Monday, 17 September 2012

Michelle McGrane: A Suitable Girl

A Suitable Girl was published by Pindrop Press in 2010, but I've only just caught up with it.  Now I regret not reading it sooner.  This is a wonderful collection that displays a breadth of technique across a range of very different poems.   There's a sci-fi sequence 'Lunar Postcards', prose poems that can also be poetic flash fiction, a series of moving elegies to the poet's father,  lyrical poems that sing, and muscular poems that celebrate language.  There's a sensuality in all the poems, (I loved 'Thirteen Ways with Figs') and they all tell stories.  The words are rich and powerful, creating strong visual effects. 

This is from the story of an Irish sailor-woman:

'Through flags of smoke, a square-rigged galley, its blackjack flapping as corsairs swarmed aboard. Snugging the stock into my shoulder, I picked out a flinty crag of a man bawling like the divil hisself and assailing my lads with a boarding axe.'

And in 'The Recalcitrant Muse':
'Sunlight blisters through moth-eaten curtains.
In her mildewed apartment high above the city,
the Muse stumbles out of bed, stubs her toe
in the kitchen as she fumbles for a cigarette,
reheats last night's coffee and loneliness....

'Frangipani Night' is one of my favourite poems because it conjures Africa for me - excessive, sensual, cruel.  The boiling of a live lobster, a moth immolating itself in a candle flame, fruit bats and baobab trees, the decomposing blossoms of the frangipani - whose cloying smell always reminds me of death.

'We sit in silence gazing into darkness,
a coconut shell of shredded seafood
and a bottle of cheap Malagasy rum between us.
The frangipani blossoms strewn on the table
have started to wither, brown at the edges,
spotting a trail of milky sap
across our makeshift tablecloth.'

Michelle is particularly good at taking us back in time.  She takes us along the corpse road in Ireland, or out to sea in 'Terra Marique Potens'.  We sit with Mary Shelley watching the gulf of La Spezia for the glimpse of a sail, and with the Tsarina Alexandra at Ipatiev, oblivious of her imminent execution.  We observe Marie Antoinette aged fourteen, stripped for inspection as she becomes the Dauphine of France.  The range of characters includes Bertha Mason, Madame Bovary, an African mother - and not a suitable girl in sight. In fact, the women are all quite feisty!

Half the Secret

you could never have accused me of being pretty.
I was what they called handsome
like a favoured brood mare or wolfhound bitch.

Renowned, I could outrun every girl on the island
and most of the boys.  I could swim like the wild salmon
and shoot a birch knot at thirty paces.

I could clad a byre-house with wattle and daub
and midwife a milch cow.  I could till and tend herb-beds
and haul turf from the hillsides.

Only once did I long for golden hair, when
Cuán Ó Ruadháin danced with Mairéad Ó Riain  
on the eve of the Midsummer Fair.

For me, a good poem is one that doesn't give up everything at first reading, but has more layers to be unpacked at the next visit.  These are good poems.

A Suitable Girl  © Michelle McGrane, Pindrop Press, 2010.

Also check out Michelle's wonderful poetry review site 'Peony Moon'.

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