Bringing a female poet’s touch to the memories of her mother

LIFE IN VERSE: Many of Belfast-born Medbh McGuckian's poems in her latest collection, The High Caul Cap, are autobiographical.

The High Caul Cap
Medbh Mc Guckian
Gallery Press, €12.95

Traditionally, in Irish poetry, the subject of the mother usually imbues a certain kind of filial piety.

Recall Seamus Heaney’s ‘Sunlight’, a poem that transforms the process of his mother cooking scones almost into a religious experience; or Patrick Kavanagh’s In Memory of My Mother, which elevates the deceased parent into a mythical, saint-like figure.

In the poem ‘The Blood Trolley’ from her latest collection The High Caul Cap, Medbh McGuckian takes a different approach to those poets.

When discussing the difficult relationship she had with her mother, the poem opens by declaring, “My mother I did not know at all”. By the third verse, the poet has placed her dead mother in a setting that closely resembles the Warsaw Ghetto. As anxiety increases, and the dream slowly progresses into a nightmare, the reader is transported into a Dantesque hell-like inferno, alongside the poets’ mother:

Now she seems to be driving a vehicle with a large skull in front Or walking a skull on a leash through marshy riches. I have touched death with her white bonework, seen dark things as bright, enchanted by the pleasantshadow of the rich Christ, saying Peace Peace, when there is no peace.

After the death of her mother — who suffered a long and painful illness — McGuckian says she experienced a sudden flurry of nightmares.

“It can be very frightening when someone has died and then you begin to dream about them, or think about them in your subconscious,” says McGuckian.

“When someone dies, you naturally fear for them. You’ve got their body in a grave somewhere, and that helps you to locate them physically. But then you ask yourself: are they in heaven or are they in hell? And I went through those two options in this poem. Eventually I have my mother in heaven, but I have her going through hell first.”

McGuckian says the majority of these poems were written before her mother died. This helped her to come to terms with the inevitability of her death.

“Cathartic is the word I think would best describe the feeling I had when I wrote these poems. They dealt with my mother’s illness and helped me go through that day-by-day. And yet all the time she was sick she kept a very serene presence. I was trying to convey that in the poems: the sense that she was very beautiful, and very controlled, despite everything happening to her.”

The poems also made McGuckian recall the complicated nature of the relationship that existed between mother and daughter. “There was a lot of misunderstanding, and a lack of communication. She was a very proud and difficult woman. Growing up I found I could not talk to her about anything that was going on with me emotionally.

“But in these poems I am able to do that: I address her as if she was very open, like she could relate to me in the way that I would have wanted her to.”

While much of McGuckian’s work tends to begin with small autobiographical details, her poems typically branch out into symbolic and metaphorical gestures.

There are echoes here of the French 19th century symbolist poets, such as Mallarmé and Rimbaud, particularly the way the language meanders into the abstract. She also believes that the language of the mundane and the vernacular should not be used directly to construct a poem.

McGuckian compares the use of language in a poem to that of dreams. “In poetry, language moves the way it does in dreams, where everything is superimposed very rapidly on everything else. In dreams, the language can be soothing and reassuring, because people are nourished by their dreams.”

When McGuckian got over the initial hurdle of trying to write in an idiom that moves outside the conventions of normal language, she was then faced with another challenge: confronting the sterile nature of the mother tongue that was bequeathed to her.

“As a poet it’s hard to have a love of the English language. But you try to do your best with it,” she says.

McGuckian faced these linguistic perplexities head on in her collection Captain Lavender. “The Irish language is naturally musical. I find that English, however, is a very cold language. So I try to introduce foreign phrases into my poems, to modify the language and make up the words, the way Joyce did. This helps me to make the language a sort of pseudo Irish for myself.”

McGuckian shunned away from for much of her career, she says. “I grew up in a very close-knit Catholic, working class ghetto in Belfast, which was surrounded by alien feelings. It was very confined and narrow. Then when I went to university everything blossomed. I began to meet people from the Protestant side of Ulster for the first time.

“But when the Troubles started, people began to retreat into their safe areas. It became very much compartmentalised again. I guess that would have affected my own work.”

As the curtains slowly began to fall on the Troubles in the mid 1990s, McGuckian was invited to work with prisoners, people like the writer, and former director of publicity for Sinn Féin, Danny Morrison.

Such meetings made McGuckian think deeply for the first time about issues like history, national identity, and sovereignty. Subjects she may have neglected before, she admits, with a slight tone of regret.

“Listening to these prisoners talking made me feel like I hadn’t really dealt with the Troubles. I kind of just hoped they would go away. So for a couple of books I did look at Irish history. I don’t know whether it helped the poetry or not, but it was fascinating for me to learn about the real history of Ireland, which I hadn’t been taught in school.”

When McGuckian began publishing poetry in the early 1980s, she became aware she was in a very male dominated world. She admits that she felt “very weak as a woman” in this atmosphere. For all our so-called equality in today’s world, however, she feels some of these innate characteristics never really go away.

“I still do think that women have a totally different way of relating to poetry than men. For women, poetry is much more emotional, perhaps not as intellectual. It’s about your feelings and whatever state your body is in at the time.”


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