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What Must Be Told

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

As If By Magic: Selected Poems, by Paula Meehan, Dedalus Press, 288 pp, €18, ISBN: 9781910251775

A poem from Paula Meehan’s second collection, Pillow Talk (1994), is called “Autobiography”. Well, in some ways a Selected Poems is like an autobiography; it expresses a sense that the life lived to date, and the work done, have some weight and perhaps some unity. Also, all autobiographies are provisional, and a Selected does not have the terminal stamp of a Collected Poems. There may yet be – one hopes there will be – many surprises in store. But there are differences: the poems included in Paula Meehan’s Selected Poems do not tell the writer’s chronological story. Rather, many of them are revisitings of phases or moments in the poet’s life, from the varying perspectives of later days. They explore those enlightening moments, when new meanings emerge from well-remembered encounters, that may only come when there is a degree of distance, for example when the adult can see what the adults in her own earlier life were about, and divine the depths of their emotions.

The first duty of the artist is to be lucky. To be there like the photographer, on the spot at the right time and with the right equipment to capture what is going on. Paula Meehan’s childhood and youth were matched with a development in Irish society which saw a whole class of working people progress, out of what looks now like near destitution, into very modest comfort as wages, housing and education improved. And she’s there to record it. The progress from the dodgy tenancies to decent houses in Finglas or Artane. An early poem salutes the thrift and industry that enabled some, not all, to survive as families, and to make the transition. Her mother scrubs and polishes in a small flat and “works by fading light / to remake an old dress for me”, observing “Pure lambswool. Plenty of wear in it yet.”

And: “she’d say, ‘One of these days I must / teach you to follow a pattern.’” (“Pattern”)

But the poem’s title is ironic, as the speaker is emphatically not going to follow that pattern; the poem’s mere existence shows it. I am inclined to place “Pattern” beside Seamus Heaney’s “Digging”, which I have never liked, and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s “Muintir m’athar” which I love for its generous celebration of men determinedly working for their families. All of them juxtapose gender and generations, and the changing expectations of society and of parents, but Meehan’s poem has, for thirty years, seemed to me to work as a direct riposte to the masculine appropriation of work as manly toil.

Early poems can record literal memories; in “Ard Fheis” the idea of a nation is framed by moments of schooling, church, or “following my father’s steps / on a rainy Sunday in the National Museum” in the 1991 The Man who was Marked by Winter. “Good Friday 1991”, from Pillow Talk, presents what looks like a plain if disastrous scene: the recovery of a drowned man from the Liffey. The attention to extremity will remain one of Meehan’s features, but here there is also a literary flash; the dead face is “there before me now / white” – not just as snow, but as “the snow of Komarovo”, the cemetery where Anna Akhmatova is buried.

The lineage invoked by that gesture is not only poetic, not even a hybrid of the poetic and the ethical weight of witnessing. It is summed up in the emphasis on the viewers, “the children watching”, but ultimately on the woman, the explicitly female poet who is recalling it. “Autobiography” too, while it is not autobiographical, unless in a parallel universe, shrines enduring themes: women’s connected lives and the contradictions of a female inheritance. A maternal figure “guides me to healing herbs / at meadow edges” while a dark competitor threatens: “Don’t turn / your nose up at me, madam. / You may have need of me yet.”

These voices come from family as it merges into a society, and in turn into a wider world, and as it changes. There are moments when the male relatives are suddenly seen in a new light, as individuals: “My Brother Becomes a Man”, and the lovely “My father Perceived as a Vision of St Francis”. Some later poems look with calm at the details that show how the social matrix may be fractured; an aunt gives birth to nine daughters because her horrible bullying husband is “trying for boys”. The poet as a thirteen-year-old girl registers the chaos and misery of their house, but it is the grown woman who recalls a visit and observes what happened later on; the arrival:

Their house is a wreck when I get there –
windows smashed and boarded up.
Not a stick of furniture: orange crates to sit on
and jam jars for cups. So many children
with her beautiful eyes …

but:

Her daughters grew to womanhood:
they taught their mother barring orders and legal separation …
They taught their mother the new facts of life.

The poet places herself, faced with this reminiscence triggered by a dream, in a paradisal Greek landscape, distance focusing both time and place. She inserts it into a triptych, titled “Troika”, which moves from a surreal, lightly written memory of an eviction in her childhood to this sharp-edged steady contemplation of historical reality, and on to a still bewildering trauma, her mother’s suicide attempt. The sections are subtitled, not to clarify but with a touch of mystery: “How I Discovered Rhyme”, “A Reliable Narrative” and “This is not a Confessional Poem”, and the third opens, once again with the emphasis on distance, and apparently an imperative created, or made visible, by distance:

I write it in the light of ancient Greece
or in the ancient light of this mountain …
I do not know that I’ve the right to say such things.
I only know I must.

I found her in the cold light of Finglas,
my mother curled to a foetal question
in the backyard …

This poet’s special quality includes her ability to write about people left behind or shooed off to the margins. It goes well beyond her choice of subjects – indeed many of the poems are on lighter personal themes: loves, friendships, an enjoyable rackety youth; or on the natural world, or views in Greece; the range is quite broad. Freedom to choose goes with her achieved perspectives; the subtitle that denies the “confessional” also smartly refuses the company of poets whose capital is other people’s trauma. And if there is a degree of calm maturity in her recall, there is also the eruption of feeling, and warnings of an uncooled anger.

If I dwell on the dark subjects of certain poems, it is because this is where she is, most intensely, directing me to look. The integrity of these poems includes their Akhmatovan commitment to record, but also their language, which fuses the colloquial with the allusive. The voice is thoroughly her own, the product of reflection and reading that have not lost touch with a female vernacular. It speaks out of a resolution to be direct – and to emphasise, often, the phrase or place familiar to an Irish reader (in the poem quoted above, “the night that was in it” is repeated), and it belongs inextricably with her subject matter. This is what language is for, telling the truth in a context of clarity and refinement, and this language belongs in poetry. The confidence in her voice results from a promise kept: to tell the things she must, to the people who know they must hear them.

There is a sense of effort, a determined claim to use the full range of poetic communication. I often feel that her occasional choice of recognisably traditional forms is something she grapples with, part of a process of assertion. In part, it’s a statement that each poem is a new departure and needs to be constructed on a special foundation. There is energy in her appropriations. The villanelle pattern of “Quitting the Bars” may be chosen because it reflects the repetitive patterns of addiction and recovery, but that poem also belongs with much simpler ones, like “Literacy Class, South Inner City”, and underlines her sense that the skills of language, and reading and writing, are not a given, but a goal achieved by determination and sometimes against odds. It’s not always a struggle: formally, her sonnets, or sonnet-shaped poems, can be relaxed and successful, as in “Suburb”; and other forms too can liberate her. Their range of shapes demonstrate poetry’s capacity, and responsibility, to speak, in whatever form, to and about people, and where they find themselves.

As is best illustrated by the latest collection included here, the whole of Geomantic. It is a series of nine-line poems in (mostly) nine-syllable lines, and it displays how such a tight grid can be used to achieve a variety of effects, harsh or romantic, tragic or factual. Poems are laid out to look like scraps, or they sit quietly signalling composure. “The Black Kite” has a delicate balance; its title turns out to be part of the poem:

The Black Kite
the children fly over Burrow Beach
this August morning

– (like the black sails
Aegeus saw bearing on Athens
portending grief and the fall of his house,
or like Victorian widows’ weeds,
an incongruity of black bows) –

which by a sudden squall is taken
struggling out to sea. When it falls
and falls, it falls far beyond our reach.

These small poems are not closed or epigrammatic, they are complete; while they seem to tread water while she hatches a new plan, they fill the reader with curiosity as to where she will head next. As she writes now, she is showing us the world she has discovered – because she must, but also because, over such a wide terrain, in so many accents and shapes, she can.

1/12/2020

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's Collected Poems was published Autumn 2020  by Gallery Press

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