Skip to main content

Guest Review: Maguire On Mitchell

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.

-          'UNSAID'

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.
                                    The honour.

                                    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.


Insightful review, and it makes me want to seek out this collection. Thank you.

Popular posts from this blog

Review of the new Simple Minds album - Walk Between Worlds

Taste is a matter of opinion - or so goes one opinion. Aesthetics, a branch of pistols at dawn, is unlikely to become unruffled and resolved any time soon, and meantime it is possible to argue, in this post-post-modern age, an age of voter rage, that political opinion trumps taste anyway. We like what we say is art. And what we say is art is what likes us.

Simple Minds - the Scottish band founded around 1977 with the pale faces and beautiful cheekbones, and perfect indie hair cuts - comes from a time before that - from a Glasgow of poverty and working-class socialism, and religiosity, in a pre-Internet time when the heights of modernity were signalled by Kraftwerk, large synthesisers, and dancing like Bowie at 3 am in a Berlin club.

To say that early Simple Minds was mannered is like accusing Joyce of being experimental. Doh. The band sought to merge the icy innovations of German music with British and American pioneers of glam and proto-punk, like Iggy Pop; their heroes were contrived,…


Wheeler Light for 'Life Jacket'.

The runner-up is: Daniel Duffy - 'President Returns To New York For Brief First Visit'

Wheeler Light currently lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Life Jacket

summer camp shirtsI couldn’t fit in then
are half my size nowI wanted to wear
smaller and smallerarticles of clothing
I shrunk to the sizethat disappeared

of an afterthoughtin a sinking ship body
too buoyant to sinktoo waterlogged for land
I becamea dot of sand


With the death of the poetic genius John Ashbery, whose poems, translations, and criticism made him, to my mind, the most influential American poet since TS Eliot, 21st century poetry is moving into less certain territory.

Over the past few years, we have lost most of the truly great of our era: Edwin Morgan, Gunn, Hill, Heaney and Walcott, to name just five.  There are many more, of course. This is news too sad and deep to fathom this week.  I will write more perhaps later. 

I had a letter from Ashbery on my wall, and it inspired me daily.  He gave me advice for my PhD. He said kind things about a poetry book of mine.

He was a force for good serious play in poetry, and his appeal great. So many people I know and admire are at a loss this week because of his death. It is no consolation at present to think of the many thousands of living poets, just right now. But impressively, and even oddly, poetry itself seems to keep flowing.