Now We Can Talk Openly About Men, by Martina Evans, Carcanet, 88 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1784105785
Now We Can Talk Openly About Men is divided into two dramatic monologues featuring the voices of two very different Irish women living in the 1920s, recalling the passion, vertigo and terror of the War of Independence and the Civil War. From the first page it demands we pull up a chair and listen to every word these two women say. Drop the notion of fictional characters, drop the notion of a reader and drop the notion of objective history. Get comfortable because you won’t be getting up again until these two women have their say. Lean in, in case you miss a word.
Although there are only two narrative voices the stories are peopled with a range of fascinating characters that flesh out the personal dramas as they unfold. Mrs Katie Donovan and Miss Babe Cronin never meet but the character of Eileen Murphy, Mrs Donovan’s adopted niece, member of Cumann na mBan, plays a pivotal role in bridging their personal stories while her own dramatic and tragic story, as told by the two women, spans both the War of Independence and the Civil War.
The collection opens in 1919 in Cork with Mrs Katie Donovan: seamstress, mother to Flora, widow to Himself (a man who, though dead for twelve years, hilariously appears to keep surfacing). Fast-talking and opinionated, her seamstress eye for detail, colour and form bring every scene she describes to life:
getting frozen in the draft before the curfew
standing on top of my green painting chair,
pinning the vermillion blankets over
the window for the black-out with Scissors
Number 1 in my hand for protection.
What Evans does brilliantly through the voice of Katie Donovan is address the subject of violence: the overarching violence of the War of Independence, the violence of everyday living, and the blurred lines between. Described almost casually using matter-of-fact language, the violence resonates on a visceral level with the reader.
Well, that’s the youth,
I said, walking away with my messages.
John Lucy’s lamb chops were dripping blood out
of my basket
Another was stooped over with the razor
still in his hand when she pulled off the mask,
I’ll identify you in court! Eileen, rash,
to the last breath & he only grabbed the hand
that pulled the mask, cut it in two between the two middle fingers up to the wrist.
The second section, set in Dublin in 1924, introduces us to Miss Babe Cronin: stenographer, spinster, hopeless romantic, whose unrequited love for Eileen Murphy drives her to play an unwilling and dangerous part in the Civil War. Caught between bitterness and loneliness, she snaps at us in staccato sentences, her voice and tone softening only when she speaks of Eileen: “I held her hand. Sure what else could I do? / Smooth as silk along the scar, the rest as / rough as Marcel’s tongue.”
In the beginning Miss Cronin has nothing but contempt for the revolutionaries, but slowly, as she becomes more and more enamoured of Eileen, she finds herself involved. Her change of mind is articulated through her regard for the Irish language: “I had no interest in that language. / I thought it was only a racket”; “But when I came back & she was missing, / I nearly went to Irish classes myself”; “& like an eoinseach I went down the stairs with Donnacha”.
One of the many strengths of this superb collection is its ability to say so much about a subject without appearing to mention it at all. The hint is in the title. Throughout the two dramatic monologues we get snippets of information about particular men like Captain Galway, Mr Bloom, Himself, Father Daly or Donnacha; or groups of men like the Tans, the 17th Lancers or the Shinners. There’s no talk of men’s honour or bravery or the glory in war. Instead, through the eyes of two women, men are depicted as a lethal combination of dangerous and foolish, deserving nothing but their ridicule and contempt. A harsh but compelling viewpoint. “Eileen mentioned Men of Action. Action! / says Mrs Hayes. The same fellas would knock / you in the rush to get under the table / if they heard a shot two miles away.”
Evans manages in this collection, like a great filmmaker or novelist, to gift the audience (and I use the word “audience” deliberately) with immersion into a world so real and complete we have to reluctantly drag ourselves back to our fictional lives.
Anne Tannam is the author of two poetry collections: Take This Life (WordOnTheStreet 2011) and Tides Shifting Across My Sitting Room Floor (Salmon Poetry 2017), and is co-founder and co-facilitator of the weekly Dublin Writers’ Forum.