Medbh McGuckian's ex-centric obscurity.
READING MEDBH MCGUCKIAN
IRISH ACADEMIC PRESS: DUBLIN, 2014.
HBK 65 [euro]/PBK 24.95 [euro]
AS RUI CARVALHO HOMEM has remarked, "Few contemporary poets with well-established careers and near-canonical status will have been so hounded by one single critical topos as Northern Irish poet Medbh McGuckian" (Homem, "Looking for Clues: McGuckian, Poems and Portraits," in Homem and Lambert (eds), Writing and Seeing: Essays on Word and Image, New York, 2005). The topos he refers to is the ambiguity--or obscurity, depending on the critic--of her poems. Like almost every piece of critical writing on Medbh McGuckian, Leontia Flynn's new book takes up this issue, but she manages to retrace familiar territory in fresh and insightful ways.
As the title suggests, Flynn's stated project is to record the experience of reading Medbh McGuckian's poetry. Along the way, she aims to explain how McGuckian's poetry--her early work at least--is "intellectually exciting" and "comparatively coherent," countering those who have dismissed McGuckian's poetry for being nonsensical or even meaningless (vii). Unlike Shane Alcobia-Murphy, however, Flynn does not want to "rescue McGuckian from obscurity (in all senses)" ("Introduction" In Kirkland & Alcobia-Murphy (eds), The Poetry of Medbh McGuckian: The Interior of Words). Instead, Flynn manages to sidestep the difficult question of "how much or little she means to mean" by suggesting that this uncertainty is in fact the point of McGuckian's poetry (3, emphasis in original). Over the course of the book, Flynn presents two different ways of exonerating McGuckian from the charge that her poetry is nonsense: McGuckian's engagement with feminist theory and her unique use of quotation. These two aspects of McGuckian's work have already received some critical attention. Flynn's contribution is to show how both aspects of her poetry, however difficult to interpret, actually constitute a single, coherent poetic project. For Flynn, McGuckian's enigmatic engagement with women's issues and her idiosyncratic use of sources are actually related manifestations of her interest in the "ex-centric" practice of poetry, that is, her "disavowal of her own authorship" (5). She does not necessarily remove herself from her poems, but she does displace herself from the center of her poems, so that her identity is not the crucial source of the poem's meaning.
The chapters are organized according to the chronological order of McGuckian's first five volumes of poetry. In the first chapter on McGuckian's first full volume The Flower Master (1982), Flynn points out that the traditional readings of McGuckian's treatment of her own experiences as a woman do not adequately account for the poems' concurrent interest in falsehood, fiction, and performance. Flynn makes a compelling case that even what seems clearest in McGuckian's earliest work--its autobiographical nature--may not be as straightforward as we previously thought. In fact, these poems expose our tendency to read a female poet's meditation on gender as a "natural extension of the author's femininity, rather than an artistic exploration of the subject" (35, emphasis in the original). This is the first of several ways that McGuckian's poetry is paradoxically "excentric": It is both personal and artificial at the same time.
Extending the discussion of McGuckian's portrayal of women's experience, Flynn's second chapter, her most suggestive and conjectural, reads Venus and the Rain (1984) in relation to the work of Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva. Extending Kristeva's argument, Flynn suggests that several of these poems formally "mimic the emergence of the semiotic through the symbolic" (55). While Flynn does point out several compelling connections between their work and McGuckian's poems, the connection between the mother-infant relationship as articulated by Kristeva and the poems in Venus and the Rain seems underdeveloped, even half-hearted. She does come back to this point, though, in the conclusion, where she connects McGuckian's "half-heard, non-meaningful poetic mode" to the "pre-verbal infant unconsciousness" from which originates an understanding of the nature of poetic composition that privileges the importance of the relationship between the infant and mother (183).
In the third chapter, Flynn begins to explore the other critical focal point of McGuckian studies: her collage-like poems made entirely of quotations from somewhat obscure sources. Flynn delves into the material borrowed from Maria Tsvetaeva and Osip Mandelstam in On Ballycastle Beach (1988) uncovered by Shane Alcobia-Murphy, pointing out that the source texts, rather than serving as some kind of secret code that explains the poem, actually highlight the folly of attempting to interpret a poem this way. Flynn proposes that the Mandelstam quotations allow for a very indirect conversation with Seamus Heaney on the nature of poetic inspiration, the topic of his essay on Mandelstam in The Government of the Tongue. Both Northern Irish poets believe that writing poetry is a "vatic" process; however, McGuckian does not share Heaney's Romantic belief in the decisive role of the poet's education and ability on the poem's content. Rather, according to Flynn's reading of McGuckian's quotational collage technique, the words themselves--the sounds themselves --drive the poem's composition. The poems "work" because they almost make sense, revealing "how much meaning could be produced by euphony and rhythmic flow combined with imagistic suggestiveness and readerly imagination" (159).
The fourth and fifth chapters cover a lot more ground than the first half of the book, both in terms of the number of poems mentioned and the number of points made. Wrapping up her investigation of McGuckian's treatment of women's lives, Flynn explains how McGuckian's poetry points to, but does not attempt to be representative of, the hidden, personal experience of women, maintaining her "ex-centric" approach to writing through her use of quotation. According to Flynn, her recent poetry is more political, but also more mystical, and less interested in women's issues. Moreover, Flynn attributes to the quotations in Captain Lavender and the volumes that follow a different feel and purpose: because these quotations no longer advance a certain theory of poetic composition or contain some kind of personal connection, however indirect, they "no longer ... feel inextricably bound up with the poems themselves" (187). According to Flynn, "her writing"--especially her choice of quotations--"now seems conducted almost for its own ends, enjoying its own processes and making mystical or magical correspondences, unseen, for their own sake" (187). These later poems, in Flynn's estimation, do not work as well, because they are not as "self-sufficient" (159). This is perhaps the most valuable contribution this book makes to McGuckian criticism. While a lot of her readings of the later heavily quotational poems retrace the steps of Alcobia-Murphy's work identifying McGuckian's sources, Flynn's book sketches a helpful trajectory of the way McGuckian's choice of and use of sources has changed over the course of her poetic career.
It seems somewhat ironic that a book about reading Medbh McGuckian's work would involve so much outside reading. There are close readings of individual poems throughout the book, but they become less and less central as the book progresses. The latter half of the book is more concerned with what you don't experience reading Medbh McGuckian, that is, the intertextual conversations "conducted, crazily, entirely outside the poems themselves and at outrageous distance from them" (168). This is because, as Flynn points out, most of the "echoes and correspondences happen outside" the poems themselves (121). Not that such an approach, however it belies the book's title, is a weakness or failing; in fact it underscores her point that however personal or intimate McGuckian's poetry may be, it still downplays the authorship of the poet.
At a few points in the book, Flynn hints at a possible tension between feminist theory and Irish studies. Yet she never really explores this provocative question, perhaps because McGuckian herself is so slippery in relation to questions of gender and national literature. Nevertheless, Flynn's study might have been the ideal place for such a discussion, given that at least part of the reason McGuckian fits so uneasily into the typical Irish poetry syllabus is because her work doesn't lend itself to the kinds of historical, autobiographical readings we gravitate toward when teaching Irish literature to our students. Somehow the death of the author has been prevented--or ignored--in Irish studies, which makes McGuckian's disavowal of her own authorship and belated interest in her historical circumstances all the more provocative.
As a fan of Flynn's poetry, I was eager to see what her critical prose would be like. Despite all the time Flynn spends reading things other than McGuckian's poems, her explanations of what it feels like to read the poems are the most striking moments of the book, describing volumes that have been "stripped down and bleached out ... almost refined to abstraction" (65) or in which "political vocabulary seems to have been stirred into the poetry, and the results read like tea leaves" (158). Flynn's paragraphs have their own McGuckianesque digressions, but instead of "flitting" as McGuckian does from point to disarticulated point, Flynn's winding, desultory paragraphs, which sometimes span a couple of pages, explicate rather than obfuscate their connective logic. One of the principal strengths of Flynn's book is her forthright (dare I say "no-nonsense"?) style. She frequently asks the question that the reader, listener, or student might be afraid to ask, such as, "How does it work? How does ... sexual difference make its way into language?" (58). Her approach licenses a certain level of candor (she can call things bizarre or crazy), but this style would not be as approachable or enjoyable without the balance of generosity and rigor Flynn brings to her readings. As a poet writing about another poet, she does not hesitate to judge the qualities of individual poems, sometimes even pronouncing them failures. Nevertheless, she avoids erring on the side of either extreme--hasty dismissiveness or excessive admiration--which allows her to be an effective apologist and critic.
This is also a book about poetry in general, and it reveals the way in which seemingly opposed features of poetry, such as intimacy and impersonality, can become a unified poetic project. Whether or not you are interested in McGuckian's poetry, the book is valuable for the way that it teases apart the meaning of concepts like clarity and coherence, meaning and sense. If it is the job of poetry to blur such distinctions, it is the job of criticism to distinguish these elements so that they can be blurred.
--University of Connecticut
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|Title Annotation:||Reading Medbh McGuckian|
|Publication:||Irish Literary Supplement|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 2, 2015|
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