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Midwinter

Afric McGlinchey

Some Lives, by Leeanne Quinn, Dedalus Press, 65 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-1910251737

Every reader understands the empathy and connection that can be created by words, across languages, eras and cultures. At our lowest points in particular, reading teaches us that we are not alone. It’s like having a broken heart and listening to a song that resonates ‑ sure, we’d rather not feel the pain, but it comforts to know that someone else feels it too.

In her second collection, Some Lives, Leeanne Quinn gives voice and presence to the Russian poets Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva and Osip Mandelstam, recognising precedence, as well as kindreds in sensibility. Like Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova, Quinn has experienced grief and loss; like them, she has an attraction for cemeteries. While summer and autumn are mentioned in the collection, it is predominantly set in a bleak, atmospherically Russian mid-winter.

Quinn’s collection also acknowledges the German Expressionist poet Jakob van Hoddis and his 1911 poem “Weltende” (‘End of the World’), where roof tilers, “fat” tides and dripping noses are referenced. Quinn and her partner are living in a Munich apartment building which is being renovated at the time of this collection, and roof tilers are a constant presence. They construct scaffolding and enclose the building with a mesh gauze, “like a shroud”. This sense of being enclosed (a coat, a coffin) becomes a conceit throughout the collection. As a counterpart to this, “The roof above our heads” disappears; “bare hands cover bare heads”. There is an intense feeling of precariousness and vulnerability. In one poem, we learn that Aeschylus stayed outdoors “for fear of falling objects”. “But what could be more dangerous than open sky?” she asks. (Legend has it that Aeschylus was killed when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his bald head, mistaking it for a rock, which it tried to use to crack the shell of its prey.)

As with her first collection, Before You, which includes a long sequence responding to the letters of Elizabeth Bishop, Quinn presents these larger literary/historical figures not simply to pay tribute to the poets who have inspired her but also to invoke a lineage. This is a common device in literature and poetry, allowing the individual story to become a bigger narrative. For example, in Citadel, Martha Sprackland aligns with a sixteenth century Spanish queen. Marie Howe, in her 2017 collection, Magdalene, resurrects that controversial biblical figure. Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” interweaves personal anger and the grief of betrayal with reflection on the Collected Works of Emily Brontë. In Quinn’s case, many of the lyrics and elegies here have found a striking voice through her engagement with the writings and memoirs of these Russian poets.

Readers who have come to know Quinn’s attentive poetry will recognise her innate emotional integrity. Rather than being confessional, she layers resonant images, and handles the movement of time through seasons. A key element in her second collection is the use of anaphora, refrains, incantations, which, as in Alice Oswald’s Memorial (written in response to Homer’s Iliad), reinforce impact:

        and we greet each other
with smiles and greet each other
with smiles while the trams still

run our hands are not too tight
in each other’s and what precedence
has this day over any other
                               “Precedence”

Hemingway popularised the idea of narrating up to the moment before “the bomb” and describing the after-effects, without describing the explosive act itself. Eliding direct narrative, Quinn uses mood and atmosphere to hint at a backstory, side-stepping the “bomb” itself. A poem titled “Elegy”’ (for her sister, we are told on the back cover) is a complex, heartbreaking blend of denial and ironic bitterness:

Nobody died nobody mourned
we love a kill we love a kill
we love a kill and we love nothing more
than to mourn but nobody died

“Look, look away,” she tells herself in “Some Lives’. And then looks again.

In ‘Chloroform', which refers to the death of Joseph Toynbee (1815-66),

                                                          Resistance
isn’t feasible. Shear the leaves, sever the limbs
until only a stump remains.

In other poems, resistance is celebrated, for example when corpses (such as St Catherine’s) refuse to decompose to make room for newer corpses.

What also enriches this collection, aside from the exquisite language and tenderness of the elegy poems, are the interesting facts and biographical details of the poets’ lives. We learn in the notes that Tsvetaeva first saw the sea at the age of ten, when her mother brought her to Italy to recover from TB. The sea was nothing like Pushkin’s poem “The Sea”, and she was very disappointed, remaining “impervious” to the sea for the rest of her life. But for Quinn, living in Munich, far from the sea, she listens for it. “I am a listening thing,” she writes in “Shells”: “I lift a shell to my ear, take / what cannot be returned.”

Leeanne Quinn, as a “listening” poet, is the embodiment of understatement, while subtle inflections achieve considerable power.

Houses turn inside out. Bare hands cover
bare heads. Women rob me, know by the cut

of my hair my former self ...
                                                          “Rings”

Bare hands
bare heads.
Four words for goodbye.
               “Some Lives”

She is also adept with verbs and enjambments, creating sparks of surprise:

Riven by the absence of stone, she burns
down a suburb made of wood,

slips her body under a tree,
as good a place as any to lie down
forever.

In terms of tone and delicacy of image, Quinn’s work is sometimes reminiscent of James Harpur’s. While religion is not as overtly mentioned as it is in his work, there are occasional religious references. “Soul”, for example, is repeated on a number of occasions. Here are two examples: down among the clay, where "the blunt flint / of the soul remains” (“Cave of the Firbolg”); “on the brittle foliage / she thinks, If the soul had texture / it would feel like this (“Scenes from a Life”).

The speaker is conscious of attempting to remember things accurately. “Misremembering” and “mis-seeing” are two obstacles confronting her, and among the voices in her head is the voice of conscience. “Berating me slowly with slander and admission” (“Could Be”). There is complicity too in a wider sense, such as genocide of humans and also of urban pigeons and doves. 

A vivid presence of seasons and weathers, echoes and currents, thread one poem to the next. A subsequent poem will make the reader need to go back to re-read an earlier one. I don’t want to give too much away, because the collection should be a discovery for each reader. Suffice to say that every word has been carefully crafted, the verbs in particular: in “Shells”, “I never knew the world as something / to be in, until it pushed me out.” That pushing is mentioned again in “Cave of the Firbolg” (titled after a painting by Nano Reid) where the final line echoes the sentiment of Bishop’s “One Art”, “the sky pushed out, the heart yet to know / it can go without.” Later again, in “Glass”: “the body will find a way to push out / the broken.”

In “The Distant Past”, “I patted my coat / on the snowy street, like someone being searched.” This simile becomes more poignant after reading a later poem about Osip Mandelstam’s arrest and death, hinted at again, obliquely, in “The Good Going up to Heaven and the Wicked Going Down to Hell”: “In the citizenry of the dead / the soul still holds the shape of the body.”

While Quinn’s language is clean and spare, it also contains complex imagery, conveying a simultaneous embodiment and hollowness. In “Six Easy Steps” (written in memory of Deirdre B Nugent) a test for cognitive impairment is referenced, where “they”’ insist that the speaker remember “the proper outline of myself”. Patterns and geometry figure: “a cube of sky”, “six equal sides of containment” (bringing to mind Vona Groarke’s X). Again, the poem echoes earlier images:

try again to trace    the outline
hollow enough     for a body

solid enough    for a soul

The collection culminates in a twenty-page-long sequence with the eponymous title. Many of the fragments here are fascinating prose-like historic narratives, interwoven with personal experiences and reflections.

The Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva once wrote
that she was afraid of her verses. We can pick out
prophetic lines in early poems addressed to Osip Mandelstam,
who also expressed a similar fear of his verses ...

Similarly, when stars began to appear in his poems,
he feared he was balancing on the threshold
of silence, stars signifying a demise that could not be
defused. Yet stars are abundant in his verse.

For Quinn too, stars begin to “make their dreadful appearance”’ in her poems. The collection is also a balancing on a threshold. Foreboding and falling are always imminent and graves, headstones, the dead, a recurring theme. Quinn is interested in the “material history” of disappearance: “six equal sides of containment”.

“You are here,” she tells herself more than once, “and still alive.”

Questions throughout show doubt, uncertainty, a listening for other voices. She listens “without comprehension” to Russian recordings of Tsvetaeva’s poems and compares the experience to “staring at the fluent, untranslatable sea”.

While translation for her is a form of mis-remembering, an image is an open door into resonance. The cover of Some Lives features some string and an egg lying on a table. We are told that the Mandelstams, expecting a visit from Anna Akhmatova, source an egg for her to eat. Anna gives it to Osip to eat instead, when the secret police come to arrest him, and he salts and eats it there and then before they take him away. “It is almost impossible to forget the image of this egg balanced baldly on the table,” writes Quinn.

Her own gift is in presenting images and movements that repeat until they become unforgettable too. Here’s one:

This swooping looks like it’s done purely for the feeling
of falling, then vaulting oneself upwards.
But, for a pigeon, flying is probably prosaic,
must surely never feel like an unbalancing. Maybe
they do this to keep warm?

And like the birds swooping up and down, “the sun disappears like the sun / going down as a favour to the moon, / coming up ...”

These and other visual gestures, as well as the symbolic echoing of resonant phrases throughout, give Some Lives a stunning unity, integrity and proportion.

“Don’t sit out the storm,” Quinn writes. “Move as it moves / and move in it.” Which is exactly the experience of reading this beautiful collection.

1/3/2021

Afric McGlinchey’s hybrid memoir, Tied to the Wind, is forthcoming from Broken Sleep Books. www.africmcglinchey.com

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