Interview: A Hinge into Something Larger Meetings with Medbh McGuckian
by Helen Kidd
The first time I met Medbh McGuckian she was amused that I thought her poetry akin to 'ecriture feminine'. I still think that the subtleties of French feminisms lend themselves well to readings of her work, but what takes place in her poetry is an act of faith in the enjoyment of writing and reading. The savouring of dense layers and ambiguities of language which her work enacts defies any simple kind of exegesis; it slips away from statement into a strongly textured linguistic impasto which leaves the reader baffled by meanings. She offers a nonjudgmental, essentially playful erotics from the heart of a historical and political situation more usually depicted as pure and irreconcilable conflict.
Trying to pin Medbh down to an explication of her poetic project is like looking for a snow leopard, and I sometimes wonder if it's at all useful. She has a wonderful knack of asking rather than answering questions, and she is endlessly reaching conclusions then changing her mind or contradicting herself. This is not perverse or evasive so much as part of an honest, ongoing enquiry into everything she encounters. She is acutely aware of the difficulties and ambiguities of any situation, with the result that she can actually see slightly more than both sides at once. Her method of introducing a third term - feeling and sympathy - creates connections between seemingly irreconcilable opposites.
Over lunch last April she slipped between conversing with her friend from Belfast, responding to me, and reassuring an elderly male poet opposite about the needlessness of worrying about death. Death, she points out to him, gives you a hinge into something larger. I want to go off into a comer and swap stories about that hinge - what it might mean, how we can work with it - but there is a project in hand for Medbh, and that's reassuring this man. Here we are. This is life. If I want to read it in her poetry it's there, all of it, in what she herself calls her "stream of unconsciousness". She is very much in the moment: the writing is the writing, the worried man is the worried man - and does he like her coat, which is very new? Not only is she in the moment, she is very much in her coat. It's what used to be known as a frock-coat I think. It has a wonderful burl and swing to it. "I think it's barathea," I say. "I think it's a coat to stand around under gas lamps in," says Medbh. It is. It is a sensual coat.
In the Kicking Daffodils conference, held at Oxford Brookes University earlier this year, Ailbhe Smyth suggested that Medbh has eroticised motherhood: it's possible to go much further. She has eroticised everything, in that she has offered an alternative to pornography and violence, providing a deep sensual appreciation of the world, and an equally sensual treatment of language, including syntax and poetic form, within situations where others might close their eyes or look away. She told me a story about Graham Greene who apparently felt an urge to visit the trouble spots and trigger points of the world. When he stepped out into the Shankhill Road he was shocked by the feel of the place, which he expressed - as he promptly high-tailed it out of there in a taxi - as being the most evil he had encountered. "I like the Shankhill Road," says Medbh, "I saw a lovely Protestant Christmas tree there." Me: "Is there such a thing?" Medbh: "Oh yeah. Maybe that's what I'll call my next book. A Protestant Christmas Tree."
Her next book, she feels, will deal with the processes surrounding her father's recent death, and the connection she feels with him even though he isn't physically present. She goes on to describe an epiphanic moment for her on Ballycastle Beach. A storm had just passed leaving the beach exposed to entirely new shapes, and the sea was still covered with spume, very thick and alive, like sperm, she tells me. "Very sexy," are her words for it. At the time the sun and the moon were both out in the sky, and she felt very close to her father, as if he were looking after her, and over the house beside the beach a rainbow appeared, "and sat on the roof like a cat". There is a fearlessness when it comes to expressing such things in terms many feminists might balk at, which lends a complete integrity to her writing.
Some might be troubled by the seemingly essentialist considerations Medbh expresses in conversation, but her poetry doesn't fix these in any absolu tist way. There is a persistent androgyny in her poetry which questions any simple formulation of "he" and "she". Sometimes there is a complete crossover of terms normally related to one sex or the other, just as the distinctions between "I" and ""you" frequently blur, or inside and outside, or the church and sex, or dreaming and waking. She tells me that her family has worried about her sexual preferences because she has often used women as sources of inspiration. "I need muses," she says, and that it's like being in love, although sometimes her muses are composite - one person's hands, another's eyes, and so on. Presumably someone's coat might serve. She eroticises everything, even coats, and I miss that coat next time I see her.
This time the talk is of ear-rings. "See, for me," she says, "there's two types of women: those who wear ear-rings, and those who don't." She looks at Moira Dooley and me, who are both adorned with said items. "What would you luscious, gorgeous women do," she asks, "if a man got so passionate that he ripped your ears?" I always take the ear-rings off first, I point out. "Not spontaneously passionate enough," she answers.
Women's sexuality is like a symphony, says Medbh.
What about men? She thinks they're quite simple really: they don't have the range. "Intrinsically?" I ask, "or just because they've been conditioned that way?" I haven't had a complete answer yet. Maybe there isn't one. Maybe Medbh hasn't one. Maybe because ofthe poetry, and the way it subverts all that, it really doesn't matter.
She certainly feels the vexed relationship of women with language, especially in Northern Ireland, where women occupy an isolated and domestic world, where the outside world's discourses have what she calls a "news bulletin effect" on their writing, and they have to decode the input in order to make sense of it. This would seem to suggest a somewhat different treatment of language by women, but I don't have the chance to ask whether this is contextual or characteristic. Obviously a great deal is contextual, as she speaks sometimes of Catholic consciousness operating on a profound psychological level, and the sensory influence of Catholicism is manifest in her poetry; the candle-lit, flower-filled, perfumed interiors, full of echoes, colours and half-defined particulars, add a complex music of physicality to metaphysics. This makes her work, however difficult for many, particularly impressionistic and evocative of her own Northern Irish community, which she says must often live behind closed doors, or in the face of closed doors, rendering Catholics "foreigners in their own land". "Poetry," she says, "is a refuge," much as the poetry of ritual and liturgy can be a refuge, a sense of order, rhythm and consolation. But she also says that poetry "is the debt you owe," and this debt to the community often involves "speaking in riddles, 'cause you're not sure which side you're on at all, and ambiguity has to placate everyone."
"Placate" doesn't really do justice to her work. Medbh agrees that her work is a kind of continuum; each poem speaking to and branching off from the others, and that it is very symphonic. She sees her poetry as "at heart very political poetry". For me it is profoundly feminist in its strategies, but this would make her throw up her hands in horror, or laugh, or distract me with a glass of wine. Medbh calls Northern Ireland "astatelet/state which possesses shifting qualities/states within it," but there are other states at issue here too, including states of mind, and she knows that a great deal lurks behind everydayness, and that "sleep is where it's all happening". Although she doesn't find Kristeva, "and all of them," particularly helpful, yet there is a canniness in her refusal to dance to rational patterns. She reveals language to be wiser than its exponents, just as she celebrates her daughter's word-playas being "every bit as good as Christopher Smart". '''Prepare to die,' she said, pointing the toy gun at me. 'But then you won't have me to look after you.' 'Ah,' she said, 'but you can be with your daddy, and I'll have mine all to myself. '"
Medbh says she finds women quite threatening, that they have deep caves of unknown inside them, and that men are simpler, easier to understand. She says that writing is a kind of cross-dressing process in which she takes on the outwardness of masculinity, but it seems to me that she's more aware of the ambiguities involved, and that she sometimes only says these things to confuse me. At any rate I'd rather watch Medbh swing her coat, and upset people's theoretical applecarts, than read Kristeva any day. And if you can't admire her coat, then read her work. It's an excellent hinge.