Miracle Fruit, the fourth collection from Northern Irish poet Moyra Donaldson, is dominated by the writer’s fascination for the 18th century Enlightenment period, the physical freakery of those who live on the ‘margin’ and a personal, tangible sense of loss.
Following on from the universally well-received collection The Horse’s Nest (2006), also published by Lagan Press, Donaldson’s new collection shows a poet confident in her ability to reflect all that interests her and ultimately also her readers.
Whether it is pondering on the ‘accomplishments’ of 18th century surgeon John Hunter and his need to acquire the skeleton of the Irish giant, or channelling the voice of Mary Patterson, one of Burke & Hare’s cadavers; speaking as conjoined twin Violet Hilton, or writing about Gizel Steevans, the pig-faced woman of Dublin, Miracle Fruit shows the expansive and diverse interests of the poet, as well as a remarkable empathy and compassion for her subjects.
'I don’t feel as if I write "as a woman", rather I write about what interests me. Women in society now and in the past is one of the themes that I am drawn to,' explains Donaldson.
'One of the things that struck me about the research I did for some of the poems was the sense that there really is nothing new in terms of human society. All the things that we tend to think of as exclusive to our modern age and thinking, can be seen in our history, perhaps couched in different terms, but still recognisable. That is one of the themes of the collection, for example 'How to Make a Pig Faced Lady' - and what was said by the tabloids about Jade Goody.'
Donaldson is certainly interested in the plight of women through the ages and while asking if anything has really changed, shows a protection for her subjects, voicing their anger where appropriate. In 'Mary Patterson', inspired by one of Burke & Hare’s victims, the poem opens and ends poignantly:
Plied with gin, stupefied,
Burke’s knee on my breast,
Hare’s hand across my breath
‘til the life is pressed out of me
Then I’m delivered to your door
And you Mr Ferguson, surgeon
In training, looking at me
In your professional capacity
As I looked at you in mine
just two nights previous.
You still want to use me.
Donaldson adds: 'I can’t pick a favourite poem in the collection – it would be like being asked to pick a favourite child!
'There are poems which are central to the collection in that they were the starting points for other ideas, poems from which the themes and shape of the collection grew: 'Hogarth', 'Self Portrait with Pug', 'Experiment on a bird in an Air Pump' and of course, 'The Skeleton of The Great Irish Giant', which in turn introduced me to the fascinating character of John Hunter.”
Donaldson will be reading from Miracle Fruit on Tuesday, November 9, in the Non-Subscribing Church, Rosemary Street, Belfast from 7pm. She was supported by Arts Council of Northern Ireland with an Individual Artists Award in working on this collection.
Published by Lagan Press with assistance from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Miracle Fruit is priced at £9.99 and is available from all good book shops and on line at www.lagan-press.org.uk.