Nessa O’Mahony, ‘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 painter’s 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 McGuckian’s 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 O’Brien has called McGuckian’s 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 “Catherine’s 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 Smyth’s 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 Smyth’s hallmarks: precision, linguistic inventiveness and joy:

You come down the steep slope
in a yellow fleece, scattering yellow
like pollen,

Smyth is a skilful portraitist, as comfortable with landscape as she is with the ambivalence of intimate relationships. In “Lacan’s Idea of Love” we see how “Geese tow white stitches / against the trees, the treeline a snug eyebrow” while in Water the speaker’s immersion in water is compared with how

[ . . . ] love should be,
elastic, fluent, so familiar
you can’t tell if you’re in it or out of it.

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 he’d 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.

[ Nessa O’Mahony is a poet. Her second collection, Trapping a Ghost, was published by Bluechrome, Bristol, in 2005 and her third, The Side Road to Star, is due next spring.]

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