An Aroma of Meaning

A review of Irish poet Medbh McGuckian’s disjointed and dreamy new book of poems.

By Carmine Starnino
Poetry Media Service

The Currach Requires No Harbours, by Medbh McGuckian. Wake Forest University Press. $21.95 cloth; $11.95 paper.

“A dream dreamed in the presence of reason” was Jesuit Tommaso Ceva’s definition of poetry. One way or another, all poets fiddle with that formula. Medbh McGuckian has fine-tuned it. She has hit on a dream-to-reason ratio perfect for replicating what she calls “the feminine subconscious, or semi-consciousness.” Think middle state as a mental state: sensations mingle until language is a vapor of impossible-to-visualize surmises. McGuckian’s poems don’t make sense, they make mist.

Her debut, The Flower Master (1982), set the standard. Written around the time of her first child’s birth, the book attempts to tackle the passionate ambivalence of her maternal feelings. Each poem is a series of richly evocative assertions that harm their own logic (“A man will keep a horse for prestige,/but a woman ripens best underground”). Opacity rides up hard against precision, in a constant bestriding of clauses, but never quite overtakes it. What comes through, pictorially, is a mood of lightness and transparency suffused with half-sexual strangeness (“I begin to scatter/To a tiny to-and-fro at odds/With the wear on my threshold”). The effect is startling; seductive even. But, for all that, no less of a letdown. A reader kept on standby—unsure what happens next, struggling to understand what has happened already—is a reader with nothing to keep in his head.

The Currach Requires No Harbours, McGuckian’s ninth book, is more of the same: dense, diffuse, and dimly apprehensible. Of course, her anti-depictions have a function: to scramble male tenets of poetic form. Against control-freak articulateness, McGuckian offers an exploratory seeping forth of sounds. By letting language have its way, she hopes to be led to insights otherwise unreachable. Yet McGuckian’s digression-prone method is actually a spectacularly ornate free-association game. Far from freeing buried meanings, she has refined a mellifluousness no less confected for being slippery. Orotundity piles up, longeurs go long. The problem, you soon realize, isn’t McGuckian’s obscurity. It’s her decision to double-down on it: not simply to seal off her non sequiturs from rational inspection, but to overwrite the act. The poems, in other words, make a big show of handing themselves over to ideas too deep to be grasped. It’s an attention-losing ploy because it’s so self-indulged. That said, if you do sometimes find yourself paying attention (and you will) a big reason will be the lush music of her expression:

Days that belonged to war and peace
at the same time, they were always so:
darkened cinemas, the strength of lamps
reduced as low as possible.

Peace being restored at different speeds,
the sea disarmed, England calm,
and the shelf upon which it sat
more certain of the greens and golds,

or what she might look like
while looking—her hummingbird nature,
her maple-tree nature. Hers is the first
of many languid arms to reach out

like a lifted horizon in a landscape’s
perfect swaying, her opaque red plumage,
lips and heels like patched sails
in the same damp winter’s afterglows.

—From “Regaining Control of the Night”

Here we have some atomized perceptions prettily captured in four stanzas. It’s a beguiling blend of pinpoint grammar and just-short-of-evanescent imagery. McGuckian isn’t always so semi-articulate and, by playing it straight, can achieve vivid enrichments of ordinary perception: “the way the moon attaches/her self-closing, liquid glance/to the perfect leaf.” But she can’t resist: she will always strike inward to a deeper voluptuousness. Which means that The Currach Requires No Harbours will be enjoyed best by those who find it easiest to detach their expectations from a poem’s actual result. Take the following:

The trans-lake mountain,
cruel where the black
passes over, is tender in its silver-toned
puckerings of preparation.

Every word after “mountain” operates outside the bounds of normal usage, but because McGuckian—a name that too closely rhymes with McGuffin—doesn’t coordinate the consequences of those new identities, the sentence is a bit of a put-on. The words aren’t badly chosen, they’re arousingly chosen; or, as she once said, “a word has only/an aroma of meaning.” But what is “an aroma of meaning” if not arbitrariness with delusions of grandeur? We can say this much for McGuckian’s poems: they’re utterly hers. She has a reputation for a mind on its own wavelength, and it’s well-deserved.

Carmine Starnino’s newest book of poems is This Way Out, from Gaspereau Press. This article originally appeared in Poetry magazine. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

© 2009 by Carmine Starnino. All rights reserved.


~ by ericedits on April 16, 2009.

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