The Slow Dance of Medbh McGuckian: A Review of The High Caul Cap
When reading the poems of Medbh McGuckian, remember what Jean Paul Sartre wrote in his essay “Why Write?”: “The creative act . . . is the conjoint effort of author and reader. . . . You are perfectly free to leave that book on the table. But if you open it, you assume responsibility for it.”
Students often think Sartre demands too much of the reader, but Sartre reminds us that reading anything, even The Cat in the Hat, is:
an exercise in generosity, and what the writer requires of the reader is not the application of an abstract freedom but the gift of his whole person, with his passions, his prepossessions, his sympathies, his sexual temperament, and his scale of values.
In her most recent book The High Caul Cap, Medbh McGuckian asks that gift. She trusts us as her readers with her dying mother. She counts on us to demand as much of ourselves as she did of herself in writing this intense and textured book: attention, restraint and complexity. Nothing human is ever simple, and all great art reveals the intricacies of the heart—if we give ourselves. So Medbh McGuckian casts her bread upon the waters. So it comes back to us a hundredfold.
Such riches take time, of course.
Consider here just one of Medbh McGuckian’s lush and layered poems, “The Honey Vision.” The poem opens with the unidentified mother dying:
Her left hand that was agile with temporal intervals
limpingly withdraws, even weaker, now untouchable.
Her life-breath forms a honeycomb in her mouth
as if breathing in but never out. I hear her breathless
breast panting, though no distance makes her wear.
The poem becomes clearer if the reader has seen the little saliva bubbles in the mouth of someone dying and realizes that McGuckian is comparing those little bubbles to a honeycomb. These bubbles, honeycomb in the mouth, provide the image which the poem contemplates, expands, layers upon, colors, alludes to, transforms, and moves in time and space. Once the reader hooks this image, the rest of the poem becomes more accessible.
This is the way most of McGuckian’s poems work. The poems seem triggered by a central image. In “These Latinized Snows,” it is the image of the dying mother receiving a transfusion “the needles/ lay a motionless finger on a forearm.” In “The Doll Funeral,” it is the image of the mother’s heavy body wheeled away on a gurney “so heavy/ she was moved about on rollers/ with large protruding gears.” Once the reader grasps the central image, the armature of the poem, it becomes easier to understand the applied clay. It’s clear that the dying hand is “limpingly” withdrawing, becoming weaker, soon untouchable, buried with the body.
However, the mother with the honeycombed mouth is still alive, and in the second stanza of “The Honey Vision” there comes a sweet moment.
There it would be, a sunbeam settling so fiercely
on her face it could only have come from within.
Her children absorb into her, she dissolves into herself,
unwintery as the very look of spring coming
intentionally lost along the wooded road.
In a few words, McGuckian shows the barely breathing mother in her bed, surrounded by her watching children. Suddenly the honeyed moment: the mother seems to return to her old self. She absorbs her children, “dissolves into herself.” She looks like a spring that is lost, one wandering in her own winter. She had a good day, as we say of the dying in common parlance.
McGuckian’s parlance, though, is paradoxical. She knows remembered time is not linear; all—what has happened, what is happening and what will happen—occurs as we think and write it. When someone dies, they live on; in fact, they often seem more present to us than when they were alive. The mother here is simultaneously her dying self, her dead self, and her younger self. This is the paradox on which McGuckian builds the last two stanzas of “The Honey Vision”: it is not resurrection, but “the kingdom of heaven has to be seized by force.”
Indeed, contradictions like this drive all the poems in The High Caul Cap. McGuckian completes “The Honey Vision” with these paradox-laden stanzas:
I thought even the dust could crush her bird dress
in walnut and rosewood case, to turn to silver
for nineteen years under the tree. We are not
to think of it as opulence, or a credence of summer;
the kingdom of heaven has to be seized by force.
She may on her return return, in other jet-black
moments beyond the need for any unction.
Now stolen away from the eyes’ pursuit she remains
an open eye, the rose with homeward ripening
wilts somewhere in the middle of the field.
Here, she suggests that the old woman has been buried in the “bird dress” she wore at 19, and her casket of walnut and rosewood has turned silver, and yet we are not to think of it as opulent summer. This spring that we have momentarily seen in the previous stanza cannot bloom. And though the mother will return in “other jet-black moments,” she will need no last rites because she is already dead. Every McGuckian paradox seems qualified and layered: “Now stolen away from the eyes’ pursuit she remains.” Notice that word remains (both the noun corpse and the verb stays). McGuckian goes for another layer, “an open eye” that is the “rose” ripening and wilting. It is through this eye, the mother’s, that the speaker sees life and death. Deconstructed, the poem yields such irony, such sadness. And there is more—the references to Samson’s riddle of the slain lion with a mouth of honey and all the imagery of the Earth, our mother.
As Seamus Heaney said of Medbh McGuckian, his former student, her “language is like the inner lining of consciousness, the inner lining of English itself, and it moves amphibiously between the dream life and her actual domestic and historical experience as a woman in late-20th-century Ireland.”
So the title The High Caul Cap suggests the complexities and layers of the poems — the caul with which the lucky are born; the caul that was the mother’s amniotic sac shrouding the baby; the caul through which the baby first sees the world; the caul that is kept on the mantelpiece to protect the child from drowning; the “High Caul Cap,” an Irish set dance; the caul that is the cap we wear every time we think and remember and associate; the caul that bears us through life and death.
If you choose to read The High Caul Cap, understand that this is no Mary Oliver or Maxine Kumin page-turner. Its layered poems are difficult, and I suspect that no one reader can make the connections McGuckian’s complex mind may or may not have intended. But the rewards are many, and the poems will make your brain dance—slowly.