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In praise of Medbh McGuckian, by Adrienne Leavy

Celebrating Irish women writers: ‘she challenges stereotypical representations of femininity and interrogates nationalist tropes of Ireland as woman’

Medbh McGuckian: has taken Emily Dickinson’s famous dictum “Tell the truth but tell it slant” to heart, obliquely drawing attention to private female sexuality as a way to question the propriety of the political process, with her poems offering alternatives to both personal and national perspectives.

Since she won the British National Poetry Competition in 1979, the Belfast-born poet Medbh McGuckian has been a unique voice in Irish poetry, producing a distinctive body of work that has drawn sustained critical praise and comparison to the work of Emily Dickinson, John Ashberry and Rainer Maria Rilke among others. Beginning with her first collection, The Flower Master (1982), and most recently with The High Caul Cap (2012), McGuckian uses her experiences as a woman to challenge stereotypical representations of femininity and interrogate nationalist tropes of Ireland as woman.

I n McGuckian’s work, multiple representations of the female body aesthetically address pregnancy and childbirth, motherhood and maternal sex life. Her complex representation of alternative forms of feminine sexuality alternate between dreamlike states and actual domestic and historical perspectives. Very often the boundaries between public and private spheres collapse, and the maternal body is breached, with private themes serving as a commentary on the political discourse of Northern Ireland.

McGuckian has taken Dickinson’s famous dictum “Tell the truth but tell it slant” to heart, obliquely drawing attention to private female sexuality as a way to question the propriety of the political process, with her poems offering alternatives to both personal and national perspectives. As Clair Willis points out, “McGuckian characteristically reads public and political events through the changes occurring in her own body, thereby offering new perspectives on both”.

Much of McGuckian’s work is characterised by sensuously associative imagery juxtaposed with obscure allusions and a deliberate sense of indeterminacy which can present challenges for the reader. Like her fellow Northern Irish poet, Paul Muldoon, her poetry is bound up with pushing the imaginative boundaries of the English language toward new possibilities.

In her most recent collection, The High Caul Cap, McGuckian narrows her focus to a specific feminine subject in a collection of elegies that trace the decline and death of her mother. In typical McGuckian fashion, language and imagery is subject to multiple meaning. For example, the High Caul Cap is both the name of a traditional Irish air, and a symbol for the remaining physical link between mother and child after birth. Long ago, the caul was regarded as a good omen and kept at the hearth as a protection against drowning, and McGuckian plays on this idea through extensive use of water imagery. With this collection of poems McGuckian again demonstrates why she is one of the most interesting Irish poets working in the English language today.

Adrienne Leavy, orginally from Dundalk and now based in Phoenix, Arizona, is curator of Reading Ireland and editor of Reading Ireland: The Little Magazine