Newtownards poet Moyra Donaldson engages with Enlightenment ideals in her fourth collection
The cover of Moyra Donaldson’s Miracle Fruit shows a detail from a 1768 painting by Joseph Wright of Derby. The painting, laboriously entitled 'An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump', captures something of the enquiring spirit of the Enlightenment period.
A scientist is shown demonstrating the formation of a vacuum, withdrawing air from a flask containing a white cockatoo. The bird will die if the demonstrator continues to deprive it of oxygen, and the artist leaves us in doubt as to whether the bird will be spared. This message: knowledge, in this case scientific enquiry, often demands sacrifices.
Miracle Fruit interrogates the Enlightenment hunger for knowledge and the birth of science, what Donaldson describes as 'that precocious, cruel, / self regarding child'.
Several poems brood over the 18th century surgeon John Hunter, his brilliance as an anatomist and the limitlessness of his need to understand. Hunter was a flawed character, though he made important breakthroughs in many areas of medical research from the study of human teeth to the role of the lymphatic system, he could also be callous.
In 1783, for example, he acquired the skeleton of the 7' 7" Irish giant Charles Byrne, against the latter’s deathbed wishes – Byrne had asked to be buried at sea. Hunter bribed a member of the funeral party, filled the coffin with rocks at an overnight stop and published a scientific description of the anatomy and skeleton. In 'The Skeleton of the Great Irish Giant' Donaldson considers Hunter cutting Byrne into 'chunks' and boiling him in a 'great copper kettle': like Faust or Frankenstein, he wants knowledge, whatever the brutal price.
Donaldson’s poetry frequently delves into specific Enlightenment scenarios like this, and it can leave the uninformed reader baffled, jet-lagged, unmoored. In one of the more esoteric moments the poet arranges an extract from William Blake’s unfinished prose satire An Island in the Moon. A character called Sipsop speaks of Hunter’s butcherly zeal, plunging his knife 'up to the hilt in a single drive', thrusting his fist in, though his victims cry out.
A bit of background research revealed that this extract was from chapter six of Blake’s work, where a character called Suction sums up his philosophy: 'Ah hang your reasoning I hate reasoning I do every thing by my feelings'. Scepticism at Enlightenment ideals predominates. The poet seems to move between an anatomist’s glee for naming body parts and animal processes to a sense of dissatisfaction at breaking apart matter, needing to believe in something spiritual and mystical behind the biology.
In 'Crazy Daisy' Donaldson writes about the family dog who pawed at the door after death, while in 'Unquiet' she speaks of the dead as neither happy nor unhappy in their mansions. It is as though she is conducting a conversation with herself on the pros and cons of a materialist conception of the self. Is the self nothing more than so much matter, cells and bone? Or is there more to it, a quality animating the matter that is more than the combination of physical properties – something that stirs even once the flesh putrefies?
In 'The First Hunterian Oration 1814 – John Abernethy' she considers Hunter turning his thoughts towards mysticism and theories of a life force in old age; Abernathy, a strict Calvinist, ridicules the materialism of one of his students. These are profound questions, heavy themes, and Donaldson’s engagement with them has a light touch, a kind of elegance.
But for me, the heavy freight of historical context often makes getting to the kernel of the poems too much of a research project, nor is the purpose of all this 18th-century time-travel always clear. Sometimes the level of intellectual engagement and the drive for conceptual clarity compromises the lyricism or beauty of the poem, hampering its momentum.
Donaldson is at her best, in my view, when pithy and spare and to-the-bone, as in 'Grief', when she says simply 'every / thing we love will go away', or in 'Amygdala' when emotion and memory are humorously pared back to their physical origin: 'The crocodile in my brain grins.' Even better is 'Beekeeper', where the rhythms and imagery are Plathian and seductive, the will to logical synthesis surrendered: 'That night I dream/ of a mossy bed, blue / bells, honey dripping / onto a veil'.
Bertrand Russell once wryly noted how Coleridge’s immersion in Kant did nothing for his verse. Poets loose something when they become too rational and systematic, was his argument, some of the magic and mystery of the escape into metaphor and image, perhaps. Similarly, Moyra Donaldson is at her best when she leaves heavy scientific and historical arguments to one side, allowing the lyrical impulse to triumph.
Miracle Fruit is published by Lagan Press, priced £9.99.