from the North. Keating demonstrates convincingly that ‘The Goodwife Taught her Daughter’ is, in part, a response to Seamus Heaney’s poem, ‘Field of Vision’. Different readers with different degrees of proximity to the poet and her personal world will be able to take different things from the poems. Nevertheless, I have to trust the poems and myself, rather than engaging in constant research for fear of being told I am ‘wrong’. So I resolutely decided to stop worrying about the identity of ‘he’ or even whether it was the same ‘he’ throughout the poem. I also have to consider who ‘we’ are and whether this too is consistent as well as to explore the relationship between the ‘he’ and ‘we’ which only comes into play in the second part of the poem.

 

The first stanza creates a sense of tranquillity and age which is only slightly undermined by the jarring notes of ‘peace-engorged’ and ‘freezing’. I have a notion that this stanza might be connected to Longley, one of the ‘the veteran old trees’ with an ‘orchard practice’ and recognised as a ‘high, honest capturer’. If so, there are reservations, only hinted at in ‘the closed canopy/they made out of larch trees.’ The second stanza blows away any feeling of peace , with the arrival of a big wind which changes everything; the ‘north-south zigzag’, takes on a political dimension, the moon shifts and the earth changes shape like a balloon, or ‘like a lemon. There is menace in the ‘heavier’ sounds of the taller trees and ‘The cider trees in the lee/of the hill show a thin branch of appleness/over the lane…’ It is impossible to tell whether we should be pleased or anxious about the presence of ‘appleness’. I wondered if the apples were green and if they could be related to the ‘snake of orange motion’ in ‘Smoke’, one of McGuckian’s earliest poems. If so, this would increase the political impact of the poem, but there is not enough there to confirm this suggestion.This second stanza ends with an ellipsis while the third moves from present to past tense: ‘Countless journeys have made that path’. We may choose to identify ‘that path’ with ‘the lane’ of the previous stanza although the use of ‘that’ distances it. The alliteration ‘flow and flutter of limbs on a flowered/floor covering’ seems to intensify the lightness of passage which nevertheless has been sufficient to create a lane; we may think that the floor covering, which is terminology more fitting to indoors, is created by the fall of apple blossom. The humanity, almost the domesticity of the first three lines, is set against the reference to the wind and the sea at the end of the stanza which is described as ‘begrudging/in its beauty’. At one level, this works perfectly as an evocation of place; at another, it juxtaposes the human and the power of nature, or possibly even the femininity of ‘flowered’ and ‘flutter’ with the masculinity of the sea and the wind which has already disrupted the orchard world of the first part of the poem. In that case, reading retrospectively, the ‘thin branch of appleness’ would also be under threat, its vulnerability emphasised by ‘thin’. Against this reading is the fact that for McGuckian the sea is often a female presence. Perhaps the stanza is proposing two possibly antagonistic forms of femininity.

 

The fourth stanza moves further back into the past perfect tense and introduce a ‘he’ whose actions must be viewed ambivalently: ‘He had wanted to cut down all the trees’. His motives are ambitious and wide-ranging as he wanted to ‘collect stars from all over space’. When we are told that ‘he’ wants to be attuned to ‘the dark crater thirty miles wide/on Venus’ we have to infer a sexual meaning, particularly in the light of McGuckian’s earlier book and eponymous poem, Venus and the Rain. ‘He’ is dominant and overreaching; his attempts at charting the stars go wrong and the strategy of trying to control the whole of the night sky from three adjoining houses is apparently unsuccessful. It would be possible to impose a rather clunky political, post-colonial reading on these lines but I am hesitant to take such a route. The stanza ends in a colon which opens out into two similes or analogies, which are very hard to understand but which return to the imagery of the opening, to the pronoun ‘we’ and to the present tense:

as each grave seems to have its companion tree,

when we consider a field,

as a stove can be disguised as a statue of love

and, in place of her breasts, two flowers.

 

 

In the first stanza, the ‘companion trees’ were paired with ‘worker trees’; here, they are found with graves and the orchard seems to have become a field which is a graveyard. Both of these are enclosed places, possibly symbols of the female, but in the first instance the space is fruitful, in the second, it harbours death. So, finally, we come to the last two lines. How can a stove be disguised as a statue of love? My first thought was of the Willendorf Venus, a dumpy figure which, if enlarged, might bear a passing resemblance to a wood-burning stove. This may be excessively unlikely, but we need to examine the idea of a disguised stove. A stove is something which has fire inside it and which burns; in that sense it could be a statue or representation of love, but it is also an image of consumption and destruction. Why, though, are flowers substituted for the statue’s breasts? The Willendorf Venus is very well-endowed with breasts and to substitute flowers would be to prettify the image but to deprive it of its power. I have travelled a long way through my reading of this poem and have ended up somewhere quite different from my starting place. The more I reflect on it, the more words and images reverberate with different connotations, often conflicting. ‘Arils’ sounds like and can relate to apples, which also encase seeds, as, I suppose, do testicles. The ‘loose bellying’ of the wind which ‘rends and peels back the air’ could be an image of parturition rather than partition. The poem may say something about or to the Michael of the dedication, who may or may not be Michael Longley. It may comment on Irish politics and British colonialism, it may reflect conflicts over gender and sexuality, but it is not prepared to tell me explicitly about any of these things because it is written in code.

stove          Willendorf Venus

By code, I don’t mean that there is somewhere a cypher which we could discover and use to interpret the work. It is rather that she chooses to withhold from us as much as she reveals.  There are political and personal reasons for this practice. McGuckian lives in the province of ‘whatever you say, say nothing’, a motto which has become the only sustainable way of engaging in a society so divided. To announce your political views in such a context can not only be awkward but actually dangerous. At the personal level, McGuckian is writing about the most personal traumas of gender and sexuality, parenthood, family and friendship. Moreover, she is not just writing, she is exploring, trying to make sense of experience, a process which can never be final. I think it would be literally impossible for her to say what she wants except through the medium of slippery words and shifting symbols. There is a path through each poem which she has taken although as I suggested earlier the course of the poem is probably influenced by the components included in it. We cannot be privy to the decisions over direction which she has taken and we must refrain from readings which reduce the poems to torn vulvas and orgasms. The words and images she selects, so often natural or domestic, are also the poem and the poem’s meaning.

So, while McGuckian may have had a meaning or thought process on which a poem is threaded, the meaning we receive is the whole of the poem as it is put into the world. It is difficult to accept that our grasp or understanding of that poem may always be limited, just as, perhaps our grasp or understanding of any other person will be limited no matter how much we care for them.

 

I am baffled and excited by McGuckian’s poetry. Some of the poems in the second section of her book which is dedicated to the memory of Seamus Heaney, I find almost unbearably moving without really knowing why. However, I have reservations about this hermetic approach to writing as I have always felt that the poet’s job is to communicate and reveal through language rather than to conceal. I feel that the poet uses their own experience, no matter how indirectly, to produce poems readers will recognise as having meaning for them. I don’t think this is always true for McGuckian, although I believe her poems have meaning, however unfixed that meaning may be. Her poetry is unique and I think it should remain so. The danger of a poetry so private is that it invites self-indulgence on a massive scale. The power and the pain in McGuckian’s poetry show us that this is not a trap she has fallen into but she would be a very dangerous act to follow.

 

 

 

[1] Irish Studies Review, Vol. 23, Issue 3, 2015

[2] Keating, op.cit.

[3] The Currach Requires No Harbours, Gallery Press, 2006

[4] T. S. Eliot, review of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler. Selected and edited, with an Essay, by Herbert J. C. Grierson (Oxford: Clarendon Press. London; Milford) in the Times Literary Supplement, October 1921.

[5] Marine Cloud Brightening, pp. 27-28.

 

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