Medbh McGuckian Interview, with John Hoppenthaler
I use notebooks a lot, less so now as I am slowing up and writing less. I keep notes of books I read and phrases I find interesting, scraps of this or that, usually at random. But these may or may not end up being worked into the fabric of a poem. I would select some of them while writing a poem, and they might end up in a long list from which I then select pieces that go with what I am thinking about. So the journal is useful, but I might read three or more books without finding anything important enough to remember. I do not keep a day by day diary now, although I used to when life was less busy and I was more isolated in myself.
You have notably refused to allow your poetry to become what many would have wished it to become, overtly "political" in the clichéd and pointed manner that has more to do with rant than it does with true engagement. Jake Burns, the lead singer of Stiff Little Fingers, has said, "[Belfast] almost has a warped romance about it." Rather than exploit this, which would be easy enough to do, it seems to me, you've chosen a more textured and quiet approach, one that's both cerebral and based in the personal. Your poetry has always seemed to me as if it occurs in-between, floating at some momentary resting place that is on its way to dissolving even as the poem makes its way down the page, even as the speaker is already in the process of moving on. Lines in "Gold Star Mother"—a very political poem indeed—maybe exemplify what I'm trying to articulate. The speaker of the poem tells us of a mother whose child has been taken by a war that is not even mentioned in the poem, that "She audibly does not say several things / That occur to her." And neither does the poet say those things about war's cruelty and its cost. The poem ends with shared silence and an image of passage: "A stone doorway, scarred and shorn, / A charred doorhandle, to what / There might be, over there:" Does my clumsy attempt to describe your poetry begin to approach what you're after in your art?
Thee Gold star poem is about my own mother, but of course it is political in that the title refers to mothers of Vietnam war veterans or boys who gave their lives. I use it to praise and pay her homage for the courageous act of her own death. I imply that even an ordinary death in natural circumstances is a heroic deed and, certainly, I want to honour my mother for her behaviour, her acceptance, her refinement, and her dignity at this time. I find ordinary life so extraordinary; images from war help a little to explain it. My mother lived through the Civil War here and suffered eviction with her family in the 1920s. Her uncle was in the old IRA and had many medals for his service. She spoke often of the German Blitz which she experienced in her twenties and the terror of that. She went into a sort of amnesia or depression once the Troubles began here in earnest in the 1970s and 1980s, which affected her whole outlook and her ability to cope with life. She became virtually a prisoner in her own house, as many did although eventually, by the time she reached old age, she had adjusted to never going out and we all accepted that. Her religion was her main and possibly only raft. The blood in the poem is therefore real, although she is not in a literal battle. I align her with the forces of nature, the sea and the tree, to suggest some shred of freedom. I try in my poetry to distill something lasting and precious out of all the anguish. I find poetry is one way of dealing with all this inherited fear and violence. It is something dark and menacing that never goes away. Despite all the ways I myself am included and welcomed in my environment as my mother never was, I still am aware of resentment and segregation. For instance, my mother recently died and although all was done that could be done, it was still in a hospital dealing with less privileged Catholics or working-class people, in a very lower-class district, her window looking out on to the Connelin Road jail where executions had taken place. Your explanation is not clumsy. I am after truth and justice—I try to deal with all the complexities. I am glad my mother survived the Second World War or I would not have been born, but I would have preferred to see her doing something more positive with her excellent mind and body rather than retreating into social paralysis and eking out a rather joyless existence on the margins of society.
The first stanza of your poem "Harem Trousers" features the lines, "A poem dreams about being written / Without the pronoun 'I'". In an article about your work that first appeared in the Irish University Review in 2002, Danielle Sered writes, "McGuckian's 'I' may, in fact, be among the most highly contested and theoretically elusive in contemporary poetry." I've been much interested in the presence of the "I" in recent poetry, how it is often employed in a manner that may be seen as solipsistic, as lesser "Confessionalism," and of course how a shiftier, literary theory-informed "I" is employed by many post modern or experimental poets. Could you give us a sense of how you are choosing to use the "I" in your work, how readers are to understand it?
Again the I. This chimes in with having to be careful not to offend or stick your neck out. It is not just me but my family I have to protect. I don't speak in poems in my normal voice but rather mythically like Yeats. But it changes with different times and styles. I think I have developed different "I"s over the years. Certainly the composite self of a pregnant woman is very far from the daughter or sister role. Then there would be the poet as poet commenting on poetry itself. I think I need readers to be very alert to the book and the place the poem is in it. My early voice and what I am writing now seem very dissociated to me. I was just reading about James Dickey and how he thought poetry should be about you, the reader; the poet, far from exploring her own experience, should open up ways for the reader to appreciate hers. I probably do not think as carefully as I should about my readers. I hope I do not expect them to be totally intellectual. My own sense of self is very fractured and multiple. I feel a different person writing this here than the one living ordinarily, or teaching, or writing poetry, or reading poetry, or reading anything. I think in the Irish language the "I" part of the verb is not separate from the verb as it is in English, so doing things in Ireland is more being-oriented. I am not any more secretive or pliable than most of my contemporary poets, especially Heaney who conceals his personality and feelings quite a lot, or Muldoon who's a chameleon. As a woman, of course, I have gone through my changes of shape and mood, so that will have affected my output considerably. Being a Catholic, I am expected to repress the self or deny it and take up the cross, but while being a poet you celebrate the word made flesh in a less sacrificial manner.
Americans, I believe, like to think of Ireland as a place where poetry—as is decidedly NOT the case here—is popular with the masses, is discussed by the working class in quaint local pubs over pints, and is inexorably intertwined within the cultural fabric. Is there truth to that? What is the current cultural condition of poetry in Ireland, particularly in the North?
Dear Madam Nine
Let your side-glass down hastily ,if a spotted woman
Masked like a covered dish, side-glass you again,
For fear if her not being wholesome. She seems
Very much inclined to a decay and succumbs
To the vapours in a plain undress cap, he had
Absolutely made love to her square-cornered
Heart and her scarlet trimmed nipples, despite
The hush-hush of your prior claim to him.
With her decreasing face and increasing waist,
Her book is spoiling good conversation in Dublin
Where all the Misses are writing plays.
Her jewels out of pawn, she will see you
Past the gander, at the Blue Peruke,
On the Strand, next door to The Cocoa Tree.
Gold Star Mother
The fields are loosened
By the most complete spring,
The most everlasting, most glistening,
When the superessential light
Always seems to win, yet your plumage
Was poor, sorrow-creating, reddish spring.
She asks to be touched on her body white
Just like the snow at Christmas,
Her selfhood a cloak with drops of smithied
Silver over her shoulders.
Water applied to her head evaporates
Like a sponge on an oven: her almost polar
Eye streams blood.
She audibly does not say several things
That occur to her, mouth joining and parting
Like an immature flower.
I hear her heart pound as she emits
Every fibre of her being,
Her arm aching with the force.
We listen to a new kind of silence,
Her semiconscious, unconscious
Out of syncness I have never seen before.
Gnawing waves hidden
In her wispy branches bare
A stone doorway, scarred and shorn,
A charred doorhandle, to what
There might be, over there:
Something that comes from the hills,
Something like a countenance,
As the sawn-through tree is skyborne.
Dormition: Madonna with Trees
I suppose today is more or less your birthday:
I pray you, send one word
Whether I shall maintain your taper in the chapel.
Our mother, who never seemed to sit down,
Takes nothing but broth;
She has crazed eyes, her singing voice out of tune
In any case- how did this one find
Her speaking voice? She leaves her next thought
Unknown, the unshared thoughts
Fall through her upper arms
And through my left arm runs
A flood of striped silk.
The next breathing movement
Is a halt in breathing: the throttling sentence
Pulls itself together and stops
On the threshold of a rimy minerality.
She does not recover
An ordinary life- tightens like stone
Or ebony, cracks, bleeds, decays,
Splits into at least four of us,
Almost not to move and not to end
But only to dissolve
In an elsewhere that racks her.
Photo by Suella Holland - The Gallery Press