In Frank McGuinness’s sixth collection imagination and recollection combine to register historical and political moments (‘Burnfoot’, ‘The Battle of Clontibret’, and ‘The Protestant Boys’), a son haunted by his father and the author’s marriage in the Cardiac Unit of a Belfast hospital. Poems prompted by Bruegel the Elder and Géricault join versions of Lorca and Villon. Infused with an Oriental sensibility the book embraces far-flung places — Machu Picchu, the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the bus to Fatima.
The Wedding Breakfast, Frank McGuinness’s finest collection, concludes with a stunning elegy (‘Who Could Survive the Atlantic Ocean?’) for Danny Sheehy.
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The Valley of Tears
There is what initially might strike the reader as a mood of pleasant nostalgia in some of the poems in this collection, the seventh from playwright, novelist and poet Frank McGuinness. After the pastel tones of the cover image – a domestic scene painted by Constance Markievicz – the poems are introduced with a 1930s photograph of Frank McGuinness’s grandmother and two neighbours on their street in Buncrana. There are two further knots of people, tiny in the distance. Otherwise the street, strangely empty of cars and carts, is eerily silent. It has a lonely feel but is decorated with bunting. Are the people photographed waiting for a procession? If so, it is probably religious one. It is hardly to celebrate electrification, which appears to have arrived in the town. Beside the foregrounded clutch of people is the gateway to his grandfather’s forge, above which, a note tells us, the poet was born.
Childhood vignettes abound, and storied objects, like those in the titles of “The Jaw Box” and “The Winter Coat”, are given a sheen by all they’ve lived through with their various owners – all their shared journeys in time and space. Here are some lines from “Five Pound Note”:
Thin as snow and smelling of papyrus,
a five pound note that came from Alaska,
all robed in purple like an emperor.
My father’s neighbour, just home from the States,
pressed it into my Communion paw,
a wage to appease gods of Donegal.
Where is it now – the snow of papyrus?
“Morphine” is a wonderful poem of childhood with a dark undercurrent. Several of the book’s poems use the organising principle of line repetition in closure, as here: the poem reels into then back out of itself, the first line repeated as the last.
The first time taking morphine,
an earache splitting my brain,
pain turned into howls of laughter.
All I know was we could fly
to the sun in the ceiling.
All hands free from sorrow,
the first time taking morphine.
There is perhaps something contemporary and less secure somewhere in the background here. “Taking” drugs, the first hit and feeling you could fly point to something beyond joyous innocence, something less sheltered, less stable. And then there is Aunt Eileen’s “Is that boy mocking us or what?”
Comfort and security are illusory; they are always weighed down by the fears that are kept to hand. In “A Dream About My Father”, the dream is of his father’s death. Comfort, community, family all collapse and vanish,
the frail thing of flesh and bone,
laid out, broken, on the kitchen lino
and me not there, no one – none of us there
to hold his hand, no one to touch his face,
to whisper any words to comfort him,
to hear his voice echoing like a child,
calling father, father, father, father …
“Epithalamium”, whose title would posit it as a poem celebrating a marriage, is a lilting song of pragmatism, woe and hurt, a lay of the vale of tears, parodied and turned into a song.
The husband fucked her
at the wedding breakfast.
She did not demur
The children poured
from them like petroleum.
It is not the only dark take on marriage. In “Adieu” a wife looks forward to her husband’s death:
May you know my wedding vows were lying.
May your sons mock you as you are dying.
Fetch me a hammer, some wood and some nails.
I’ll build your coffin from my widow’s wails.
There is a snarl of cynicism in that final line, while the imagery simultaneously achieves an almost folkloric resonance.
The marriage theme resonates right from the collection’s title. The titular poem is blunt in its own way:
We married last September in Belfast.
The Cardiac Unit, Royal Victoria.
Your heart surgeon said he’d do the honours.
A champagne reception of Lucozade.
One groom wore the best of black pyjamas.
Our bridesmaid, the kind nurse from Hong Kong
This version of matrimony is better than any other in the book:
surviving heart surgery, sacred as gold.
Here and elsewhere in the book there is a playful, surrealistic sense of history, personal, national and global; one that mixes the far-off in with the ‘homeland’: thus “the Four Seasons outside Monaghan” has a cameo in the poem “Vietnam”, and Skellig Michael is visible from “Mach Picchu”, whose “Inca builders” made it
the strangest outpost of their breathless empire,
fluent in a Gaelic conquistadors had forgotten
Like the free play of the imagination that Machu Picchu might represent, security is fragile in this book. The “Five Pound Note” of that poem was used “For winter fuel”. Love too is fragile, but life the more so. The moving “Heart Surgery” asks the question,
Where on earth can we find the motherland?
How about Coleraine, among green, green bushes?
The roundabout, beside the Lodge Hotel,
cars spinning, heading for Portrush, Portstewart,
in each a new heart beats for my lover,
through polished windows he can see Scotland.
When he’s well we’ll walk there over the waves.
— Brendan Lowe, Dublin Review of Books