Classic Essay from the Archive...

Fred Johnston reviews Medbh McGuckian's Selected Poems in Fortnight, May 1998

Some let me make you of the meadow's signs;
The signal grass that tells me all I know
Breaks with the stormy winter through the eye.
Some let me tell you of the raven's sins.

Guess who? Well, Dylan Thomas, actually, a few lines from Especially when the October Wind. Thomas’s gift was to understand the magical and inherently unfathomable language of language; what became of language when poetry adorned it with alchemy. But for Thomas, as for all poets for whom poetic language approaches the sacred, the sense of magic did not eradicate the knowledge of the real and the actual. ‘When I experience anything,’ Thomas remarked to Alastair Reid, ‘I experience it as a thing and a word at the same time, both equally amazing.’

In a review of this collection in Poetry Ireland Review, Carol Rumens suggests that McGuckian ‘is in some way a religious poet.’ Perhaps in the sense that Thomas was; perhaps the words were liturgy. That McGuckian's use of language and her transmutation of it on occasion is what poetry is, or should be, about, is not really questionable; although I have heard it said by some poetry lovers that they have found her obscure and one, in this age of poetic banality by the bookload, can understand why.

I would suggest that when McGuckian writes, she reaches into an older and more venerable—in the sense of being worthy of veneration—poetic integrity than we are used to. Thus she seems to us to be out of reach. And having heard her read, I'm not sure that she allows her poems to open to us in quite the way they might when we read them to ourselves.

Asked to name three Irish women poets without whom contemporary Irish poetry would scarcely have developed, one might easily and with little doubt pluck out Máire mhac an tSaoi, Eavan Boland and Medbh McGuckian, poets whose concerns and styles and even writing tongue could not be more different. Yet, in a sense, they form, or at least outline, a poetic whole; the work of other poets who are women seems to circle about them, striving for something of their energy, imagination and colour.

This collection gives us a flavour of McGuckian's work without ruining our palates. Here there is evidence of a poet faltering on occasion as well as rising to remarkable achievements. Matchmaking, from The Flower Master and Other Poems, (Gallery, 1993/Oxford University Press, 1982, as The Flower Master), is top-heavy with imagery and bouncy alliterations, to the detriment of any sort of poetic sense:

The mayflies' opera is their only moon, only
those that fall on water reproduce, content
with scattering in fog or storm, such ivory
as elephants hold aloft, like champagne.

That's the poem in full. The imagery of 'elephants' is literally, too rumblingly burdensome for the gentle airiness of the rest of the poem, where even 'storm' is not as weighty as it might be somewhere else. Thus the poem becomes a sort of imagistic connundrum; champagne is not the colour of ivory, nor can it support the weight of, again, the notion of 'elephants', however much it works as a balance to 'water', 'fog', even 'moon'. On the other hand, her more recent poems have a better sense of structure, a greater respect for the work that imagery has to do:

Numbered day,
night just beginning,
be born very slowly, stay
with me, impossible to name ...
Elegy for an Irish speaker.

And again, The Aisling Hat has drawn away all unnecessary imagery and stripped the verses down to what is, for McGuckian, an imagistic spareness:

The elegant structure of the heart
is a net cast over everything in sight,
its lace design of perforations, truancy.
Over your face a cognac eagleskin
was tightly stretched, my cart-horse,
dray-horse, drew your heavy chariot....

Accident or otherwise, the internal rhyme of 'sight' against 'tightly' locks the stanzas neatly together; hinting, however vaguely, at McGuckian's awareness of Gaelic poetic structure. The Bond, (stated to be 'after the Irish of Nuala Ní Dhomnaill'—does this mean it is not a translation, but an interpretation of a given translation? It isn't clear.) recreates in a reasonable sort of way the rhythm of the original Irish, in the lines:

Not to have two meals in one house
not to pass two nights under one roof
not to sleep twice with the same man . . .

Interestingly, some of McGuckian's early poems were almost entirely devoid of obviously poetic imagery or reworking of words in some deliberately poetic manner: Poems such as Smoke, the very first poem in this selection, or Faith, or Lychees (My great-grandfather was a coachman/ and knew how far away he was in the dark/ by mysteries of the Rosary. My grandmother said/ you could tell a good husband/ by the thumbed leaves of his prayer-book.). Who, reading the later McGuckian, would recognise those early, fine poems as coming from the same pen?

Which is where a certain comparison with the style and method of Dylan Thomas runs up against a connundrum of its own. Thomas seemed always to be 'possessed' of a poetic, linguistically visionary daemon who turned his language towards the exploitation of sound and a sort of picture-music; McGuckian's 'obscure' poems seem to belong to what might be called a 'middle period', both the early and most recent poems resuming a tightly-controlled, more leisurely, more accessible regime, It will be interesting to discover whether her poetry alters in other ways.

A 'Northern' poet (where the adjective means a poet whose writing one would readily associate with attempting to come to terms with the politics of the past thirty years) is not how I would describe McGuckian, even though some later poems do have what the jacket-blurb describes as an 'engagement' with Ulster's ups and downs. Somehow I've always felt that her work was outside the whole business, moving in a sphere of its own; a newly-created world, in which poetry was the medium through which all things lived and moved.

Her work, arguably, is an antidote to what we know as 'Northern' poetry, five collections are represented here (The Flower Master and Other Poems; Venus and the Rain; On Ballycastle Beach; Marconi's Cottage; and Captain Lavender.) however unevenly, and fans of McGuckian's work will delight to see a 'selected' on the shelves while newcomers to her poetry can find here a solid introduction to her work.