The Soldiers of Year II
Wake Forest University Press, $19.95 (cloth), $11.95 (paper)
Being able to know colour
Lacks all colour. I am following
This black thread
Stretched across the stairs
As if to kiss me again.
(“From the First Underworld”)
“Being able to know colour / Lacks all colour.” Clear as the clear blue sky, right? It was lines like this—enigmatic, intriguing, pulsing with a queer but vital language—that by the late 1980s earned Medbh McGuckian a reputation as the most difficult, if most exciting and gifted, of the younger generation of Irish poets. (Paul Muldoon, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, McGuckian, and Eavan Boland all began publishing approximately twenty years after Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Thomas Kinsella, et al.) These lines, taken from Captain Lavender (1995), could be a Wittgensteinian meditation on the interrelationships between sense perception, intellectual knowledge, and the function of language; an existential recognition of the way that epistemology flattens the brilliance of the seen world; or a note on the sensual difference between names of colors and the colors themselves. Probably each of these aspects of the border between the subjective and the objective come into play, for in the bewildering and beguiling world of McGuckian’s early poems the referential nature of language is continuously in question.
Throughout the early work McGuckian’s speaker is nearly indeterminate—now male, now female, now living, now deceased, now here and now there. In the absence of such markers of identity, the speaker is defined only by the strange and strangely beautiful, vaguely alien world through which he leads but does not guide us—a world in which the thread the speaker follows, like Theseus through the maze, pulls suddenly across the staircase in a recurrent kiss, a gesture of affection or eroticism that frustrates forward progress; a world so entirely inner that it desires to bestow “a name / with a hundred meanings, all of them / secret, going their own way” (“Hotel”); a world through which the speaker wanders from sea to desert to river landscape without once leaving the house-like structure that limns it. This dwelling is such that the speaker can slip back and forth between it and a world that is recognizable as ours with impunity, letting landscape slip into landscape and narrative into narrative seamlessly and without explanation.
In a 1998 interview McGuckian describes her writing process, as she often does, as a kind of private combinatory game, halfway between an indeterminate jigsaw puzzle and a one-woman game of Scrabble. As she tells it, she collects a group of words that catch her fancy and plays with them until they fit, until they feel right. Her description is refreshingly devoid of such mainstays of poetic methodologies as the topic, the striking image around which the poem grows, and the phrase that just won’t go away:
I would have a hoard of words that I liked at that time. I’d have gathered them like a squirrel, like a little parcel of gems.It’s just like making a necklace. I pick and sort and thread and it would normally fall into place fairly quickly. There’s a certain amount of leg-work—looking for rhymes, moving the words around a bit to get them in some sort of logical sequence. The mind is elsewhere, though. It’s almost like I don’t think.
Here McGuckian is espousing neither a surrealist’s faith in the subconscious nor a modernist’s dependence on chance. Though her description emphasizes a resistance to semantic and narrative structures, there is deliberation here, even if the work towards “a logical sequence” is driven by aesthetic rather than intellectual force. McGuckian likens herself to a squirrel, but her hoarding more closely emulates the obsessive crow, gathering shiny bits for their auratic glitter and arranging them in accordance only with the subjective law of beauty.
Though McGuckian’s early books have been read through various ideologies, the appeal of her work lies always in her engagement with the struggle between sound and sense and in her ability to seduce the reader into a space that questions the referential link. Her verse bides its time—flickering in and around a liminal space little like the world we know, exploring its geography with the aid of a grammar that pushes at the edges of normal syntax, and finding it filled with a multivalenced beauty that is accentuated by its oddity and by its continual capacity to surprise. Her ability to make the reader feel the thick power, the shimmering movement, the exhilarating headlong falls and thrilling catches of the unexpected reveals the momentum of another’s imagination and its captivating otherness, as in these halting lines from “The Watch Fire”:
Perhaps no one ever needed this
More than I.
I had stretched out my hand for it
So often . . .
. . . A strange ring
Gives out heat like a lit window:
Now it seems too large
For my finger, now it fits perfectly,
Its stone fizzes up in joy
And seems to give me
Some kind of answer.
These thickly allusive, heavily enchanted lines are a far cry from McGuckian’s most recent volume, The Soldiers of War II, into which the real world bursts its ugly head. More importantly, perhaps, the language most closely linked to that real world has contaminated McGuckian’s vocabulary, which is now riddled with proper names and words so heavily freighted with history that the fictions successfully sustained in her earlier work repeatedly collapse upon themselves. One can hardly imagine these new poems as pleasing permutations of words collected in solitude.
McGuckian’s previous volume, Shelmalier (1998), prefaced by an author’s note on the 1798 Rebellion, trumpets this change, and while the historical matter may in part justify the clear diction, heavy use of stanzaic forms, and historical notes, the clearly visible end is not a very interesting one. While the poems are often wild as usual, their referential reach is bound by the subject of the volume. The primary sense of a line like “Before violence was actually offered / to us, we followed a trail of words / into the daylight” (“The Society of the Bomb”), must be read through a web of history, of gender relations and revolution, of the violence of language and the recurrent fall from a green land of innocence to the red society of the bomb.
The first two poems in the new volume—one dedicated to Oscar Wilde, the other named for Wilde’s mother, who published nationalist verse under the pseudonym Speranza—set up a relay between the poles they represent: the use of verse for the establishment of a nation and people, and the exile’s flight from that nation. These poles turn out to be one and the same, as Wilde’s flight has landed him on a version of Ixion’s wheel, “the treads set so / very far apart, he has to stretch / his limbs to the utmost.” If Wilde has taken on blood guilt for desertion (Ixion’s punishment was for arrogance and the first shedding of kindred blood), Lady Wilde’s hopeful moniker has been relocated to the entrance of Dante’s hell, infecting her own body with “the simpler bacteria / of meaning.” Despite the worthiness of this topic, McGuckian is writing in the same space as any of her contemporaries, and much of the magic has vanished.
In The Soldiers of Year II, that stalwart purveyor of Irish poetry, Wake Forest University Press, has produced an edited version of McGuckian’s last two books, Drawing Ballerinas (2001) and The Face of the Earth (2002). Approximately three-quarters of the earlier books’ poems are included, but they have been rearranged and the internal sections appear in reverse chronological order. McGuckian is brilliant at beginnings, and the first lines here are almost invariably a surprise and a pleasure:
I wanted to buy a man made from sleep:
an underground man,
a new glittering iceberg
What happened in fact to the people,
the completely blended, pampered, oppressed,
was like a man bound to a woman
by colour’s voice alone, . . .
Someone will tap a door
with just a single finger, . . .
(“Revival of Gathered Scents”)
Such lines, while more specific than, for example, “From the First Underworld,” maintain the surprising use of form and combinatory phrases, the odd sexual longing and semantic oddities that characterize McGuckian’s best work. The knock on the closed door is a cliché by any standard, but is revived with the pause on “just” and the running clarity of “single finger.” These images often approach the overused, yet are rescued by a single well-placed word: “just,” “in fact,” “new.”
Where these poems fail, then, is in the fall from such beginnings into staid narratives (often suggested by too-obvious titles). The “man made from sleep” dwells in a “half-an-hour away, H-for-Henry, Tudor-shaped / end house,” resolving into some mix of an H-block prisoner and a victim of communist witch hunts or any other generic Foucaultian power structure, hidden behind “a keyhole to which / an eye of every age was pasted.” “Antebellum Backlash” turns into an above-average version of the Irish-conflict-as-sexual-colonial-encounter-gone-bad, where the people themselves are “like a man bound to a woman,” an encounter which causes “her own to not-quite-freely close.” Of the number of poems here that recapitulate the Irish problem as a self-perpetuating gender-based struggle, perhaps the most egregious is the blatantly titled “The Colony Room,” which features another of my favorite openings: “If you are touching, you are also being touched: / if I place my hands in prayer, palm to palm, / I give your hands new meaning, your left hand calm”. This beautifully executed figure breaks in the third stanza, where we are informed that that body is “Less touchable than the birth or continuation / of Ireland, in its railed enclosure.” A metaphor is a metaphor, and no one wants to be told what a poem is about in the middle of the poem.
The arrangement of this volume hardly makes a difference, as the polemic remains the same, and there is no real movement, simply reiteration. This would perhaps be less disappointing in a lesser poet, but it is painful to read through poems that begin beautifully and end so disappointingly, where “Cubes of sky-wielded silence / yellow the light” but we are told in a footnote that these cubes are those of the Lapwing in Belfast’s Maze Prison. References, footnotes, place names, dates, historical figures—these are not McGuckian’s strengths, and they detract from her most powerful ability—spining those inner webs that balance between here and there that are far too fragile to withstand the insertion of an ex-president’s name, yet, left alone, are always strong enough to pull and alter the imaginations of those who encounter them.