Medbh McGuckian extended the range of Irish poetry. Her gloriously mysterious work calls to mind the rhapsodic utterances of Emily Dickinson and (though with more sensuality) an older contemporary, John Ashbery.
Blaris Moor takes as its title and starting point a traditional popular ballad that commemorates the trial, conviction and execution of four militiamen in 1797. Larger conflicts shadow these poems, including World Wars I and II. Meditations on the Flight of the Earls in the early 1600s move to thoughts of the Somme and Flanders.
Drawing on diverse, arcane sources, Medbh McGuckian constructs poems that have their own cohesiveness. Frequently her patterns of thought and syntax resist meaning. Hers is an art to be apprehended more than comprehended.
But there are poems here that feature the courtroom drama of direct political address and, most satisfyingly and surprisingly, a number of shorter pieces, evocative in their concentration of Medbh McGuckian’s earlier work and of the poems which secured her reputation.
In reaction to critical misreading of her work, Medbh McGuckian famously quoted Pablo Picasso in her 1994 collection Captain Lavender, “I have not painted the war . . . but I have no doubt that the war is in . . . these paintings I have done.” McGuckian continues to draw on history in unique and elusive ways, and her new book takes as its starting point the court martial and execution of four United Irishmen in 1797, an event remembered in the ballad from which Blaris Moor (Gallery, €11.95 pb, €18.50 hb) takes its title.
McGuckian’s preferred form is a kind of cut-up monologue, a historical echo chamber, generating voices from the nouns and adjectives her poems piece together, never shying away from historical agonies to which her poems bear witness.
In The Contents of the Cupboard, a whole world comes into view:
When she goes to the Paragon
someone stands treat you know.
Her splendid salary of four shillings
is subject to deduction in the shape
of fines – a fine of threepence
if her feet are dirty, or the ground
under the bench is left untidy.
The poem ends with an inventory, “Top shelf – a bundle of old papers,/ more tins, bottles, jars and pots,/ an old black shawl rolled up,/ an old black sailor hat standing/ on its side, with hatpins in it,/ a broken birdcage, a saucepan with a hole/ in it, stuffed out of the way.”
Resonant and unsettling, the poem is typical of her more recent work. Typical too is the fact that it quotes extensively, without acknowledgement (as with most of her quotation), from essays on slum life by two journalists, Florence Petty and Annie Besant.
McGuckian is open about her use of found text, which has become a central topic for source-hunting, academic readers. Among other impressive poems, many on the subject of war, some take their bearing from Karol Lanckoronska’s account of her time in Ravensbrück concentration camp: Skirt of a Thousand Triangles seems to reflect on the partial nature of her appropriations from other texts, “I could only count the shots,/ not the unravelled scarves.”
McGuckian’s work is hermetic, but her distinctive and angular patchwork remains one of the most distinctive styles generated by an Irish writer in recent decades. Note for Blind Therapists quotes Brodsky’s essay on Auden (“To please a shadow”) and an early Beckett poem, while offering a guide to her process:
I bescribble and I blacken paper
with my smooth domesticated tissue
of images desiring to please a shadow,
to saddle with meanings the trauma of war
by an occasion of wordshed.
And McGuckian’s take on Belfast in Who is your City? is as direct as anyone could wish, even if its vision of life after trauma is as unconsoling as her war poems:
Arrival city – where disaster zones have become
more theatrical, ambitious parks obsessed
with self-esteem are honeycombed
with missions and endeavours and offers
of salvation as an incandescent life force.
Gone is the edginess of the city, cleansed
of conflict, argument, debate, protest, ructions
and ribaldry [ . . . ]
We still show
our papers to reveal where we are going.
— John McAuliffe, The Irish Times
Blaris Moor is Medbh McGuckian’s twentieth collection, if I’ve counted right. She is prolific but a highly controlled poet, cutting, ordering, re-sewing quantities of material. Her material for a long while has been other people’s words, prose texts, often her library books. Excised phrases are stitched, undeclared, into what becomes a recognisably McGuckian poem. Scholars follow behind, identifying the borrowings, though this war-aware collection does acknowledge the source of its epigraph, which refers to four young Irish militiamen executed at Blaris Moor in 1797 McGuckian also gives the concept of the book as such due credit:
I imagined God as a book, not
where you cannot be, eternalized,
non-eternal you, reader in the after
world, dropping your ghost-rosary
‘Skirt of a Thousand Triangles’ uses lines, Shane Alcobia-Murphy has pointed out, from Michelangelo in Ravensbrück, written by camp survivor Karol Lanckoronska. In an early version, McGuckian included this initial stanza, since dropped: ‘I am at present reading a fascinating book / Called “Dante n’a rien Vu” — a tortoiseshell-reading’ (Lanckoronska had written: ‘I am at present reading a fascinating book called “Dante n’a rien vu”‘.) The version in Blaris Moor patches in many more quotes and Alcobia-Murphy suggests McGuckian uses the trope of torn fabric to suggest torn texts:
Her dress contains many skirts, one in-between skirt
of upside-down shapes, and geometrically
red endings — long, leafy, earthy ends.
At times she picks up to her northern shoulder
whole armfuls of her skirt to free her feet,
its soft, ladylike materials, its deceiving sash.
‘The Statement of My Right Honourable Friend’ shows the two voices that must pertain to a McGuckian poem, the narrator’s and a ghostly voice from the used text. The first half has a characteristic dreamy poetic tone:
The me-ring that you buy yourself —.
I want to buy a blood-bright gown
and let into its collar the satin
you gave me as a hood
which makes me think of you,
day and night.
The sixth verse changes in tone and the voice of an interlocutor is heard clearly.
I remember saying, do not run —
you say that you noticed two bullet cases
on the ground near the Saracen,
and they were split wide open . . .
The interrogated voice keeps the poeticity, the interrogator the prose:
From seventeen minutes past four,
you must have been there, Soldier S,
as we have to call you. Are you saying
something that was put into your mouth?
McGuckian is mostly saying something that she has put into her own mouth and it can be a bumpy ride for readers, as if missing a line or a stanza sometimes. But her mastery over these self-conscious poems drives them into fluency, as in the second half of ‘Her Dislove of Love’.
Journey of sacred slowness
to what you mean, my little word.
The woods are mine, pre-sounds
and post-sounds, where I can be
alone with your large photograph.
Last night I stepped out to take down laundry
and took all of the wind, all of the north, in my arms.
Dislocation is political reality for many citizens. Blaris Moor transcends its process to offer a set of judicious observations on power. It is metaphorically apt that I don’t know how much and from where its poems take their words.
— Claire Crowther, Poetry London