Mar. 27th, 2011

sheenaghpugh: (Default)
Michelle McGrane's poems, like those of many a poet who grew up in one country and now lives in another, show a keen awareness of location, not just the ones she knows but those into which she can imagine herself. This goes for historical times and personas too; she's as likely to think herself into a female Irish pirate or the last Russian tsarina as to speak in her own person. In short, she sees poetry as a window rather than a mirror, which is in my view the best way to make it entertaining and relevant to others.

Paradoxically, I think this outlook can also be beneficial to more personal poetry, because being in the habit of seeing herself as only part of a wider universe, rather than as the whole concern, enables a writer to universalise her experience, giving her an eye for those details that will resonate immediately with others. The second poem of "January Triptych", on the loss of a father, is a good example:


It arrives in the mail
with a licence renewal,

wears the thin grey socks
never returned.

It curls up, settles in
where I least expect –

a note slipped between pages,
a bald head in a supermarket queue.

Now the thin grey socks of old men struck an immediate chord with me, because exactly the same detail was true of my father. But so did the bald head in the supermarket, and in this case the detail was different; my father had very white hair and for a long time after his death, I couldn't see a white-haired old man without thinking it was him. This shows, I think, that if the poet gets it right, it isn't necessary for the reader to share every incidental detail of her experience; it is the basic situation, the essential in the experience, that travels.

While I don't object to poems having notes (especially when, as in this case, they are at the back), I think some of these are unnecessary; if your reader has not heard of marchpane or doesn't know the translation of remise, he can soon look them up. Also, though I'm averse to suggesting any subject is off limits, I do think there are territories that have been so thoroughly claimed that one needs to be sure one has a new angle. My first thought on reading the title "Bertha Mason Speaks" was "Wide Sargasso Sea!" and I didn't see anything in the poem that Rhys hadn't already said in the novel. But in the poem "Princesse de Lamballe" (one of Marie Antoinette's pals who lost her head during the Revolution), the head held aloft on the pike memorably sees a side of Paris its owner never saw when alive:

growling alleys and ravenous back streets
guttered with urine, nightsoil and vermin,
toothless, frayed women queuing for bread

It's this heightened awareness, a window on something one hasn't seen or been conscious of before, that the best of these poems can provide.


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