Origins, Grafts, Whispers

(As will hopefully become apparent over the next few weeks, one of my ‘resolutions’ for January 2017 was to get my act together with the backlog of posts for this and my other blogs. At the end of the month I go off on leave from Newcastle University, stepping down as I do so from the role of subject head which has occupied a certain proportion of my time for several years now (cf when my last entry here was), so clearing the decks is very much how I hope to proceed.

However I have been here before (approximately once every four years, if you want to check the blog’s track record), hence the inverted commas above, and I understand that I have a very xenochronicitous approach to all such notions of orderliness, timeliness, and, especially, the idea that what writers must do is present a coherent face to the world via social and other media, submissions to magazines and competitions, and taking part in public-facing activities via festivals and the like – all the trappings of the dreaded Poebiz which appear to have been swallowed whole by some.

My take is that you actively resist all that even to the detriment of your ‘rep’, undermining all the Biz’s and your pomposities as best you can, and instead concentrate on Doing the Work in both senses of following your nose as a writer, and your conscience as a facilitator – be that tutor, translator, collaborator, editor, judge, or indeed blogger. So it seems somewhat apt to be reviving this blog for the New Year (we’re still in my notion of the extended Daft Days in the sense that a) it’s not Burns Night yet, and b) the inauguration of Trumpo is tomorrow, when we will descend instead into the Dark Days) with a review of a writer who embodies many of those principles: Sarah Maguire.

Her work as a tireless advocate for literary translation of writers from outside the Eurocentric frame goes before her. It expresses for me an issue regarding that frame: that the choice of familiar translatees of a certain assumed stature can take on the function of contextualising a poet-translator as they wish to be seen, rather than, as the Poetry Translation Centre does, providing access to an under-recognised or entirely new-to-‘us’ literature, and sharing the energising poem or poet or poetic. Part then of Doing the Work is being at the service of that poem, poet, or poetic – and trying to learn from it.

Her own poetry has always demonstrated that same quality of conceptual, ideological, and perceptual openness with great verve, and I was very pleased to get the chance to review her in the Summer 2016 issue of Poetry London.)

Sarah Maguire, Almost the Equinox: Selected Poems (Chatto Poetry), 149pp, £15.99

Sarah Maguire’s overlapping roles as poet of frank, brilliant sensuosity, gardener with encyclopaedic knowledge of the aesthetic and healing properties of plants, and traveller/translator and facilitator of translation, primarily in a non-European context, are strikingly reflected in this gathering of her three volumes for Chatto.

The intelligent editorial decision to reorder the poems in Almost the Equinox has had the effect of emphasising a single trajectory if not narrative to the work as a whole. This allows the reader to see, as few selected poems do, the integrity of the life work, and indeed of the life as work. The poems of ‘physic’ – the intimate relation between us and our environment, between our health and the plants we use to heal us – are positioned between two unknowns – those of her origins as an adopted child, and the further worlds her work increasingly opens up to, whether experientially or poetically.

Questions of origin for Maguire always themselves originate in the body, and in placing its vulnerabilities in a specific interior or against a named landscape. As ‘The Hearing Cure’ establishes, even in present misery there is music, ‘Each night/the slow wax silts/into place/coagulating sibilance//muffling susurration…’; and even in childhood pain she finds poise: ‘the football results/came on the radio;//Scottish League Division Two…//a litany//that lulled me’.

The turn in this poem, whereby the comforting adoptive mother cannot, in her old age, be comforted, is characteristic of the unflinching truth-telling behind Maguire’s lyricism. There are fractures in our lives that can only be healed by the imagination, as in the moment of re-encounter: ‘At twenty-one I found the mother I had never known,/much smaller than I’d thought, her hands like mine.’ Ironically, it is their shared love of dance that has left the poet literally in ‘The Fracture Clinic’,  ‘beneath a star-shaped atrium’.

That inherited joyousness and that eye for forms comes together in ‘Hibiscus’, which begins with a declaration of openness:

I have no idea what is coming
as I take the hand of a perfect stranger
as I’m taken through the streets of Marrakech.

This journey leads past the intense detail of ‘the indifferent city’, its ‘tagines and harira and brochettes’, and away from ‘that one huge bud of hibiscus -/madder red, almost cerise -/that is, at this moment, coming full into bloom’. It ends in a room in the windowframe of which the poet discovers ‘A bird’s nest woven of a filigree of fine straw/and cardboard’, in which there are two eggs – ‘I watch these eggs until I know them.’

In all this the play of physical detail against metaphoric implication is accomplished with great delicacy: we are aware as readers that this is not merely an encounter with some appropriated notion of the exotic, but a depiction of the otherness that makes up our own inner world of desires and desire for security and pattern, and of how random and rare such insights are, as well as a gentle insistence that sooner or later we must realise, in Auden’s phrase, that ‘Our dream of safety has to disappear.’

The pivotal role of plants in Sarah Maguire’s work, their capacity to poison, delight or heal, and the ambivalence of the gardener, who like the surgeon, must decide how or whether their charges shall live, haunts poem after poem at the heart of this book. ‘My Grafting Knife’ which, to the young gardener, represents ‘A whole week’s wages/balanced on my palm’, is described as so sharp its unlocking ‘[hurts] the air’. At the poem’s conclusion, the description of ‘my right thumb//criss-crossed with hair-scars/tarnished with sap’ rewrites Plath’s ‘Cut’ to bring gardener and garden into a sort of sacrificial communion. In ‘Umbellularia californica’ the headache tree (which is wittily characterised in the notes: ‘opinion is divided as to whether [its] smell actually causes headaches or relieves them’) becomes the poet’s ‘lodestar’, to which, as a sufferer from migraines, she makes pilgrimage ‘not for a cure…but for a witness,/for the process/of a map.’

That process, of mapping out a life, seeing it as a geography as much as a narrative, is enacted by poem after poem in this masterful selection, which feels as subtly open to the poetics of those other landscapes as it is rooted in the London of its title poem, where the poet notes a ginkgo flaring besides St Paul’s, the nave of which is rendered cognate with the Great Mosque in Kabul, while, returned and restored, she remembers

As a child, I climbed all the stairs
to the Whispering Gallery, laid my cheek
against the painted plaster of the dome,
and let those perfected acoustics bear my changed voice
back to myself.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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