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Guest Review: Smith on McGrane

Barbara Smith reviews
The Suitable Girl
by Michelle McGrane

Michelle McGrane’s poetry collection is not only a first outing for her work, it is the first book from a newly established small literary press, Pindrop Press. A slim volume, it is remarkable for its tidy, tasty poems, all which are linked by the common thread of unusual voicings; whether from a newly acquired vantage point, like Grace O’Malley leading a defensive attack just after giving birth, or the freshly piked head of Princess Lamballe surveying the chaotic aftermath of Paris after revolution.

I remembered while reading this collection, the once-heard advice of the director of Poetry Ireland: make your poetry unusual; if you have a background in an interest such as watchmaking or boating, bring that outside knowledge into your poetry. McGrane has many interests which range widely, globally and work in the context of poetry because what they do is encourage a hunger in the reader to know more. In poetry, one is always looking for something that hasn’t been expressed before; or if it has, is being expressed in a way that catches the imagination and brings you to somewhere you hadn’t thought of.

Take the sequence ‘Lunar Postcards’ for example, which comes near the start of the book. These short depictions of the moon break loose from the shackles of those sometimes most annoying of poems – about the moon – by actually being there, with minute peppering of warm wit and by being based absolutely in the concrete detail. So much is conveyed through the use of the right verbs, and the minute examination of the situation: ‘Plumes of spent gunpowder / eructed from the landing strip / ... / it clings to our helmet visors / sifts into our spacesuits’ – from I. Moondust. My only regret is that I would have liked to have seen a longer sequence of these tightly formed poems.

You have to read between the lines of the well-paced poems of The Suitable Girl and McGrane takes great care with line and stanza breaks to leave enough space for the movement of the reader’s mind. Another short sequence of three, ‘January Triptych’ has one poem which describes the feeling of grief as something that ‘ arrives in the mail / with a licence renewal / ... settles in / where I least expect – // a note slipped between pages, / a bald head in a supermarket queue.’ There is a real feeling of these poems having been pared to the bones, much like the touch of an experienced watercolourist who knows exactly how the paper will absorb the wet pigment.

But a warm humour can also be found: ‘The Escape Artist’ is a real flight of fancy with its cast of flea circus artistes. The idea of small lives is the metaphor behind the star act Faolán, (small wolf), who runs away from the circus with a German dog. The speaker’s ‘heart is no longer in the hyperbole.’ This sense of the clichéd myth blown up for scrutiny also comes across in ‘The Recalcitrant Muse’ who ‘stumbles out of bed, stubs her toe / in the kitchen as she fumbles for a cigarette/ ... and is ‘late for the morning’s first appointment / with a middles-aged divorcee.’ There is something quite amusing about the idea of a real life muse who yearns for ‘strong hands, warm flesh, a hairy chest, / a plunging prick, fucking on the formica table, /’ because our sense of the ideal needs deconstructing every now and then. Reality is what we live in, and yes, it is true: ‘It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, this muse business.’

We also have appearances from female historical and literary characters (who almost feel historical, so much part are they of the cultural canon): Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre, Marie Antoinette, Tsarina Alexandra, Marie Curie, Grace O’Malley and Madame Bovary to mention some. Again, these are with the unusual angle, although some of these poems work better than others. The language of Grace O’Malley, post partum and mid-battle in the prose poem ‘Terra Marique Potens’ (Valiant by land and sea), has a strong taste of the sea and of the time it is set in too: ‘I sallied above with my musketoon, legs shaking as I’d been keelhauled from Inishlagan to Carrigeenglass North ... the remaining Berbers scarpered like bilge rats.’ It’s not overcooked, just the right amount of period/linguistic detail to bring the story to life.

With all these iconic women in the collection, it would be easy to view The Suitable Girl as a feminist questioning of identity. That is only part of the story; there is more to this collection. McGrane questions other idée fixes, such as the idea of beauty and beautiful things being for the privileged. ‘Augusta Fabergé’ told from the craftsman’s daughter’s point of view shows us the superbly crafted egg, a gift for the Tsarina from her Tsar, but it also shows us the craft behind the craft; the ‘shoal of small pies caught in my hands / their heat rising through the unbleached linen,’ as they are being borne to the workshop for a sustaining meal for the worker. From this first showing, the craft behind the craft of McGrane’s work seems certain to be worth looking for in the future.

Barbara Smith recently read for the Oxfam Poetry Series in London.  She is an award-winning Irish poet based in Co. Louth, Ireland.
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