Wake Forest University Press, 2001, $18.95; $10.95
AS BOTH POET AND PLAYWRIGHT Paula Meehan has created a space within Dublin's landscape; her latest play, Cell, and her recent volume of poems, Dharmakaya, leave little doubt that the city of her birth strongly influences her writing. From images of the fox on Merrion Square to the Dublin statue of Molly Malone, these poems delineate the "changing face of the city," a city the poet/speaker in "It is All I Ever Wanted," describes as inspiring her:
to hold in these hands / that have learnt to be soothing I my native city, its hinterland / and backstreets and river scored / memory of spring / blossom and birds--/ my girl-poems / fountaining / over grief and the want of someplace to call home.
Meehan comes at "someplace to call home" from many angles in these poems, with memory a key unlocking not only new insights but also the realities of difficult pasts. She takes her title from The Tibetan Book of the Dead where "Dharmakaya" means literally "Truth Body" or what the headnote from Stanislav Grof calls the "Primary Clear Light of Pure Reality ... identical with the experiencer's own consciousness." The poems record a journey to come to terms with, in the words of one poem, "virtual childhoods." Trying to sort these out, speakers often "sift for the grain of truth" recreating a past through memory, hearsay, or simply "what came down to us."
The cast of characters in many of these poems dramatizes a working class Dublin where family and financial difficulties are the stuff of memories: a child carries her mother home from a pub; an out-of-work rather takes a Christmas job plucking turkeys; women work in sewing factories; a young woman leaves her home in anger, with the words of her mother, "You'll never see me alive again," echoing long after in her ears. There are fights, physical abuse, ongoing conflicts, "thunder in the house" as he upstairs neighbors battle it out. Offsetting the family suffering is an abiding grandmother. "She'd rock me. She'd lull me. No one was kinder."
In many ways the poems in Dharmakaya document an ongoing search for a lost mother, one embedded in images from a recreated past:
Somewhere, elsewhere, my mother was sulking in the rain. I call up / her young face. Who did she think she was with her big words / and her belt and her beatings? Who do I think I am to write her? / She must have been sad. She must have been lonely. / Discipline. Chastisement. I stretch out my four year old hands.
The mother figure in these poems is both literal and metaphoric. There is the speaker in "Ectopic" who is denied motherhood: "I want to know the weight / of my little creature's soul and why it's fate / has been to leave before I had a chance to save / her. Or Him. It? They keep calling it it." There is also the mother/sister who opens her loving arms as her children come and go, contrasted to the terrible symbolic "much mother mud mother" addressed in the sequence, "Virgin," Mother," "Whore." A literary mother, Anna Akhmatova, provides comfort and inspiration for the speaker: "Mother of my spirit, my guide, / sweet lady smelling of mint and apple, / I lay my head on Akhmatova's lap / and sleep."
The child's outstretched hands in one of the first poems, "The View from Under the Table," develop into a major image, pattern in the volume: slapping hands, writing hands, the balled fist of an angry child, the swollen, raw hands of a father, the soothing hands of a grandmother. "Grandmother, Gesture," one in a series of couplet poems entitled "The Lost Children of the Inner City," suggests the healing power of loving hands:
My grandmother's hands come back to soothe me. / They smell of rain. They smell of the city. / They untangle my hair and smooth / my brow. There's more truth / to those hands than to all the poems / in the holy books. Her gesture is home.
Alluding to Dharmakaya and to "holy books," the speaker in another poem states: "I'm no Buddhist, too attached to the world / of my six senses." But the senses are intimately connected with the spirit of love and regeneration; the sense of touch, is highlighted in many poems, like "The Tantric Master" where the speaker tells us that a lover's sensuality makes him a "whizzbang dynamo and "hellbent on improving my spiritual status."
Meehan's successful experiments with form are evident throughout this volume. A poet known for the oral and rhythmic nature or her poetry, she illustrates here a fusion of her typical, flowing, run-on line with more traditional end-stopped forms in couplets, tercets, and quatrains. The seven-poem sequence "Suburb", offers several variations on the Petrarchan sonnet while "The Lost Twin" weaves a prose narrative within lines of verse. The haiku, "In Memory, John Borrowman"--"All things move through me: / the wind that shakes the willow; / my old friend's' last breath"--echoes the Buddhist prayer-like feel of other poems, including "Dharmakaya" and the litany-like couplets of "Pray for Us."
Meehan at her linguistic best can be seen in a poem like "The Bog of Moods" part of the sequence "Three Love. Songs," where a speaker on a boat has misread a place on a map as the Bog of Moods rather than the Bog of Moons. Taking full advantage of the mistake, the poem's run-on, rhyming quatrains display a linguistic virtuosity dependent on the word play of "mood," "moot" and "moors":
The low down belly rooted naming / of these wet toed, turf sucking / mockers of our hamfisted, clubfooted clumsy / taking of each other. Glory be to whimsy / and misreading that have us cross the Bog / of Moots or Moos. For yes, they're there -- / the slow moan of them squelching through the fog / of their own breaths, swinging full udders, / dainty hoofs picking through bladderwort / and crowfoot. Hells bells! And helleborine! / The harder you look, the more you will have seen; / and I say forgive me for the tense and curt / way I've been all day....
If, as Stanislav Grof says, the Dharmakaya is an "overwhelming vision" one has at the moment of death which is "identical with the experiencer's own consciousness," then we should read this volume as the revelation of the consciousness of a woman and a poet, trying to deal with a past "to change the future of it." The poem "Fist" directly addresses this idea as the speaker imagines the fist of a child, cupped in two adult hands, and pried open, finger by finger, to release pent up anger. The hand then becomes a poem presented to us, "spread wide open in a precise / gesture of giving, of welcome, / its fate clear and empty, like the sky, / like the blue blue sky, above the Square." Accept that hand and it takes you into the new territory of language, and into a Dublin where the women in "Literacy Class, South Inner City," like other speakers in the volume, bend to their work "of mending what is broken in us."