Poetry reviews: new collections by Cathal McCabe and Maram Al-Masri

Different aims are evident in a belated debut and a Syrian poet’s ‘procession of voices’

Cathal McCabe. Photograph: Ian Oliver

Cathal McCabe. Photograph: Ian Oliver


It takes a certain kind of career to subtitle a first collection “Selected Poems”, and perhaps Cathal McCabe’s Outer Space: Selected Poems (Metre Editions, €12) merits the subtitle. As far back as 1997 he featured in the British Council’s New Writing anthology and in 2004 he was one of Selina Guinness’s New Irish Poets in her Bloodaxe anthology of that name. McCabe completed a PhD on Derek Mahon’s work, then worked as a lecturer in Lódz, before taking up a British Council post in Warsaw, all the time publishing poems in anthologies, newspapers (including this one), and journals such as the New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement and the little magazine Metre (whose editors have now established Metre Editions to publish this book).

McCabe has, in other words, been around. And if the book’s “Selected Poems” subtitle seems pushy, the main title of Outer Space does justice to McCabe’s poems’ appetite for marginal locations and extremities (in Poland, on the Baltic, and at Cranfield Point, the southernmost point of Co Down and Northern Ireland), one reason, perhaps, why his work has appealed to editors on the lookout for new voices.

To draw on more than 25 years of writing could expose poems as being at the mercy of particular historical moments, and political or stylistic fads, but McCabe’s work is unusually suited to the longer view. He consistently frames his material in regular stanzas and rhythms, and the book’s sense of continuity is also emphasised by the poems’ cousinly revisitings of one another’s scenes. The Coastguard’s Cottage conjures up an empty room at Cranfield Point:

They must also have read:
on the high empty shelf, a great silver A
with (bottom right) a matching Z;
they left the heavy bookends
when they packed the books away.

Re-inhabiting the same south Co Down scene in The Beach House, Cranfield Point, McCabe sets aside his regular stanza, but even as his line varies from long to short, the tone is still familiar, and tricky rhyming cements the lines’ relation with one another:

This is where you could end your days
the brochure
and boasts
how house and shore
enjoy unrivalled privacy
and breathtaking views of the sea
(with a stalled tanker
and little boats
bobbing at anchor).

The image of a house by the sea recurs and is emblematic of the surprising continuity of McCabe’s themes and scenes. Cherishing private securities in remembered or imagined homes, the book repeatedly sets its structures on crumbling coasts with threatening seas. The outer space of its title appears in a response to Edvard Munch’s Meeting in Outer Space, where intimacy, typically, gives way to disintegration:

(No way of touching or linking up,
even . . .)
Is this a dream, or is it the bliss
they told us was Heaven,
left without mouths, with which we
could kiss.

The same existential fears recur in a similarly titled later poem, Outer Space: “They have locked the little door: / a special lock and seal. / No mirror (as I knew) for fear I see my face.” The suggestive adjectives are as menacing as similar cinematic treatments in Tarkovsky’s Solaris or Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.

McCabe’s poems convince most in these confined spaces, and the editors of this impressive and belated debut might have followed his lead and pruned some of the satirical and affectionate squibs and concrete poems which extend its length to 143 pages. McCabe’s style is its own distinct instrument: wondering, dandyish and occasionally stiff-limbed, it does not equally lend itself to all of its subjects. Its frequent italicisations, exclamation marks, self-conscious, if friendly, addresses and bracketed asides are most striking when his material is so bleak and unsentimental that those effects take on dramatic and ironic power.

An entirely different aesthetic is evident in Maram Al-Masri’s Barefoot Souls (Arc, €12.85). A Syrian poet who, like her better-known compatriot Adonis, has long been resident in Paris, Al-Masri writes in both Arabic and French and is known to Irish readers, having read at several festivals over the past decade, including Cúirt, the Dublin Writers’ Festival, Mountains to Sea and Cork’s Spring Poetry Festival.

Her new book, translated by Theo Dorgan, documents the lives of mostly French women and children whose confinement is made plainly and plaintively clear: “Why does my father / beat my mother?” asks one poem, Sara, and its answer conjures up a chain reaction extending far into the future: “She does not know / how to iron shirts properly. // Me, when I’m grown up / I will iron the shirts / very well.” Georgette is “halted at the crossroads of life”: “ [S]he did not know when she said ‘yes’ / that twenty years later she would say ‘no’.” Francoise imagines the post-divorce division of possessions: “This chair / is for me. / I carried it on foot from the shop / to the house.”

Al-Masri’s procession of voices is both relentless and catholic in its make-up. Refusing to speak only of a particular Arabic experience, they seek to establish a more universal sense of the ways in which her speakers, women of all ages and their children, are entrapped, and she mixes together native French and girls and women from many ethnic and immigrant backgrounds, drawing readers’ attention to what Veil calls “thousands of walls, / a thousand darknesses”.

It is a compelling project, although her understandably universalising approach to this chorus of voices can resemble the radio phone-in that tends to flatten out its speakers’ experiences. But if Al-Masri’s material is more commonly written about in ballads and folktales (and even short fiction) than poetry, her book is clear about the importance of its subject: her poems insist on bareness of style to communicate the starkness of their scenes.

John McAuliffe’s fourth book, The Way In (Gallery), was published last year

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