Unrecent Reading: Annemarie Ní Churreáin and Emma McKervey

Bloodroot, Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Doire Press, 2017, ISBN: 978-1-907682-58-2, €12

The Rag Tree Speaks, Emma McKervey, Doire Press, 2017, ISBN: 978-1-907682-55-1, €12

Sometimes a parcel of books comes through the letterbox and then slips through the cracks somehow, and this is what happened when Doire Press kindly sent me these two titles about 18 months ago. Still, better late than never.

Ní Churreáin’s debut collection has been widely and very positively reviewed, and it’s easy to understand why; she writes interestingly about matters of great importance to our idea of ourselves as a society, specifically the appalling treatment meted out in the relatively recent past to many unmarried mothers in ‘Catholic Ireland’. She writes with conviction about the Kerry Babies, Ann Lovett and the scandal of the so-called ‘mother and baby homes’, which were far from being homes and paid scant regard to the mothers and babies supposedly in their care. However, it would be an injustice to paint Ní Churreáin as a poet concerned with just these issues, her range is wider than that.

The book is divided into three numbered sections. The first of these is primarily concerned with the idea of coming of age, seen from multiple angles, a set of journeys from childhood to maturity, not all of them happy, set in what are often mythic landscapes.

a stream of girls,
wet hair trailing
a scent of apples

in the left-behind air,
orchards
imagined us

fetching from wells,
pitchers of silver equations,
poems, plant names.

[from ‘Sisters’]

This section opens with a poem, ‘Untitled’ (called ‘End of Girlhood’ elsewhere) that is a kind of inversion of the Daphne myth; here, rather than being absorbed into the world of nature by losing her humanity and becoming a tree, the young female protagonist becomes perhaps more fully human by being integrated into the natural world through a process of imaginative sympathy:

The first time
a tree called me by name,
I was thirteen and only spoke a weave of ordinary tongues.

There are poems of female isolation, cut through by friendship as in the poem ‘Sisters’ which she can be heard reading here. Also in this section is the title poem, which concerns the incarceration of Ní Churreáin’s grandmother in Castlepollard home, an event that has clearly helped shape the poet’s own world view. In the poem, we see her trying to conjure some kind of truth from the ruin of the past:

Home, if I press my lips to your ruins       three times

and circle the ground like a beast,        if I say my root

to this earth

who will hear            when I speak?

The second section takes up this summoning of ghosts in a set of poems that treat of the stories I mentioned earlier. Again, the background of a mythic landscape is used to give historic depth to the foregrounded events:

and each night I dreamed Saidhbhín,

who, betrayed of a human form, hooved

hiding in the woods,

awaits

the blood-hounds

of Fionn.

[from ‘Saidhbhín ‘]

It is tempting to say that Ní Churreáin is recovering these narratives, but that’s not quite the case, as they have been aired to a far wider audience than poetry readers in the media over recent years. It’s equally tempting to think of her giving voice to the women whose lives and deaths she is exploring, but she knows more than to patronise them in this way. Rather, it strikes me that she’s asking difficult questions about what these stories us as a society with a history – a long history – of mistreating significant sections of our citizens, and how we might learn to genuinely mourn for the victims of this neglect.

In an interview in The Irish Times, Ní Churreáin points the finger at the state as the villain of the piece, the poetry is wiser than that, seeing a wider picture:

The villagers did not unite

in outrage

but instead, they set about their days as usual,

posting letters, buying fruit, forming queues in the bank after lunchtime.

The sad truth is that while Irish people had a number of ways of responding to pregnancy outside marriage, too many parents shipped their daughters off to the dreaded mother and baby homes, knowing exactly what they were like.

The state was certainly at fault for washing its hands of this and outsourcing the management of these ‘fallen’ women to a church that all too often completely failed to act in accordance with the precepts of love and charity it nominally promoted. This was not simply a failure of the state, it was a failure of an entire society.

The central poem in this section of the book, and of the book as a whole, is ‘Six Ways to Wash Your Hands (Ayliffe, 1978)’ which gets its title and the first lines of each of its six stanzas from a classic scientific paper on hand hygiene for medical practitioners. Ní Churreáin deftly weaves the idea of a method of personal hygiene with that of a society ‘cleansing’ itself of the supposed moral stain of uncontrolled sexuality and its outcome:

Rub palm to palm, fingers interlaced and around the wrists

to erase all trace of fathers. Never mention cuffs.

Never mention scars. Raise your head against the sky

and let the violet clouds overfill your eyes as the names

of these men become again unknown as birds.

When you see a wing, like a realm of thumbed pages

fluttering, take this as a sign: the fathers are no more.

I’ve seen Ní Churreáin’s writing described as ‘angry’, but while it might evoke anger in the reader, it’s actually controlled, clinical and dispassionate in its dissection of the process of erasure through which the experience and lives of so many women and children were simply erased from the record.

The third section represents a moving on, both from trauma and from Ireland in poems of travel abroad, neat, well-constructed anecdotal poems that relate more or less interesting epiphanies on beaches in Goa or weddings in Florida. It’s a genre that is, to me at least, unaccountably popular, ubiquitous even, and in the context of this book represent something of a falling away from the intense power of the first two sections. Nevertheless, this is an impressive debut by a clearly gifted poet, and I’m only sorry I didn’t get around to it sooner.

Emma McKervey’s The Rag Tree Speaks is also a debut collection, and there are some overlaps with Ní Churreáin in the use of myth and a certain focus on female experience, though McKervey’s interest in myth is as much Greek as Irish:

I preside over the marital bed of her winter hibernation
fallow, with her legs spread wide, waiting for Spring.
She has forgotten the pomegranate was held in my hand
long before she spat its seeds to the earth and claimed it as her own

However, her work is quite different, both technically and in terms of its central preoccupation. The latter is best captured in a quote from McKervey’s blog:

My writing follows two different processes, one which is a felt, emotional response to a situation, and the other which arises from hours of research and intellectual engagement with the subject matter, a process of contextualisation and distillation. Of course each process informs the other.  What I was searching for, and continue to do so, is what Cy Twombly would describe as ‘the thingness of the thing’, the capturing of an essence, ‘un-anthropomorphised’ as I write in Totem, which arises from a wholly humanist stance in the world.

This striving for ‘thingness’, whether seen in terms of Kant’s ding an sich or some variant on Dun Scotus’ ‘haecceitas’ or ‘thisness’ is both extremely difficult and, I have argued elsewhere, entirely vital in the face of impending environmental catastrophe. There are those who argue from an Idealist position that there are no things unless we humans observe them, but McKervey comes at the world from a different, more humble (in the best sense) perspective. The result is a poetry that is refreshingly short on metaphor and simile and long on a kind of post-Imagist power of patient observation.

McKervey’s ambitions require her to interrogate the place of language in our mapping of the world of things, a process that begins with the opening lines of the first poem in the book, ‘An Sciathán’:

It can be considered odd that the Irish language
has no word for hand or foot; these appendages,
as we see them, are of the linguistic flow of arm and leg
and the words themselves seem supple and warm,

suggestive of the dexterity of the limbs as a whole;

The difficulty involved in what McKervey is attempting is apparent in the book’s title poem, in which the poet attempts to give voice to the rag tree, that once commonplace liminal space on the Irish landscape:

Cerebus uses me to urinate against:

he releases his stinking stream of piss, one head

watching its trickling through the crackles of my bark,

the other intent on whether the chrome yellow trail

can reach the river’s edge where the ferryman waits.

The writing here is strong, the music underpinned by patterns of repeated ‘t’, ‘s’ and ‘k’ sounds carries the reader along, but the Idealist might object, quite reasonably, this is a human voice, a human mythos, imposed from the outside with little enough to do with the treeness of the tree in question. At her best, she overcomes this by a process of close, dispassionate observation, as in the poem ‘Seaweed’:

The seaweed dries slowly, small decorative curls

which have been artfully spread amongst the stone

and shells scavenged from the beach.

 

As the seaweed dries salt crystallises on the rubbery skin

and as it dries farther and the moisture evaporates entirely

the tiny crystals drop and lie without direction on the sill.

 

Inspection shows how precisely formed they are –

cubic solids on a minute scale. Midst careful arrangement

of conch and pebble this fallen saline is perfection.

Here the ‘artful’ human agency is present but not dominant, the process of observation discovers rather than creating, the complex ‘thisness’ of things in themselves. The rhythm and patterning of sibilant consonants tend to slow the reader to the point where we are also engaged in this process of observation. It’s a fine poem from a collection that has many such carefully won moments.

It strikes me that poets living and working in the North find themselves in a position analogous to that faced by most Irish poets a century ago, writing in the shadow of a dominant exemplar; for Yeats then, read Heaney now. If the poem ‘The Rag Tree Speaks’ owes too much to Heaney’s example, then poems like ‘Seaweed’ seem to address the question of influence by ignoring it. At her best, McKervey writes as if she had never read the older poet, the result is an invigorating freshness.

Doire Press are to be thanked for publishing these two fine debut collections in serviceable, nicely designed paperbacks. Having come to them late, I’m left looking forward to seeing what both these poets do in the future.

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