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Windows of Graceland and Parvit of Agelast:

Kathy D'Arcy reviews new collections by Martina Evans & Máighréad Medbh

 

 

 

Kathy D'Arcy is a young Cork poet whose collections Encounter (Lapwing), and The Wild Pupil (Bradshaw) were published in 2010 and 2012 respectively.  In 2013 she was awarded an Arts Council Literature Bursary, and in 2014 she received an Irish Research Council Award to undertake a PhD in Creative Writing in UCC, where she also teaches in the Women's Studies and Adult Education departments. D'Arcy originally qualified and worked as a doctor, and currently works with homeless teenagers in Cork city as well as running creative writing groups for adults and young people. She is also a playwright, and her play 'This is my Constitution' was staged in 2013 at an Irish parliamentary briefing on constitutional change. http://www.kathydarcy.com/
"...among the best poems I have read in years" (Thomas McCarthy) 

 

 

 

 

The Windows of Graceland

Martina Evans

(Carcanet Press, 2016)

ISBN: 978-1-784102-7-0

£11.69 paperback

Buy from Carcanet Press

 

 

Parvit of Agelast

Máighréad Medbh

(Arlen House, 2016)

€15 paperback

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I interviewed Martina Evans for the Spring Poetry Festival a few years ago; within seconds she was whispering confidences into my ear, and I left feeling that I had known her for years.  This collection has the same effect.  With warmth and welcome in her poetic tone, Evans seems to catch the reader’s hand and drag her in a gleeful helter-skelter through crowded sittingrooms, past intriguing and often dark-tinged conversations, and into hidden corners to eavesdrop on the most authentically bathetic family scenes.  The children cower over Christmas dinner in their pub-shop while the local alcoholics drive to the door, knock, then shamble away; the speaker’s mother is caught mimicking customers (here we are eavesdropping on an eavesdrop) and shrieks that “no, no, no she would never be able to face the public again”.

 

This selected works brings together Evan’s favourites from her previous collections All Alcoholics Are Charmers (1998), Can Dentists Be Trusted (2004),  Facing the Public (2009) and Burnfort, Las Vegas (2014), along with a small opening selection of new work.  Something I enjoy about selected works is sensing progressions in a poet’s voice over time, so I read this opening section last.

 

Evans emigrated to London like so many of her peers, and, predictably, the poems from the first collection grapple with this new migrant identity: variously heartwarming and bitter memory-poems about the homeplace are interspersed with attempts to forge a subaltern identity in a strange new place:

 

           Listen here, Fenian

            bitch, he said and I put

            my hand over my mouth.

            I’m going to kill

            your brothers and sisters.

 

            But my family don't live

            in the North, I said,

            whipping him up

            when it was the last thing

            I wanted to do.

                        (“One Evening in July”)

 

By the second collection this diasporic voice has grown markedly in strength and confidence: in the poem “On Living in an Area of Manifest Greyness and Misery” there is, despite the titular misery, a sense of cosiness and belonging in her description of the kind of ‘digs’ familiar to so many Irish in London.  A set of two of the voice-monologues that Evans is so good at, “Mother’s Monologue” and “Catholic Mother’s Monologue,” adeptly explore the different registers of a Brazilian and an Irish mother, both of whom seem to be addressing the speaker as though they are neighbours of hers dropping in for a gossip and to dispense wisdom.  Evans seems to have settled into her role as a kind of emigrant bard, and there is a sense of awareness that her words and stories will resonate with many others.  The bitterness and rawness of some of the earlier dark poems are tempered from here on with a more contemplative tone.

 

The selection from the third collection contains some more overtly political material: there is a series of prose poems based on the writings of Ernie O’ Malley, a mirrored poem for the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, and several monologues addressing almost fiercely social injustices (the use of the register-switching monologues to bring new perspectives to bear on old issues really works).  Again, this seems to be a further development in confidence in the poetic voice: from hurt to contemplation to bearing witness:

 

            So why don’t you want to see your father?

            You just don’t want to, is that what you are saying.

            Just you don’t want to.

            Well, you were all talk when I met you at home on Tuesday.

            How come you can’t say anything now?

                        (“Court Welfare Officer”)

 

            In Guantánamo, it’s stress positions, orange jump

            suits, interrogators calmly recording him

            crying out for his mother.

            When he’s finally asked what he wants

            he says car magazines, colouring books

            and pencils, any kind of juice

            as long as it is really weird.

                        (“Omar Khadr”)

 

There are more prose poems, and some very long lines, in the final collection: it is sometimes as if the colloquial voices Evans wields so gracefully are starting to grow minds of their own and take over.  In a way, the speaker’s own colloquial voice seems always to be in the background, itching to burst in and talk in its own unsophisticated, un-London accent.  The tone, as a result, is one with which the reader is instantly comfortable.  More and more, Evans is shouting her heritage and her authentic her-ness out in her poems:

 

            I Want to Be Like Frank O’ Hara

           

            but I’ve never leaned unhurriedly

            on a club doorway listening

            to Billie Holiday.  Most of my time

            in this city I’ve been a mother

            . . . .

            Although once at 11a.m. looking

            for the new GP surgery in Green Lanes,

            I stuck my head in the doorway

            of a Turkish mens’ club and they scattered

            from their chess like leaves.

                       

There are as many arresting women’s voices in these collections as there are men’s (refreshingly) and Evan’s mother features so prominently that she is almost present, with her unique turns of phrase and her melodramatic reactions to everyday events.

 

It’s hard to categorise the new poems, since the selection is so small.  But there does seem to be that ‘lonely voice’ wisdom (to use Frank O’ Conner’s phrase) that is characteristic of a mature poetic voice; a sense of looking over the endeavours of the journey so far and seeing what else there is to say about it all, what is new, what has changed, what never will.

 

I love Evans’ long lines, her chaotic line-breaks, her conversational, warts-and-all style.  I love how she can inhabit the voices of so many others so empathetically.  Reading these poems feels like having too many cups of tea with a old friend, and coming away wiser.

 

I want to say that Máighréad Medbh's collection does everything and says everything. I want to say that she has created a Womanverse.

 

In 2005, while we were distracted by the various City of Culture goings-on in Cork, Anonymous Society staged a musical called Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith.  I saw it a while later when it came to Dublin: the troupe had taken some best-loved Smiths songs and formed a chaotic but definite narrative from hints in the lyrics.  I really like this way of working and the unpredictable but somehow profound subgenre it generates: what happens when we give our primal, pattern-making brains free rein.   That’s what this collection reminds me of. 

 

Described as a ‘verse novel’ by Medhb McGuckian on the back cover (which is chock-full of outlandish praise), the book is presented as a story about a girl, Parvit (coined by the author from the Latin word for ‘small,’ according to her website) and the cityscape in which she manifests, Agelast (from Greek words meaning ‘never laugh’).  But in a long and, to my mind, unnecessary ‘author’s note,’ Medb explains that the collection started as an ekphrastic response to the work of artist Pauline Bewick, in particular the piece ‘Eggshell Woman, Slate Man’ which graces the cover.  (Aside: I’m so happy to have been introduced properly to the work and general awesomeness of Bewick by this book.)   There is also an overwhelming concern in the early sections with the voices of variously imprisoned and liberated women, whether victims of abduction or artists coming to creative freedom.

 

What this means is that Parvit of Agelast is not altogether a verse novel or a book-length poem in the style of contemporary poets like Anne Carson or David Mason (whose Ludlow tells, in meticulous blank verse, the story of the 1914 Colorado massacre), nor either in the tradition of the earlier epic masters, Dante, Milton and so on.  At times, in the first half especially, it feels more like several themed slim volumes gathered together in the loose net of a fantasy narrative structure.  I’m not sure if this enhances the power of what are often beautifully crafted poems, or dilutes it.

 

Parvit wakes in the city wall (shades of Gilgamesh and of Xueqin’s Story of the Stone) and comes into being stepwise, a bit like Hughes’ Iron Man (a fairly traditional epic trope).  This ‘becoming’ coincides with the section called ‘Parvit Dreams of Unhappy Shes’ (shades of Philip K: it may be becoming obvious that this is an intensely intertextual work) in which almost every poem bears as epigraph a quote from a woman who has been freed from brutalisation: Jaycee Dugard, Eva Kor, Malika Oufkir…  The poems are very much about the women.  Later on, similar poems are intruded upon by a more self-aware Parvit.  Is this a way of forcing them into the narrative, of crushing the two themes together in the hope that they become a cohesive whole, or does Parvit somehow belong in these very disparate narratives? 

 

What is Parvit actually for?

 

Interspersed between and inside the book’s sections are untitled paragraphs of conversation between characters called ‘Giant’ and ‘Daughter-giant.’  There is also the ‘Daughter-eye,’ which conveys a kind of televisual omniscience to these huge, interwoven, formless beings.  They comment on Parvit and on themselves in relation to her.  Are they a way of interrogating the chasm between writer and speaker?  Between analysis and emotion?  Between memory and imagination?  Between the universal and the individual?  These sections remind me of reading The Never-ending Story as a child, and being fascinated by the difference between plain old Bastian and the heroic Atreyu.

 

In the Parvit-narrative (Parrative?), our protagonist is somewhat predictably swept up by a local hot-shot before becoming disillusioned and uneasy in the new world of Agelast: the locals (who smack pleasingly of Kevin Barry’s Bohane) are just as uneasy about her inexplicable presence.  On page 98 she is brutalised and enslaved.  Her story starts to echo some of the stories from the earlier poems.  But I’m still not sure if they belong here, or in a separate collection: what is the effect of essentially making the same points two ways?  Without them, would Parvit’s story sustain itself?  I can’t tell.

 

Something that works for this experiment is that draw towards fantasy, the fantastical: it certainly engages and enlivens.  I can only admire the Bewick-inspired freedom Medb has exercised by turning an initial ekphrastic urge into a whole uni(woman)verse.  But then it is possible to feel a bit tricked when you wander into drifts of traditionally-structured poems which seem to belong elsewhere, or, alternately, when the narrative arc gets a bit too carried away with its fantastical plot details.  Having come to the end, however, I think it may work as a whole – as much as our idiot bodies and idiot societies do at any rate, which is the important thing.  I’m very happy to have encountered this book.

 

©2017 Kathy D'Arcy

 

 

Author Links

 

'The Wild Pupil' in Poethead

Interview with Kathy in The Irish Examiner

Excerpt from 'Camino'

More work by Kathy in Southword

 

 

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