Nessa OMahony, From colour-coded messages to skilful portraits, review of Medbh McGuckian, The Currach Requires No Harbours, and Cherry Smyth, One Wanted Thing, in The Irish Times (14 April 2007), Weekend Review, p.12.
Last year I visited an exhibition of work by the Russian artist, Wassily Kandinsky, at the Tate Modern. Each canvas showed the painters gradual shift from figurative clarity to multi-coloured abstraction as he developed his theory that colour could stimulate emotion in the same way that classical music could. I gazed at the later paintings, attempting to decipher those gorgeous swirlings; the response, when it eventually came, was visceral rather than intellectual.
The experience of reading Medbh McGuckians poetry can be somewhat like that. She is a writer who creates images of haunting beauty using language that resists easy interpretation. She herself has described her technique as like embroidery. In a 1990 interview with Rebecca Wilson she said: I take an assortment of words, though not exactly at random, and I fuse them; her latest collection, The Currach Requires No Harbours, once again offers the reader a work of richly confusing threads.
So what can the reader use to navigate her way into the poems? Colour, for one. The critic Peggy OBrien has called McGuckians use of colour a readable shorthand, and here the poet continues to use colour as a type of private code. Most of the poems in this collection refer to various hues, with blue a recurring tint; in Catherines Blue we read of the shell-covered eyes, eaten up / by the blue that marked a local saint; there is the coal-derived blues of Bleu de Paris or the false blue in The Wrens of the Curragh. There is, in fact, an entire and often startling spectrum, from the lime / and red of My Must and the pearl-grey/ wood the sea throws up on beaches in Three Legged Angel to the brown-violet sea of Medieval Scriptorium.
The recurrence of colour, along with images of angels, haloes, sculptures and religious artefacts contained in these poems, reassures the reader that there is some pattern here, some overall meaning to be wrested from the gorgeous if opaque language. As with the abstractions of Kandinsky, we must trust the mood evoked by the arrangement of words on the page rather than strain after their meaning.
Turning from McGuckian to Cherry Smyths second collection, One Wanted Thing, is like finding a James Hanley portrait hung alongside a Kandinsky. Here is clarity and realism, couched in language that is accessible and inventive. The title poem of this collection was nominated for the Forward Best Poem of the Year 2004, and carries all Smyths hallmarks: precision, linguistic inventiveness and joy:
Smyth is a skilful portraitist, as comfortable with landscape as she is with the ambivalence of intimate relationships. In Lacans Idea of Love we see how Geese tow white stitches / against the trees, the treeline a snug eyebrow while in Water the speakers immersion in water is compared with how
There are moving poems, not the least being those in which the poet describes the aftermath of a car crash in which her parents were injured. The sudden and shocking role reversal in which the child finds herself looking after her parents is well captured in poems such as Chore: I wondered if hed seen the blood I swabbed / from his ears, his bashed scarlet sockets.
Equally compelling and unsentimental is the portrait of the poet, Adrian Fox, felled by a stroke in 2005: All I could think of for days / was the fat slug of toothpaste/ the nurse fretted round your teeth. Smyth received much critical acclaim for her debut collection, When the Lights Go Up. On the evidence of One Wanted Thing, she has managed the challenge of the difficult second collection very well indeed.