Little Witness, by Connie Roberts and Blaris Moor, by Medbh McGuckian

Poets who bear unflinching witness to intricacies of violence, both private and public

Connie Roberts’s poems  speak about things we would rather not address, in particular her experience of violence at the hands of her father

Connie Roberts’s poems speak about things we would rather not address, in particular her experience of violence at the hands of her father

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Connie Roberts won the Listowel Writers’ Week Poetry Collection Award in 2013 and received an Arts Council bursary for the work which is gathered in Little Witness (Arlen House, €13).

Founded on Roberts’s ability to make poems out of harrowing autobiographical material, the book speaks up about things we would rather not address, in particular her experience of violence at the hands of her father. More suggestively, the poems look at how male rage is socially permitted.

“Did our neighbours know we sneaked/ into their barn at night?” asks one poem, a sort of dark nativity.

“That our eyes

penetrated the God-forsaken fields

and saw his murderous rage?

That in the stillness we could still

hear the borrowed dishes crashing

to the flagstone floor?”

(On Looking into the Sunday Press Photo of Convent Children Looking into a Stable)

Alongside affectingly matter-of-fact scenes of abusive violence, Roberts places poems like Vignette in which the father cycles to church, as witnessed by two farmers: “Isn’t he a great fellow/ the way he goes to mass every morning?’ says one/ to the other. ‘Well, Seamus,’ says the other back,/ if he was to ate 50 pounds of the marble altar/ beyond in that church, he’s still going to hell!’”

There is tenderness, too, in poems which remember kindnesses the child fastens onto: one “housefather” comforts the child who wakes from “a nightmare/ – my drunken father chasing me through a hedge maze – / [he] hugged me. Like a rhesus monkey I clung/ to him, nuzzling his warm terrycloth frame” (Rhesus), and there is a nun of whom she can write, “Because of her,/ girls in golden and charcoal ringlets, dresses blanched,/ will glide down the aisle in their communion plumage” (For the Love of God).

But such tiny gestures are pinpoints of light in a world in which children and powerless women could not fend off violent men by themselves and were rarely aided. In Banister, an elegy which remembers the campaigning journalist Mary Raftery, Roberts carefully sets two images side-by-side. First we meet “a smiling father/ who waits with open arms// at the bottom of the stairs/ to catch, to catch, to catch her”.

But good fathers do not materialise often here, so Roberts presents another way for the child to descend into the world, via the work of “a woman/ solid as a granite banister,// with the nerve to change a nation.”

* In reaction to critical misreading of her work, Medbh McGuckian famously quoted Pablo Picasso in her 1994 collection Captain Lavender, “I have not painted the war . . . but I have no doubt that the war is in . . . these paintings I have done.” McGuckian continues to draw on history in unique and elusive ways, and her new book takes as its starting point the court martial and execution of four United Irishmen in 1797, an event remembered in the ballad from which Blaris Moor (Gallery, €11.95 pb, €18.50 hb) takes its title.

McGuckian’s preferred form is a kind of cut-up monologue, a historical echo chamber, generating voices from the nouns and adjectives her poems piece together, never shying away from historical agonies to which her poems bear witness.

In The Contents of the Cupboard, a whole world comes into view:

“When she goes to the Paragon

someone stands treat you know.

Her splendid salary of four shillings

is subject to deduction in the shape

of fines – a fine of threepence

if her feet are dirty, or the ground

under the bench is left untidy.”

The poem ends with an inventory, “Top shelf – a bundle of old papers,/ more tins, bottles, jars and pots,/ an old black shawl rolled up,/ an old black sailor hat standing/ on its side, with hatpins in it,/ a broken birdcage, a saucepan with a hole/ in it, stuffed out of the way.”

Resonant and unsettling, the poem is typical of her more recent work. Typical too is the fact that it quotes extensively, without acknowledgement (as with most of her quotation), from essays on slum life by two journalists, Florence Petty and Annie Besant.

McGuckian is open about her use of found text, which has become a central topic for source-hunting, academic readers. Among other impressive poems, many on the subject of war, some take their bearing from Karol Lanckoronska’s account of her time in Ravensbrück concentration camp: Skirt of a Thousand Triangles seems to reflect on the partial nature of her appropriations from other texts, “I could only count the shots,/ not the unravelled scarves.”

McGuckian’s work is hermetic, but her distinctive and angular patchwork remains one of the most distinctive styles generated by an Irish writer in recent decades. Note for Blind Therapists quotes Brodsky’s essay on Auden (“To please a shadow”) and an early Beckett poem, while offering a guide to her process:

“I bescribble and I blacken paper

with my smooth domesticated tissue

of images desiring to please a shadow,

to saddle with meanings the trauma of war

by an occasion of wordshed.”

And McGuckian’s take on Belfast in Who is your City? is as direct as anyone could wish, even if its vision of life after trauma is as unconsoling as her war poems:

“Arrival city – where disaster zones have become

more theatrical, ambitious parks obsessed

with self-esteem are honeycombed

with missions and endeavours and offers

of salvation as an incandescent life force.

Gone is the edginess of the city, cleansed

of conflict, argument, debate, protest, ructions

and ribaldry [ . . . ]

We still show

our papers to reveal where we are going.”

John McAuliffe’s fourth book is The Way In (Gallery). He teaches poetry at the University of Manchester

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