University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Dublin: Arlen House, 2014
108 pages. €15. Paperback
Pagan to the Core is Máighréad Medbh’s sixth collection of poetry, although she has also written long and short fiction that has appeared in ebook and other formats. Apart from her stories for children and her translations of Galician poetry, she has published a book of aphoristic reflections on solitude, Savage Solitude: reflections of a reluctant loner, published by Dedalus Press in 2013.1
Pagan to the Core consists of two parts: a revised edition of The Making of a Pagan – a collection written in 1988 and 1989, and published in 1990 by Blackstaff Press, Belfast – and a new second section entitled The Disaffected Country Girl and A Minor Metropolis. In her introduction, Medbh refers to the first sequence of poems as a response to the conviction that the personal is political, and as a necessity to vent her anger and push past the fear of exposure. The expression of rebelliousness in writing always reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s indictment, in A Room of One’s Own (1929), of Charlotte Bronte’s manifestations of anger in her fiction. Woolf’s censure may sound paradoxical, because angry passages also abound in her essay, but I am inclined to believe that what Woolf actually detested was didacticism and the intrusion of a narrator’s digressions in fiction. There is no risk of didacticism in Medbh’s poetry since, apart from being “honest and direct”, she is concerned with “the organic representation of each chosen moment and thought”, as she claims in her Introduction (7). Each experience lived by the protagonist – and the poet presents this sequence of poems as highly autobiographical – is methodically wrought so as to turn it into a poetic gem. There is no need to resort to T.S. Eliot’s strategy of impersonality as he defends it in his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), because Medbh’s choice of tropes, rhythms, onomatopoeias, line breaks, stanzas, etc. is deeply personal. Medbh actually succeeds in transforming the real into art without compromising truth.
“I can’t imagine life without a closed front door, / a curtained night and secrets in the room”, says the speaker in “The Boreen” (26). However, in The Making of a Pagan – the first sequence of the book – the poet opens the door widely so that we can enter and share the speaker’s secret dreams and nightmares, her pain and joy, her fear and determination, and we take part in children’s games which train us in feminine and domestic roles. The family in which the protagonist is raised is no haven of peace, as patriarchy seeps through the walls with its tyranny and oppression. There are, however, several moments of bliss and hopefulness, as in “Her Lap”, which begins with one of those very effective couplets that open, and sometimes close, some of Medbh’s poems: “Her lap is a country / where promises hang open” (14). The maternal figure, delicious smells from the kitchen, and nursery rhymes conjure up memories of safety and the comforting touch of the mother’s body. For a moment, death and darkness are kept at bay, though the monster is not far away, always lurking. These are poems that interrogate the world and the self: “I study humans through the microscope of myself” (“On Calls” 35).
The title of the first sequence, The Making of a Pagan, suggests a Bildungs-poetics which explores the stages in personal (physical, psychological and social) development and the making of a poet in a country like Ireland which, until not that long ago, encouraged religious piety and self-repression while enforcing strict social control. The new book title, Pagan to the Core, reaffirms the poet’s rebelliousness against the moral and social corsets of that past “but in a way still present, time”, as Medbh reminds us in the Introduction (8).
Contrary to the frequent, though puzzling, practice of combining poetry sequences that have little in common, there is a very smooth transition from the first part of this collection to the second one entitled The Disaffected Country Girl and A Minor Metropolis. The poet Paula Meehan, at present also Ireland Professor of Poetry, in her informative and perceptive back-cover endorsement of Medbh’s new publication, identifies some key themes that can be traced through both parts: “This is courageous poetry, charting the journey of the female soul through an almost clinical exploration of the female body’s desires and vulnerabilities”. The rural past still impinges on the urban present: “memory is a favourite chocolate” says the poetic persona humorously in “Picturesque Newcastle West” (104); but we now come across a plurality of focalizers and perspectives, and the present “you” finally becomes reconciled with the past “she”: “You love her at last” (105). A wide panoply of characters inhabit the “minor metropolis”, but though their paths cross, the people seldom meet, as the oxymoronic title “Urban Eremitic” illustrates to perfection. A poem that stands out as we reach the final pages is “When I was Ant”, with its trickster and elusive speaker: “When I was ant, tick, beetle…/ I am axe, knife, whisk and can opener, cyborg… / I am aardvark, rabbit, badger, city cat, fish in a bowl, everything” (97-98). There abound here experiments in perspective that remind me of the opening paragraph in Virginia Woolf’s “Kew Gardens” (1919). The adventurous, imaginative range and the sophisticated poetic craft of poems like this one are excellent proof of Máighréad Medbh’s challenging and enticing verse.2
- For more information on the writer, it is worth visiting her always updated web page www.maighreadmedbh.ie. [↩]
- This review has been written in the context of the project “Ex-sistere” (FFI2012-35872, funded by the Spanish Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad and the ERDF), for research on contemporary Irish and Galician women writers. [↩]