Frustrated Meanings: Silence in the poetry of Catherine Walsh and Medbh McGuckian
With Catherine Walsh’s poetry, the first thing one can do is just look. Not read, but simply absorb that in her poetry, the shape of the poem on the page can be the first signal to meaning. In different pieces, she constructs her language differently – perhaps an obvious statement, but the words of her poetry treat the page as a field to explore, and the way they clump or spread out changes both within poems and between collections. This leaves a reader with the impression of there being great gaps and spaces in such poems as “Idir Eatortha,” and a density of language and impression, almost overwhelming, in those sections of “Pitch” that feature parallel columns or full paragraphs. Influenced by American experimentalist traditions, Walsh has consciously separated herself from the predominant strains of lyric Irish poetry, pulling way from national identification and the pressures of tradition. Her work resembles few others on Ireland’s poetry scene, and yet there are shared threads of interest that connect her work to a more established, but also avant-garde Irish poet.
Connecting Medbh McGuckian, born in Belfast in 1950, and living there with her family still, to Catherine Walsh may seem like an arbitrary choice, but when one looks past their initial differences, the commonality between the two becomes clear. McGuckian writes dense, metaphor and simile laden lyric poems that one is never quite sure actually relate to the titles given. Complaints about the lack of center, the obscure references, and the unreality in her poems compete with plaudits given for the sensuous language and overall thematic sentiments carried through her collections. For both poets, the work they produce questions our assumptions about language and its concreteness of meaning, whether one can communicate anything for certain, and how close one can get to silence before the voice gives out entirely. They approach this idea from different directions – McGuckian is more concerned with gender and nationality, where Walsh’s approach is more cerebral and consciously experimental. McGuckian’s work is formally conservative; to first glance it is generally left justified, structured in full sentences, with regularized stanza breaks. But internally, her poetry leaves the world of solid referents behind for the mainstream to tell their story with.
Born in Dublin in 1964, Walsh left Ireland in the 1980s, living in Spain and England before moving back to Ireland in 1996, where she publishes Irish poets from outside the mainstream though hardPressed Poetry with her partner Billy Mills. Her poetry, while mostly in English, incorporates untranslated Spanish phrases, and the occasional Irish or French one as well. This can estrange the reader, but not half so much as the times when she abandons the alphabet for punctuation and symbols, bracketing white space or incorporating arrows, equal, and plus signs into the text. When Walsh does this, a reader cannot help but feel initially excluded, as if there was something specific the author was thinking, but refused to say. Yet, the poet, in a 1991 interview, has said that she wants readers to apply whatever meanings they infer from such symbols: “I mean as you say, those symbols have a meaning which you’ve said, and from that meaning you get the implication…I don’t see why there should be any one definitive interpretation of anything anybody has written. Or any two or three definitive explanations or interpretations.i
Throughout her work, Walsh represents silence in typography. Robert Archambeau notes in his review of Idir Eatortha and Making Tents that Walsh is a student of Charles Olson in this regard, as her lines and spacing are not defined by conventional meter, but are generally represented textually as they would be spoken.ii Referring to poems originally included in the pamphlet Macula, published 1986, and used again in Making Tents (1997), Walsh said, “They’ve got the kind of breath that I still use. I just learnt how to play around with it a bit more.”iii An excerpt from Walsh’s 1989 book of poems Short Stories, can serve as an example:
the way I
While I have not heard Catherine Walsh read, Archambeau calls her “a remarkable performer of her own works,” and one can infer that the spacing between words would leave room for silence and breath in performance – the longer the space, the longer the time between words. The lacuna that is highlighted by the framing of the parentheses seems to me rather remarkable. The page preceding the one from which this excerpt is extracted ends with the phrase “doing things well is a natural love,” and the section presented above follows directly. The parentheses seem to designate the unnamed thing “you” does so well, leaving the reader to fill in that unknown action or activity. It also provides a transition point to the comparison of the speaker’s own lack of ability. By leaving the blank space in the first line quoted, Walsh provides a guide to the reader as to how this ought to sound out loud, where the emphasis belongs. Exaggeratedly overemphasizing silence in the enclosed space of the parentheses, Walsh absents the connection between the two phrases, yet, conversely, the two half-moons on the page look to the reader like separated links, and one unconsciously draws the two halves back together.
Throughout Walsh’s work, references are made to unspecified things, just as the sentence describing what “you were” doing is unfinished. There is also the question of syntactical disjunction, as the first half of phrases often seems slightly at odds with the latter half. Taking the excerpt above and creating a prosaic sentence, one would read it as, “the way I notice you as you were,” and immediately one sees the grammatical error of inconsistent tenses. Regularized, school-taught English has little sway in Walsh’s world, where the author does not spell out her ideas, but places the fragments before the reader, waiting for us to construct meaning. For instance, in a section in Short Stories on bioluminescence, after a rather lucent few lines on the chemical compounds that cause the natural effect, there is a set of parentheses, inside which is enclosed the following set of phrases: “this is not Mr. Jack’s fault; it is due to the lack”iv which is not followed by any punctuation except the closing parentheses. Walsh invests the juxtaposition of words with meaning rather than trying to make overarching connections between disparate ideas, giving a reader the opportunity to create an individualized relationship with reference to one’s own experiences.
This is especially clear in a section of Idir Eatortha, published with a reissue of Making Tents in 1996 – an edition with pages printed on A4 paper (near enough to the US standard of 8½”x11”). On page nine, words, no more than five together on a line, pockmark the page erratically. Run together, it would look like: “chuckling braincap scared how/the fuck?… know what nothing the same nothing changed more or less everything stilling someplace when grey all over forehead raising gone learning locks on like that” When one sees the page (partially represented here, and somewhat condensed for space),
how/the fuck? …
the white space isolating and islanding the phrases or individual words allows them to settle into meaning, and more importantly, gives them room to interact with each other as individual moments.v The words themselves recall Olson’s opening line (a single line, despite the inclusion of the slash mark) in “The Kingfishers”, “What does not change / is the will to change,” both in Walsh’s choice of language and the juxtaposition of seemingly clashing statements.
When printers first learn how to set a page, one of the most important things they learn is how white space affects the reader. If they use more generous line spacing, or more spacing between words, even between letters, the reader is able to focus more on the individual words. When larger margins are used, the block of text is perceived as an object separate from the page itself. Walsh uses the same techniques here to allow the reader to focus on the ideas one at a time. The silence of the blank space is as much a vital part of understanding Walsh as the words it separates. The structure of her poem also adds a layer of meaning to the words themselves, as the pattern of the last four lines changes with the word “changed” – the rhythm is broken, and the visual line of the words stair-stepping down the page. The author’s form undermines her own statement that “nothing changed,” and the contradictory nature of the two statements themselves is enhanced, as Walsh stresses the impossibility of certainty.vi
Walsh also complicates silence as being the space between words in another section of Idir Eatortha. Pages 36 to 42 are composed of fragments of conversation – the poem acts as a recorder of its environment. Stage directions for the primary text are included on the page, bracketed. They either indicate the tenor of the voices, “[politely, respectfully],” or the non-vocal sounds of the place, “[scrabbling],” “[footsteps tramping briskly off].” Nearly everything not bracketed is a direct quotation. The use of punctuation here – brackets, quotation marks – divides the text as our own aural filter decides what sounds we need to pay attention to. It problematizes the idea of silence outside the noise of our own voices as well, reminding us of the artificiality of all textual representations claiming to accurately describe the world in words alone.
The gaps of incomplete thoughts and unknown referents that make Walsh’s work difficult for the casual reader are, in the end, entirely too necessary for what she is trying to represent. She makes poems from snatches of conversation, passages of other texts, and her own interactions with the strangeness of our world. In Pitch, her 1994 collection of poems,Walsh writes: “that’s gone don’t dual again how to reach/ through such preoccupation not to/ even discreetly manipulate a shame/ denying substance your form happy?”vii This section of her series has the tenor of someone talking to herself, not needing to fully enunciate her desires and actions because the intention has already been understood. This quality of the unspoken found in Walsh’s work is not just the province of experimental writers, but of any poet who approaches language with curiosity about the very tool he or she is using, and finds that it cannot be compassed textually.
Medbh McGuckian approaches the topic of silence as a specifically personal experience, and she has addressed it in several interviews. In 1994, she said that she felt “at the mercy of the language itself…The whole grammar of it is foreign to me…none of the words are ever going to be adequate anyway.”viii Later in that same interview, she elaborates on this: “All of the English language repels me… [it] basically gets on my nerves.” Unlike Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, who chose to write poetry in Irish because English felt artificial, for McGuckian, raised in a British system, Irish is just as strange to her. So instead, she says in the interview, “I want to make English sound like a foreign language to itself.” Nine years later, McGuckian commented about her relationship with her mother that “we cannot speak to each other, and I always think it’s because of Irish and English and the language problem, and the way that the language was killed through the fighting…The fact that it is hard to talk, and that I cannot talk to my mother, is also a symbol of this language gap.”ix Speaking of what it was like for her to grow up in Belfast, McGuckian said in the same 2003 interview that she felt the “environment was very alien. You know, nothing spoke to me of my own identity…And so you’re living in this world where you don’t have any connection to the names, and all the things are distorted and has only recently been twisted, even the old names. So the Church, because it used Latin and not English, became a haven to me.”x
Where Walsh represents the silence of disjunction in formal choices, McGuckian addresses it as a subject. Looking primarily at her 2003 collection Had I a Thousand Lives, onenotices that, as in all McGuckian’s collections, threads of common images and concerns repeat themselves. This build up of meaning as one goes deeper into her poetics counteracts the vertigo of reading a single, center-less poem. In the first several poems of the collection, language is referred to obliquely, yet always in a way that is difficult to access. In “Nightingale-nights” she refers to an undefined him as some sort of sibling in poetry: “the tones of his voice/ fastened to a page/ in only apparently unanswered letters.”xi Here, the silence of non-communication is uncertain, as the voice is preserved, then disregarded, then only “apparently” disregarded.
McGuckian’s view of language is inherently flexible; as quoted above, she wants to take over English, infuse it with her own meanings. Her approach to language takes it as a given that a word does not have a single meaning. Anne Fogarty comments that “[d]ue to this frequently voiced desire to produce a language devoid of all specificities, it is often assumed McGuckian is intent on writing poetry which replicates the non-hierarchical fluidities of différance,”xii and when one reads such poems as Petit Bleu, the reader realizes how flexible perception and language are to McGuckian. The opening stanza reads, “We need a verb meaning either/ to send someone to paradise/ or to keep a hawk from sleep/ in order to tame it.” Later in the poem, even letters lose their staunch natures: “and whenever the letter R/ crops up, it can be seen/ to refer to other Rs,/ or to the eternal letter L.”xiii Accepting that a word, or letter, can have an entirely hidden meaning is common to both Walsh and McGuckian, both of whom want to involve the reader in the process of the poem, needing our interpretation to realize the poem.
These references to uncertain meaning and unspoken words heat up as the collection unfolds. In “Cathal’s Voice” the speaker’s “native silence reeled/ silently out of reach”; in the poem immediately following, “The Mirror Game,” the voice is caught up behind breath, and voice itself is trammeled in the “croaking of my foreign speech.” These poems, and many of the others in this collection, directly take for subject the experience of language’s inadequacies. For McGuckian, true expression lies in the voice before language harnesses it. Writing in English is always a substitution, as she expresses in “The Mirror Game.” A man who is perfectly comfortable with English is coaxing the speaker to make new and uncomfortable sounds:
Now is the time for you to play with the sounds,
the poems of the world tugging at your throat,
and suddenly it becomes difficult to say
what my meaning feels like
in my poor-sounding tongue-string
barely attached to meaning,
for you are living differently,
as you join sound to sound… xiv
One of McGuckian’s more coherent poems to an outside reader, this topic of struggling to express oneself in a manner that just does not seem to fit is maintained throughout. She eschews her usual concentric similes to focus on the uncertainty with which language imbues her. The skepticism with which she regards English allows McGuckian to take her tool as subject, and also see how inadequate it is for her poetic and personal needs.
McGuckian’s poetry has always been about the senses and the body, and the struggle of transmuting those feelings into words leads her to unravel and rework language. Yet, she still finds a gap, as in “A Religion of Writing,” which states quite directly, for McGuckian, the distance between words and reality: “Dreams as common as rain/ returning to the outdoors/ one whom the earth has reclaimed/ in the passage from the name/ to the body, the remoteness/ of name to meaning.”xv McGuckian has defined herself as an earthy poet, drawing poetry from her woman’s body, yet the surreal nature of her poetry, living as it does in the world of disconnected dreams, raises up the functional. In this passage from “A Religion of Writing,” the dreams, in insubstantialities, are related to the word. The body, the earth, and meaning are categorized together. There is still a slippage between the elements as the “one” passes from the spoken to the unspoken, yet it becomes clear how little traction the naming of this “one” had in the end. The flexible words try to create a meaning, but they are too transient and insubstantial: “how Nazareth, they think, once meant ‘flower’,/ the million million ways words can die.”xvi
Making up for this discomfort with English means, for McGuckian, overwhelming the reader with strange metaphors and similes, creating a world or referents entirely detached from the English one. Her copious detail is not naming, not defining but aligning, as a general aura is created by a poem rather than a specific meaning. In a 1990 interview with Kathleen McCracken, McGuckian revealed that she hopes her poems “will draw the reader into the particular mesh of thoughts and nexus of feeling” and acknowledges later that her poems “don’t depict the world or represent it” but rather that she “invest[s] certain things with my own associations.”xvii One begins a typical McGuckian poem by sketching out a narrative for the first few things mentioned, creating a meaning that you believe her signs point you towards. But as the poems unfold, the reader is drawn further and further from the original point of reference. One poem I keep coming back to for its language, despite the fact that I could not tell you for the life of me exactly what its subject is, is “The Silkwinder,” in Captain Lavender. It begins by immediately confusing the physical with the temporal:
Amazingly visible, often with only
a Tuesday to guide her, time passes
like a wedding morning, promising
many mornings, proper days
and sleep-drenched nights.xviii
The light-heartedness here almost lets one pass over the patently absurd notion of a Tuesday guiding time. What associations Tuesday has as a positive force for the author we will never know, unless she chooses to reveal the privacies of her purpose, but in general we can accept this metaphor. The next stanza takes us in an entirely new direction, connected only, if even that much, by the love implicit in the words wedding and heart:
The heart stays blooded
with summer seeds, as the trees
which I always think of as bare
bubble up to a pool in my mind…
Suddenly, we are in an entirely different, darker world, where life is commingled with destruction. This uneasy combination is carried through the poem, and I find it especially prevalent in the very difficult fourth stanza. The second and third stanzas have dealt with nature imagery, but in a sharp turn, we are brought to an unexpected interior space:
The amber landscape in the small bedroom
became a small raw spot between wrist
and elbow I touched
every time I came into it
the excessive sweetness of the pink paper
brought it all back.
The clauses of this sentence are not firm in relation to one another. Is the fourth line part of a clause involving the last two lines, or are they a commentary on the first four lines? Just following the convolutions of this sentence, never mind discovering why the sweetness pink paper reminds the speaker of a wound, is a challenge that keeps the mind revolving. To try and then make a linear connection to the first stanza seems well nigh impossible. McGuckian does not ask the reader to create a straight line, but rather to resist what mainstream poetry has taught us about finding meaning. One could look at the poem, which ends, “leaving the inner arm/ as dark as it was before,” and decide that it is a comment on the circularity of time, its repetitive return to moments despite its promise of “many mornings, proper days.” But then what does one do with the images of a heart, “blooded” as a young hunter is with his first kill, but with “summer seeds”? Rather than analyzing McGuckian line by line, the best way to approach her is to realize that she is always writing about what cannot be expressed, so she circumlocutes it.
Catherine Walsh also counters her silences and soundless symbols with a rush of language. In her collection Pitch, this is especially noticeable. Rather than having emptiness framed for the reader to fill in, multiple options are given in the form of parallel verses. Instead of an absence of meaning, we are given several to choose from, depending on whether we read from top to bottom first, or left to right first. In his interview of Walsh, Peterjon Skelt notes that in performance, she has replicated the effect on the page by having two readers, and wonders why she chooses to present material this way. Her response shows how her intellectual and critical faculties play into her poetry: “[They could be read] one after the other, in either order. Or they could be read horizontally…Making parallel statements, this thing again of what people can cope with simultaneously if there is a strong connection or a strong contrast.”xix Walsh uses the page as a physical space that inscribes amorphous meanings onto the words inscribed upon it. One such example occurs on page eleven:
unless less important
stood element of
less her only joy
I used to read her stood ‘never rescind’ they said
well still collectively denying any
It is up to the individual to decide how these relate to one another, if at all. Does the second column define the first, or ought one to read them as interstitched? The “well” at the bottom of the leftmost column seems to relate to the “oh well” ending the right. Or does one begin on the left and then move up and to the left to read the columns? The point being that when a poet steps back from the responsibility of providing guidance through the various meanings, the reader becomes overwhelmed. The plethora of options operates to drown out the silence of the total lack of designated meaning (“collectively denying any”). Walsh’s own poetic intention is to “make people aware of themselves, and how language, as we use it, is retrogressive and contradictory… We express how things used to be and can never express how things are or what’s happening.”xx
Using simultaneous structures allows Walsh to try to bring poetry into the present, to be a part of the unfolding moment in its lack of definition. She is very conscious about pushing language to the edge of comprehension, and said to Skelt that “I’m just as happy, to have it break down completely and fall asunder as to have it superficially cohesive and coherent.”xxi Writing at the point where language almost fails is a challenge because it denies the reader what he or she expects from a text, which is a closed matrix. Instead, the poet points the reader towards all that is not said in the text, telling us “there, over the horizon, that’s what I’m talking about.” Walsh’s approach incorporates the silence of meaning into her work –
way / / / way /
( ) ( )
black and decker appliances
attached to their foreheads
way / / / way /
( ) ( )
dredge the zest
– and also drowns it out with a contrasting yet connecting aesthetic that lays out language that has double or triple readings.
Medbh McGuckian attributes her distrust in language as a reliable structure to historical and cultural loss. Speaking to Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, she said she felt smothered under English and wanted “to reach an English that would be so purified of English that it would be Irish,” a longing she has acknowledged will never be reached.xxii Walsh’s view of the Irish language is harder to decipher. Born and raised in Dublin, she is really as far from the traditional Irish lifestyle that bred the language as McGuckian is in her Belfast. Yet, she did use the Irish language to title her 1996 book, which meant “Between Worlds.” Walsh’s poetry jumps between locales, sometimes undefined, sometimes given in crisp and dirty detail. But her worlds are also those built in the wavering language of her poetry. She is a poet who disdains what she considers the Irish attitude towards poetry, which she sees as insular, imitative, and irrelevant. Her experiences on the poetry scene have led her to conclude that they regard the process of writing poetry to be, “you use this metre [sic] and you use this rhyme system and then maybe you throw in a few big words if you want to impress people, and sure, if you keep it to your town you can’t go wrong; because the local people will like it anyway.”xxiii
Decrying tradition, it therefore seems unlikely that she would include cúpla focail in order to make those who passed Irish on their Leaving Certificate feel smug. On the first page of “Pitch,” Walsh marks out her attitude towards Irish: “gracias/ thankyou/ go raibh míl a maith agat.” Irish is not a privileged language in her book, but it is included as part of the play. The Dublin accent appears as often as actual Irish words – “jayzus/ there y’are” – and Walsh seems more attracted to Spanish, which appears smoothly in her text, not italicized or noted as any way different from English.
One of the interesting relationships she draws between English and Irish occurs in “Idir Eatortha.” Irish uses accents, or fadas, to change the sound of vowels, and so accented vowels become a clue to a word not being English even when no differentiation is made between it and the preceding words typographically. On page 16 of “Idir Eatortha,” there is a clump of language with the Irish word “sugán” hovering off to the right: “so soon/ been/ there/ sugán/ have you// slowly and more/ repeat the supposéd silence.” “Sugán” is a type of chair made with a seat of woven plaited straw. The twist to this inclusion of the Irish word is that the English word “supposed” is given a “fada” as well, throwing off the reader who expects the accent to differentiate between the two languages.
Whether Walsh laments the loss of Irish as the common tongue or not, she ends up like McGuckian, operating between languages, as they have both found that their experiences cannot be encompassed using only the English dictionary. Writing over silence, and yet implicitly incorporating it into their texts, these two women use avant-garde techniques to challenge the reader into participating. Fluidity of structure and meaning marks their poetry as apart from the strict interpretations of (the still beautiful and accomplished) mainstream poetry, with its roots in certainty. McGuckian is uneasy in the modern creation of a culture of uncertainty, and Walsh revels in its possibilities, but both unhesitatingly use their understanding of life’s flux to write poetry that allows for plural visions of meaning, while also permitting silence to stand.
i Catherine Walsh, Prospect Into Breath: Interviews with North and South Writers, ed. Peterjon Skelt (Twickenham: North and South, 1991): 180-1.
ii Robert Archambeau, “Another Ireland: Part Two” (Review), Notre Dame Review 5 (1998): 138.
iii Prospect Into Breath, 176.
iv Catherine Walsh, Short Stories (Twickenham: North and South, 1989): 11.
v Walsh, Idir Eatortha and Making Tents (London: Invisible Books, 1996) 9.
vi Email communication with Michael Satris. 12/8/2005.
vii Walsh, Pitch, (Durham: Pig Press, 1994): 30.
viii Medbh McGuckian. “Surfacing” (Interview), The Irish Review 16 (1994).
ix McGuckian, Interview, The European English Messenger, 13:2 (2004): 40.
xi McGuckian, Had I A Thousand Lives (Co. Meath, Ireland: The Gallery Press, 2003): 17.
xii Anne Fogarty, “‘A Noise of Myth’: Speaking (as) Woman in the poetry of Eavan Boland and Medbh McGuckian,” Paragraph 17 (1994).
xiii Had I A Thousand Lives, 19.
xvi Ibid., “Azure on a Yellow Purse,” 60.
xvii McGuckian, “An Attitude of Compassion” (Interview), Irish Literary Supplement (Fall 1990).
xviii McGuckian, Captain Lavender (Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest University Press, 1995)26.
xix Prospect Into Breath 185.
xxii Medbh McGuckian and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, "Comhrá, with a foreword and afterword by Laura O'Connor," Southern Review 31:3 (1995) 581-614.
xxiii Prospect Into Breath, 176.