The Book of the Angel

Naomi Foyle reviews Medbh McGuckian

Born in 1950 in Belfast, and presently lecturer in creative writing at Queen’s University, Medbh McGuckian is widely regarded as one of Northern Ireland’s foremost practitioners of the art of poetry.

Winner of the National Poetry Competition in 1979 and author of eleven full length collections, her complex and mysterious explorations of femininity, spirituality and Irish identity have not only attracted international critical interest, but have also created a body of work that is unrivalled in its ability to intrigue and beguile.

Her latest collection, The Book of the Angel (Gallery Press, 2004), deepens the religious aspects of her writing, offering contemplations on faith, bereavement, Christian mythology and the nature of the soul.

McGuckian’s poetry is notable for its evocative imagery, chameleon-like speakers and serpentine syntax. While disorienting, these techniques enable her work to speak to many levels of consciousness, from dreaming to quiet rapture to grief; from personal experience to religious archetype to global awareness.

Certainly this runs the risk of confusing readers accustomed to a more anecdotal poetry, but even on first perusal a number of poems in The Book of the Angel – ‘Cape Fear Bank’, ‘The Lily Grower’, ‘Fallen God of Bone’, ‘Hand Reliquary’ and ‘Ave Maria Lane’ among others – yield coherent pleasures, while patient and inquisitive rereadings of the book bring its preoccupations as a whole into relief.

Divided into five parts, The Book of The Angel steers an almost narrative course. Part One begins, ‘This is a time after seasons’, precipitating the book’s fall from the otherworldly dream state of the first three poems, into the various revelations of spring, the fecundity of summer, the burning reds of autumn and the bitterness of winter embodied in the death of a loved one.

This stately procession through the year not only gives the book a satisfying sense of structure and pace, but also provides a store of natural, sensual imagery with which to infiltrate the rigid truths of Catholic doctrine (and by extension, orthodox Christian belief).

Often this cross-fertilization is achieved by breathing sexual life into religious symbolism. In Closed Bells, for example, the bells at first seem to be tight, frosty little flowers, representing a virginal or saintly but perhaps resentful abstinence:

Wounded by the thought
of nests expanding,
they inspire
devotion of a sort,

Though it is rust that devotes itself to their ‘ringingly taut’ root, the bells do open, thanks to a passionate force that might be human, natural, or divine. The poem ends, stiff as a muffled clapper, with the tantalizing image of a flower:

one indistinct nerve
erect and desirable
in your violet throat

As the title promises, angels throng the pages of the book, provoking questions about their traditional role as intermediaries between the mortal and the divine.  In Part One ‘the brightening, endangered earth/is the year’s first angel’, but various winged men on missions from ‘stair stepped cloud’ soon present themselves as well.

Though figures of great beauty, their authority here is not absolute. In Part Two, for example, a series of vignettes inspired by paintings of the Annunciation, the ‘weeping’ sincerity of a young saint inspired by Gabriel is not in doubt, but the poems clearly do not swallow whole the story of ‘the invented birth’.

Instead, McGuckian moves beyond the question of the literal truth of scripture. While paying homage to the dignity and power of the encounter between angel and Mary, she also sensually fleshes out the pristine bones of the myth.

Her descriptions of the Annunciation are infused with an understated eroticism and a softly spoken lament for the lost ‘nuptial meaning’ of Mary’s body. Mary, for whom ‘all earthly things have died’, whose bedcover has a ‘snowflake pattern’, who

folds her arms inwards
for support, a dry tree behind her,
like a ghost in a burnt dress

In contrast, the last poem in the series speaks of ‘the warmer hearted sins’, wearing ‘blue/half sleeves in the calm of the garden’; harmoniously part flesh and part spirit.

As the book progresses, angels appear as more ambiguous and personal heralds of death or rebirth, as victims of war, or friends who have died.

Interesting, harder edges emerge, as in A Lost Epistle to Sister Beatrice, which decries the ‘absurd overfaith’ prolonging ‘the sinister/spirals of violence splintering all cities’. And emotional intensity builds in Part Five, a moving meditation on the passing of an angel, ‘with hair so black, all hunger for news of it’.

These poems could be construed as an elegy for the late Gregory Peck, whose ‘inspirational friendship’ is acknowledged in the frontispiece; certainly their miracles, spells and heavenly music are combined with vivid memories of a much loved person, and, as in Angel With Blue Wings, sombre reflections on the process of grieving and the physical reality of death:

I would no longer say anything to your eyes,
the school of your eyes, the eye of the dead
at that precise moment when mourning begins,
two eyes that I must get over mourning.

Just as the deepest significance of an individual is often only realised after his or her death, somehow, despite his awful absence, the ‘awayness’ of the angel seems his final, ‘firecoloured countergift’.  Death invites the mourner to contemplate the nature of time; to show gratitude and reverence; to believe in what no science can prove or disprove; or simply to seek out the sacred in the tangible world.

Both mining and undermining the richness of Biblical imagery, The Book of the Angel affirms each person’s ability to use their senses, their imagination and the power of love, to directly enter and experience the sacred mysteries of human life.

With its rich repertoire of natural imagery, and emphasis on the special nature of the friendship that can exist between kindred souls, it also evokes the closely-knit medieval communities of the Celtic Christian monks and nuns, who today symbolise for many people the possibility of a religious practice that honours both the physical and the spiritual aspects of existence. It is a book that will only extend Medbh McGuckian’s reputation as one of the most thoughtful and lyrical poets of her day.

Naomi Foyle