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Down among the Greeks

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

Gaudent Angeli, by Mary O’Malley, Carcanet, 96 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 9781784107956

We return to the charge. Or, subjects that had it seemed been made to give up their vital juice, to have been pinned down as the material for poems, are observed to be twitching where they lie, the hangover dispelling; they stagger to their feet and once again demand attention. Any poet’s career is likely to involve the discovery (willed or not) of new themes, but the old ones tend to hang on, never finally dealt with.

This is partly the consequence of the poetic culture. We inherit too much in literary terms, and it is too various, bears the signs of much handling before our fingers get near it. I don’t expect the engineer finds herself downstairs at three in the morning trying to re-draw her diagrams which looked quite satisfactory at three in the afternoon. For the poet, the shifting about of allusion and reminiscence seems never to finish, and the places one has visited in the past can suddenly reappear with all their allure but from a new perspective.

Even those subjects that have been mauled only by ourselves still keep resurfacing. It seems that since so much of what we can be said to know belongs in the past – our own, our culture’s, the world’s – the refusal to stay in the past belongs to all of them. Mary O’Malley’s new collection, Gaudent Angeli, includes versions of undead themes from her own work, and others’. A subject I’ve never seen treated elsewhere belongs to her West of Ireland inheritance: the normality of bloody fights between young men at dances, and the effect on the young women. It appeared in Asylum Road (2001): “an arc just like a reaping-hook and deep / opens across a dancer’s cheek” (“Violation”) where the women respond with “fear / and excitement” but end with “their giggling dreams in rags around their breasts”. In the new book “Women / screamed, one fainted in the direction / of the knifeman. Up on their tricks / the lads ignored them …” (“Once”). We cope with the personal perceptions; they seem unique, while our strategies for dealing with them do not stay valid, we have to return and try again. In the new version, the men’s dismissal of the women’s reaction is important. The moment has again become part of poetry but has also acquired another dimension.

So, a kind of broadening continuity emerges. Certain forebears, notably Anna Akhmatova (whose poem “Forgive me, that I manage badly” was the starting-point for a much more domesticated poem in The Knife in the Wave [1997]), continued to be invoked; even a cat called Fa Fa reappears as a memory. However for the poet the personal detail and allegiance is not the problem: the largest but also the most trampled-over bundle of wrack is the one that other poets have had their way with, the body of myth and legend that has contaminated European thought. Not just Greek of course, O’Malley is very close to the sources of native folklore, and in the West this is also often the folklore of the sea, particularly visible in her earlier books. Literary legends as well: there are four Sweeney poems – the last a telling, bleak look at a turning-point in a child’s life – but just what is gained by this cameo being attached to the Sweeney legend escapes me. Just as I’m somewhat fazed by the poem “soul sister” addressed to a modernised Psyche: is it enough to use a name as a hook, does that make the myth a functioning element in the poem?

On one level the lure of the mythical just tells us about the way that time and memory work across a writing lifetime. We size up the pieces in the furniture store imagining how they might look in a new context, or we rearrange them tentatively, watching for the moment when they regroup themselves into something that’s charged with meaning. Does that meaning come from the fact that we’ve been at the same point before, but unable to get beyond it? That pushing beyond happens triumphantly in the central sequence, which gets a section of the book to itself, on the mourning Demeter’s search for her daughter Persephone kidnapped by the god of the underworld.

Back in 2001, in Asylum Road, there’s a mysterious poem, “Ceres in Caherlistrane”, where an Irish singer in New York contemplates the subway:

She thinks all the buskers of New York are down
here tonight like cats. She hears them – a keen,
a skein of blues …

the idea of an underworld is totally colonised by the history of New York itself, with an allusion to the fiction of Colum McCann (that poem is dedicated to him). Ceres was the Latin name of the corn-goddess Demeter; room is not found in the New York poem for the figure of the mourning mother, beyond the title. Now finally she gets a whole sequence to herself. The verse is graceful, almost muted:

My morning star is down
and won’t show herself.
She is buried underground
where no signals reach her.

In fourteen short poems there is room to let the myth display its many meanings, cosmic and personal, and also to align its archaic dimensions to a family life lived, in Galway, in our time. One poem seems to confront the question of whether one has a right to re-use old material:

I went down among the Greeks, reluctantly
not trusting in cheap plunder but there is
no more time …

another ends “I will stand there until the dark breaks open.”

Yeats wrote “I have no speech but symbol, the pagan speech I made …” – apparently poets feel they must apologise for using this material, which like language itself begs to be understood, cuts corners, demands that we see its inadequacies as well as its powers. O’Malley has plenty of ambiguity about the traditional and the sacred – “dreaming of druids and ruins” but also is impatient with the shallow secularisation of the contemporary. This isn’t her best vein; her satire is sharpest when most oblique, as when she adapts Yehuda Amichai’s “Mayor” to a city near us.

The title and cover of Gaudent Angeli make me uneasy – the source of the title appears to be the hymn “Assumpta est Maria” for the feast of the Assumption, but in any case the angels on the cover (from the Scrovegni chapel in Padua) are not rejoicing but lamenting over the dead Christ. The poem that contains the phrase, on the other hand, is fine. The celestial bodies here are the oranges “circling / in their own solar system, orbiting the kitchen … kept there by love’s uplifting force …” as a child watches the domestic upheaval of marmalade-making.

Thus, throughout the book, unselfconscious references to a First Communion, a birthday, continue the suggestion of a recognisably Irish calendar where seasons, generations, routine festivals, interweave, and time tolerates these interlocking layers of the traditional and brand-new. The effect of it all – the unaffectedly domestic background of so much in this collection, the felt presence of family, the odd catchphrase in Irish – is to validate her parallel between the domestic and the national; as she says in “Grand National”, “this is the nation’s story, not theirs”. However I can’t end without saluting a few of those brief poems that are tightly focused on an individual figure mysteriously encountered: “Duel”, “Song I”, “A Chain” ‑ I hope correcting any sense that this is merely a book of old themes revisited. It is much more than that.

1/12/2019

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is a poet

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