Leontia Flynn. Reading Medbh McGuckian. Sallins, Co. Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2014, 200 pp.
Medbh McGuckian is one of the most acclaimed and formidable poets living and working in Ireland today. She is widely viewed as the maker of virtuosic, thoroughly challenging poetry, producing a body of work that has been controversial since she started publishing in the late 1970s. Yet, McGuckian manages to hold forth as a towering figure in contemporary, postmodern verse, her oeuvre numbering now eleven collections (U.S. published) and drawing readers and scholars from not just Northern Ireland and across the island but on a global scale. I was deeply pleased to see that, in roughly the last year, we now have in print two monographs on the work of this Belfast-based poet: Medbh McGuckian by Borbála Faragó (Cork UP) and the one reviewed here, Reading Medbh McGuckian by Leontia Flynn.
Flynn’s highly readable book has much to offer scholars and followers of McGuckian’s early work, including a vast store of useful background information on the poems and a good deal of incisive, theoretically-informed close readings. This book takes up McGuckian’s first five collections: The Flower Master (1982), Venus and the Rain (1984), On Ballycastle Beach (1988), Marconi’s Cottage (1992), and Captain Lavender (1995). Flynn, a Belfast-based woman poet like McGuckian, rather pronouncedly “mak[es] [her] exit” (173) from all of the remaining work, a minimum of six books and more than half of the poet’s oeuvre. Her book posits that the first five collections are largely enigmatic, owing to the difficulties of McGuckian’s language and her penchant for using undisclosed source materials, each poem offering another chain of Derridean signifiers that is ultimately undecidable and leads back (only) to itself. This premise is rooted in Flynn’s personal process of reading McGuckian, whose poetry is, for Flynn,“long-winded, accompanied by many digressions […], and ultimately circular” (14). Flynn casts the oeuvre as unreadable—it is “not clear,” she announces, that the poet’s language “really expresses anything” (147)—and yet she also suggests the oeuvre is interesting and enjoyable to attempt interpreting. In terms of theoretical grounding, Flynn employs two lenses in some of the book’s chapters: an “investigative” unpacking of intertextual sources along with select feminist analyses. She seems to view this methodology as a given, insisting that “[t]he ‘scholarly’ reader seeking to penetrate the private mysteries of McGuckian’s poems has […] become […] of necessity, a kind of investigative, feminist reader” (119).
Reading Medbh McGuckian provides teachers, scholars, and followers of McGuckian’s work a series of crisp, incisive close readings. This is its strongest feature. Most especially, I appreciate Flynn’s critical style of leaving open and even developing conflicting possibilities for making sense of the poems. She writes, for example: “Without entirely negating the above reading of [the] first collection, I want now to suggest that it is inadequate […] first to the experience of reading these poems […] and […] in a way which might prompt us to look again at the definitions of the ‘poetess’ with which we began” (27). The spirit reflected in this passage, of an openness and pleasure-taking with regard to analyzing poetry, is inspiring as well as appropriate to this particular oeuvre. McGuckian’s work challenges and ultimately thwarts any attempt to be compassed by a single, definitive meaning or purpose or framework, a disposition sustained across this two-hundred-page book. Flynn questions and critiques her own readings in still more ways: regarding poems from Venus and the Rain, she reassesses a number of feminist readings only just presented. She writes: “And yet there is, of course, the risk of some serious slippage here,” which she goes on to usefully detail (56).
Flynn not only avoids the pigeonholes of an oppressive authoritativeness or false totalization, but she also carries off the presentation of multiple, contradictory interpretations with aplomb—that is, without diminishing the credibility of any reading offered. The exploratory essence of her explication retains, for the reader, a sense of involvement in the interpretative process; it comes together as a foray for questioning, ourselves, which angle or strand seems most logical or otherwise sound or otherwise convincing. And even while Flynn is, in ways, almost dismissive of McGuckian’s work (more of which is described in the following paragraph), she, in this regard, fulsomely celebrates it. Better still, her methodological dexterity makes for a useful teaching tool: all too often, poetry students wait for instructors or critics to tell them what to see in each verse, how to hear, recite, and comprehend them. A book like this can thus be extremely useful as we, as pedagogues, push back against this tendency, endeavoring to transform our students from passive consumers to active producers of knowledge.
Alongside Flynn’s readability and useful richness of interpretation stand questions of her framing of McGuckian’s work. On the one hand, Flynn asserts, as other scholars do, that with Captain Lavender (1995) we witness a sharp shift in content and theme—now McGuckian is the political poet she had never been—a view presented as a “given,” needing no real shoring up. But though McGuckian has said words seemingly in support of this view, she has, at the same time, made scores of contradictory statements about her work—intentionally, I believe, and after Beckett—meta-contradictions that are in fact highlighted in this book. For example, while McGuckian states in one interview that, after the ceasefires in ’94 and throughout the writing of Captain Lavender, she felt freer to be clearer about where she stood politically, at the same time, in the same interview, she explains that her first poem (1972) was a requiem for Bloody Sunday,[i] and that all of the “moving-in-to-a-house poems” in The Flower Master are “thinking about Bobby Sands.”[ii] These explanations would seem to interfere with the rendering of McGuckian as simply “apolitical” before 1995 and plainly “political” afterwards; they suggest that the question of the political in this oeuvre is more complicated and less transparent than has been allowed by critics, including Flynn.
On the other hand, and more concerning for me, is the fact that all of the work post-1995 is omitted on the basis of its status as “experimental”—again, as if it had not always-already been so. A questionable opposition at best, a reductive generalization at worst—that the latter half of McGuckian’s verse is let go is pointed out repeatedly, and in a way that seems strenuous: “now […] she is primarily an experimentalist. Her later work thus remains for other investigators […] to explore. The role of reader in this puzzle-solving mode […] is one that I am happy to resign” (vii). Such binary readings of the oeuvre call for adjudication, one to the other, and need to be problematized. Flynn and McGuckian are very different poets—Flynn tightly controlling her steady words and immaculate lines, finishing the thought, talking straight, writing versified narratives in a minute geometrical space, relying more on action, thought, flow than on image, language-work, defamiliarization, lyricism—which means the relation to verse of these Belfast women poets is probably fairly far afield. And that difference might explain the posture of this book. The question is, why? Why not follow through? Why follow the poet with meticulous care and creativity across five (already experimental, political) collections only to arrest that development, shunt off the last twenty years, and shortchange a thesis-in-progress? One might have thought a “Volume II” would be forthcoming, but Flynn offers no indication of this.
And yet, while some readings of work in The Flower Master and Captain Lavender do suffer by being overly dependent on established positions, those in the three intervening collections—Venus and the Rain, On Ballycastle Beach and Marconi’s Cottage—are often impressively inspired. I appreciated the discussion of “Hotel,” for instance, where Flynn insightfully states that the “she” of this poem is
not enclosed in a single, simplistic identity. Rather this “damsel” is characterised by “a hundred different meanings.” “Her” language may be “secret,” and the feminine is still associated with invisibility or semi-visibility, but it “goes its own way.” The position approved here is provisional and nimble. It seeks to keep definitions open-ended and in play. (47)
Flynn’s is a skilled interpretation of the unintelligibility and multiplicity of identity, a theme running through the poems from start to finish. Conserving the value of her project further, Flynn’s analysis shines in the following passage, which shrewdly tallies McGuckian’s intertextuality:
These texts which she has allowed to become discovered are placed at angles to her own creative practice, echoing and re-echoing ideas of privacy and public reception, of solitude and the artistic creation of worlds. By re-assembling her borrowed material, fragments and images, McGuckian seeks to create a space between these women artists’ works, texts and lives. And here their shared and differing concerns can be seen refracted, reflected and ultimately enlarged […]. (121)
Exactly right. Perfect actually. In a moment like this, I’d have been thrilled to see the author suss out more implications of her splendid insight, considering how a reader may view the gathering of multivalent voices, texts, times, and spaces as speaking to McGuckian’s cultural and historical location and dislocations. Flynn says that, through the intertextual modality, “instead of finding a self-evident ‘reality’ of which she is part, McGuckian sifts everything through other written constructions of it” (147), which leads Flynn to argue that “this ‘speaking through’ the images of others would seem to suggest her improvised style is even less suited to speak to the political events of Northern Ireland” (148). This is certainly possible. And yet, perhaps precisely for her intertextuality—a poetic gesture observable across Northern Irish letters, from Muldoon to Heaney to Friel to Mahon—the poetry might appear still more suited to just such a speaking.
It is her handling of this issue—the detailing and discussion of McGuckian’s intertextuality, impressive in some ways—that I, as only one reader, am generally puzzled by. The abundant backgrounds provided on referentiality within the poems are superb. But, this aspect of the work is not fully unpacked and centers too categorically on the ethics of citation in literary writing rather than on its poetical status. Not an uninteresting topic, however the presentation of the issue chafes and undercuts itself in that it carries a judgmental air: McGuckian’s intertexts are, to Flynn, “plundered source books” (9); the poems are “deliberately infected or infested with others” (13); and the poet is glibly framed as a “cut-and-paste artist” who “play[s] games with language” rather than attending to the task of the poet (13). Flynn presents an excellent question worth serious consideration and debate: as her “borrowed books now expand to a multitude of political and historical texts, where is this supernaturally well-informed and unintuitive reader going to come from?” (135). However, the query relies upon—its author insists upon—intertextuality as prerequisite for reading Medbh McGuckian. While this challenge posed by intertextuality may be helpful—by providing, for example, clear pathways for teaching her work—we as scholars probably don’t need to be reminded that, from time immemorial, literary writers have escaped the need to cite references. The author speaks of this intertextual literary truism as if an issue exclusive to McGuckian, stating repeatedly, as a problem, that her “source texts […] are completely unacknowledged” (11). But we know that Ulysses is a veritable collage of rewrites, citations, and intertextual and referential puns, just as we know that intertextuality pervades the work of Yeats, Friel, and so many other Irish authors.
Although I have yet to come across one quite so disapproving, Flynn is, in her defense, far from the only critic to take issue with this poet’s intertextuality. It is a worthy question, deserving of additional consideration by critics: how do we think about citation in the light of not just work by contemporary authors—McGuckian and Heaney in verse, Friel and Carr in theater—but by writers such as Joyce, Beckett, Shaw, and Yeats? What do we talk about when we talk about literary referentiality in Irish Studies? If we accept the premise that to read McGuckian means to interpret the work through that methodology, does this also, in the same breath, beckon our recognition of the need to move decidedly beyond matters of citational ethics to a full theorization, particularly in formats where there is room to consider more sides of the question?
Thus, while I appreciate some of the very valid concerns raised by Flynn in her book, I remain, in one way, troubled by what appears to be the feet of this poet held to a fire that other poets have forever evaded and, in another way, confused by an otherwise pessimistic view of a key aspect of McGuckian’s poetics. As it stands, Flynn undermines her own emphasis on ambivalent and open-ended interpretation in mandating critique and consideration of citational content. What I see as missing—a tendency in McGuckian scholarship generally—is a lack of historicization and localization of these volumes, penned and published fully within the swathe of the Troubles. Given that McGuckian is one of a mere handful of established writers residing in Belfast, writing “on location,” never having left whilst also having come of age with the onset of discord, widespread internment-without-trial, and middle-of-the-night communal violence,[iii] it reads amiss, to me, that that critical context is shorn in the analysis. This very present political history breaches the domestic sphere all the way back to McGuckian’s earliest writings, such as by blasting through her “North window[s]” and shattering all over “The Sofa.”[iv] Here and there it gets a mention in Flynn’s book, but in passing and as a negative dimension. Indeed, among other possibilities, the Belfast milieu may have proved efficacious in helping tease out the meanings and purposes of referentiality and interrogating them further.
Though I would have liked to see, in this monograph, a more open-minded, more fully developed assessment of an author of such unquestionable talent in Irish letters, and in possession of the established legacy owned by this female poet, still, Flynn offers a series of truly excellent close readings from the first half of an admittedly difficult, sometimes silencing oeuvre. She has given us a text that works well beside other recent books dedicated to McGuckian’s verse. This volume, together with Faragó’s excellent Medbh McGuckian and Richard Kirkland and Shane Alcobia-Murphy’s 2010 anthology The Poetry of Medbh McGuckian (Cork UP), leaves scholars and lecturers with three dedicated texts to support the reading and teaching of this poet. Among these texts, Flynn’s stands out in its ability to function both as an important pedagogical tool and, perhaps more significantly, as an important intervention in the early volumes of this difficult, but always provocative, poet.
[i] In conversation with Sawnie Morris, McGuckian said: “The first professional poem that I put out was for Bloody Sunday. On that day, in 1972, I wrote the poem and took it to Seamus Heaney, who was teaching me at the time. It was in response not to just a political, but a military event that threatened our very existence, and the feeling that the state was not being the nurturing force that would protect us from invasion. No. The state would in fact turn round and destroy us” (68). See Sawnie Morris, “‘Under a North Window’: An Interview with Medbh McGuckian,” Kenyon Review 23.3-4 (2001): 64-74.
[ii] See ibid., 68.
[iii] See, for example, McGuckian’s poetic diaries, in which she chronicles, in her own poetic way, her coming of age with the dawning of the war; McGuckian, “Women are Trousers” in Border Crossings: Irish Women Writers and National Identities, ed. Kathryn Kirkpatrick (Tuscaloosa: Alabama UP, 2000), 157-189, and “Rescuers and White Cloaks: Diary 1968 – 69,” in My Self My Muse: Irish Women Poets Reflect on Life and Art, ed. Patricia Haberstroh (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2001), 135-154.
[iv] McGuckian, The Flower Master (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1982), 25.