May Twenty-second, by Frank McGuinness, The Gallery Press, 128 pp, €12.95, ISBN 978-9-1133-8338
Frank McGuinness is a writer of openness and adventure. Openness to form: while best known as a playwright, while highly regarded as a poet since the 1990s, he has made forays into other genres, writing short fiction in the early 1980s and publishing two novels in the last decade; openness to varying manner and textures, which can range from tightly focused social realism to fantasy. The list of his stage and film adaptations suggests a keen literary appetite, eager to try anything and at ease with classics from Ibsen to Molière (a version of Tartuffe is promised for next March at the Abbey).
The openness is especially, and consistently, to the varieties of identity, political, gendered, sexual; and these can overlap. The last poem in his first collection, Booterstown (1994) had appeared in Cyphers in 1980; its title, “Hanover Place, July eleventh”, its setting – Coleraine – and its last line, to his English lover, “Wrap my nearness round you like our flag”, show how such categories can be superimposed, and sound a vibrating, unsettled, and serious note, which still persists and still refuses to be silenced, through the six later volumes. It also displays a deft use of codes: the Flags and Emblems Act, the date, are referenced to demarcate a private zone rather than to air a complaint or conjure a local audience.
His new book, May Twenty-second, is substantial, divided into five sections for reasons I have yet to fathom, and wide-ranging. It is also playful, making room for a set of six poems, “Meryton”, in the voices of (mostly minor) characters in Pride and Prejudice, alongside weightier sequences. A large-scale set of poems, “Dancing with Goya”, conceived as a series (perhaps because it was impossible even for Goya to contemplate human levity and awfulness without yielding to the law of fragmentation), holds madness steadily in view for a moment:
Fetch me my boat she says, crewed by scarecrows,
my ship like a leaf on a mulberry tree,
I’ll tan their hides and tame them awake again,
a bundle, the bed of the grave or the tomb,
burning their feet, my crackling of boots.
Goya may be merely an extreme example of the way art, and especially art that lasts beyond its own century, seeks the dangerous margin. But the greatest European art seems especially to be distinguished for its sheer oddity, its vein of narrative strangeness, and that is perhaps its attraction for a restless imagination like McGuinness’s. An early play, Innocence, revolved around the chaotic presence of Michele Merisi da Caravaggio, importing the darkness, terror and intensity of his paintings to the staging of the fateful day in Rome when he murdered a rival. Poems responding to visual works are also echoing a blast from history; earlier collections confronted “The January Turners” or a “Blue Envelope” by Charles Brady.
Goya is joined in May Twenty-second by poems on “Rembrandt and money” – where dangerous forces invade that binary space, “What is this breech we have so long desired? / This plunder, this change of name, this circle?” – and Egon Schiele. The latter “built a house …/ Was it in Vienna / Or the state of sin?” Outside the art-historical/biographical context, place is again invaded by the uncertainties of feeling and belief, as in “The Fountain House in Petersburg” the waves of history buffeting the city cause its names to slip and change.
History then, or in any case the past, is another major source of his meditations, whether so private as to deny itself, as in “The year I went with no watch”, or so public as to blend into the banality of headlines, as in “The U-Boats Surrender, Lissahally, Derry”. There is a lightness about both of these; “The Russian Convoys” on the other hand bears a convincing historical weight, a sense of people sucked into a big shapeless historical heave that cares nothing for them, “monstrous, infinite / paraphernalia / of commotions assembled / here to work / some fragile creation”.
Art can appear as history’s opposite, but suddenly reveal how it contains the chaos of events, even when introduced as pastiche. A poet electrified by his own and other arts, McGuinness penetrates and perceives the frantic jigs dancing inside a classic. “Pangur, My Cat” is sparked by the sharp eye of the pouncing Old Irish cat. But:
His perfect eyesight
discerns night from dream
and dream from day
where I can see – what do I see?
A quill, a tail, a man
on all fours becoming
the answer to riddle me this –
who is who and what is what?
Included in the poet’s sense of underlying instability, but not at all adequate to explain it as merely a personal trait, is the primary destabilisation of the traditional categories of man and woman, on top of which so much cultural and legal baggage is uneasily poised. McGuinness’s poems about love sometimes cheerfully admit the transgressive element of homosexual love. Unavoidably present of course for a man born in 1953, darker consequences echo in poems on the history of persecution, “the heretic hunters still on my trail” (“Heretic”), or in “The Mallow Plant” the passing mention of”‘the days of cells and chains”, as well as modern speculation about “The sodomite Mark Smeaton” (“Mark Smeaton Executed 1536”).
Transgression however has to be recognised as an element of all kinds of play. Not always utterly serious in his revisiting of historical or mythical scandals, McGuinness imagines the infant Hercules precipitating a sex change in his father, Zeus. More anxiously but still with irony, “Ganymede” returns at the end of each of its three sections to a repeated line, “neither one sure what the other wanted”. Camp can seem tired when he declaims “When I die, let mourners dance / like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers”, or invokes Coco Chanel, but it is play that matters, that sets the poem echoing, as in “Montaigne’s Cat”.
Travel, not just foreign places but the experience of travelling, has surfaced over and over in McGuinness’s work. Travel too is play, opportunity, and brightly coloured place names have lit up recent collections. Here there is anxiety, and danger, as in “Dresden”. As a theme, travel vacillates between the discovery of limits and endings and the opening of new perspectives. In “The Travel Pass”, Cairo, Byzantium and Albuquerque are fantasies out of reach as he recalls stronger days, “remember you could hike to Sandycove”.
In McGuinness’s first collection, a memorial to a colleague, Barbara Hayley, played through her last day alive, in the future tense, imagined her planning to “Phone Frank and ask how was Brussels? / Did he and Philip behave themselves? / I hope not.” It was called “Traveller”. What survives into this latest book is not just the humour of the bold reversal in the presence of death and the related personal warmth. It is the willingness to look behind and underneath all categories, even the undeniable ones of life and death, which make McGuinness a poet of thought, or better of the thinking process, whose poems are dying to engage with the thinking reader. Original, entertaining, steadfast in their contemplation of colour and darkness, the poems in this latest book will bring that reader stimulus and comfort.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s Collected Poems was published by Gallery in October 2020.
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