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Poetry

Shelmalier
Medbh McGuckian
Wake Forest, $17.95 (cloth), $11.95 (paper)

The Alexandrine Plan
Ciaran Carson
Wake Forest, $12.95 (paper)

The Twelfth of Never
Ciaran Carson
Wake Forest, $16.95 (cloth), $10.95 (paper)


by Thomas O'Grady

AT TIMES, the work of contemporary Northern Irish poet Medbh McGuckian seems to testify directly to a principle of poetry articulated by W. B. Yeats in "The Song of the Happy Shepherd," the opening poem in his Collected Poems: "Of all the many changing things," Yeats wrote in 1885, "Words alone are certain good." Both by reputation and in actuality, McGuckian is a difficult poet to come to terms with. Invariably, her poems are evocative and provocative "verbal contraptions," engaging the reader in a densely textured world of words-of unexpected image piled upon unexpected image and of singular thought conjoined with singular thought, all with decidedly marked effect. The third stanza of "The Sofa in the Window with the Trees Outside" typifies McGuckian's poetic strategy:

The dead among the spices of words
brush their eyes over me, as if
all my limbs were separate.
They are pearls that have got
into my clothes, they stir about
briskly with a form of tenderness
like a bird on its nest. I may
glide into them before they become set.

Compounding ambiguous pronoun reference with a curious mixture of elusive metaphors, McGuckian produces a lyrical concoction which seems intentionally evasive of ultimate "meaning." In this case it may not be quite so, as this poem is one of many in her latest book, Shelmalier, in which she registers both the desire for and the difficulty of recuperating a lost essence. In a sense, this poem's uncertainties are mimetic of the enterprise of recuperation.

Specifically, as McGuckian explains in an introductory note to the book, Shelmalier attempts to recover some notion of the spirit which prevailed in the blood-drenched Irish summer of 1798, the true seedtime of modern Irish militant nationalism; apparently the name of both a barony in Wexford and of a seabird-hunting tribe from that county (the principal site of Irish insurrection and British massacre in that fateful year), the word "Shelmalier" represents for McGuckian "an integrity I had never learned to be proud of." As she expresses this sentiment in "Dream in a Train," "Some part of my pine-wooded / mind sleeping or dead / was a tightened-up light / I was sheltering for years." Thus the poems in this volume orbit around a newfound thematic center for a Northern Irish poet who, until her book Captain Lavender (1994), had cultivated a pronounced disinterest in the political dimensions of her native province.

Even here, though, her interest lies not so much with the legacy of violence persisting two centuries after that season of rebellion and retribution which resulted in upwards of 30,000 deaths, but with her own attempt not just to revisit but to inhabit, through the transporting power of language, the place and the time inhabited by her idealized Shelmalier: "I court his speech, not him." "Mantilla," the penultimate poem of the volume, seems to record her overall intention:

My resurrective verses shed people
and reinforced each summer.
I saw their time as my own time,
I said, this day will penetrate
those other days, using a thorn
to remove a thorn in the harness
of my mind where anyone's touch
stemmed my dreams.

Yet, notwithstanding the real capacity of language to extract other thorny constructs-political, social, and economic as well as linguistic-from the wound of history, McGuckian's emphasis throughout this book seems more facilely elliptical ("Between meaning and meaning, matching words") than daringly analytical. Granted, in "The Society of the Bomb" she does glance at how "Before violence was actually offered / to us, we followed a trail of words / into the daylight"; but the full potency of words-in particular, the rhetoric of violence in Ireland, the true "trail of words" which remains as much a legacy of 1798 as violence itself-never emerges from what Yeats might term the "melodious guile" of McGuckian's verse. Words alone are indeed certain good, but as Yeats implies in the complementary lines of "The Sad Shepherd," their self-delighting, self-deceiving allure must find its counterbalance in the weight of the world.

From the evidence of his two latest books, Ciaran Carson, another Northern Irish poet, certainly has taken the measure of the worth of words. Freshened by at least a whiff of the "tourdeforcity" that Irish novelist Flann O'Brien detected in James Joyce, the companion volumes The Alexandrine Plan and The Twelfth of Never are composed of 34 and 77 sonnets respectively-each sonnet employing faithfully the six-foot twelve-syllable "alexandrine" line associated with French verse. In the first instance, this metrical decision has a self-evident logic as all of the poems in The Alexandrine Plan are facing-page translations from French sonneteers Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé. In a note at the back of the book, Carson acknowledges modestly that his "versions" are based on standard English translations of the originals; yet a reader with even a smattering of French might appreciate how thoroughly Carson both translates-that is, carries across-and then transplants in an altogether different soil and climate the richness of those originals. Transferring the Belgian city of "Charleroi" to "Kingstown" (the former name for Dun Laoghaire in south County Dublin) and rendering "Depuis huit jours" in idiomatic Hiberno-English, the first stanza of the first poem in the book, Rimbaud's "Au Cabaret-Vert," establishes Carson's distinctive angle and accent for the volume as a whole:

I'd ripped my boots to pieces on pebbly roads
Since Monday was a week. I walked into
 Kingstown.
Found myself in the old Green Bar. I ordered loads
Of cool ham, bread and butter. It was nearly
 sundown.

Clearly, Carson exercises great poetic license in his reworking of his French models. Just as clearly, he takes unabashed pleasure in his undertaking: "At the Sign of the Swan," for example, closing with the phrase "a Swan, or sign," both nods and winks toward the homonymic single word "Cygne" which concludes a poem by Mallarmé. Remarkably, however, the Irish mist which falls lightly throughout this book never seems to dampen the spirit of the original sonnets; in fact, as exemplified by the Swiftian endowments added to Baudelaire's "La Géante" in "The Maid of Brobdingnag," it may occasionally enhance them noticeably.

 

IN LIGHT OF The Twelfth of Never, Carson's sonnet sequence published simultaneously with The Alexandrine Plan, his adaptation of Mallarmé's "Le Sonneur"-a title conventionally translatable as "The Bell-Ringer" but translated by Carson as "The Sonneteer"-takes on additional resonance: "one of these fine days, abandoning all hope, / I'll hang myself, O Satan, with the self-same rope." Indeed, dazzlingly allusive from start to finish, the 77 poems (perhaps mock-modestly, half of Shakespeare's famous output) in the sequence reveal how Carson himself "dangle[s] on / An anxious tangled cable, while my entourage / Of sins flit round me in their gaudy camouflage." They also reveal Carson as a poet not just of rapier wit but also of razor-sharp subtlety, part of which relates to his ongoing adherence to the alexandrine line. Arguably, Carson's willful variation here on the conventional iambic pentameter line of the sonnet may be one more of many instances of an Irish writer not only appropriating but also subverting a form associated so immediately with Wyatt and Surrey, Spenser and Shakespeare, Milton and Donne, Wordsworth and Keats: in short, with the British poetic tradition. But Carson's alexandrines have other telling effects as well. One is that in deferring the line ending for another two syllables, they tend (as Irish poet Austin Clarke once said of assonance) to take the clapper from the bell of rhyme, an important consideration with such a large number of similarly-constructed poems. An equally important consideration for Carson, however, may be found in Alexander Pope's description of an alexandrine: "That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along." Obviously allowing greater flexibility of expression within the metrical contract of the poem, in the hands of Carson, an accomplished player of Irish traditional music, the extended line of the alexandrine at times also replicates the whimsical rhythmic improvisations of an Irish melody.

Appropriately so, perhaps, for The Twelfth of Never reads both literally and figuratively like a wonderfully irregular air. Literally, the book contains an impressive catalogue of musical allusions as poem after poem on page after page makes reference to jigs and reels and planxties and ballads; a number of the poems even borrow their titles from the Irish repertoire: "The Rising of the Moon," "Wallop the Spot," "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," "Wrap the Green Flag Round Me," "Let Erin Remember." Figuratively, each poem-each of the 77 sonnets gathered here-also has a "musical" vitality at least approaching that which Helen Vendler describes in The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets: the capacity "to unfold itself in a dynamic of thought and feeling marked by a unifying play of mind and language." A poem like "Spraying the Potatoes" typifies the dynamic nature of a Carson sonnet. Borrowing in the first two quatrains numerous details from a poem of the same name by Patrick Kavanagh-a romantic evocation of rural Irish life in 1940-Carson suddenly subverts in the concluding tercets not only (if at all) the British poetic tradition but also, in the context of this book, any and every simplistic notion of Ireland that has ever been advanced. Words alone are certain good, indeed. Transforming a farmer's cart in Kavanagh's poem into an executioner's "tumbril," Carson explodes, as he does throughout The Twelfth of Never, the entire corpus of Irish social, political and cultural myth:

A verdant man was cuffed and shackled to its bed.
Fourteen troopers rode beside, all dressed in red.
It took them a minute to string him up from
 the oak tree.

I watched him swing in his Derry green for
 hours and hours,
His popping eyes of apoplectic liberty
That blindly scanned the blue and white pota-
 to flowers. n

Originally published in the Summer 1999 issue of Boston Review

 



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