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The Power of Nine

Catherine Phil MacCarthy

Geomantic, by Paula Meehan, Dedalus Press, 100 pp, €12.50, ISBN: 978-1910251157

In an interview as Ireland Chair of Poetry with the scholar and author Jody Allen Randolph in April 2014 at the National Library (https://dedaluspress.com/paula-meehan-reading-and-in-conversation/), Paula Meehan spoke of the many influences, formal considerations and hauntings that fed into her making of Geomantic. The book cover notes that the title derives from the Greek: “earth divination – a method of divination that interprets markings on the ground or the patterns formed by tossed handfuls of soil, rocks or sand”. Meehan cites Yeats’s interest in the occult and magic, in “traditions of meditative practices, of symbols, of tarot” as nurturing intuition over reason, generative of abilities to “make an event in language”. She mentions coming across the I Ching, a frequent occurrence as a young student. No surprise then to find the language of mystical practice in the titles, “The Grimoire”, “The Querant” or “The Hexagram”.

The influence of quilting, of watching friends work out patterns, was a source, and the cover image of the collection, a mosaic of nine squares, “similar but not the same” is quilt-like. “It was a simple affair ‑ nine squares / by nine squares, blue on green spots, stripes, bows / alternate with gold on red chevrons: / my grandmother’s quilt I slept under / the long and winding nights of childhood.’’ (“The Quilt”). The collection includes a sequence of seven poems commissioned to commemorate the Easter Rising by Poetry Ireland, originally published as “Doing the Past”, in a fine art edition. Their inclusion here among lyrics that reflect on the community living, or dying on the very streets where the Easter Rising took place raises questions as to how we as a state have honoured that legacy. The idea is not to use form for ornamental purposes, but to take something “handed down” and employ its power “to stop time”, to carry experience in language. Seamus Heaney’s “Postcard from Iceland” provided a nine-line pattern, one that is close to a sonnet form but has greater compression and openness.

Meehan’s discovery of countercultural influences has long been a strategy of her poetic process, and the idea of divination is the holding pattern for this collection. The first poems in Geomantic are love songs to the moon and sea, to “the earth’s patterning”; the last to a sense of home, on an Aegean island, Ikaria, (that takes its name from Icarus, son of Daedalus) that is “our own bee-loud glade.” (“The Island”). The opening poem in this collection, of eighty-one (nine by nine, or eight plus one) poems written over nine years, of nine lines, nearly all of nine syllables, is both chant and lullaby: “moon of my first breath, my mother’s death, / grandfather moon, my father’s frail boat, / moon of my lost child, my sister’s fall, / moon of my belovèd’s waking dream, / moons of my life adrift on the stream.”

The word “moon” is repeated nine times, and “moons” three. The figures are lightly sketched, universally recognised, and repetition moves the imagery towards abstraction. A private world is conjured in a cadence that invites readers (of any age) easily to inhabit the lines. The second poem, “The Patternings” offers a clue to the entire project – the process of drawing precise linguistic patterns: “I sketch the patternings of the sea, /the iter- and reiteration / of event… / Better scan fractals, rhyme sea with tree, / tune into tantric syncopation …” The word “fractal” suggests a structure, or geometrical figure (as in snowflake or crystal), where like designs recur at successive subdivisions. The root-word (“frangere” from the Latin) gives us “fraction”, and “fracture” in English. “Tantric” implicates Hindu or Buddhist mystical practices. The number nine has magical properties in the Bible and the scriptures; in numerology; it’s associated with leadership, wisdom and harmony, as well as being unique in mathematics.

The first poems open a strand threaded through the collection that explore human relationship to the earth and the wider cosmos. An early poem maps out the terrain, and brings together preoccupations: visioning, animism, a parallel universe in the skies, the mystery of human existence and its trajectory: “When you call it my book of shadows / I scry the tawny deer move upwind / toward the Furry Glen, and the stars / above have their own kind of grammar, / their own declension of wingèd folk — / the Mother, the Father, the Other. / I understand the transit of Mars / is a fated course that has us twinned /lost souls beneath the skylight window.” (“The Grimoire”). There is lyric beauty in the lines, a spiritual connection to creatures of the earth, and humility in the face of a fixed destiny.

Another strand of poems, or colour in the quilt, has to do with poetics ‑ “the craft is lighter than the learning” (“The Last Lesson”) ‑ and the writing life. Brilliant linguistic wit is one trademark, as well as humour. “The Clouds” are where “students’ heads ought to be”, as well as in “the digital zone”. “The Memory Stick” holds “a whole summer’s work in a square inch / … if I could recall where I put it.” The speaker in “The Moon Rose Over an Open Field” observes that the moon was catalyst to the young girl. The title is a line from a song of Simon and Garfunkel: “Count the syllables, a perfect line: / the way moon rises with the vowels, / … When I heard it first my fate was sealed: / it offered a pathway out of fear, / order from chaos when I was young, / a pure lyric from inchoate growls, / muse magic wrought from the power of nine.” In an essay on American poetry, Helen Vendler identified diverse traditions – that of Whitman, poets who reflect a macrocosmic vision of the world and articulate the chaos, and those, like Emily Dickinson who through the tight framework of form offer a microcosmic vision, attempt to control experience, to find order. Meehan uses form in Geomantic to frame diverse glimpses of the void, as well as glimpses of the divine. 

Writing and poem-making are first and foremost a way of surviving, of exploring consciousness, human experience, the natural world. There are hawks, snakes, cats, she-wolves, snow fields, ice-floes, foxes, rattlers, bees, a local or a remote, pristine world alive to the spirit, (“snowdrops measure the exact / shift in light”), and related to the human world, sometimes exemplary. This poet says, we are all “creaturely”. The search for animal tracks in the snow becomes the tracing of a poetic line, its tentativeness and false starts. (“I find the line, I lose it, I find / the line again. I turn it over / and feel it move through ear heart mind, // tracking the prints back to the den’s mouth …” (“The Line”) Meehan’s ability to put into the poem what is often left outside of it is a mark of her awareness and confidence. 

Here, in the wild, the path leads to a nurturing encounter. “Her mouth’s rimed with my milk, her hair streams / in curls and rivulets, down her back. / She is spelling out the new regime: // its ins, its outs, my place in the pack”. (“The New Regime”) The humanisation of “the pack” is revelatory of erotic tension and hierarchy, all the more powerful and eerie for its ambivalence. The words “new regime” have overtones of control and punishment, as do the beats in the final line, “the pain, the sweats, the rack”.

The last poems celebrate divination, a handful of earth thrown down like tarot cards, a system that accounts for this book’s title: “Under scrutiny it tells us all / we need to know about our futures, / it being composed of our past lives”. Swimming in a sea cave, the longing for an absent mother-figure is deftly explored, and the lines deliver a resolution to the loss: “It is as close as I’ll get to her / in this life, to swim into the dark / deep in the cave where the hot springs are, // to float in her amniotic dream / of children, of a husband, of home.” (“The Sea Cave”) In the process the swimmer at one with shoals of minnows, is spooked by the sensation of symbiosis or unity: “… uncertain / whether I hear her heartbeat or mine.”

The main focus of Geomantic are lyrics that evoke a city community, a shared world, one that is haunted by voices, a terrain mapped out in Dharmakaya. It recalls the intent “to hold in these hands / that have learnt to be soothing / my native city, its hinterland.” (“It Is All I Ever Wanted”). These poems are full of people: grannies, neighbours, godmothers, sons, and “the ghosts of my childhood”. (“The Old Neighbourhood”). They name city streets and histories, and chart the loss of communities. That they bring to Irish poetry a new story of place, a new territory, is well-documented. In this collection, Paula Meehan charts the fluidity of social change, and records lives diminished or ruined by poverty, addiction, alcoholism, suicide and violence. In addition, these public poems investigate what has become of the “dream of a republic, dream of hope”.

It is partly a story of protagonists and victims ‑ where the language of power is exposed by the speaker. In “The Trust” a mother is indicted for religious complacence, hypocrisy and cruelty: “Leave her in the lap of Our Lady” is the “counsel” of a woman who “slammed the door” on her own daughter, “found her in the Liffey’s dark water.” Ambivalence towards female power is at the core of several compelling poems, and it is often women who are held accountable for, or receptacles of, the pain and damage to vulnerable lives. “It was what she’d say when things got rough / back there in Thebes Central ‑ the kitchen ‑ / where it never came out in the wash, / the one original stain, the sin / of the fathers spun down through the years.” The powerful glimpse of drama here is achieved by the speaker’s placing of “the kitchen” in the ancient Greek city. The reference complicates and deepens the poem and is as a result suggestive of a shameful secret. The violence of “pierce” and “hurl”, the rhyming of “rough” and “tough” with the half- rhyme “posh”, as well as, “skin”, “stain”, “stone” and “lichen” all work to provide a searing critique of the sins of the mothers, in so far as this collection is a social document. It is here that the nine-line form achieves its greatest strength through the compressed energy of language. Similarly, the speaker in “The Witch’s Tit” rages against a maternal figure “imbued with notions of first and second place”. There are women “crazed by the excesses” of some fly-by-night, who has vanished without a trace.

There are poems of compassion and many elegies. “The Promise” speaks a vernacular fragment, “I won’t do it. Not today. I won’t / do it, anyway.” The sense of an overheard, frail voice, the repetition of the words, the pain and despair reflected, are all the sharper, against the softness of a rural landscape “under snow”.

The intimacy of the speaker’s voice in “The Lists”, the “I”, speaking to a “you”, the inventory of shopping is succinct, and heart-rending: “Your list: note for Johnny, note for Ma, / plastic sheeting, chair, six feet of rope.” These elegies reach through the headlines, to the tormented lives of communities destroyed. They reflect on “the State’s betrayal” (“The Peace”), its failure to protect the lives of the vulnerable, in a year when it honours the centenary of its birth. “I commemorate / the poor going round and round the bend.” (“The Commemoration Takes Our Minds Off the Now”). A lyric puzzle, “The Clue”, invites citizens to recall, in a cryptic note, the original cause symbolised by the “‘flag of the people’ —the starry plough”. Geomantic explores the contemporary moment, “the state of the State we’re in”, its moods and emotions, and in doing so asks, what has become of the dream of the signatories of the Proclamation?

1/6/2017

Catherine Phil MacCarthy’s collections include The Invisible Threshold (2012), Suntrap (2007), The Blue Globe (1998), This Hour of the Tide (1994), and One Room an Everywhere, a Novel, (2003). She is a former editor of Poetry Ireland Review (1998/99). She won the Fish International Poetry Prize in 2010, and received The Lawrence O Shaughnessy Award for Irish Poetry in 2014. A forthcoming collection, Daughters of the House is due for publication.

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