Jim Maguire reviews
by Geraldine Mitchell
The opening poem in Geraldine Mitchell's first collection, which won the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2008, begins with the breezy reporting of a fact heard on the radio: 'For three million euro/ – give or take --/you can see the sun rise/eighteen times a day.' The poem ends, 'If you travel fast enough/you can live in darkness/all your life,/or in too much light.' The need for fortification against a world geared towards keeping its inhabitants in the dark is one of the unstated themes running through the collection. Whether it comes as willful blindness to ecological devastation, as adults treating children as dolls, or even as a 'black pool of silence' between a mother and son – the dark in these poems is often invisible and therefore all the more dangerous.
World Without Maps, however, isn't a dark book, nor is it self-consciously preoccupied with its themes. From early on, we hear an earthed voice whose composure suggests it has already fulfilled its aspiration of '[coming] to know/ the nature of winter and [welcoming] it.' A range of experience and interests is encompassed – childhood, death, loss, uprootedness, travel, illness, science, art, discovery of the natural world – and explored with a calm control and sureness of touch which often seems to heighten the intense emotional engagement that is never far from the surface.
Silence can fill a room like an elephant.
Its crosshatched bulk up against the wall,
sulking and seedy. Or it sits like a bird
in the breast of a child, ruffled and panting, afraid.
Frequently, the poet's eye is drawn to the solitary, overlooked (and often powerless) figure in the corner of the frame, whether it's the night-train driver, the invisible child, the homeless man who 'unpeels/a nest of plastic bags/hatches a book'… Rather than being dramatised or even given a voice, these subjects are briefly presented at an angle in close-up before the camera pulls back and moves on – less subject-matter in themselves as key points of connection in a consciousness that is always quietly alert to the whiff of injustice or of humanity being untrue to itself. There is a clear political undercurrent through much of the collection – political in the sense of a mind trusting and protecting its own intuitions and apprehensions about the world –– and much of the skill of the poems is in their slantwise and inspired use of image and metaphor to convey their point. In the poem 'Deportee', the experience of deportation is embodied in 'the airport's midnight silence/ [screaming] from neon walls; dead/ corridors reverberate; tungsten glares and kodachrome stares…'
Themes and poetic vision aside, what gives the book its force is the line-by-line quality of the writing. Wildlife and landscape feature with a sense of surprise and freshness, as if the natural world and its possibilities as a resting place for the chaotic mind were only being discovered – and as if the act of poetry were somehow a part of this. Instead of the 'deep image', the bane of so much 'nature poetry', here we are treated to the moon, seen from an aeroplane, as 'a lost eyelash, brittle and new/ snagged on the pre-dawn's lurid/lightshow, orange, green/and deepest blue.' Or to a heron landing on a fence post 'single-minded and absorbed/in the precision of the moment.'
The flair for metaphor moves centre-stage in a number of sharp, stylish poems which push out with bold surreal sweeps into quiet truths. These include 'The Trees In Her Head', 'The Suitcase Of Bees' and a memorable curse poem, 'The Gift', which begins, 'I send it straight into your head/to burrow there and to lay eggs//that, in time, will hatch and grow/and beat with angry wings for me.'
The tonal range of the book is wide, with cool and succinct meditations on time and memory standing alongside pieces where more is at stake. 'Mirror, Mirror', near the beginning of the book, reveals a mind in uncertain motion as it leads the speaker to a place 'where nothing will come back' – a poem that later finds an extraordinary answering echo in 'The Weight Of Water' which traces the progress of water as it accumulates from a droplet at the top of a wall to a torrent which threatens, but fails, to overwhelm the speaker.
While the writing is constantly probing inwards, one of the pleasures of the collection is that, under a generous, clear-eyed imagination like this, the process involves as much light and joy as it does danger and darkness:
Deep in the pockets of my memory
are coins rubbed smooth from fingering
stories I have hoarded, guarded
from the corruption of sharing.
The night we spent in the one-room house
in Kabylia, after broad beans and buttermilk
from a single dish. You in the big bed with him.
Me and his wife on the floor.
How in the night she wrapped his arms around me,
and from behind the fortress of her belly
her child tapped messages on my back.
Jim Maguire's poems have been widely published and won a number of prizes, including the Brendan Kennelly Award. He recently received a bursary in literature from the Arts Council of Ireland.