Flourishing in the Void

Author: Jill Wharton (University of Notre Dame)

Máighréad Medbh. Savage Solitude: Reflections of a Reluctant Loner. Dublin: Dedalus Press, 2013; distributed in the U.S. by Syracuse University Press. 290 pp.


“Versions of self crowd in. Words lodge and will not unstick.” (17. ‘am’)

“Bewildered among the hangers, racked with choice. Body is worn with a difference each time.” (131. ‘sartorial rites’)


 Máighréad Medbh’s Savage Solitude is a quixotic and fearless interrogation of contemporary technology-driven isolation and its endemic discontents: “Knowledge,” she writes in poem “185. savant,” “but no other’s ear to receive it. […] One learns lonely, without agreement or dispute” (217). Anatomizing a culture of remote intimacy and acquisitive remediation, Medbh’s incisive prose-poems, in her own words (produced on the book’s back cover), take the measure of the “immediate experience of being alone.” This volume, like her 2011 collection Twelve Beds for the Dreamer, recurs to Freudian philosophy and psychoanalysis to structure poetic insight. The “twelve beds” in that volume refer to the astrological signs. The speaker journeys through these positions, ruminating on the cosmic determinants of one’s inner life. In Medbh’s prefatory notes to that volume, she describes dreams as kernels of manifest narrative; the collection then translates her dreamscape through the thematic paradigm of the zodiac. She often imbues the star signs with doubled lexical and cartographic qualities, as in “Aliens” (dreamt under the sign of Aquarius): “They came invisible to inhabit my house. | I knew they were here by the arbitrary movements of inanimate objects. | There goes the wooden elephant | and that blue Bristol Cream bottle that did for a vase. | […] It seemed then that dividing lines needed a deep eraser | and that many more miles had to flit | before we could see between the image and the page.”[i] In Savage Solitude, Medbh once again takes up the ways in which language as symbolic medium obstructs the poetic image (at least) as often as it illuminates, expanding the problematic through the centrifugal “self.”  Savage Solitude’s fissured self provides a comparable formal schema to Twelve Bed’s astrology chart, enabling readers to conceive of the work as an organic entity.

Medbh’s three personae, showing overt Freudian overtones, are “One” (“the part of self we experience at our core”), “The Other” (“an aggregate of wider society”), and “I,” which she describes as the “planning or synthesising consciousness” of the self in the world (5). These voices rove the collection’s terrain, where the speaker is fixated by aspects of cognitive theory and embodied affect. Each voice or mask assumes narrative primacy in its turn. The first section, “If One is to Live,” is focalized by “One”; the second, “The Dangerous World,” has “The Other” at its center; the final section, titled “Perspective,” revolves around “I.” The three-part structure of the book is mirrored on the level of the individual poem. Each one of the first 202 poems, comprising the first two parts, surveys an event or theme three times, inhabiting it from three discrete, yet complementary, coigns of vantage. In this way, Medbh often unearths scintillating, radiant lyrical fragments that speak to spiritual dislocation. She launches her inquiry in much the same way Freud described dream-logic: the poetic essence of Savage Solitude is neither immanent nor moored in latent content but situated in the collection’s experiential flexibility. In so doing, her tripartite structure refracts radically different kinds of thinking on the problem of a mutable, polyphonic self.

Throughout the collection, Medbh enjoins the reader to call on myriad sensory faculties in charting the fractured, compartmentalized self on a media-saturated landscape, while her poetics pay gently-satiric homage to any centralized (because aestheticized) lyrical “I.” In poem “132. reflective instrument,” for example, we hear the strains of Coleridge’s “Eolian Harp.” Medbh, however, amplifies the restless, ambulatory consciousness of the speaker, who is affected not only by the obtrusive consciousness of others, but also by the built environment and its excess of artifice: “One is the world’s best reflector. Here are the others in 3D. One is a recording instrument, playing them back at random, performing without even trying” (161). For the “One,” there is very often “No way of knowing which feelings start here and which are echoes from beyond” (184).

“The Other” is an omnibus consciousness voiced always by “philosophers, writers, scientists, poets, theologians, mystics and loners” (5). Medbh’s interlocutors are diverse indeed, ranging from Rilke and Rousseau to John Cage; from Emily Dickinson to Temple Grandin. Epigraphs from shamanistic figures mediate the instinctual observations of “One.” The final persona, the speaking “I,” ruminates throughout the first two sections of the collection. As the “I” explains, “I create confusion, I know. I pick up epithets and place them in slots. […] Unmediated, unargued by an other, they grow to concepts, then precepts, then barking gatekeepers” (33). Together, the voices pose constellations in which the body experiences itself as vehemently acted upon and, as in poem 120, as explicitly “grammaticised” by the tyranny of language (147).

The final section abandons the tripartite structure and is instead negotiated by the superego, or Medbh’s aforementioned “synthesising" consciousness (5). In this section, Medbh offers a series of glosses that exemplify a scavenger aesthetic, sorting through the rubble and debris of modern culture like a refuse-picker. This is especially apparent in the brief opening segment “toppling.” Here, the speaker dismantles any notion of Descartes’s thinking self and its artistic instantiations, revealing the self to be a “babel tower” subject to the vagaries of every faddish wind (237). The epigrams that follow (as the poems steadily reduce to two or three sentence sallies emanating from the suppositious “I” of the text) glide over fleeting images from Medbh’s biography. As a “shy country girl” who “spits on the footpath,” her speaking voice is “easiest among the less civilised—transients and the rough-skinned in chippers and pubs” (242). Playing the conceit of lyric interiority off the wide-ranging heuristic, particularly salient in Irish letters, of the divided consciousness, her stance in “207. exhibits” is wry and reflexive: “Her life is a museum of puzzled moments: this face with the casual look of disapproval; that careless sentence. The rooms themselves are forgettable” (241). The poet gains particular traction from Yeats’s Anti-Self in “180. blink,” where the speaker relishes a potentiality for expressing matters of crystalline brilliance, only to “gabble and misbehave” and find that when it blinks, it is “back in the familiar empty chamber” (212). Medbh takes inspiration too from Dylan Thomas in “200. off-grid,” where, in a broad challenge to the doxa of mainstream political discourse, she muses: “The affairs of the planet are too large for précis, and I’m too small to be placed on the map” (232). We hear in that line the echo of Wilde’s famous dictum that “[a] map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at.”[ii] As with Wilde’s literary Socialist republic, Savage Solitude conducts its excursus in an often metaphysically-distinct space. Indeed, the closing segment of the second book is entitled “inaccurate map.”

It is the case that while Medbh’s most illustrious insights gesture toward longed-for humanistic connection, as in the imperative “Our light is stolen from the darkness. Live the contradiction” (129), the presiding spirit of “The Other’s” journey largely hovers between Nietzsche and the Transcendentalists at their most aggressively introspective. Emerson’s “Self Reliance” and Thoreau’s Walden largely speak for this tradition in Savage Solitude, supplying truisms that can weigh the reader down in the middle sections of the volume. Medbh here circles around a disquieting solipsism, reminding us “There’s no final measure of reality. It’s an act of faith, drama or delusion to assert a truth” (220).

Viewed within Medbh’s evolving oeuvre, Savage Solitude is a provocatively speculative and frequently beautiful collection. The work is enterprising and thoroughly hybrid in its reimagining of poetic form, especially as it reanimates the structures of confessional poetry while militating for a new understanding of the lyrical “I.” With its prodigious bibliography and endnotes, the text is a useful scholarly resource certain to be enjoyed by general readers and emergent writers alike.

[i] Máighréad Medbh, Twelve Beds for the Dreamer (Galway: Arlen House, 2010), 83-84.

[ii] Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism (London: A.L. Humphries, 1912), 43.