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Speak, Memory

Jane Clarke

 Contemporary Irish Women Poets: Memory and Estrangement, by Lucy Collins, Liverpool University Press, 224 pp, €75, ISBN: 978-1781381878

Reading Lucy Collins’s Contemporary Irish Women Poets: Memory and Estrangement has a particular resonance in this commemorative year with the belated acknowledgement of the role of women in the Easter Rising and its exploration in academic and public discourse. Consideration of how and why women’s activism before, during and after the rebellion was virtually erased from public and personal memories, poses questions about the reciprocal influence of memory and history. In her timely study Collins helps ensure that the work of contemporary women poets does not suffer a similar neglect. Through her focus on memory as the central theme, Collins highlights the contribution of contemporary Irish women’s poetry to enlarging our understanding of how memory shapes our relationship with the past, politically, socially and culturally as well as personally.

This academic study is distinguished by the way Collins interweaves close readings of the work of individual poets with an exposition of the collective development of contemporary Irish women’s poetry since the 1980s. She focuses on three generations of poets, born between 1942 and 1983, exploring commonalities and differences through their engagement with memory. She devotes a chapter each to the well-known and highly regarded Eavan Boland, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Medbh McGuckian and Vona Groarke, as well as a chapter to the relatively unknown avant-garde poet Catherine Walsh. She juxtaposes poets in illuminating ways. There is a chapter focusing on how the personal and the political are entwined in the work of Paula Meehan, Mary O’Malley and Colette Bryce and another on migrant identities in the work of Sinead Morrissey, Eva Bourke and Mairéad Byrne. Collins comes to the work of each poet with the rigorous and respectful attention of an archaeologist. She gives us a sense of the development of the poet’s oeuvre, looking at where they fit into and how they shape the ever-evolving tradition as well as throwing light on particular poems.

Collins’s choice of memory as the thread she follows through the work of these poets is a fruitful one. The phenomenon of memory is endlessly intriguing and as powerful as it is mysterious. While writers have an intuitive sense of the symbiotic relationship between memory and imagination, recent developments in neuroscience have influenced how this relationship is conceptualised in other fields of human endeavour. Memory can be seen as a storyteller, shaped as much by subjective expectations and knowledge regarding what could have happened as what actually did happen. It is interesting to learn in Collins’s introduction that memory studies is developing in Ireland as a distinct field of research that crosses different disciplines such as history, psychology, politics, literature, art history and sociology. According to the historian Geoffrey Cubitt, memory “may be mental or physical, natural or artificial, conscious or unconscious, individual or social …”. It is within this broad notion of memory that Collins looks at its varied manifestations in the work of contemporary Irish women poets. These include explorations of the nature of memory in its fluidity and instability; the relationship between memory and history, memory and forgetting, individual memory and shared memory, personal and collective memory; as well as explorations of the role of memory as catalyst for philosophical enquiry and in shaping identity and forming meaning.

It is fitting that Collins begins with Eavan Boland, who has articulated her interest in the concept of memory and specifically the difference between the official and unofficial past since early in her writing career. In her consideration of how Boland explores the nature of memory, both personal and cultural, through the lens of gender politics, Collins quotes Marianne Hirsch and Valerie Smith, “What a culture remembers and what it chooses to forget are intricately bound up with issues of power and hegemony, and thus with gender.” Boland reflects on the impact of patriarchy on the lives of women: her grandmother, her mother, herself and a host of imagined women. Core to her creative project is the restoration of the unofficial past, giving memory and story legitimacy that is denied in the versions of the controlled and controlling “official past”. Collins traces Boland’s ongoing exploration of memory and estrangement and how her work circles around questions of identity and belonging, with loss as a central motif. Reflecting on The Lost Land, published in 1998, Collins suggests that this collection presents the poet’s discovery, “that the growth to emotional maturity – and in this case to aesthetic achievement – involves the recognition that personal experiences of loss are indicative of the grief inherent in the human condition itself”.

                                 what else
can a mother give her daughter but such
beautiful rifts in time?
“The Pomegranate”

In another chapter Collins gives Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin her due as “one of the most significant poets to emerge in Ireland in the second half of the twentieth century” and goes on to explore the many ways in which Ní Chuilleanáin plays with, contemplates and questions memory in relation to personal, family and political history. She reveals treasures in Ní Chuilleanáin’s sometimes enigmatic, often impressionistic style, such as the paradox of seeing the keeping of secrets as a means of self-expression or her exploration of the relationship between the sound and meaning of words in a beautiful poem from The Girl Who Married a Reindeer, ‘Glos/Clós/Glas’. Collins highlights Ní Chuilleanáin’s interest in objects as carriers of the past as well as her use of interior and exterior spaces as metaphor for the dynamic relationship between the private and public, the body and the spirit, emotions and intellect in shaping memory. We see her moving between memory and estrangement within her poems and within each collection; memory is not something stable in her work but fluid and changing, closer to myth than history.

In this house there is no need to wait for the verdict of
                                                       history
          And each page lies open to the version of every other.
“In Her Other House”

Further resonance with current discourse about the “poet’s revolution” is found in Collins’s consideration of the relationship between artistic expression and political activism: “In its layered construction of subjectivity, poetry has the potential to extend how the dynamics of self and other can be understood, offering new ways of reading the relationship between the emotional life of the individual and the larger social and political contexts that have shaped these perceptions.” Collins shows a deep interest in the contribution of women’s poetry to political and cultural change and in how political and cultural change shapes the poetry women write. In the third chapter she links the work of Paula Meehan, Mary O’Malley and Collette Bryce as poets of witness who address personal and political themes through the lens of memory. Collins highlights how the political circumstances of their upbringing has shaped the aesthetic of each of these poets and how each uses memory as a catalyst for philosophical and social enquiry: “They confirm the representation of personal suffering as an important dimension of ethical reflection and as means of understanding one’s place in the world.” Collins chooses “The Statute of the Virgin at Granard Speaks” as an example of Meehan’s social critique.  This well-loved poem, as compassionate as it is angry, spoke to and for a generation of Irish women in the eighties. Its lasting power was evident when Meehan was invited to read it almost thirty years later in 2012 at vigils for Savita Hallapanavar. Collins also highlights the interweaving of the personal and the political in O’Malley’s subtle reflections on loss: loss of folklore, language, communities, ecology and in Bryce’s exploration of the experience of growing up during the Troubles. In Bryce’s most recent collection, The Whole and Rain-domed Universe (2014), she looks at the impact of violence and the threat of violence on herself and other members of her family, as well as her family as a whole and her community. She sets the scene in the opening lines of the long poem “Derry”, echoing the opening lines of Louis MacNeice’s “Carrickfergus”.

I was born between the Creggan and the Bogside
    to the sounds of crowds and smashing glass,
       by the river Foyle with its suicides and rip tides
           I thought the city was nothing less

than the whole and rain-domed universe.

Of course readers will not always agree with how Collins interprets the work of the poets she has chosen to include and some may find her analysis too prescriptive. However, by offering perspectives that can be rejected or amended she helps the reader look afresh at work that is familiar and engages them with work that is new. The syntactic intricacy of Medbh McGuckian’s work is often experienced as intimidating.  In the chapter “Radical Temporalities”, Collins offers a helping hand into McGuckian’s work. She suggests that the way McGuckian interacts with memory reflects “her desire to alter the linear relationship between past, present and future” and shows how she emphasises the role of cultural memory in shaping how we understand our past and envision our future. Collins explores how McGuckian simultaneously revisits past tropes and images while continually transforming her work. Vona Groarke also revisits themes and imagery in her work, juxtaposing presence and absence, growth and stagnation, stability and mutability. Collins reflects on Groarke’s exploration of the nature of time and multiple versions of the past through varied landscapes. One of the interesting questions about any “nature poetry” is the extent to which it is primarily about nature itself or primarily symbolic. When considering the moving thirteen-poem garden sequence in her most recent collection, X, Collins quotes Groarke’s answer in a recent interview, that she is “more given to investigate how nature might mirror human psychological experience and states, than to the act of description”.

Contemporary Irish Women Poets encompasses three generations of poetic life and it is in her concluding chapter that Collins comes to the third generation. She focuses on Sinéad Morrissey’s many poems in her most recent collection, Parallax, which reflect on the relationship with the past and how it is recorded in different media, including photography, film and text; Leanne O’Sullivan’s contemplation of the process of recollection and how “the past is embedded in place and community”; and memory and forgetting in the work of Sara Berkeley and Leontia Flynn. After the comprehensive attention she has given the previous poets, this chapter is more like a whistle-stop tour. Nevertheless Collins succeeds in demonstrating the wealth of talent that has emerged in the past twenty years, exploring these poets’ varied approaches to a shared preoccupation with the nature of memory.

There may well be questions as to why Collins has chosen to separate Irish contemporary women poets for critical review and some will argue that it serves to reinforce marginalisation. However the value of exploring these poets together must be seen in the context of the persistent invisibility of Irish women’s poetry. While there has been an exciting burgeoning in the publication and recognition of Irish women poets since the 1980s, they are still underrepresented in literary journals, anthologies and academic critiques and their presence in the poetic canon, now being shaped for future generations, cannot be taken for granted. The impact of women’s exclusion from the canon is raised in the introduction to this study when Collins notes that Irish women poets experienced a “lack of literary foremothers”. In the early 1990s both Eavan Boland and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill wrote challenging and influential essays exploring the difficulties of finding a place as a woman in a literary tradition where the act of writing poetry is male and where woman is the muse but not the maker. In her essay “What Foremothers?” (1992), Ní Dhomhnaill gives an example of a myth warning against women poets, “Na trí rudaí is measa in mbaile - tuíodóir fluich, síoladóir tuibh, file mná.” (“The three worst curses that could befall a village - a wet thatcher, a heavy sower, a woman poet.”)

Contemporary Irish Women Poets demonstrates that women have found or rather forged their voice and their place in Irish and world literature but it is still worth asking to what extent poets writing now, both male and female, are aware of the rich inheritance of women’s poetry stretching back to the seventeenth century. A small number of anthologies have been and continue to be invaluable in developing an inclusive awareness of Irish poetic legacy. Pillars of the House: An Anthology of Verse by Irish Women from 1690 to the Present, edited by AA Kelly and published by Wolfhound Press in 1978, was a landmark achievement as the first historical anthology of poetry by Irish women. In her lively introduction Kelly looked at how that poetry reflected Irish social and political history and gave an overview of the obstacles encountered by women poets during those two hundred and fifty years. She tells us that by the early twentieth century “Women were still not expected to call a womb a womb, and their ‘sentiments’ were still expected to be refined.” Voices on the Wind: Women Poets of the Celtic Twilight, (1995), edited by Éilís Ni Dhuibhne, featured the work of six poets: Katherine Tynan, Susan Mitchell, Dora Sigerson Shorter, Ethna Carberry, Eva Gore Booth, and Nora Hopper Chesson. More recently, Poetry by Women in Ireland: A Critical Anthology 1870-1970, edited by Lucy Collins (2014), makes another crucial contribution to the work of reclaiming the legacy of Irish women poets. Her anthology brings together almost two hundred poems by fifteen poets from this period, with an introduction that elucidates the social and political context of their work.

Readers may have come across Lucy Collins’s recent series of succinct, engaging pieces about poems related to 1916 in the print media. Her writing style in this work of scholarship is quite different: dense, complex, theoretical and relatively inaccessible to those not immersed in academic explorations of literature. No doubt her wide-ranging, accomplished study will be highly valued in the academic world; it would be unfortunate if the writing style limits its audience among other lovers of poetry, writers and/or readers. There will inevitably be disappointment about the omission of highly regarded poets from this significant study; however the number of poets who warrant inclusion underlines the dramatic growth of women’s voices within Irish poetry over the past forty years. Contemporary women’s poetry is flourishing; further academic studies of this range and quality are required.

 

Lucy Collins has served the world of poetry well; she has produced an enriching resource with her exploration of the work of individual poets and their collective development, focusing on how they negotiate the relationship between past and present, private and public, personal and political. Her sustained illuminating analysis will undoubtedly promote a wider and deeper appreciation of contemporary Irish women’s poetry, whet the appetite of new readers and prompt further academic study in this dynamically evolving area of literature.

1/5/2016

Jane Clarke, originally from Roscommon and now living in Wicklow, is an award-winning and widely published poet.



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