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For the Desert Air

Thomas McCarthy

Ethna MacCarthy: Poems, Eoin O’Brien and Gerald Dawe (eds), Lilliput Press, 96 pp, €15, ISBN: 978-1843517696

Sometimes the turbulent world of Irish books throws out a real gem. Lilliput has produced a fair few literary gems in its day, but this one is an absolute treasure. The Trinity poet (and I call her that most advisedly) Ethna MacCarthy was a vivacious, spirited, brilliant presence in the lives of three very important male figures in Dublin’s literary world. She dominates several early pages of Denis Johnston’s rollicking life, she is a persistent romantic presence in the life and work of Samuel Beckett, and she fell in love with and eventually married the great theatre chronicler and Beckett companion, Con Leventhal. This might have been her destiny, to be a beloved, to be a muse, had Eoin O’Brien not come upon her personal album of poetry in the papers of Con Leventhal, and had poet Gerald Dawe not gone back to the work published in forgotten Dublin journals and The Irish Times of the 1930s and 1940s. Look what can happen to women in the Irish Canon; how can poems such as “Viaticum” be simply forgotten?

The sluice gates of sleep are open wide
And through the House its soothing silver tide
From ward to ward flows grave and deep:
Now flood, now fretful trickle,
And some it leaves marooned
Who cannot sleep.
The nurses chart its course all night
And those who drowse and those who tell their beads
And those who coma vigil keep,
Sunken beyond the lure of light.

This work, the poetry of a highly educated and deeply cerebral woman, has finally seen the light of day in this magnificent first edition of her poems. This is a poetry of heightened awareness, intellectual work that is as penetrating and effective as the stare from her brilliant eyes in Seamus O’Sullivan’s 1931 pencil portrait. “We railed against the psychopedantic parlours of our elders and their maidenly consorts, hoping the while with an excess of Picabia and banter, a whiff of Dadaist Europe, to kick Ireland into artistic wakefulness …” wrote Con (AJ) Leventhal in The Klaxon in Winter 1923-24. The Picabia referred to must be none other than the porno-realistic artist-father of one Francine Picabia, who would recruit Beckett into the French Resistance during the Occupation. In this hermetic Paris-TCD world everything is ultimately connected. The cultural and spiritual interconnectedness of everyone is simply uncanny and thrilling. 

Granddaughter of the famed Irish-American poet Denis Florence MacCarthy and daughter of a public health specialist, Dr Brendan MacCarthy, Ethna was born in Coleraine, Co Derry. The family moved to Dublin in the early nineteen hundreds and lived at Sandymount Avenue. She became a foundation scholar and First Class Moderator at Trinity College, where she studied French and German, becoming a lecturer in French and Provençal. In her mid-thirties she switched careers, entering TCD’s school of medicine and graduating in 1941 with a BM and BS, followed by the professional MD of Trinity at the age of forty-three. Like her father, she became a specialist in paediatric public health, becoming physician to the children’s dispensary at Dublin’s Royal Hospital. Although she was Beckett’s first love, the inspiration for Dream of Fair to Middling Women and a presence in Krapp’s Last Tape, her lifelong love was Con Leventhal, whom she married in 1956 after his first wife’s death. Theirs was a brief marriage as she died from throat cancer in May 1959 at the age of fifty-six.

In his fascinating introduction to the work here, Eoin O’Brien recalls his receipt of Leventhal’s case of papers, diaries and notebooks from his widow, Marion, in Paris; and how he found therein the typescripts, manuscripts and newspaper cuttings of Ethna MacCarthy’s work. It was an important moment of recovery; the recovery not only of a forgotten poetic talent of the 1930s and 1940s but the reclamation of an entire lost atmosphere in Irish writing. Ethna, Leventhal and Beckett were all part of a bustling, outward-looking, cosmopolitan Trinity junta; keepers of a defiant flame of modernism in an Ireland that was becoming determinedly incestuous and backward. What a pity that Ethna MacCarthy didn’t live for at least a further ten years, into that decade where she might have met James Liddy or Michael Smith or Gerard Smyth, who would have understood her restless, modernist voice. She would have surely become a poet of New Writers Press, sitting comfortably with Smyth, Brian Lynch and Durcan, and extending the roots of New Writers Press back to its modernist 1920s Dublin origins. But, for all her wit and sharpness, her vivacity and brilliance, Ethna suffered from a common MacCarthy trait, indolence. Like Máire Mhac an tSaoí, with whom she shares many upper class Catholic emotional and literary traits, Ethna seems to have had that dubious gift of literary patience. Patience is a catastrophe if you’re going to die young. Like Mhac an tSaoi, MacCarthy would first test her skills as a translator of Spanish and German poetry before settling into a full acceptance of her own voice. She became a poet who could write like this, creating this cat poem, as good as anything by Louis MacNeice:

My silver cat with burning eyes
thinks the wall a paradise
for angling human kind.
She knows the world belongs to her
for her to rend or kill or bless,
the very wind that stirs her fur
she tolerates as a caress
ruffling a can-can glimpse of white
beneath pale infant loneliness.

The accomplished technique of MacNeice’s “The Death of a Cat” or a lyric like Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s “Suantraí Ghráinne” or Richard Murphy’s “Coppersmith” comes to mind when you read such work by MacCarthy. The fuller oxygen of book publication, of a public response and a wider audience, would have worked wonders for her in her poetic career. But she hesitated, or she seems to have hesitated. Was she intimidated by the brilliant men in her circle, did she cede too much aesthetic ground to them? Or was she simply too well brought-up in an haut bourgeois Catholic atmosphere to place her own literary ambition front and centre in this rollicking tide of Dublin masculinities? At that moment in time, between 1927 and 1947, she was a far better poet than Samuel Beckett: anyone with even the most basic understanding of what constitutes a successful poem would have to admit that. Beckett’s lyric technique is garishly derivative and some of his lyric music was Ethna MacCarthy’s. There is something furtive and hidden about her own brilliantly demanding personal life, some unstated hesitation or unhappiness, that still needs to be investigated by some literary sleuth like Knowlson. The men in a vivacious woman’s life are never a really good starting point. We need to know more about her, and only her. What were her thought processes? Why did she escape back to medicine from French? Her poems of the inner city life, of Dublin hospital wards and clinics, of nurses and Masters, are hypnotic and masterful.

In his section of the introduction, Gerald Dawe creates a terrific introductory map of her work, noting her responses to the Jewish poet Else Lasker-Schüler, as well as her poetic landscape of Grafton Street, the Provost’s House and Sandymount. But Dawe is sharp enough, and a good enough poet, to spot “the conflicting strains of emotional energy … in the conventional and performative aspects of her life”. Dawe emphasises the technical power of lyrics like ‘Barcelona’ and ‘The Migrants,’ noting how MacCarthy gets better and better through an educated web of allusion, inter-text and connection across languages. Indeed, as I’ve said, he is mapping a poetic talent that would have thrived under Arena or New Writers Press. For poems like ‘Clinic,’ ‘The Charity, ’ ‘Viaticum’ and ‘The Theatre’ Ethna MacCarthy deserves to be more widely known and celebrated in her own right. This book certainly is that brilliant starting point, a female voice recovered, a beauty of a book; a precious, important gift to give to any young Dublin poet who is just about to begin a life in literature.

1/6/2020

Thomas McCarthy’s most recent collection of poems, Prophecy, was published by Carcanet Press last year.

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