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Giant Step

Dick Edelstein

Mountains for Breakfast, by Geraldine Mitchell. Arlen House, 80 pp, ISBN: 978-1851321643

A third volume of poetry can be a pivotal one that may shed light on a poet’s capacity for sustained growth or perhaps an ability to embark in a fresh direction. In this respect, Geraldine Mitchell’s latest offering, Mountains for Breakfast, gives readers much to contemplate. Reviews by Eithne Shortall in The Sunday Times and Dawn Gorman in The Interpreter’s House have noted that the forceful context of the collection immediately draws the reader into a complex, fragmented, kaleidoscopic and somewhat mysterious narrative arc, whose contour is gradually revealed as the reader progresses.

While the two preceding volumes were notably cohesive, in this one the poet constructs a more all-embracing context while maintaining an easily identifiable stylistic continuity. Even so, the result is somewhere between a giant step and a leap forward, so it is appropriate that one of the poems is entitled “Sea Change”. But identifying the elements of poetics that add up to a qualitative change is not exactly a straightforward proposition since incremental alterations in writing and approach are widely spread across several aspects of the new work, including form, subject matter, style and narrative technique.

A key to the fresh approach is signposted by the inscription that prefaces the collection, a quotation from the poem “Chickamaugua” by the American poet Charles Wright:

The poem is a code with no message.
The point of the mask is not the mask but the face underneath.
Absolute, incommunicado
                unhoused and peregrine.

Certainly some of the images in these poems suggest another meaning beyond what they denote, a few of these having reference to a larger discursive arc. But many inspire a portentous feeling with no evident link to what may be referred to. Thus “a code with no message” aptly describes much of the language found in this collection.

In “Roadkill” we are told “There’s a hare on the road, its belly / soft as bilge.” The nautical image is grasped immediately by readers even while it seems to ignore logic and sidesteps reference. Because of its immediacy, the use of the image is confident and surefooted. A similar approach to images is noticeable throughout the collection and, as we will see, this modus operandi affords the writer a great deal of freedom.

In “Counsel” we read “The kitchen / throws a knife of light / along the gravel at my feet.” while in “Landfall” we hear “A bird’s underside catches the sun, // angles its knife at my throat.” The first knife appears quite innocent, the second more menacing. Images of ropes, wires, bones, apparitions, predators, bullies and monsters portentously parade through these poems while others take aim, shriek, menace or haunt. Mainly these images are ambiguous signs, whether subtle or forceful, sometimes serving to enhance or embolden the mood of a particular poem, elsewhere influencing the way we apprehend the work as a whole.

A second reference to Charles Wright also signposts poetic intention, but in an entirely different realm. “Discredited Form, Discredited Subject Matter” represents the most radical formal departure, a lengthy poem in the form of a journal with daily entries that occupies an entire section of the collection. It takes its name from another poem by Wright and its inclusion calls attention to the variety of poetic forms employed in Mountains for Breakfast. More notable is the way these are bent to serve a more general purpose as parts of a larger narrative. Several poems are either divided into parts or aggregated into a larger framework, just as the collection itself is divided into four sections, each relating to the whole in a specific but not explicitly defined way. Formal resources of this sort have been explored in the poet’s previous volumes, but more tentatively. They now come to the fore, accounting for more than third of the volume if we include prose poems, and their prevalence helps to form the scaffolding on which the volume is constructed.

Although the formal variations are sometimes accompanied by a novel approach to the style of writing on the page, readers will easily recognise the continuity in the poet’s voice, in the language, and in the images, while the forms provide a space for perceptions and notions to more freely take their place on the page. Also remarkable is how effortlessly narrative continuity is sustained across the different forms from the first poem to the last. Such is the integrating power of the context that even poems which are noticeably divergent in subject matter and reference are nonetheless easily encompassed, serving to develop some aspect of what is being related. For this reason, it is not apparent whether the thematic cohesiveness of this collection has resulted from selective pruning or a preconceived ambition to design a volume with a more intense focus.

Commentators have often found in Mitchell’s poetry a sort of implacable, beady-eyed realism, allayed in some measure by a hopeful outlook. Here we find generous helpings of the former with less frequent, more tenuous indications of the latter. Even so, this formula surprisingly does not add up to a gloomy scenario as it merely flows from an altered approach. The imagery, less burdened with literary baggage and editorial comment, enjoys greater freedom of association as it cleanly and elegantly conveys trains of raw experience ‑ or reflection ‑ leaving to readers the task of associating signs with meaning.

Some of the principal themes taken up ‑ infirmity, loss and grief ‑ hardly lend themselves to cheerful treatment. On the other hand, the landscape of the north Mayo headlands, an ever-present protagonist, is generally viewed in a kind and thankful light, even while it is capable of provoking complaints about the long tunnel of its winter season, with attendant heavy weather, murkiness and isolation. Yet we find few complaints on this count. In all seasons and weathers we are able to view glorious facets of this landscape, rich in captivating detail. We see nature pregnant with signs and portents spelled out in a language we do not really comprehend. But the persistence of natural and geological life, long preceding our own, allows us to take a longer perspective on our own life and times.

The poem “Sea Change”, referenced earlier, penultimate in the collection, helps bring to a close the section dealing with loss and grief. The strong associative power of its imagery helps elucidate the broader narrative in Mountains for Breakfast and may shed some light on the author’s approach and methods.

I have come to a place where the sea / opens and closes small fists in a dance
(…) This is a place / of revision, I will have time to name / the changing colours of the sea.

The collection opens with a poem written in the second person, a multiplication of the self. It sets out an intention revealed by the narrative voice, and as with the previous quotes, can perhaps shed some tenuous light on the author’s aims and the approach used to achieve them.

This year, you say, you’re taking up magic, a self-multiplication through sleight of mind (…) a three-card trick / and each of you winning each time.
This year, you say, you’ll work at illusion, / at mirrors and smoke (…) apparitions you alone need believe.

1/5/2018

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