Mute/Unmute, by Geraldine Mitchell, Arlen House, 88 pp, €13, ISBN: 978-1851322466
The title of Geraldine Mitchell’s new poetry collection, Mute/Unmute, echoes the Covid-19 crisis, suggesting return and renewal while invoking narratives related in her previous collection, Mountains for Breakfast, where she used portentous and often ambiguous imagery to speak of infirmity, silence, loss and grief. She now speaks more directly, sure in her power to connect with readers and confident in their ability to parse her words, using a more concrete language as the tenor of her verse shifts decisively towards clarity and urgency of communication. She no longer maintains a prudent distance from readers, more candidly focusing on areas where lucid communication is still possible despite the limitations of language. Having explored the fickleness of language in her previous book, Mitchell now makes use of a stripped-down language to map out more direct routes to achieving a felicitous understanding with her readers. At the same time, she scrupulously avoids recurring to prosaic language that might read like a courtroom transcript or a political tract, relying on her aesthetic sensibility to unveil poetic features of the language she uses while allowing it to suggest possibilities understandable from various points of view.
Several poems at the beginning of this volume explore the nature of truth and our knowledge of it. Mitchell’s focus on this perennial concern precisely now is not accidental. In response to the existential threats our world faces, these verses compel readers to consider the weight of the chain of human inquiry, encouraging us to avoid demoralisation that may be induced by overexposure to a scary number of dodgy propositions currently floating around in the media, such as the dangerous notion that living in what is sometimes called a “post-truth” society makes any appeal to reason an unprofitable venture.
If I could keep only a single poem from this collection, it might be the untitled verses that grace its back cover, serving as a preface to the volume. Here, framing a naturalist viewpoint in a pastoral mood, Mitchell outlines a few zones of unclarity we might encounter in the search for useful truths when the struggle for human persistence collides with the epistemological challenges of language and perception:
truth from lies
the wood from the trees
the colour of cats in the dark
a speckled thrush in a moonlit bush
Sustaining the evocative tone of the poem, composed in a precise diamond shape, Mitchell counsels readers on negotiating the murky waters of human communication in times of hardship and confusion:
(…) know how to pitch your voice
– not too high, not too low – until the truth, as you see it, flows
straight from the heart, tempers the fear that you feel now that
the floorboards have rotted, the rug is pulled from under your feet
In “Test”, the poem that opens this volume, Mitchell uses plain-spoken, emphatic language to develop a motif relating our knowledge of truth to the age-old history of observation of the natural world as a means of seeking answers to existential questions:
Tell me what you know about the Dandelion.
Tell me what you know about the Bee.
Tell me what you know about the Sun, Moon and Stars
and the Sea’s tassled Blanket, the Fish that
swim through it, its Weave.
She ends the poem by underscoring her point with a single line forming an eloquent five-word stanza: “Tell me what you know.”
Mitchell has distilled contemplation into action, resisting despair through the very act of writing about her concern, using the clearest language she is able to muster. She appeals to the mental discipline of observation of the natural world, a root of our present-day science that runs still deeper than the more recent concern with observation of ourselves. Perversely, after eloquently winning us anew to the ancient cause of the pursuit of truth, Mitchell proceeds to elaborate on some of the limitations of language and other obstacles truth-seekers are likely to find impeding their path to greater enlightenment and improved human understanding.
Much of the attention Mute/Unmute has received since its recent launch has centred on the theme of darkness. Mitchell highlights this motif, using an apocalyptic biblical reference to create the title of the volume’s opening and closing sections, “Pour Out the Dark”. This theme can be viewed from several angles since its interpretation so much depends on each reader’s disposition. Perhaps that is why I find myself nudged towards the glass-half-full camp, encouraged by Mitchell’s exhortations to avoid becoming a passive observer of an apocalyptic catastrophe.
The opening and closing sections of this collection bracket an interlude entitled “Such Silence She Fell Into”. Here the poet recounts what she knows and doesn’t know about the life and death of her namesake, her great-aunt, Geraldine Kirby, who was born in 1882, lost her mother at birth, and died in 1930, apparently as a result of placing her head into a gas oven. Subsequently, she was almost never mentioned within her family, as if she had never existed. Mitchell makes use of poetry’s concise form and suggestive power to succinctly weave a portrayal based on the few known facts and the poet’s imagination. This interlude comprises a single multi-part poem composed as a unified text, having no titles marking its subsections. One of the parts begins thus:
because wind, because rain
because skin over bone
because night warns
And it concludes as follows:
because graveyards so full
because with us forever
because we will not forget
because human bridge
Here, while stealthily undermining broadly accepted notions of causality and factuality, Mitchell touches on several themes that run through the middle section of Mute/Unmute, most importantly, the relationship between historic memory and justice. To develop these themes, she uses extended forms explored in her previous collection. She now superimposes her story on her great-aunt’s while she expounds her thesis: since the injustice of silence perpetuates itself through the ages, it exerts a diffuse but concrete impact on the present.
Mitchell’s timely exploration of this notion reflects demands of groups like Black Lives Matter. In Spain, the human rights organisation Innovation & Human Rights, also known as ihr.world, facilitates public access to archival data on Civil War victims of repression and reprisal on both sides of the conflict, while in Ireland an embarrassingly large number of collectives, such as Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon, are raising the banner of historic justice.
Victims of silence and historic injustice may be ethnic groups, women, or simply individuals. In any case, since the notion of justice is indivisible, we benefit whenever a modicum of justice has been restored. Again Mitchell turns from contemplation to action, meting out a small portion of overdue poetic justice on behalf of her great-aunt. While the circumstances affecting Geraldine Kirby’s life and death remain opaque, Mitchell relates the details of her life as a sort of detective story, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions from the scant evidence available.
In a recent Guardian article, President Higgins observed: “Only by remembering complex, uncomfortable aspects of Britain and Ireland’s shared history can we forge a better future. (…) Class, gender, religion, democracy, language, culture and violence (…) were intertwined with British imperialist rule in Ireland.” He argues for “acknowledging that different, informed perspectives on the same events can and do exist”, concluding that “acceptance of this fact can release us from the pressure of finding, or subscribing to, a singular unifying narrative of the past.”
In the poem “What’s in a Name?” Mitchell again takes up the motif of the logical traps inherent in language as she focuses on the error of confusing the symbols of language with the underlying realities they purport to represent.
So they left, mistaking
the word for the thing.
Literal as obedience
Eve opened a gate
that was no more than a word.
Adam locked it behind them.
In the final section of Mute/Unmute, Mitchell elaborates more concretely on themes explored in the opening part and includes a few recently published poems. “Making a Fist” commemorates Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who dared wage a battle for truth while opposing an ultra-conservative, repressive regime supported by Western nations. Mitchell’s interest in the circumstances of his death calls attention to the need to distinguish between citizens of oppressive regimes and their rulers.
In creating this new collection, Mitchell relied heavily on themes developed in her previously published verse. This new volume should add value to her earlier work, which is so clearly thematically intertwined with her more recent verse. By her own admission, Mitchell’s four published collections have in part sprung from insights gleaned from a lifetime of covert observation and independently considered reflection, beginning at a very early age when she spied on adults, refusing to take their statements about the world at face value. Mute/Unmute, like each of Mitchell’s collections, is a carefully produced aesthetic object featuring artwork that reflects her keen interest in the visual arts, along with cover text and end matter chosen with equal care. Mute/Unmute is the work of a poet in a state of grace at the height of her powers.
Dick Edelstein contributes essays, reviews and articles to journals and websites in Ireland and the United Kingdom.