Daughters of the House, by Catherine Phil MacCarthy, Dedalus Press, 71 pp, €12.50
In 2013 the poet Catherine Phil MacCarthy spent time in Paris as part of an artists’ residency at the Centre Culturel Irlandais where many of the poems in this, her fifth volume, are rooted.
In the first poem, “Singer”, the poet comes upon a shop of shoes and leathers on Rue Lacépède. It’s a shop that triggers memories not just of her father “choosing a belly-band for a horse / at Carews, William Street, / a new ‘winkers’ for the mare,” but also brings back memories of her mother “at the table / hand winding the wheel, / her mouth full of pins.” She is “all business”, and “new words drop from her lips, / “muslin”, “chiffon”, “bias”, / “tension”.
The final word, “tension”, in this opening poem seems purposeful and apt in a book of poetry which is preoccupied with the many tensions of French and Irish cultural and political history from the late nineteenth century through to contemporary times. They are tensions which MacCarthy deftly reveals through personal stories of the many inhabitants of this book.
The poem “The Suitcase”, for instance, depicts a young man who arrives as an immigrant from India to Paris, “with a gun-metal blue valise, / patterned in silver stripes / weighing twenty-two kilos.” But the case is stuffed with objects of love from the parents that he will never see again. “Mother placed in his hand / an envelope of folded newspaper / with lotus, hibiscus, cherry and roses, / aromas of Karaikal offered to the Gods for his safety;” While towels from his father were “the colour of French and Indian flags.” That this poem’s final detail is delivered in a matter of fact tone makes the ending all the more poignant. “And the photograph so that / he would never forget his parents.”
Many poems in Daughters of the House are inspired by the lives and work of female artists – one of whom was the nineteenth century Russian artist and intellectual Marie Bashkirtseff who came to live in Paris and eventually died there in her mid-twenties from tuberculosis. “A Marketable Craft” primarily describes one of Bashkirtseff’s paintings, titled “In the Studio”, where the artist has placed herself centre stage in a studio of women painters in 1881 “crowded in / to that tubercular attic on the fifth floor / off Boulevard des Capucines.” Their model is a “nude boy. / beside him, a skeleton looks down. / The atelier clock tells Paris Mean Time.” However, what elevates this poem from mere description is the astute political comparison MacCarthy makes between the gentility of female artists at work and “those / on the bread-line famished at night.”
The poem “Paris Diary” also draws its inspiration from Marie Bashkirtseff ‑ in this case from her journal, published posthumously ‑ praised by many, including Bernard Shaw ‑ which charted her gifted life from the age of thirteen to her early death in 1884. What does an artist need to work? MacCarthy has Bashkirtseff’s voice ringing true and determined in this poem. “I need but two dark blouses a year, / a change of linen that I could wash myself, / the simplest food fresh from the garden / and the means to work; that is all.”
The Irish artist Sarah Purser and the political activist Maud Gonne also traverse the pages of this collection and several poems like “Digital Archive”, “Inghinidhe na hÉireann” and “Binn Éadair, En Plein Air” are inspired by them. In “Sarah Purser’s Lady with a Monkey, A Portrait,” Gonne at the age of twenty-three is “already in love, / choosing her state, beyond snobbery / and wealth, her priviliges scant defence / against heartbreak.” The political upheaval of that period in Irish history is concisely captured in the violence of the last verse of this poem; “Emergency men / with battering ram, smashing down doors. / Cries of a newborn, locked in her throat.”
MacCarthy depicts other courageous women in this collection, most notably the O’Halloran sisters from Bodyke, Co Clare, who in 1887 fiercely fought against their homestead being threatened with eviction from “baliffs on horses, soldiers and policemen”.
An hour we held fast against them.
As time wore on, loud cheers from
those who climbed the ditch
and stood on boundary fences
The historical female narrative is also convincingly voiced in other poems such as “Land League Cottage”, where Mary Yore, wife of Michael Davitt, the founder of the Irish National Land League, is heard. Her life of sacrifice as a politician’s spouse, her husband’s long absences from her and their children, “his life ransom for our bankrupt country / if late evictions are gridiron to go by” is movingly played out in a three-part sequence. Davitt as a person and his life is also lyrically depicted in the poems “Legacies of Empire” and “Two Portraits, Michael Davitt”.
Throughout Daughters of the House there appears a deceptive simplicity to the poems on offer. The work is pared back, has about it an attractive natural ease, but closer reading also reveals an underlying elegant concision to these thought-provoking poems which stay with you for their attention to their subjects and the power of their imagery. Ultimately, MacCarthy knows that the job of the poet is to persist until the poem is released crafted onto the page, like the trapped bird in her final poem that is pulled dishevelled and stained from a chimney breast, !Then, lifted wings and hopped / onto the window ledge. And flew. A freed white dove.”
Enda Wyley is a poet. Her most recent collection is Borrowed Space, New and Selected Poems. A sixth collection, The Painter on his Bike, is forthcoming from Dedalus Press. She is a member of Aosdána.