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

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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.