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Navigating loss

Amanda Bell

Stone Girl, by Mary Noonan, Dedalus Press, 88 pp, €12.50, ISBN: 978-1910251485

Mary Noonan’s second collection from Dedalus Press operates like a time capsule, shuttling between past and the present, youth and old age, Cork and Paris, the permanence of the recurrent stone motif and the ephemerality of such fragile things as “venous tissue” and “mossy cobwebs”.

The poems were written between 2012 and 2017, years which saw Noonan’s father die of Alzheimer’s disease, and the terminal illness of her partner, the poet Matthew Sweeney, who died in 2018. Many of the poems are unapologetically (auto)biographical, and many are elegies. The risk here is to veer towards the overly narrative, to document rather than transcend an individual’s experience; the challenge is to connect the experience of the lyric “I” with that of the reader, to fuse the personal with the universal. Noonan’s sonically complex language and distinctive imagery elevate the poems, and the collection features many intensely moving lyrics, dealing with the process of grieving both before and after bereavement. “Gare du Nord”, which shifts between the recent past and the present, begins “When I’m gone, you say, remember me here” and ends:

Do you really think I could look again
at these end-of-the-line pillars and porticoes,
these blind granite women, remembering you,
and not myself be turned to stone?

She is particularly adept at capturing the experience of anticipatory grief. 

I wish I’d said goodbye,
before the ancient shapeshifter came to build
his nests of lint, his hillocks of gristle.
                             “In the House”

The use of the word “gristle” is quite typical of the visceral imagery Noonan employs, and this fleshy physicality is juxtaposed effectively throughout the collection with images of stone. The symbolism of stone itself is mutable – both unforgiving and heartbroken, and the motif of an eponymous stone girl runs through the collection like a backbone: she is not only the bereft lyric “I”, but also “the small faces / trapped in the masonry of Paris: caryatids, satyrs, / lions”; Camille Claudel’s aged interpretation of Clotho; the statue proffering a lily to the Virgin in the Granard grotto, to name but a few.

The mutability of age itself is a recurrent thread, as Noonan shapeshifts between past and present selves. In “October Jazz”, she says “I turn and see myself, in the silence, twenty years earlier”.

The choice of the designation “girl” in the title is also apposite, given this interrogation of the idea of age; when our parents die do we become children once more, apprentices in a new life? The poet looks to the work of visual artists who have struggled with the depiction of age. In “Clotho” she addresses Camille Claudel, whose sculpture of the Fate responsible for spinning the thread of human life as an aged woman was so controversial:

But when they caught you and taught you
to revile your art, you grew into the scandal |
you had chiselled: an old woman, deciding nothing.

In “Self-Portrait with Camellia Branch: homage to Paula Modersohn-Becker”, (the painting itself is the cover image) she ends the poem:

Ah Schade, Paula! What a shame it was!
You began by painting very old women, their hands
crossed in their laps, and you finished with your portraits
of girls, pressing red and yellow flowers to their hearts.

Noonan’s depiction of the experience of being a carer for someone suffering from dementia will resonate with many readers. “Vanishing Acts” describes her father, trapped in the miasma of Alzheimer’s disease, in which the barriers between the living and the dead have been erased:

How does it feel to be
the still centre of these revolving
portals, you, the empty waiting-room
where only ghosts stop, on their way
to Heaven knows where?

This is not to say that the collection is monothematic. There are several completely unrelated standalone poems, ranging from the surreal and haunting opening poem “The Moths” to the marvellous “Flânerie of the Beaver”, which originated in a literary walk taken in the Quartier Latin with Eugène Savitzkaya. And yet, taken in the context of the collection as a whole, many of the poems not directly about bereavement contain a subtle hint. In the unusual and compelling “The Bee Salon”, the final stanza takes a turn towards a reflection on mortality. What was the bee’s job, the narrator wonders, was it a worker? “Or a mortuary bee, who ferried the colony’s dead far / from the place of furious secretion, packing, sealing?”

The lyrics which approach the subject of loss more obliquely carry a particular force, such as “Ascenseur”:

On the other side of this wall
an old woman is rattling hangers
in a mahogany wardrobe and
pulling open wooden drawers.
I imagine her widowed, …’

The structure feels well-thought out, with the final two poems particularly well positioned. Watching the eponymous “Crooked Man of Chinchón” walking across the square, the poetic persona is confronted with all her dead, past and to come:

... and as he moves
slowly along the diagonal, all my dead
move into formation behind him:

[…]

…With them troop the dead
yet to come, their names refusing
to be written in the sand. And we

are there too, you and I, in the white
bull-ring, each hot, empty evening of July

[…]

The final poem, “Transportation in a Watery World” has echoes of pastoral elegy, as the poetic persona rows the addressee down the waterways of Florida:

gliding on the tracery of green veins
through swamps and grassy marshland

[…]

…The glades will cocoon us
in a lace shawl of light as we slip along, drift
and sometimes rock gently in our floating
cradle. The canoe will move slowly, but
endlessly, through the watery green.

Noonan’s descriptive powers recall Elizabeth Bishop in their meticulous attention to detail. She is a poet of the senses – the collection is drenched in colour: the blue of her father’s eyes in the exquisite “Blues”, the dreamy greens of the swamps, but of all the senses brought to play in this collection, sound is perhaps most prominent – “The Resonator” is a beautifully achieved soundscape.

Throughout Stone Girl there is a strong sense of flux and flow, of moving on while commemorating. This is articulated early on in “Equinox”, a poem written on the cusp – of the year, of life itself:

… On the beach
the equinoctial carnival is gearing up,
mustering to start again. Ah, start again.

If one poem could represent this admirable collection as a whole, this would be it.

1/12/2019

Amanda Bell is a writer and editor based in Dublin. Her most recent publication is The Loneliness of the Sasquatch, a translation from the Irish of Gabriel Rosenstock, Alba Publishing. www.clearasabellwritingservices.ie

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