Shane Alcobia-Murphy
University of Aberdeen

Creative Commons 4.0 by Shane Alcobia-Murphy. 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.

The Body and Desire in Contemporary Irish Poetry ed. by Irene Gilsenan Nordin

(Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2006)

The visually striking cover image for The Body and Desire is a production still taken from Mo White’s At the Table of Fine Graces (1999). Presented at the Crawford Gallery’s critically acclaimed 0044 exhibition, the single-screen video projection juxtaposed the artist’s prostrate body floating by the bottom of the screen with background images which, in the artist’s words, «involved private gestures» (finger-biting lips, rubbed eyes and bellybuttons). White’s artwork conjoins the public and private spheres and initiates the viewer into disjunctive, yet enabling, perceptive modes, effects also evoked by the contributors to Nordin’s timely, challenging and richly rewarding collection of essays. Broken into three thematically discrete sections, the book explores differing aspects of how the body is encoded in Irish culture. Entitled «The Body Politic: Territorial Reconfiguration and Desire», the first section analyses the body as the locus wherein identity is constructed,

 with each contributor usefully applying French poststructuralist theory Kristeva, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida  in their readings of contemporary Irish poetry. The editor ought to be commended for judiciously placing Scott Brewster’s contribution as the opening essay as it rather brilliantly surveys the strategies and tropes utilised by poets when representing the violently fragmented body: as a spectacle, «a site upon which we can read political violence»; as the site of elegiac practice, the locus of a purifying ritual; as a site wherein the consolations of elegy are resisted. Brewster contrasts the ways in which the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon is marked by what Kristeva terms «abjection», whereby the violently fragmented body disrupts identity the abject is opposed to «I», it is the site where the «I» is expelled and is the liminal space wherein meaning collapses. Notably, Brewster offers an original and provocative reading of Heaney’s Bog poems, rejecting the current view that interprets their mythological scheme as inferring a deterministic continuity to the violence; rather, the bodies depicted therein are unsettling and undermine any assumptions that there is a «symbiotic continuity between landscape, history and cultural identity». The high point of the chapter is, arguably, the corrective reading of Longley’s elegiac practice. Rather than viewing his unsuccessful attempts to «purify the defilement of violent death» as examples of representational failure, Brewster demonstrates how the poet deliberately refuses to «resolve the ambivalence provoked by the corpse»: he neither sanitises nor sanctifies the dead.

An opportunity is missed, however, to tackle the one poet who uses Kristeva as an exemplar: Medbh McGuckian. Her poem «To Such a Hermes» is made up of textual quotations from Kristeva’s The Powers of Horror and engages both formally and thematically with abjection and the dissolution of identity. Still, McGuckian is the star turn of this collection, with a quarter of the essays devoted to her work, the most notable of which is perhaps Eluned Summers-Bremner’s article (also from the first section). This represents an important intervention in McGuckian Studies by demonstrating how the maternal body in her work is often figured by violence, loss and discontinuity, rather than presented as an overt celebration of femininity.

The collection’s second section investigates the desexualisation (and consequent silencing) of women in Ireland and demonstrates how poets like Eavan Boland and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill both dispute and disrupt the invidious male-authored dyadic construction of the female/national body, how they critique, subvert, and re-inscribe the traditional gendering of the body, and how they demythologize the traditional iconography of Irish womanhood. This section is the most coherent of the three, with each of the essays covering the same thematic concerns, but from differing perspectives. My own favourite is Michaela Schrage-Früh’s because she cites from the (lamentably) neglected poets such as Rita Ann Higgins and Mary Dorcey.

The third section is the most original of the three, focusing as it does on philosophical concerns: «the body as a site of mediation between individual experience and the human condition». For example, Holmsten’s Levinasian reading of McGuckian’s work persuasively argues that her presentation of an unstable self, which is often commented on, ought to be viewed within an existential frame. However, the argument on the poet’s confrontation with Otherness could have been strengthened by referring to the works by McGuckian that are directly made up of textual fragments from Levinas. Helen Blakeman’s chapter on McGuckian’s poetics of mourning can be usefully read in conjunction with Brewster’s, focussed as it is on the fragmented body and on ineffable loss. The chapter is noteworthy not simply for its Freudian reading, but also for the close attention it pays to the poet’s text. Unusually for an article on McGuckian, Blakeman offers a close reading of a single text –  «Drawing Ballerinas»– and this adds a clear focus to her argument. Her contention that, despite its eschewal of elegiac closure and consolation, the text still presents poetry as a regenerative force, is utterly convincing. The editor’s own article on the body as a liminal threshold in Eilean Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetry functions as a fitting close to the collection and heightens this reader’s anticipation for her forthcoming monograph on Ní Chuilleanáin (Mellen Press, 2007).