Reading Medbh McGuckian during Lockdown by Rosanne Gallenne

Back in March, before I left UCD and Dublin for a two-week stay with my partner, I met my supervisor with whom I agreed on writing a paper on McGuckian’s poetry while I was away. Although the situation in Germany and particularly in Italy looked already quite grim, my reaction was like most people’s at the time – one of denial – and I was sure I would soon be back to hand my work in and move on to the next stage. So, on March 6th, I took an early flight to Toulouse with mixed feelings about the situation but still trying to ignore all the signals that predicted the crisis to come.

I immediately settled; I loved getting lost in the winding streets of the old Toulouse, found a favourite bookshop, visited the food markets, cafés and boulangeries I miss so much when I am in Ireland, and enjoyed the long hours of work in the Library of Studies and Heritage where my research was progressing faster than I expected. However, the situation in France and Ireland started changing as public places progressively shut in both countries. In France, though, things evolved much faster; not even a week after my arrival, I had to send for essential things I had left behind and packed what I had brought with me to get on the road driving up North to my parents’, right after the government announced the quarantine.

Week 2 was spent on hours of waiting for more information from UCD, learning about the online teaching tools, emailing worried students back and forth, but also trying to get my head around my own research while working on other collective projects. Although it was not an easy time, I was in a privileged position: I was living in a house with a garden, near the sea, was quarantined with a supportive partner, his family (and, most importantly, their cat), and could get in touch with my own family whenever I wanted to. However, within less than two weeks I had moved places twice, had to accept that I could not see my colleagues and my friends before a while and realised that I would not be back in Dublin before September at best. And even if the online teaching allowed me to maintain a contact with my students , leaving UCD so soon and so unexpectedly left a taste of unfinished business.

One of the (few) upsides of doing a non-funded research project in the Arts and Humanities is that at least we get to choose a topic we ( are supposed to) like, which can bring some comfort despite the pressure we experience. In that, I feel particularly lucky: until the pandemic, poetry had always been a sort of refuge and doing a PhD in poetry was the logical continuity to my studies. Researching women poets in Ireland also sharpened my critical approach to poetry and to other matters as well. More recently, the addition of a comparative study on women’s poetry in France and Ireland to my “Research To-Do List” established a reassuring bridge between the two countries I live in. And despite the precarity of the comings and goings between France and Ireland, I felt that I had found a stable home in poetry.

Initially, working on Medbh McGuckian ’s collections while being away from Ireland was a pleasing prospect as, in a way, I was keeping a foot in the country where I was not. Also, McGuckian’s particularly intricate poetry was an exciting challenge . Another aspect I appreciate in her work is the resonance it can have in other cultures. In fact, even if she is often presented like the Northern Irish woman poet, only a few of her collections are openly set in the Norther n Irish context. On the contrary, the multi-layeredness of her poetry offer s multiple possibilities of interpretation and allows her to reach well beyond the boundaries implied by this sort of tagging, which is interesting to explore as it shows that gendered prejudices (simplicity, “feminine” topics revolving around the domestic sphere…) are still very present. However, one of the consequences of this idea of multiplicity that defines Medbh McGuckian’s poetry is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to get a sense of security or stability from it. And in the context of a global pandemic that induced many changes in a very short spa n of time, researching McGuckian’s poems was suddenly too much. For some time, I thought I could not read poetry anymore. And as supportive an d empathetic the persons around me were, they had their own problems and could not really understand mine. So, I would rather keep quiet than trying t o express things I could not even articulate myself.

For a couple of weeks, I read, re-read and annotated a long list of poems. I could read a poem one day and be certain of my notes and my selections, but the following day I would get something else or something completely different from i t. I seriously questioned my research and academic skills, as well as my sanity. Over the course of these weeks, we were also drowning in sometimes contradictory information, and this clash of perspectives resonated a lot wit h what I was trying to do with my academic work. I was in touch with friend s who were experiencing the same thing, and we finally ended up putting words onto how we were feeling: anxiety, creative blank, sometimes incapability of reading anything, and an ever-present sense of guilt. In the meanwhile , the French media adopted a more stable perspective on the COVID-19 and new gurus started to impose their vision of the crisis and how to deal with i t. The repetition seemed to be working as around me people of usually different political sensibilities slowly integrated new words into their daily vocabulary.

Spending so much time outside my “home” country made me realise how much French people are naturally suspicious of any kind of consensus, and the fact that more and more people use the same words every day and do not seem to question this uniformity of speech makes me very uncomfortable. It also used to make me feel even more guilty as I thought I did not have the right to complain about my situation as in comparison with other people I was in a privileged position. Paradoxically, this uniformity of thoughts made me reconnect with McGuckian’s poetry, after weeks of oscillation between silent anger and impromptu snaps of temper, as I realised how important her constant shifts of perspective and contradictions are. Indeed, after having spent some time working on her poetry, I believe that what Medbh McGuckian’s work shows us is that it is normal for individuals to change their minds, to have doubts and to express them. It is also vital to question and interpret what we are told, otherwise we would jus t blindly accept anything, even if it restricts our rights, as we saw and s till can see with different governments’ decisions about the crisis .

Unsurprisingly, most experts that are interviewed are reasonable” men who have a very managerial approach to the virus . Their expertise and confident attitude impose respect and grant them authority when they talk about matters such as the nation’s security” or people’s necessary “resilience ”. McGuckian’s poetry once again is relevant in this context as it shows the perverted effects of reason as it always gives power back to the same people. It consequently legitimises the marginalising of the  same minorities who are considered too emotional to be listened to, and whose knowledge is overtly questioned. McGuckian’s poetry is thus political as it seems to argue against the act of reading poetry as a purely intellectual exercise, as we are unfortunately taught in schools. In fact, reading McGuckian requires an affective engagement and empathy, which makes even more sense today. Her poetry also alerts about the dangers of “resilience” as a new mantra, both at macro and micro levels, as it can be us ed to legitimise abuses of power but also undermines the impact of the crisis on individuals’ mental health and general well-being. If some people discovered the existence of the word during the pandemic – as for once a majority found itself powerless – using it simply in this context and as an order can be insensitive towards those who have been in a precarious situation for a long time but rarely get attention from the media.

McGuckian’s poetry has often been deemed difficult”, “obscure”, and was even accused of fake intellectualism. Like many other women poets, Medbh McGuckian does not follow the tacit standards of “feminine” poetry and dares encroaching on me n poets’ territory with her poetic experiments. Many scholars have noted that McGuckian’s poetry could not be read through traditional methods, so what if her poetry started to be approached differently, as written by a woman evolving in a still prominently masculine milieu and who h as had to half-say things during her entire career not to be censored or ev en more marginalised, because she refused to be resilient?

1 Comment

  1. My goodness, this is excellent! The blending of personal experience with discovering a new approach to the poetry is, if I may say, sublime.

    I know that people matter more–that you matter more–but I hope the cat is well, happily carrying on feline efforts in diplomacy.

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