Universidad de Oviedo, España
by Luz Mar González-Arias. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Painting Rain by Paula Meehan
( Manchester: Carcanet, 2009)
Reviewer: Luz Mar González Arias
The (Un)Reliability of Poetry
Paula Meehan’s sixth full-length collection to date, Painting Rain, opens with two quotes, the first of which is taken from the Buddhist text The Diamond Sutra: “Words cannot express Truth. That which words express is not Truth”. These two sentences function as a useful piece of advice on how to approach poetry in general and the poems in this collection in particular. Reading poetry has conventionally involved an exercise in bio-criticism that inevitably links the “real” life of the poet to what the poetic persona is experiencing in the texts. Unlike novels and plays, poems — that are supposed to stem from the guts, from the deepest regions of the poet’s inner landscapes — hardly ever offer the practitioners of the genre an artistic shield to protect their privacy. The biographical reading of poetry is at odds with postmodern conceptions of language as a constructed, mediated means of apprehending the world and has often deprived poets of a feeling of safety within their own creations. The quote above, however, problematizes any aspirations of poetry to convey “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”, and fosters instead a reading practice that moves between the private and the public, the real and the imaginary, the historical and the fictional. This blurring of boundaries becomes particularly relevant when approaching Meehan’s collection, concerned as it is with youth, trauma, death and the possibilities of healing through language and memory, in other words, the very stuff that has traditionally nourished bio-criticism.
The second quote that opens the book — “[t]he mysteries of the forest disappear with the forest” — is provided by Irish poet Theo Dorgan and addresses the issue of environmental damage that is going to underpin a good number of the texts. The aggressive proliferation of building sites during the years of the Tiger together with international debates on global warming have turned the so-called eco-critical perspective into a very relevant artistic and academic discourse, and Paula Meehan has arguably become the poetic voice most frequently associated with that agenda in Ireland. Her poetry resists the mere invocation of landscape as a bucolic site for nature’s equilibrium. The eco-political poetics of Painting Rain is presided over by that crossing of boundaries previously referred to, so that the preservation of landscapes is intimately linked to the preservation of the history of the community and/or the individual. In “Death of a Field” (13-14), for example, the world of nature and economic interests form a binary opposite that leaves no space for reconciliation. A litany of nature’s losses — dandelion, dock, teasel, primrose, thistle, sloe, herb robert, eyebright — lies in poignant contrast with the artifacts of consumerism — Flash, Pledge, Ariel, Brillo, Bounce, Oxyaction, Brasso, Persil — and results in an apocalyptic mantra: “The memory of the field is lost with the loss of its herbs”; “And the memory of the field disappears with its flora”. In a similar vein, in “The Mushroom Field” (87) a “ten storey apartment block / and a shopping centre” are built at the expense of the eponymous field the poetic persona and her father used to walk. Poetry here becomes the archive of memory that nature itself should be if preserved and respected: “our footsteps, // the vestiges I lay down on this page / side by side, in the same rhythm, now; / making a path through autumn rain”.
But what makes the collection quite unique for its ecological potential is that this agenda is brought to the heart of the city. In her previous work Meehan had found creative impulse in the urban landscapes of her native Dublin’s North Inner City. Painting Rain is no exception in this respect and the poems go back to Dublin — Seán McDermott Street, Bargy Road, the areas around Parnell and Gardiner streets — as it looked before the redistribution of urban spaces brought about by the boom and the massive arrival of economic migrants. The city is at times the site of gender and class oppression, as in “When I Was a Girl” (52) and the “Troika” sequence (74-80), but it is also a space whose natural elements become palimpsests of memory that record the different stories they witness. And so, in the sequence “Six Sycamores” (28-33) the trees acquire the same archival potential as the flora of the fields usurped by the building sites. In Meehan’s urban contexts nature is that “spring blossom falling like snow” (33) that, in Joycean reminiscence, functions as a pervasive presence embracing the wealthy and the underclass, the male and the female and, once more, the nationally public and the personally private alike. Meehan’s Dublin clears a space for the representation of previously invisible collectives. If the statue of Molly Malone in Dharmakaya(2000: 25) became a symbol for “the cast off, the abandoned, / the lost, the useless, the relicts”, in Painting Rain the Christmas tree in Buckingham Street preserves the memory of the children who died from drug addiction “[h]ere at the heart of winter / Here at the heart of the city” (47-48). The same streets “that defeated them / That brought them to their knees” (47) are utterly transformed by nature to become a monument to societal problems associated with the north side.
Painting Rain is also remarkable for its inscription of physical pain in a good number of its pages. Meehan has always shown a special interest in the elegy as a means to come to terms with loss and grief. However, the articulation of emotional pain is here complemented by the representation of physical distress, pain and suffering. Elaine Scarry’s seminal work on the body in pain pointed at the poignant silencing of these experiences in art and literature as, she contends, the body in a state of decay shatters linguistic articulation, that is, it has the capacity to resist language. Dealing with illness has often confronted artists with the validation of this subject matter as poetic material, not to mention the ethical dilemmas such a thematic choice might involve. Meehan, however, bravely introduces uneasy physical experiences into her lines and creates a space for previously silenced forms of embodiment. The poetic persona of “From Source to Sea” (70) caresses the scars of a tortured body whose pain is “beyond comfort of song or poem” and enlarges the meaning of beauty to encompass its distortions and deviations: “I trace its course from neck to hip, its silken touch, / its pearly loveliness”. Similarly, the effects of chemotherapy or the physical descriptions of sexual abuse and trauma find a space in poems such as “Cora, Auntie” (38-48), “Peter, Uncle” (41-44) and “A Reliable Narrative” (76-78).
Meehan can be described as a very formal poet for whom rhythm and the breaking of the line are at the centre of creation. However, her poetry does not exclusively come out of verbal fluency. As she herself has acknowledged, she is not “attached to either received forms or free forms. I will use whatever the poem demands” (González-Arias 195). For anyone attending one of Meehan’s readings the texts read will never be the same, impregnated as they become by the rhythms of the poet’s breathing, by her intuitive — although often very formally accomplished — breaking of the lines. In this respect, Painting Rain is an eclectic collection that reflects Meehan’s interest in the symbiotic relationship between form and content, and where the line at times resists the constrictions that the poetic persona is finding in class consciousness, in trauma and in grief. And so, the suggestive “How I Discovered Rhyme” (74-75) makes use of images with a high evocative potential — the shape of Ireland, Christmas dolls, grass, “feathers like some angelic benison” — but turns them into signifiers for a new rhyme, a new poetic form that brings the marginal into the centre of representation.
As it was only to be expected from any new poems by one of Ireland’s most acclaimed voices,Painting Rain has already attracted a lot of critical attention and the special issue An Sionnach devoted to Paula Meehan (edited by Jody Allen-Randolph, 2009) includes many essays that look at the poems here reviewed. After reading this substantial collection we cannot but reflect once more on the choice of quotes that precede the poems. All the seemingly autobiographical material the poet may be drawing on is presented without the protective aid of mythical shields. Even a sequence such as “Troika”, that explicitly uses the Greek pantheon as a starting point for what is to follow, does not deploy this background as a means of escaping historical commitment through a comfortable distance. The narratives represented in this collection are “reliable” (76) but “not confessional” (78), leaving the reader in that limbo between the real and the imagined, the truth and the fiction or, in other words, the reliable and the unreliable. This liminal space is part and parcel of the limitations of good poetry. It is also its main source of strength and pleasure.1
- The author of this review wants to acknowledge her participation in the Research Projects FFI2009-08475/FILO and INCITE09 204127PR for the study of contemporary Irish and Galician women poets. [↩]