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Jennifer Matthews reviews Catherine Phil MacCarthy's newest poetry collection




Jennifer Matthews on Matthew Geden's 'The Place Inside'

Jennifer Matthews writes poetry and book reviews, and is editor of the Long Story Short literary journal. Her poetry has been published in The Stinging Fly, Mslexia, Revival, Necessary Fiction, Poetry Salzburg, Foma & Fontanelles and Cork Literary Review, and anthologised in Dedalus's collection of immigrant poetry in Ireland, Landing Places (2010). In 2012 she read at Electric Picnic with Poetry Ireland, and had a poem shortlisted by Gwyneth Lewis in the Bridport poetry competition. She is currently working on a collaboration with poet Anamaría Crowe Serrano.

Photo © Dave Griffin




The Invisible Threshold

The Invisible Threshold

Catherine Phil MacCarthy

(Dedalus Press, 2012)

ISBN: 978 1 906614 607

€11.50 paperback

Buy from Dedalus Press





"Have I been here before" begins 'Time Out of Mind', a poem describing an elderly man losing hold of memory, " …. neither here/ nor there, weightless as an astronaut". There is both unease and wonder, his life having become unrecognisable. His circumstances defy our most tender desires that history, both personal and social, is on an arc leading someplace inevitably better, more actualised, more beautiful. We would like to imagine ourselves in our later years, surrounded by the warmth of family, remembering our achievements, eventually passing gently into that welcoming night. In stark contrast, the reality involves contending with loss and loneliness, sometimes finding ourselves in irreparable states of disease and dysfunction. Modern society is a mirror of thisthe collapse of the economy, political upheaval, exploits of the rich and powerful laid bare without consequence. In "the current climate" we’re weathering a storm we never imagined would be in our future, back in the sunny Tiger days. These states of impermanence, loss and liminality are the sources for Catherine Phil MacCarthy's work in The Invisible Threshold.


MacCarthy’s verse is lean and precise, punctuated by powerful imagery. In ‘Father & Son’:


as he swam in the river, bruises were jeered, 
black and purple turning to yellow mapped
the pale skin of a slender buttock.
A thing of nothing, his nonchalance
greeted our perplexed shock …


Understatement and a quiet dignity prevail when confronted with hardship and injustice in MacCarthy's work, as opposed to a vitriolic and impassioned call to arms. In some cases the poet seems resigned to our fate of loss, as if the state we’ve found ourselves in is unfixable. In the excellent ‘Emperor’ she confronts the politicians and bankers in their bailouts, following “Might as well take to the streets,” with “What people have always done: / Swallow the royal yarn,/ join the queues for the dole.” The impulse to protest is deflated under the oppression of injustice, and redirected to mere survival, to the dole office. Indeed “learned helplessness” is something those in power can rely on to quell dissent—as if we’ve been so institutionalised to this abuse that we cannot muster the will or energy to fight back.


There are a minority of poems in the collection that rely on didactic elements, which are less impactful than those centred on strong images, like ‘Father & Son’. While the questions raised are interesting and engaging, their staying power is weaker. ‘Anniversary’, for example, starts out with strength, uniquely juxtaposing a loved one’s illness with the banking crisis:


            … as morphine levels increased

            in your veins, the neighbours called in

            and your family took turns by your bed.
            Now it would be difficult to explain


            exactly what was meant when ‘western

            civilisation, as we know it’ began to upend


The poem goes on to chronicle the toxicity of Wall Street and the failing health of the patient, ending:


Rain the whole summer long before
your death seems a portent.

How we manage in your absence? (sic)
Will our children create a different world?


Are we better off, packing our bags,
preparing for the next?


I would argue for ending after the first couplet, trusting the rain to do the work of the rhetorical questions which take the reader out of the trance of the well-wrought lines that came before them. A personal preference, perhaps, to always err towards heightened language over the conversational.


Rhetorical elements, however, do not by any means dominate the collection, which is largely image and narrative driven. The poems that have stayed with me the longest explore what happens when we are left bereft of power. In the stunning ‘Coolacrease: Looking Back’ a family is, from petty gossip, deemed traitorous during the Irish War of Independence. They are besieged by a flying column—ending in violence and displacement at the hands their own neighbours. “I stood with hands covered in flour and stared/ from the back door, as if I was Lot’s wife.” The lesson of Lot’s wife: looking back, wondering why, comes to no good.


In some ways The Invisible Threshold is interested in, but wary of, looking forward as well: when the present state of being is so unexpected, how can we imagine we control the future?  MacCarthy’s heroes are those who are fully immersed in the present, no matter how dark and uncertain. Take the cheerful ambiguity of ‘Threshold’, which could equally describe a family preparing for either a wake or a wedding reception:  “All the young / men in the family joined in, / prepared the place – in that way – / for her going …”. No one is struggling with questions of if or should. Taking action is their expression of love and acceptance. ‘Maternity’ goes darker again, portraying a woman in a brutally inescapable event: delivering her stillborn child. (Warning: do not, like I did, read this poem in a coffee shop unless you are very comfortable with public tearfulness.) That the poem deals with the immediacy of trauma is a brave choice, in its detail and resistance to sentimentality:


she dug in her heels

she could feel     the head     slowly jamb

down through the birth canal

intent     and unstoppable     knowing its own     destiny


The larger spaces between words mimic contractions, slow the reader to absorb the profound moment. 


The Invisible Threshold deepens the inescapable "current climate" conversation by looking beyond the shoulds, whys, what ifs (which, in poetry, is often preaching to the choir), and asks us to look at our choices in the moment and how we are coping with our troubles. These poems empower their subjects through witnessing acceptance, endurance, and persistencevirtues available to us in even the bleakest of times.   


©2012 Jennifer Matthews



Author Links


Matthews poems at Poetry International Web

Yank Refugee in the PRC (blog)

The Long Story Short literary journal







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