Both flower and flower gatherer: Medbh McGuckian's The Flower Master and H.D.'s Sea Garden.
However, in the last two decades of the twentieth century, some women begin to pair these acknowledgments of motherhood's costs with theories about its "advantages" for writers (Ostriker 130). (2) In a 1983 book, Alicia Ostriker stresses maternity as a rich resource for women writers, a great subject that has been virtually unmined. Ursula K. Le Guin likewise emphasizes in 1989 that while "babies eat books" (230), active parenthood crucially reminds writers that "the supreme value of art depends on other equally supreme values." Rita Dove, like many successful contemporary women, describes trading childcare shifts with an involved partner to manage the time pressures of parenthood; however, she also notes the way children render one "a hostage to reality" (qtd. in Rosenberg 102), newly open and vulnerable to a larger world in ways that can benefit an introverted writer. In a 1998 interview, Lucille Clifton describes how traditional maternity does not prevent writing poetry so much as mandate a different kind of artistic process (81).
Like these American women writers, and perhaps to an even greater degree, contemporary Irish women poets emphasize cross-pollination rather than competition between the labors of raising children and composing poems. The literature itself provides evidence. Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill's work, for instance, strongly emphasizes women's sexual and maternal bodies, and poems such as her "First Communion" intertwine parental worry with religious critique, demonstrating the interdependence of personal and intellectual life. Essays and interviews also exemplify these attitudes. Notably, Eavan Boland structures Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time around her own quest to harmonize the roles identified in her subtitle. Admitting that a mother-poet has "no time to waste" (253), Boland provocatively asserts that material obstacles to a woman's literary production are far less significant than psychosexual ones, particularly the inherited idea that specifically female experiences don't belong in poetry (247). Boland, lyrically describing the suburban landscapes that inspired her to write through children's naps, celebrates the "subversive poetic perception" (244) that maternity can inspire, tellingly equating motherhood with womanhood throughout her book. Medbh McGuckian's many interviews touching on these subjects describe maternity less romantically than Boland does--in particular, she casts childbirth as a cataclysmic "annihilation of the self" ("Interview," ed. Sailer 114)--but still emphasize family life as a top priority and the profoundly influential context of her literary work. She observes to Kathleen McCracken that "most Irish women poets have a highly developed maternal dimension, and many write even while their babies are young" (165). (3) Portraying womanhood somewhat differently than do their American predecessors, these poets emphasize childrearing as a crucial background and inspiration for their writing.
This essay compares two poetic collections, one by a contemporary woman from the North of Ireland and one by an Anglo-American modernist, to show their contrasting approaches to womanhood and lyric poetry. Medbh McGuckian and H.D. both link poetic experiment to each author's first experience with maternity: their work metaphorically joins procreation with poetic innovation. However, for H.D., whose first pregnancy ended in stillbirth, successful poetry and motherhood require confrontation with a bracingly harsh world. For McGuckian, a conservative understanding of maternity blossoms into a radically experimental poetics. She investigates subversive possibilities within confined gardens and traditionally feminine spaces.
Significantly, these parallel volumes share a governing metaphor of flowers. As the reproductive structure of many plants as well as an emblem of poetic and feminine beauty, the flower has provided a powerful idiom for female lyricists negotiating a double role as both aesthetic objects and creators of beauty. As McGuckian phrases this doubleness in a letter, women writers may simultaneously identify with "both flower and flower-gatherer" (11 Feb. 2001), figuring their experience in the development of blossoms and their artistic labor as cultivation or arrangement. Further, these metaphors invite engagement with many issues of pressing concern to women artists, including sexuality, reproduction, and the complex relations between the natural and the artificial, wildness and domestication. (4)
No women poets, however, grant more prominence to the motif than do McGuckian and H.D. in their first full-length collections, The Flower Master (published in 1982, revised significantly in 1993) and Sea Garden (1916). Both volumes express their concerns with literary and sexual fertility primarily through flower imagery: each describes a garden whose particular beauties define the poet's aesthetic project, and each manipulates flower imagery to comment on the meanings of femininity. Sea Garden divorces womanhood from its conventional association with domesticity, implying that only windswept wildness can nourish women, children, and poems. The Flower Master inverts this gesture, stressing cultivated gardens and celebrating the productive confinements of bearing and raising children. Although McGuckian's literary garden seems to invoke and challenge H.D.'s. the Irish poet denies direct influence. She claims only limited knowledge of H.D. and Marianne Moore, another modernist poet: "Although I had heard of them I had no idea (consciously) of their work--in fact, I have not yet read Sea Garden and must go to the library to seek it, I have only read those women in anthologies of Imagism etc." (Letter 11 Feb. 2001). (5) Instead, the two books speak from opposing advantages to the same intense debate: what's the relationship of woman-hood generally, and reproduction in particular, to literary work?
I begin this essay by considering the publication history of each volume. Each story intertwines with the author's first pregnancy, just as the early careers of women in other professions tend to overlap with their childbearing years. McGuckian's first volume exists in two significantly different editions; I compare them and explain my preference for the second version. H.D. did not subject Sea Garden to heavy revision, but I study how the original volume's physical qualities reveal the author's aesthetic priorities. Subsequently, I analyze the convergences and distinctions between H.D. and McGuckian through a focus on two pairs of poems: "Gladiolus" and "Sea Iris," and "The Flower Master" and "Sheltered Garden." Finally, I discuss the common sources of these collections and their larger implications as far as gender roles are concerned.
While gaps remain in H.D. studies, especially considering the huge critical industries surrounding some of her male contemporaries, H.D.'s poetry has received much more extensive treatment than McGuckian's. This essay, therefore, grants more acreage to the politics of McGuckian's garden. I also devote substantial attention to McGuckian's prose writings and interviews, some of them scattered through publications with limited circulation in the United States. In these interviews and at readings, she discusses her process and intentions with exceptional candor and provides important contexts for the poems. However, this essay also focuses on a specific maternal urgency in Sea Garden that the poems encode as spiritual and creative frustration. Both artistic growth and motherhood, according to H.D., require an inspiring blast of sea wind--or resuscitation of the stillborn daughter who never breathed.
From flower to master
As is the case for many contemporary poets, pamphlets and contest recognition preceded McGuckian's first book contract, in 1982, with Oxford for The Flower Master. (6) Venus and the Rain (1984) and On Ballycastle Beach (1988) also appeared with Oxford, but with Marconi's Cottage (1991) she switched to the Gallery Press of Ireland. The Flower Master and Other Poems, a heavily revised new edition, appeared from Gallery in 1993.
In the TLS review of the 1993 edition, Steven Matthews praises the new version as "a much tighter, more concentrated book," more closely focused on floral imagery. Matthews notes that 12 poems were dropped, others repositioned, and 17 poems added, an expansion that "sharpens the book's range of tones and adds a welcome note of skepticism towards its presiding theme," rendering the book more "alert to the dangers of self-regard in any mastery of image and form." Clair Wills, too, finds the revised edition "chart[ing] even more clearly the development" from adolescence to mature womanhood ("Medbh McGuckian" 281). However, much scholarly commentary on The Flower Master predates the revisions, and in subsequent pieces McGuckian's critics do not sufficiently distinguish the versions or acknowledge the radical nature of the changes. McGuckian, after all, cut more than a quarter of the first volume, renamed one poem and amended its last line, shifted three short pieces into sequences, and added substantial new material. She also reorganized the lyrics, altered the dedication, and replaced the cover illustration.
Both incarnations of The Flower Master begin with poems of adolescence, but by deleting some poems, importing new ones, and rearranging others, McGuckian emphasizes the seasonal and floral motifs, accents the mixture of sexuality and violence that pervades the volume, and peoples the sequence more vividly with a range of female characters. For example, "Faith," "Spring," "The 'Singer,'" "Aunts," and "My Mother," all new poems appearing in the first dozen pages of the Gallery edition, present sisters, aunts, mothers, and grandmothers, joining women-centered poems already included in the first collection, such as "Slips" and "To My Grandmother." In interviews, McGuckian often describes this book's structural focus on marriage, pregnancy, and childbirth; the revisions also clarify this narrative, especially in "Lucina." This sequence begins with seeds, progresses through a "fattening moon" and "pica" (the mineral cravings of some pregnant women), and later evokes cervical dilation and birth. "The Moon Pond," which appeared in the 1982 book, assumes a new position at the end of "Lucina," making clearer sense of its "milk-fevered lady" and the bold birds ready to mate again.
Design changes mark not only the radical nature of the revisions but the poet's shifting view of her own project. The 1932 Georgia O'Keeffe painting "The White Trumpet Flower" on the cover of the 1982 edition suggests sympathies with female modernism; it also embodies McGuckian's lyrics closeup and without context, iconically feminine and verging on abstraction. For the 1993 version, the colors shift from vernal white and green to an earthy gold and brown. A bleached-out black-and-white photograph on the new cover shows a middle-aged woman kneeling to tend, or perhaps pick, flowers growing along the wall of a house. The door stands open and the woman glances up at the camera, caught at work, not posing. McGuckian here gives us not only the bloom but the gardener; further, a path beside her and a stone house in the background emphasize the gardener's connections to a larger world. The canonical familiarity of O'Keeffe's flowers stresses mastery and the ascendance of aesthetics over context; the snapshot of McGuckian's maternal grandmother (7) suggests an arrangement shaped by a particular time and place, and it accents McGuckian's artistic commitments to process and accident. Even as McGuckian seems to perfect her earlier vision, she highlights the contingent nature of her effort and the status of women both as aesthetic objects and as creators.
Two other changes affect my argument. By paring away "The Butterfly Farm" and "The Katydid," McGuckian obscures the Asian allusions in other pieces, such as "The Flower Master"--an issue I treat more fully below. Finally, the new dedication supports readings offered by Wills and Susan Porter that this volume negotiates the poet's place among female precursors. McGuckian offers The Flower Master (1982) to John and Liam, her husband and son. She dedicates The Flower Master and Other Poems (1993), however, "for my mother / without my father." The Gallery edition shows McGuckian considering womanhood as a subject with increasing deliberateness.
While contemporary readers know Sea Garden primarily through the New Directions Collected Poems edited by Louis L. Martz, the volume's early presentations are revealing. Constable & Co. in London published Sea Garden in 1916 in a slim, well-designed volume. The American edition, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1917, imitates many of these design qualities on lower-quality stock. (8) Both editions evoke the modernist publication strategies described by Jerome McGann and Lawrence Rainey: beautiful books in limited editions suggest an elevated art self-consciously positioned against mass culture, aimed at collectors and connoisseurs. The handsomeness and rarity of such books present a metonym for the anticommercial fineness of the writing within and thereby paradoxically indicate modernist shrewdness about marketing. (9)
McGuckian has made drastic revisions to her early work and may do so again; H.D.'s revisions occurred mainly at earlier stages. Nevertheless, biographers and scholars have been surprisingly quiet about the process of H.D.'s first book-length publication. Constable & Co. was Amy Lowell's London publisher, and H.D. published Sea Garden at Lowell's urging (Hanscombe and Smyers 204). (H.D.'s poetry had also appeared in three anthologies published by Constable, all titled Some Imagist Poets; the first one appeared in 1915). H.D.'s connection with Lowell may indicate resistance to Ezra Pound's program for imagism. However, the institutions that would transmit modernism to its audience were only beginning to form. Although Pound struggled to "gather under one roof the principal authors and works of modernism" (Rainey 82), and in fact the Egoist Press eventually produced important works by Pound, Joyce, Aldington, Eliot, and others, it didn't begin publishing books until 1916, the same year Sea Garden appeared. The Constable & Co. of the modernist era, on the other hand, published a distinguished but not adventurous literary list, most notably including Bernard Shaw (Mumby and Norrie 279, 345-46). (10)
Although the publication history and spare presentation of H.D.'s first book have received little attention, excellent scholarship on Sea Garden illuminates its content and strategies, including its floral profusion. In fact, imagist poetry generally draws heavily from a botanical vocabulary. For instance, in the first imagist anthology, Pound's Des Imagistes (1914), of the 35 poems plus three verse satires at the end of the volume (separately subtitled "Documents"), 28 pieces contain references to flowers, plants, and gardens; 16 of the poems specifically mention flowers. Aldington's opening poem of 76 lines, "Choricos," provides a good example, invoking wreaths, leaves, flowers, gardens, hyacinths, and poppies. Related references in the same poem include a floral palette of white, green, red, and purple; allusions to Demeter's daughter, here called both Proserpine and Persephone, whose flower-gathering expedition ended in Hades; and qualities associated with flowers, including frailty, love, sweetness, beauty, and fragrance. Flowers constitute a crucial idiom for imagism partly because floral imagery represents an important resource for the classical and Asian traditions the imagists drew on (indeed, references to Greek antiquity populate the poems of Des Imagistes as heavily as floral allusions do, and the selections by Pound include translations from Asian sources). As Diana Collecott observes, Sappho's flowers are a key intertext for all that blooms in Sea Garden (211-20).
H.D. uses flower imagery throughout her whole career to a wide range of purposes: it alludes to crucial sources, encodes sexual and reproductive experience, and invokes a range of traditional meanings including beauty, poetry, love, and the fragility of human life. Her very titles testify to the persistence of the motif: her poetry collections include Red Roses for Bronze (1931) and The Flowering of the Rod (1946); the novels Asphodel and White Rose and the Red were unpublished in her lifetime. Not surprisingly, flower references also pervade her correspondence. Richard Aldington's letters persistently identify H.D. with their beauty: he wrote in 1918, for example, that "any flower makes me think of you" (60), and even more tellingly advised her against masturbation by warning a month later, "Don't talk to your flower too often--it is a strain on the nerves" (126). Such passages cast H.D. as both flower and flower gatherer, echoing the connection Sea Garden draws between modern poetry and sexual freedom. (11)
McGuckian exercises her poetic freedom through a difficult style predicated on female experience and experiment. She responds to allegations of obscurity in her work by protesting to Kimberly S. Bohman, "It seems to me totally coherent" ("Surfacing" 105) and to McCracken, "They [the poems] are no more mysterious than a woman can help being to herself" (Interview 161). She generally insists, as in her interview with Sailer, that her work is "almost totally autobiographic" (113). "Autobiographic," however, does not indicate confessional transparency for McGuckian: the personal experiences from which the poems spring emerge faintly or not at all. Peter Sirr rightly characterizes her poetry as "poetry of occasion whose occasions are meticulously withheld" (464). Such withholding encourages many readers to speculate about her allusions to published texts and affinities with literary precursors. Thomas Docherty, for instance, cites Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil as an influence on The Flower Master (193, 200). (Cassandra Laity also connects the same collection to Sea Garden [45, 50].) Peter Denman persuasively argues for allusions to Charlotte Perkins Gilman in a piece from Venus in the Rain (169). Shane Murphy and Clair Wills ("Voices from the Nursery") discuss McGuckian's collage methods of composition throughout her oeuvre, in particular her mostly uncredited arrangements of phrases from nonfiction books into new works of poetry, a strategy that partakes of a tradition rooted in modernism, although she refrains from providing the endnotes supplied by Moore or T. S. Eliot. Partly because of her difficulty and this manipulation of echoing fragments, scholars have, in fact, affiliated her not only with Moore and Eliot but also with Yeats, Joyce, James, Stevens, Stein, H.D., and Woolf. (12)
If affinities with female literary precursors seem especially important, The Flower Master concerns more than just writers. In fact, this volume shelters a world of women: not only aunts, sisters, mothers, and grand-mothers, but sexually frustrated governesses, wet nurses, even Beatrix Potter and Mary, Queen of Scots (in "The Heiress"). Many poems evoke McGuckian's ambivalence toward those women. "The Mother," for example, depicts the title character as natural yet confined, familiar yet incomprehensible. Laura O'Connor comments that both Ni Dhomhnaill and McGuckian rely on "the enabling myth of the disabling mother" (McGuckian and Ni Dhomhnaill 609-10), seeing "hostile, rather than nurturant, mothering" as their impetus to art. (13) If this volume casts an eye backward for muses and models, it also distances itself from those women through style and tone.
Scholars have noticed similar configurations in H.D.'s poetry and prose. Deborah Kelly Kloepfer analyzes the trope of "the censored, repressed, or absent mother" (2) in H.D.'s work, finding that her poetry and prose have "both refused and solicited" (45) maternal inspiration. The modernist, on the other hand, adopts a maternal role herself much less obviously than the contemporary writer. Donna Krolik Hollenberg has convincingly argued for the importance of childbirth metaphors in H.D.'s work, though not until her productions of the Second World War; while H.D.'s works, Hollenberg asserts, "display a range of meanings and emotions associated with childbirth" (19), her imagist poetry documents how she found it "difficult to reconcile female sexual identity with creative power" (74).
In fact, the extensive common ground between Sea Garden and The Flower Master highlights their profound differences. Certainly, both collections mention flowers, plants, fruits, or seeds in every poem but one ("The Wind Sleepers" in H.D. and "The 'Singer'" in McGuckian). Both use flowers and their inherited associations with feminine beauty to set out aesthetic values and explore their complex status as women poets in male-dominated milieus. Both collections create erotic landscapes tenuously yoked to real places, layering sexual desire with pursuit of the divine. And both poets value image over clear statement; often McGuckian's cryptic pieces seem at least as coded as any imagist fragment.
However, for the most part the Belfast-born poet sounds drastically unlike the Pennsylvania native. The geographically loyal McGuckian enmeshes her speakers in family relationships; in contrast, the expatriate American wanders alone or with a band of initiates along an apparently Greek, but deliberately indeterminate, coastline. Both frequently apostrophize unidentified addressees, and both manipulate pronouns in intriguing ways, but McGuckian's lyrics imply mundane, domestic situations. While H.D. achieves an incantatory effect through repetition, McGuckian's tone is often discursive or wry; her verse is relatively lush, while H.D.'s lines are spare and short. Finally, McGuckian claims a value, or at least a tolerance, for inherited notions of womanliness that H.D. criticizes sharply throughout her work.
Two poems on botanically related flowers--H.D.'s iris and McGuckian's gladiolus--begin to illuminate these contrasts. H.D.'s volume, which celebrates a dangerous, liminal landscape, includes five poems with parallel titles and subjects: "Sea Rose," "Sea Lily," "Sea Poppies," "Sea Violet," and "Sea Iris." In each, she depicts a flower rendered more precious through its exposure to a harsh environment. "Sea Iris" (Collected Poems 36-37) emphasizes the flower's struggle to endure, naming it "weed" and describing it as "brittle," "broken," and "thin." Like an object of art, the iris is "painted" and "stained"; like a maker of art, it "print[s] a shadow" and "drag[s] up colour" through its roots in the sand, transforming its sources. The single flower in the first section becomes a "band" in the second, parallel to the elite group of seekers populating many poems in this collection and reinforcing the identification between poet and flower. The word iris itself indicates the visual nature of H.D.'s imagist poems, indicating not only the colored membrane of the eye but the Greek messenger goddess, whose sign is the rainbow. When H.D. compares the clump of flowers to a "fresh prow," she conjures that Hellenic reference, suggesting that the iris, too, performs a stimulating errand, transporting its discoverer in a metaphorical sense. Appropriately, in the Victorian language of flowers, the iris signified "message" or "messenger" (Seaton 180-81).
"Gladiolus," new to the 1993 edition of McGuckian's volume (31), treats a related plant, like the iris in its sword-shaped leaves and spike of brilliant flowers. The poem contains only 12 lines, most of which extend a further beat or two than those in "Sea Iris." While H.D. addresses the iris, McGuckian describes her gladiolus as if in a gardener's manual, meticulously remarking its "stately flowers," the shade and structure of the foliage, and its method of reproduction. Thrifty and eager to please, McGuckian's gladiolus "will not exhaust the ground" and possesses as "its only aim the art / Of making itself loved." While the flower "step[s] free of its own / Foliage," exercising a limited freedom, the words "border plant" and "collared" stress containment. Unlike H.D.'s iris, this is a domesticated, not a wild plant; McGuckian even frames this flower between two greenhouse poems, "The Sun-Trap" and "The Orchid-House." While H.D.'s tone is sympathetic and praising, McGuckian mimics objectivity, positioning herself as an expert (a master) rather than an admirer. She demonstrates her mastery, too, in playful ways: the phrase "satiny moons / Of honesty," for instance, encrypts part of that plant's Latin name (Lunaria annua).
McGuckian's attitude toward the gladiolus remains one of the most interesting ambiguities of this brief poem. Like H.D.'s flowers, it exists as a poetic object and also generates art--if one concedes, at least, that "making oneself loved" constitutes a creative endeavor. While detailed description conveys the poet's fascination with the plant--she does devote an entire poem to it, without deploying the gladiolus as an obvious conceit for some other subject--McGuckian sounds distinctly arch at several points. For instance, her flower's method of survival involves not endurance despite a hostile world but manipulation of its own appeal and a susceptibility to the "roguish draught" that lays the ovules open for pollination. These passive virtues are stereotypically feminine; indeed, this lovable candidate for sunny garden borders resembles the familiar domestic angel, ambitious only to please in her limited sphere, devoted to reproduction.
Other elements of the poem, however, complicate this reading. First, the word itself is Latin for little sword, and thus bears distinctly masculine connotations. Second, McGuckian throughout emphasizes the flower's asexual method of propagation. The poem's only end rhymes, "clone" and "own," accent this strategy, and McGuckian startles us with an image of sexual violence only to defuse it in the following line: "its grains ripped / Benignly." While McGuckian to some extent identifies her aesthetic with this plant's pleasing arts, rooting her own poetry in a narrowly observed domestic world, she also portrays this world in startling, defamiliarizing ways. Her gladiolus-woman-poet, despite these traditional attributes, possesses an ambiguous though intense sexuality and exerts her own, apparently passive, mastery of her environment. The poem remains tantalizingly ambiguous in its attitude: does McGuckian present this model with amused detachment, approval, or some other judgment?
Flowers as figures for female experience might seem to emphasize heterosexual eroticism (as Dickinson's nectar-drunken bees do) and reproduction. Hence H.D.'s wild specimens hint at her own modern marriage, in which each member exercised a sexual freedom that challenged the institution's conventions. Even McGuckian, though, finds examples in her border garden of unconventional sexuality. Talking to or about their flowers, each poet investigates a range of erotic and literary possibilities.
Unlike McGuckian's collection, H.D.'s Sea Garden contains no title poem. Instead, "Sheltered Garden" defines the antithesis of the title image (Collected Poems 19-21). "Sheltered Garden" implicitly describes the discipline of conventional femininity in withering terms, preferring the dangers of the sea's harsh weather to the safety of garden walls. She decries the "beauty without strength" fostered by constraint and declares, "it is better to taste of frost--/ the exquisite frost--/ than of wadding and of dead grass." If gardens are "deadly, sweet, and overripe paradises," as Laity puts it (45), H.D.'s paradoxical title retains only the lightest possible suggestion of the term's association with containment. (14) If H.D.'s poem desires escape from confined Victorian womanhood to modern sexual liberation, it also seeks "a new beauty / in some terrible / wind-tortured place."
H.D.'s longing for wind in "Sheltered Garden" and other Sea Garden poems suggests a search for inspiration, for an invigorated poetic voice. Chillingly, however, it also recalls the particulars of her 1915 stillbirth. Richard Aldington described the experience to Amy Lowell in a letter of 21 May: "I haven't seen the doctor, but the nurse said it was a beautiful child & they can't think why it didn't live. It was very strong, but wouldn't breathe" (16). A sheltered garden, then, not only suggests Victorian femininity and pre-imagist aesthetics but also evokes a uterine space that promises to protect life but ultimately destroys it. This poem, in fact, describes fruit that is "smothered" by straw: "this beauty,/beauty without strength,/chokes out life" (20). While H.D. here seeks a kind of poetry repudiating old constraints, her diction also remembers a perfect yet lifeless baby whom she cannot resuscitate. Instead, she wishes to "forget, to find a new beauty": her art both memorializes the loss and hopes to supplant it with new life.
Paradoxically, then, the liberating winds of Sea Garden suggest the failure of maternity and a potentially fruitful future. Throughout most of the volume, as in "Sheltered Garden," "fruit cannot drop/through this thick air" (25); neither poems nor children can thrive in the tame environs of Victorian culture. She therefore petitions a sea wind to create a harsher and wilder, seemingly unmaternal climate. However, H.D. can only imagine successful fruition of motherhood or poetry in such a radically changed, storm-blasted world. While her first collection does not develop a clear vision of how successful maternity and poetic creativity might coexist, her metaphors insist that they require the same conditions.
In contrast, the title poem of The Flower Master embraces a sheltered space, suggesting different attitudes toward poetry and womanhood. The first-person plural speaker obediently engages in her lessons: "we come to terms with shade, with the principle / of enfolding space." In fact, the immediate "master" of the poem seems to be not Baudelaire, as Docherty suggests, but a teacher of ikebana, instilling the principles of Japanese floral arrangement. (Porter also, although very briefly, notes "references to Japanese arts and custom" in this lyric .) Stella Coe, in her study of ikebana, uses the term "flower master" itself to refer to an expert in this discipline (22), and McGuckian's references to the Japanese festival of moon viewing and to the tea ceremony confirm the allusion. The flower master's students learn how to bend seasonally appropriate plants into designs and create the symbolic correspondences that this art often suggests. This strategy of bending rather than cutting also suggests an immediate contrast to H.D.'s rough handling, and the pliant strength of boughs manipulated for these arrangements evokes the similarly passive virtues of McGuckian's gladiolus.
The meditative function of ikebana, in fact, illuminates the entire collection. Directing would-be practitioners, Coe writes, "the way to proceed is to let your insight guide you. You want a direct, non-analytic expression of the theme in the simplest terms possible" (129). McGuckian herself and several critics have characterized her strategies in similar terms. Sirr, for instance, describes her evasions of rational discourse: "the images are not there to elucidate but to detonate and resonate in all their weird energy" (461). Elmer Andrews analyzes the "pull between logic and illogicality" (135) in her work, and Mary O'Connor sees McGuckian's "flight to the semiotic" (155) as a response to the pressures of living in Northern Ireland. In "Surfacing" McGuckian professes, "Poetry is my way of getting drunk" (105), calls the poetic process "vatic" (106), and describes her poems as patterns meant to express "my inability to speak.... I want to make English sound like a foreign language to itself" (105). Her works rarely present clear situations, coherent speakers, or consistent narratives; their purposes remain oblique, so that the poems serve as tokonamas enshrining their evocatively arranged sprays.
Even so, the very allusions in "The Flower Master" to ikebana intersect with literary modernism. McGuckian's speaker studies under "the school of the grass moon," a translation of Sogetsu-ryu. Although ikebana originated as a masculine discipline performed by priests, noblemen, and warriors, recent centuries democratized the pursuit and created new versions (Coe 22-23). Sogetsu, founded in the 1920s, "has a wide following both in and outside Japan, possibly because it is the most easily translated into the language of other cultures." It emphasizes individuality and originality in creating arrangements; its founder, Sofu Teshigahara, has been called "the Picasso of ikebana" (Coe 23). Thus Sogestu's movement coincides roughly with imagism, the modernist movement arising in part from H.D.'s early poems. McGuckian's interest in ikebana, moreover, echoes some modernists' preoccupation with the Orient.
Though it embraces rather than rejects bowers, "The Flower Master" does share some qualities and images with "Sheltered Garden," just as the larger volumes correspond in certain points. These correspondences, further, suggest where McGuckian's view of womanhood overlaps with H.D.'s: each poet, in particular, celebrates female sexual appetite. Both "The Flower Master" and "Sheltered Garden" eroticize their landscapes; the students in the contemporary poem, for instance, "stroke gently the necks of daffodils/and make them throw their heads back to the sun," and collect plants with suggestive names like "sweet/sultan, dainty nipplewort." McGuckian's "sea-fans with sea-lavender" invoke H.D.'s many sea flowers, and both poems suggest an autumnal mood, H.D. through ripening fruit and McGuckian through the mid-September festival of moon viewing. These similarities, however, frame the essentially contrary stands the poems adopt. Placing her "scissors in brocade," eschewing the wild, invigorating breakage H.D. imagines, McGuckian's speaker espouses gentleness and tradition. Even the form of "The Flower Master" resists its predecessor's. McGuckian avoids symmetry and creates a tripartite arrangement in loyalty to ikebana's aesthetics (these Japanese arrangements consist of three main lines), but she also returns to meters the imagists eschewed (Coe 43). "The Flower Master" adheres to a rough pentameter, irregularly rhymed, while "Sea Garden" depends for its rebellious music on jaggedly uneven lines and verses.
Whenever McGuckian herself describes poems in The Flower Master, she emphasizes their preoccupation with sexuality, pregnancy, and childbirth. In "My Words Are Traps" she emphasizes the book's focus on "the cruelty of birth" (117) and refers to death itself as "the flowermaster" (119), adding still another layer to that title image. In a 1996 essay, "Drawing Ballerinas," she links the private violence of such experience with the political violence of the Irish Troubles that has also shaped her life (196-97). In a letter, she drives home just how immediately she treats the particulars of parturition:
As for flower-arranging--that poem (the title-poem) was just using the process as an image for the fear of childbirth. The images of cutting and tearing were to do with episiotomy, that horrible word. Unspellable. I just found the harnessing of fertility to be something passive that happened to me, and wanted to assert some vigorous learning-pattern against my lack of control. I wanted to be both flower and flower-gatherer. I found the whole experience of pregnancy and birth, especially the first time, very difficult and lonely, and impossible to write about. I guess in that poem I exorcised the pain of that education. There's a wash in it between tendernes and cruelty. It's related to my early church-going and the preparation of flowers for the altars and feast. Women being allowed to do only that, not actually serve the Mass or say it. Yet without the maternal centre, the special guest (Christ) could not be contemplated. So the poem's about this inversion of power. The ending is still very mysterious to me. How we see things from a very limited viewpoint ... How the baby's feet kicking you are your main communication with it, you being the container or vase ... I guess, it's about--a forceps delivery--when you would like to have smoothed the path yourself. (11 Feb. 2001)
McGuckian's generous expansion on the poem's purposes illuminate it wonderfully: the tools of ikebana suddenly translate into the instruments of modern childbirth, and ambiguities of position within the poem align with the first-time mother's own confused apprehension of an overwhelming event. Her comments in interviews and at readings, likewise, reveal the startling literalness of her apparently abstract, difficult poems.
"The Flower Master," then, like "Gladiolus," never lets one forget that flowers contain a plant's sexual structures, even as McGuckian celebrates their beauty and variety and invokes their traditional symbolism. Indeed, she creates a specific parallel between the flowers and the delivering woman's perineum (a genital connection that echoes Aldington's coded reference to H.D.'s "flower"). Women have only a few ways to decrease the odds of episiotomy, a minor procedure that nevertheless can cause a great deal of postpartum pain: good nutrition improves tissue elasticity; massage can help the perineum stretch ("stroke gently the necks of daffodils"); slowing the delivery can also allow the tissue to stretch gradually ("delay/The loveliness of the hibiscus dawn"). Identifying, as McGuckian writes, with "both flower and flower-gatherer," the poet both acknowledges the uncontrollable aspects of birth and searches, as pregnant women often do, for the means to master it. She poses ceremony and expertise against the terrifying violence of parturition. Likewise, the volume as a whole enacts a delicate counterpoise between powerful natural drives and equally urgent human discipline. Unlike H.D.'s early work, at least, McGuckian's poetry does put great faith in containment, ritual, and control of the world's, and her body's, utter wildness.
As students of overlapping traditions, H.D. and McGuckian inherit the garden trope from multiple precursors. Both certainly allude to Eden; Docherty even emphasizes references to the Fall in McGuckian's book over the pregnancy motif stressed by McGuckian herself and most of her critics. H.D.'s readers register the Hellenism in her gardens: Friedman calls Sea Garden "a sequence of modern pastorals," referring to Theocritus as a model (51); Gregory identifies H.D.'s "reinvention of the Orphic prayer" in this volume, drawing on romantic Hellenism (83); Collecott finds an embedded network of allusions to Sappho (159, 266-67). H.D. and McGuckian were also particularly steeped in Victorian literature, which is marked by its own horticultural obsessions, H.D. because she came of age in the early part of the twentieth century and McGuckian through her thesis research. (15) Finally, both encountered the flower trope through Dickinson's work, although at the time H.D. composed Sea Garden, Dickinson's work had been published only in bowdlerized versions.
However, these two poets share other important circumstances. Sea Garden and The Flower Master both constitute debut collections by ambitious women poets powerfully formed by the British literary tradition, although both felt marginal to it by reason of sex and national identity, and McGuckian felt marginal to it as well by religion. Most crucially for my argument, each first book documents pregnancy and the poet's concern with her own fertility, although neither writes plainly about the subject. The themes and vocabulary shared by these volumes reflect parallels between the poets' interests and situations. Even their metaphors, to some extent, join at the root.
McGuckian's experiments certainly build on the "papery legacies," as "The Flower Master" puts it, of previous women poets including H.D. However, the differences between these two prominently titled poems suggest how widely their attitudes toward gender diverge. While H.D. celebrates a harsh, androgynous beauty, "The Flower Master" thrives in sheltered space and admires the delicacy of its shade-loving specimens. While "Mid-Day," the fourth poem in Sea Garden, laments "hot shrivelled seeds" (Collected Poems 10) scattered over pavement in a strong image of writer's block and, simultaneously, a troubled pregnancy (Friedman 49), McGuckian's collection seethes with fertility, depicting numerous crowded, feminine houses and greenhouses; collecting various nests, seeds, and children; evoking moons and milk fevers. Both compare procreation with literary composition, but H.D.'s struggling flowers imply her pessimism about a female artist's ability to nurture offspring. McGuckian expresses far more hope about the coexistence of art and motherhood. Her poetry, in fact, deeply roots itself in maternity as material, just as Ostriker prescribes.
Contrasts in the imagery, then, reflect contrasts in sexual politics, although their terms and figures share common elements. The Flower Master, like Sea Garden, depicts disruptive desires and bends readers' expectations, as hostile reviews have attested (see Ann Beer for a catalog of these). Nevertheless, when McGuckian tells Sailer, "I feel very tied by laws and very bound" ("Interview," ed. Sailer 115), she sounds as different as she possibly could from H.D. in her early poems, which, coded as they are, revel in risk, resistance, and broken mores. This contrast echoes in their comments about the relationship between womb and brain. "My womb is almost my brain," McGuckian has declared, again to Sailer (121), insisting on the femaleness of her writing as deliberately as H.D. adhered to those genderless initials. (16) In her Notes on Thought and Vision H.D. explains creative work in comparable terms. She describes "the over-mind," her phrase for a state of insight or vision, as a closed, watery space, distinctly uterine (18-19). However, she also argues for creative activity that is not inflected by sex: "the brain and the womb are both centres of consciousness, equally important.... The two work separately, perceive separately, and yet make one picture" (21, 23).
McGuckian's comments to interviewers in more recent years reflect a shift in sexual politics. A few years after the Sailer interview, Brandes quotes McGuckian in a wry mood on the role of place in her poems: "keeping my place, a woman's place is in the home. Second-class citizenship" (64). Here as in "Gladiolus," McGuckian interweaves an acute, even mocking awareness of the restrictions that have been placed on female experience with an evident belief that constriction can produce positive results, in life and in art. In her published conversation with Irish poet Ni Dhomhnaill, McGuckian speaks of multiple experiences with sexual discrimination and laments the absence of women authors in her coursework, and in the Sailer interview she insists that women should receive equality of opportunity. However, she quickly qualifies her identification with feminism:
You know, if you're too demanding for your freedom then you are going to destroy your home. I'm for feminism as long as it doesn't destroy in woman what is the most precious to her, which is her ability to relate and soften and make a loving environment for others as well as herself.... Sometimes there is something in feminism that demands you to be almost masculine and that's what frightens me a bit about it, or to sort of repudiate reproduction.... I find feminism attractive in theory but in practice I think it ends up influenced by lesbians and--very lonely and embittered and stressed and full of hatred. (121)
H.D.'s rebellion against Victorian notions of pure, passionless womanhood springs partly from her bisexuality; McGuckian's version of femininity, while also libidinous, is distinctly heterosexual, even homophobic in this remark (though not in any other published comments that I have discovered). The Irish writer's program for contemporary poetry involves a partial validation of traditional femininity in contrast to how key modernist women undertook marriage and motherhood: bisexual H.D. was married and, after her 1915 stillborn delivery, bore a healthy daughter, but her marriage quickly shattered and she raised her child in an unconventional way. (17) The two individuals, certainly, seem utterly opposite as mothers: while McGuckian produced her first books at home around four small children for whom she was primarily responsible, H.D. resumed her travels shortly after childbirth, mostly delegating to others the care of Perdita, her child born of an extramarital liaison.
In The Flower Master, McGuckian revisits Sea Garden's scenes, vocabulary, and erotic passion, but in so doing inverts H.D.'s central gesture of divorcing womanhood from domesticity. "Poets of this generation," speculates McGuckian about her own contemporaries, "are the pioneers of women who've survived birth, survived multiple births, in order to write about it. And maintained the marriage relationship. I think the complexities of holding all these irons in the fire and keeping your inwardness intact are immeasurable" (McGuckian and Ni Dhomhnaill 606). McGuckian controversially describes biological reproduction as a precondition for poetic production and downplays potential conflicts among marriage, motherhood, and profession. Her position ignores certain gaps and problems: some twenty-first century women struggle with and redefine the institutions of marriage and maternity as vigorously as H.D. did. Nevertheless, both H.D.'s and McGuckian's gardens, pervaded by the intense and even terrifying transformations of motherhood, reconsider the traditional opposition between safe private havens and violent public arenas. H.D. forecasts a new wild world to resuscitate lost daughters, although her early poems primarily emphasize that world's necessary perils. McGuckian's poetry of vivid, physical motherhood finds a comparably empowering strangeness at home, in the scented bower.
I submitted an early, brief version of this essay to Linda Kinnahan's seminar on Modern and Contemporary Women Poets at the New Modernisms Conference at Pennsylvania State University in October 1999. A slightly revised version of the seminar paper appeared in the online periodical How 2 1.3 (2000) <http://www.departments.bucknell.ed ... ler_center/how2>. I'm grateful to many people for their suggestions at later stages of composition: the members of Works in Progress group of the English Department at Washington and Lee; Helen Emmitt; and especially Diana Collecott and Caroline Zilboorg.
1. Just since 2001, several new books on the subject have received substantial media attention. See for example Belkin, Crittenden, Cusk, Hewlett, and Wolf.
2. See Hollenberg's comments on the blurred distinction between creation and procreation for recent women writers (10-11) and Suleiman's discussion of psychoanalysis and women writers.
3. McGuckian gives conflicting reports on how she manages to find writing time. In "Surfacing" (1994) she tells Kimberly S. Bohman, "I can write with kids around me. I've written on this table [in the garden] with kids screaming, and sometimes those are the best poems" (95). To McCracken (1999) she asserts, "The children have to be unconscious, asleep, before I can write, and my husband and I must be at peace with each other" (170).
4. A horticultural catalog of flower-focused lyrics by women writing in English is beyond the scope of this essay; most poets, male and female, have taken a turn at this traditional metaphor. However, a short list of female poets for whom this is a persistent motif might include Emily Dickinson, whose use of the trope to register sensual and spiritual experience surely inflects most twentieth-century poetic gardens; Mina Loy, especially in "Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose"; Sylvia Plath and her brilliant, dangerous poppies and tulips; Louise Gluck, the current American laureate, whose sexual flowers dramatize human vulnerability; and Rita Dove and her suburban gardens.
5. McGuckian's first book may react against H.D. more than she admits. Some of her most astute readers describe The Flower Master's central search for female predecessors, including earlier women writers. Porter, commenting on this quest in McGuckian's first three book-length collections, notes how McGuckian makes "a place for herself in a female artistic tradition by acknowledging her debt to the female heritage of domestic artistry" (96) in poems including "The Seed-Picture" and locates her "in the tradition of poets like Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore, in whose writing a bolder claim for the poet's own work is often hidden behind a more traditionally feminine, self-effacing facade" (88). In her overview for Scribner's British Writers series, Wills likewise characterizes The Flower Master as a book that "consider[s] how to create new forms of continuity and inheritance, and how tradition can be both preserved and renewed" (281). For a powerful comment on contemporary Irish women poets and their poverty in Irish precursors, see Ni Dhomhnaill's "What Foremothers?"
6. McGuckian describes her canny strategy for winning a key competition:
I sent away for the previous year's winners and saw they liked narrative poems of about forty lines--it had to be substantial and to flitter about the place. I wrote three poems in this style and submitted them under a pseudonym, and I won.... They assumed that I was a male pretending to be a woman. They couldn't believe I was six months pregnant when they came over with their cameras. The big thing about it was that a well-known literary figure came second to me, and they rearranged the prize money so that I got less and he got more. I didn't care. I was pregnant, and I had won this. But the TLS cared. They created a huge fuss for weeks, wanting to know whether my prize money was cut from [pounds sterling] 1,000 to [pounds sterling] 500 because I was Irish, or Catholic, or a woman, or unknown. And then British publishers began writing to me--Faber wrote, and Charles Monteith was on the phone--and I ended up getting published with Oxford. (McGuckian and Ni Dhomhnaill 592-93)
7. Identified by McGuckian, letter 27 Mar. 2001.
8. See Boughn 5-7 for a summary of these versions.
9. See also Dettmar and Watt.
10. Zilboorg's edition of letters from Richard Aldington to H.D. is the most helpful published source on H.D.'s relations with Constable & Co. Zilboorg alludes to wartime paper shortages and Sea Garden's subsequent publication delay from the winter of 1916 to the following fall (22); she also mentions small, sporadic royalties from Sea Garden's publication (62n) and Constable's probable rejection of H.D.'s second collection of poetry, Hymen, which was eventually published by the Egoist Press in 1921 (212n). A biographical appendix identifies Edward Hutton as a reader and translator at Constable who worked closely on Sea Garden (219); Aldington makes several references to Hutton in his letters, alternately hopeful and disparaging. Also see Silverstein's chronology for the year 1916. For a history of Constable & Co. see Altick, Mumby and Norrie, and Sutherland. I thank Lawrence Rainey for these sources.
11. Zilboorg directed my attention to this exchange.
12. See Porter (Moore); Murphy (Eliot, H.D.); Gray (Yeats); Sailer (Joyce, Woolf); Gonzalez (Joyce); Docherty (James); Sirr (Stevens); and Cahill (Stein).
13. Many critics discuss representations of maternity in McGuckian, including Wills, Improprieties; Beer; Batten; and O'Connor.
14. DuPlessis also discusses Sea Garden as an "oxymoronic" title (12).
15. In her essay "Drawing Ballerinas," McGuckian describes her parents' "heritage of Victorian narratives and heroic tragedies they had learned in school" (189) as well as her "MA in Anglo-Irish literature, studying the nineteenth-century novelists, Griffin, Edgeworth, the Banim brothers and William Carleton" (195). She also, in "Birds and Their Masters," jokes about her "early desire to be a nineteenth-century English poet" (29). Friedman argues that "H.D.'s harsh flowers represent a repudiation of the sentimental language of flowers popularized by the Victorians," especially Kate Greenaway (59); Laity delineates H.D.'s extensive debt to decadent romanticism. On the nineteenth-century preoccupation with botany, see King, who examines the trope of the blooming girl in the Victorian novel.
16. Coincidentally, both poets chose pen names influenced by powerful male mentors. Pound famously signed "H.D., Imagiste" to Hilda Doolittle's Poetry submission, although H.D. has told different versions of that story and published under a variety of pseudonyms, as Friedman recounts (35-46). Medbh McGuckian, born Maeve McCaughan, chose the Irish spelling of her name after Seamus Heaney, her teacher, signed books to her that way ("Drawing Ballerinas" 195).
17. On H.D.'s unorthodox approach to motherhood, see Morris 120-48 and Schaffner (H.D.'s daughter).
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|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2003|
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