Medbh McGuckian, The High Caul Cap

Belfast poet Medbh McGuckian came to terms with her mother's demise by writing her latest collection. Despite the limitations of the English language, she found catharsis in creativity

Traditionally in Irish poetry the subject of the mother imbues in the author a certain kind of filial piety. Recall Seamus Heaney’s ‘Sunlight’, a poem that transforms the process of his mother cooking scones into an almost religious experience, or Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘In Memory of My Mother’, which elevates the deceased parent into a mythical, saint-like figure.

In the poem ‘The Blood Trolley’ from her latest collection, The High Caul Cap, Belfast poet Medbh McGuckian takes a different approach from the two aforementioned poets. When discussing the difficult relationship she experienced with her mother, the poem opens by declaring: ‘My mother I did not know at all.’

By the third verse, McGuckian has placed her dead mother in a setting that closely resembles the Warsaw Ghetto. As anxiety increases, and the dream slowly progresses into a nightmare, the reader is transported into a Dantesque inferno, alongside the poets’ mother:

The High Caul Cap'Now she seems to be driving / a vehicle with a large skull in front / Or walking a skull on a leash / through marshy riches. I have touched death / with her white bonework, seen dark / things as bright, enchanted by the pleasant / shadow of the rich Christ, saying Peace / Peace, when there is no peace.'

After the death of her mother – who suffered a long and painful illness – McGuckian tells me that she experienced a sudden flurry of nightmares. These might explain where the ominous images that repeatedly crop up in these poems come from.

'It can be very frightening when someone has died and then you begin to dream about them, or think about them in your subconscious mind,' says McGuckian. 'In that poem, I used imagery from the Holocaust, putting my mother in this kind of hell.

“When someone dies, you naturally fear for them. You’ve got their body in a grave somewhere, and that helps you to locate them physically. But then you ask yourself, "Are they in heaven or are they in hell?" And I went through those two options in this poem. Eventually I have my mother in heaven, but I have her going through hell first.'

McGuckian recalls that the majority of the poems included in The High Caul Cap were written before her mother died. Writing and reading those poems helped her to come to terms with the inevitability of her mother's death as the illness worsened.

'Cathartic is the word I think would best describe the feeling I had when I wrote these poems. They dealt with my mother’s illness and helped me go through that day-by-day. And yet all the time she was sick she kept a very serene presence. I was trying to convey that in the poems – the sense that she was very beautiful, and very controlled, despite everything that was happening to her.'

The poems also enabled McGuckian to reassess the complicated nature of the relationship that existed between mother and daughter. 'There was a lot of misunderstanding,' she admits, 'and a lack of communication.

'My mother was a very proud and difficult woman. Growing up, I found I could not talk to her about anything that was going on with me emotionally. But in these poems I am able to do that. I address her as if she was very open, like she could relate to me in the way that I would have wanted her to.'

While much of McGuckian’s work tends to begin with small autobiographical details, her poems typically branch out into the symbolic, the metaphoric. There are echoes in The High Caul Cap of the 19th century French symbolist poets, such as Mallarmé and Rimbaud, particularly in the way that the language often meanders into the abstract.

McGuckian isn’t intentionally trying to be difficult – she is quick to point that out. Rather she simply believes that the language of the mundane and the vernacular should not be used directly to construct a poem.

'Poems are very much part of the unconscious mind,' she adds. 'They push up through the ordinary language that we use in every day life. The language which we are using now, for example, to try and understand what is written in the poems, it is inadequate, laborious and slow.

'Whereas in poetry, language moves the way it does in dreams, where everything is superimposed very rapidly on everything else. In dreams, the language can be soothing and reassuring, because people are nourished by their dreams.'

When McGuckian got over the initial hurdle of attempting to write in an idiom that moves outside the conventions of normal language, she was then faced with another challenge: confronting the sterile nature of the mother tongue that was bequeathed to her.

'As a poet it’s hard to have a love of the English language. But you try to do your best with it,' she says. McGuckian faced these linguistic perplexities head on in her collection Captain Lavender, most notably in poems such as ‘Elegy for an Irish Speaker’, and ‘The Aisling Hat’.

'The Irish language is naturally musical,' she offers. 'I find that English, however, is a very cold language. So I try to introduce foreign phrases into my poems, to modify the language and make up the words, the way Joyce did. This helps me to make the language a sort of pseudo Irish for myself.'

Asking questions about her own national identity through her poetry was a something that McGuckian actively shunned away from for much of her career, until recent collections. Growing up in north Belfast, 'which was very confined and narrow', meant that, for much of her life, she was sheltered from the complexity of the wider Northern Irish experience.

'I grew up in a very close knit Catholic, working-class ghetto in Belfast, which was surrounded by alien feelings. Then, when I went to university, everything blossomed. I began to meet people from the Protestant side of Ulster for the first time. But when the Troubles started, people began to retreat into their safe areas. It became very much compartmentalised again. I guess that would have affected my own work.'

As the curtains slowly began to fall on the Troubles in Northern Ireland, in the mid 1990s, McGuckian was invited to work with prisoners, many of whom were from the Republican side: people like the writer, and former director of publicity for Sinn Féin, Danny Morrison.

Such meetings made McGuckian think deeply for the first time about issues like history, national identity, and sovereignty. Subjects she may have neglected before, she admits, with a slight tone of regret.

'Listening to these prisoners talking made me feel like I hadn’t really dealt with the Troubles. I kind of just hoped they would go away. So for a couple of books I did look at Irish history. I don’t know whether it helped the poetry or not, but it was fascinating for me to learn about the real history of Ireland, which I hadn’t been taught in school.'

Much of the imagery that McGuckian uses in her poems, through her symbolism of the moon – which, for her, represents the womb – often speak on behalf of women. This, perhaps, is a reaction to that fact that when McGuckian began publishing poetry in the early 1980s, she became aware she was operating in a very male-dominated world.

She admits that she felt 'very weak as a woman' in this atmosphere. For all our so-called equality in today’s world, however, McGuickian feels that gender inequality continues to blight western society, and poetry in particular. Her thoughts return to her latest collection.

'I still do think that women have a totally different way of relating to poetry than men,' she muses. 'For women, poetry is much more emotional, perhaps not as intellectual. It’s about feelings and whatever state your body is in at the time.' But that's not to say that male readers will not draw much from The High Caul Cap, a collection that marks McGuckian out as one of the most capable, emotive poets working in Ireland today.

The High Caul Cap is out now, published by The Gallery Press.