Poetry and prose by Martina Evans, Ailbhe Darcy and Paula Meehan
‘Now We Can Talk Openly About Men’, ‘Insistence’, and Ireland Chair lectures
Martina Evans: intervenes strikingly in the literature of Irish history during and after the War of Independence
Martina Evans’s new book, Now We Can Talk Openly About Men (Carcanet, £9.99) intervenes strikingly in the literature of Irish history during and after the War of Independence. Like Feargal Keane’s Wounds, and Cork University Press’s Atlas of the Irish Revolution, Evans is drawn to gaps and silences in the historical record.
Her book dreams up two dramatic monologues for women whose lives were altered by an actual event in Mallow in 1920 (also the subject of an excellent earlier poem, Mallow Burns). Kitty Donavan is a widowed dressmaker working in Mallow, while Babe Cronin is a stenographer working at Dublin Castle. What binds their stories together is Eileen Murphy, a member of Cumann na mBan, who is tortured in Mallow, and run out of town, ending up living in a hotel in Dublin. The women’s professions mean they must negotiate between the different sides at war, and are torn between making business as well as personal and political decisions.
Evans’s ear for speech suits the monologue, and the monologues – talky, jumpy, Gothic – are intensely atmospheric, claustrophobic pieces. Her two speakers’ hesitations, proprieties and sense of danger and surveillance vividly bring to life the repressiveness of the period, the hallucinatory combination of hearsay and atrocity:
The awful lonesome pace & three men
in black masks. Clouds over the moon
as they pulled her to the well on her face
by the waves of her black hair. One of them
stepping right up on her back to cut it off.
Another was stooped over with the razor
still in his hand when she pulled off the mask,
I’ll identify you in court! Eileen rash,
to the last breath
Here, and throughout, Evans catches the nightmarish powerlessness of living close to historical changes.
Ailbhe Darcy’s second collection, Insistence (Bloodaxe, £9.95), opens with Ansel Adams’ Aspens, which reads initially like a treatment for a biopic of the photographer, “helpless in his Biltrite pram [. . .] watching the clouds roll in”. Then, taking a turn away from the cinematic, and towards the interior, Darcy writes, “It’s the mind / beneath he wants to grasp, stowed in its smart black // enclosure”, a phrase that could refer to the pram, the camera and, maybe, the poem, trying to get a handle on its subjects.
Darcy situates our human “enclosures” in a particular ecological context: silverfish, cockroaches, stinkbugs, jellyfish, mushrooms are the subjects of curious, interesting poems. The prism through which she records encounters with these creatures is also her subject, noticing the odd light that words cast on the world (“Mushrooms could grow on a person”, she writes, with unnatural relish). In a terrific poem, Still, she writes with some irony, “some things are unnameable – / or some names are unspeakable – but we / are well capable of words –”.
Insistence includes a remarkable long sequence, Alphabet, which derives its unusual poetic form from the Danish poet Inger Christensen’s alphabetical, accumulating sequence (also named Alphabet). Darcy’s sequence oscillates between doomy prognostication (“dust storms / and dust events; drone deaths and dental dams and / online dating sites and death squads”) and scattered consolations (“apricot trees insist; apricot trees insist”).
Into this world comes the poet’s pregnancy, and the birth and growth of her child, and anxious imaginings of his future, not as a land of plenty but a land of scarcity, so that by section 11
kin insists, kin insists;
your pink cheek tucked up
with mine, not thinking
of solitude or extinction,
of the whale in your book,
not thinking of the pink krill
with intricate eyes; not thinking
of kelp forking over rocks,
their thick holdfasts, fat
kelp picked for iodine
One of the ironies of this anxiety about scarcity is Alphabet’s wonderful momentum, the way that one thing always leads to another in this capable, capacious sequence.
Poets’ prose is a genre unto itself, independent of the larger provinces of the essay, the polemic and the memoir. Seamus Heaney, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Paul Muldoon have previously offered brilliant, sideways reorientations of the poetry canon, and now the most sustained effort yet to develop this genre has emerged in the series The Poet’s Chair: Writings from the Ireland Chair of Poetry. Imaginary Bonnets with Real Bees in Them (UCD Press, €20) collects three lectures by the last incumbent, Paula Meehan.
Meehan’s prose, as is often the case with poets, proceeds as much by association and leap of imagination as by argument. It is an often thrilling book, and no reader will be unilluminated by its insights into the co-ordinates and tensions that shape the making of a poem, and a poet.
Her ideal of the poet as teacher is clear in the way she situates her practice in relation to the workshop environment (“a healing place . . . a wounding place”) where she learned much, and where she herself has taught and inspired other poets. The figures who recur across her lectures – Gary Snyder, Carol Ann Duffy, James McAuley, Eavan Boland – are teachers whose work is praised for its wisdom.
The importance of poetry as wisdom is also evident in Meehan’s reverence for poetry’s unmodern roots. She values, as a creative source, the ancient dimensions of etymology, fortune-telling and the occult, aligning her poetics with her fellow mythophiles Ní Dhomhnill and Robert Graves. Modern ways of knowing the world are valued but as sources: a bioscience paper (“every polar bear alive today has mitochondrial DNA from a single ancient Irish brown bear”) occasions a new poem; “machine memory” reminds her of poetry’s “hunger for memory”.
Meehan illustrates her case that poems uncover a truer, more comprehensive sense of self with telling autobiographical fragments. In inner city Dublin, in eastern Washington State, Leitrim and the islands of Ikaria and Papa Stour, she attends to the relics of memory, the natural world and seasonal time: she knows that poetry can seem “a puny act” but argues that it tunes into a mythical forcefield that, often beneficially, unlocks us from day-to-day perceptions and routines.
At a moment when arguments rage about poetry’s competing responsibilities to a community and to the solitary dream and vision, Meehan reminds us that it is possible to take both sides: proud to have seen the “changed relationship to hierarchical ideas around the canon and who makes it, who shakes it”, she is also clear that “poetry is not sociology, poetry is not history”.
John McAuliffe’s fourth book is The Way In (Gallery, 2015). He teaches poetry at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing