Origami Doll: New and Collected Poems, by Shirley McClure, edited by Jane Clarke, Arlen House, 168 pp, €15, ISBN: 978-1851322107
Poet Shirley McClure sadly died in September 2016 as a result of a return bout of cancer, the disease to which she had so artfully alluded in her poem “Mastectomy”, published nearly fifteen years ago. This recent edition of her collected poems should attract readers who know her reputation but may be unfamiliar with much of her poetry. For long-time followers, it offers an excellent chance to revisit nearly all her published work, today every bit as fresh and relevant as when it was first published, and to enjoy reading some thirty-one new and previously uncollected poems.
McClure started writing poems at an early age and continued to do so occasionally until she began her serious, lifelong dedication to poetry at the age of forty. Interestingly, she attended Trinity College in the 1980s along with several women who were eventually to become known as writers. These included novelist Anne Enright and poet Jane Clarke, along with Eina McHugh, who surprised Irish readers with To Call Myself Beloved, a successful memoir dealing with the Troubles and a woman’s personal struggle to overcome its disastrous effects on her life.
McClure’s first published collection was several years in the making, refined over and over. She submitted it three times in reworked versions for the highly prestigious Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award for a best first collection, finally gaining second place in 2009. This persistence, combined with a dedication to perfection, became a hallmark of her career and inspired fellow writers.
Once embarked on a serious quest, she set herself the goal of – insofar as such a thing might be possible – living her life as a working poet. The magnitude of such an undertaking is more than daunting and it would have been easy to call her objective an illusory one. But she managed in large part to achieve her aim by filling her life with workshops, community literary activities around Co Wicklow and, at times, a full schedule of readings throughout Ireland and abroad, another achievement that was a source of inspiration for writers.
A deceptive and hard-won simplicity was always a major key to McClure’s distinctive writing style. As a result, it is notable that quite a few of her poems are highly memorable, harking back to times when a public appreciation of poetry was more general than today and perhaps poetry was relatively more about the reader. An important milestone in her career was travelling to the US to attend a workshop led by former poet laureate Billy Collins. More than an influence, Billy Collins’s acclaimed poetry and successful career represent above all a confirmation of the acceptability of the irreverent and light-hearted style that characterises much of Shirley McClure’s most memorable poetry even though, unlike Collins, she always wrote in several different registers.
Uncommonly for a writer, McClure made contact on a personal level with many people as a result of her workshops and community activities. People she met were frequently surprised to encounter the characteristic reserve and shyness of a person whose poetry was typically described using adjectives such as bold, sexy and flirty. This apparent disjuncture illustrates the difference between the personality of a poet and the personae that can be displayed in writing. Poetry affords writers an outstanding possibility to unveil some of the less apparent facets of their personality and this aspect of writing was essential to the nature of Shirley McClure’s poetry.
Who’s Counting?, her first published collection, included in its entirety in the present volume, reads very well today. Although her work clearly continued to evolve as her style became more refined, many of the poems included in this volume are able to stand with her best and deserve to be widely read and seriously contemplated today. Since the writer’s stature has grown along with a string of significant prizes, it is worthwhile now to revisit her earlier writing. Readers are bound to make new discoveries even among the poems that might have initially attracted less attention. Solid poems are able to withstand the test of time, and some of McClure’s reveal their multi-layered texture on rereading, being susceptible to new readings while revealing nuances of style and technique. On the other hand, even the simplest and most straightforward of her poems – perhaps especially these – hold their value precisely because of their directness and simplicity. The diverse themes explored in this first collection include, along with lighter topics, love relationships, the infirmity and loss of family members, and her experience with cancer. These divergent themes, treated in turn with a droll touch or with deep sincerity, are united in an affirmative philosophical approach to life most often expressed with a wry wit.
A significant poem included in this collection is “Mastectomy”. McClure approached this delicate subject in a strikingly unusual and light-hearted manner, choosing to draw some of its sting by pretending to make light of the effects of a disease that strikes many women, often at an early age and without warning. The resulting poem probably provided an intended measure of solace to some of the women who had undergone this difficult experience by displaying the courage needed to share her own troubles and by putting misfortune in a more life-affirming, less devastating context. Her approach illustrates the subtlety that can be found in her earlier writing as she makes use of an extended metaphor in referring to a pair of china mugs: “You get given /certain things in twos- // love-birds, book-ends // matching china tea mugs ‑ ” Typically, the poem progresses implacably towards a strong conclusion: “there are still the days /when there is company for breakfast (…) it is good to know / that there are two // extra special, same but different / unchipped breakfast blue mugs // made to grace / your table.”
From the beginning McClure’s poetry has been identified as being written from a clearly feminine point of view. In her first collection, this sensibility was manifest in her choice of subject matter, but it was her brash freedom of expression that demanded attention, the outspoken and teasing tone of her verse seeming to entail a subtextual message that a woman should be able to feel free to be, act and express herself any way she pleases. If such a notion may seem less novel today, it has not lost its force. In her later poetry, McClure began to include poems that refer to women in general, usually in an oblique way. Examples of these are the title poems of Origami Doll, the volume under discussion here, and of her second book, Stone Dress. Both of these poems have been widely published.
Stone Dress, also included entirely in this volume, was published in 2015 by Arlen House. This collection reveals a consolidated style as the writer reprises some of the themes of her first collection and adds to these pillars a broad variety of whimsical reflections elaborated with cool confidence and unerring wit, and occasionally, by way of contrast, with delicate sincerity. Thematic divisions present in her first volume have been dropped since the various topics have now become more tightly bound together. Included are several poems reflecting on the experience of being a cancer patient. While not avoiding gruesome details and bizarre situations, the poet ably reduces their power to dismay by transforming them into occasions for humorous treatment.
The thirty-one new poems included in Origami Doll are likely to appear quite familiar to followers of Shirley McClure’s poetry since several topics are revisited, along with a variety of new ones, while characteristic stylistic traits reappear, but with quite a few surprises. Despite the familiarity of style and content, the poems are fresh as well as substantial while reading them has the flavour of running into an old friend. Quite a few of these poems are retrospective, sometimes referring to events referenced in her previous collections. Opening this volume of collected works with the new poem “Sweet Apples” was an inspired editing choice since this poem manages to beautifully summarise in just a few lines the encouraging lessons that may be drawn from McClure’s remarkably congruent life and work. This is followed by the title poem, already well on its way to becoming an iconic example of the subtle traits found in Shirley McClure’s poetry pushed to their extreme as the writer first extends a metaphor, then stretches it to an enigmatic conclusion.
In Origami Doll, the poems of a writer’s entire career whisper to each other as the newer ones shed light on the earlier ones and vice versa. The whole is a remarkably consistent body of work thanks in part to the careful original editing of the two previously published collections. Read all together, the poems take the form of a sort of ongoing conversation, underpinned by a stable philosophical view, often looping back to pick up on themes elaborated previously. This cohesion makes this volume of collected works by far the best way to read McClure’s poetry.
The Shirley McClure Poetry Prize, awarded annually at the Los Gatos Irish Writers Festival, celebrated in Listowel’s sister town in California, ensures that the poet and her work will be remembered in Ireland and abroad. But since the typical shelf life of poetry volumes today is dishearteningly short, this publication of her collective work is significant. It also offers readers a convenient way to approach the whole body of McClure’s poetry. A lot of good reading will be found in its pages.
Dick Edelstein has contributed reviews and articles to journals and websites in Ireland and the UK.