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Review of Painting Rain - Dilys Wood, Artemis, May 2011

In her impressive sixth collection, the Irish poet Paula Meehan is something of a Janus writer. Two contrasting aspects of her poetry are formal lyricism and inspired story-telling on today’s themes.

Born in 1955, she has connections with England where she lived as a young child; Ireland where she was educated and now lives (in Dublin but she also spent several years in Leitrim); the US where she studied and travelled in the early 1980s in contact with US poets including Gary Snyder.

She published her first full collection, Reading the Sky, in 1985. Her work evidences the melting pot which has been her experience: worldwide angst about war, climate change, economic book and bust, including for Ireland’s ‘tiger economy’.

There is bubbling ferment in much of Meehan’s work. She is more natural rebel than shrinking violent and ‘engages’ energetically in her poems and in the plays she now writes for stage and radio.

Ferment extends to the shape of her writing, offering variety in form, language, approach. There is also a range of expression: some high flown, some incorporating informality and catch-phrases. Sequences may mix ‘formal’ and ‘free’ and, on occasion, ‘found verse’. Much of this variation serves a purpose – for example, she writes about young offenders, using their speech.

Refreshingly whole-hearted ‘timeless lyricism’ remains a key element here. Irish poetry written in English has not suffered the distinct ‘break’ or ‘show-down’ with lyric tradition which is sometimes an issue for English poets. Her ‘Void: A Cemetery Poem’ shows Meehan confident with elegy:

The whirr of a bee’s wing is music for her
and the rosined bow of the cricket,
and sad percussive raindrops

The poem was commissioned for a music/song cycle, partially accounting for the classical style, not actually echoing but somehow reminiscent of Shakespeare’s songs. This is one of many poems using strong rhythm, rhyme, formal forms (or all three), including thirteen sonnets (among them, the Italian or Petrarchan version), couplets, tercets, a villanelle. Rhyme and half-rhyme are often a subtle, pervasive presence in poems which do not have formal schemes.

A prominent aspect of Meehan’s work are the narrative poems and sequences with a strong storyline. The book opens with an impressive ecology poem, already much quoted by critics, ‘The Death of a Field’, but at the heart of this collection are loss, family crisis and the fascination Meehan obviously has with the more bizarre episodes in social life. Without sentimentality, she makes the stress of poverty come home to us in classic ‘short stories’ poems, pinpointing an era.

One is ‘Hearth Lesson’. An over-wrought mother throws the weekly wage on the fire, ‘‘It’s not enough!’ she stated simply. / And we all knew it wasn’t’. Language here is simple but vivid: ‘The flames sheered from cinder to chimney breast / like trapped exotic birds; / the shadows jumped from floor to ceiling, and she’d / had the last, the astonishing, word.’

A related poem is the bleak ‘This is not a confessional poem’, part three of a sequence about childhood, ‘Troika’. There is much dramatic tension in the build-up to finding the mother apparently dead from gassing herself: ‘We thought she was dead. / Her feet were like ice in my hands ... we might have missed her breath – / the thin reed of it rising, her sad tune to the air...’

Black humour is not far away in some narratives, including ‘St John and My Grandmother – An Ode’. This seems to be based on fact – a grandmother who has vivid, scary dreams and believes they are prophetic. The poem makes reference to the Book of the Apocalypse as it works up to the sanguineous account of a dream, bringing in wide-ranging issues about the dark side of the human mind and the use of imagination to ‘hold’ our listeners.

An interesting longish poem, ‘At Shelling Hill’, is not based on one dramatic episode but is about the complex strands of holiday activity – play, talk, telling stories, doing things with the children. The rich casualness, the sunny mood, seems a long way from most poetry written by men, taking inspiration from women’s ‘multi-tasking’. As she ferries her children, the poet remembers legend: ‘Come Sunday, before we left, we picked flowers, / armfuls of meadowsweet, cranesbill, vetch, an array / of lupin, of the wild dog rose, and walked to where Bláthnat, / or so we’ve told them, she who was the lover of Cú Chulainn, is buried.’

Words like ‘versatility’, ‘contrast’, constantly crop up when considering Meehan’s poetry. There is a downside to her wide range, however. At a hundred pages, I found the collection somewhat ‘crammed’ and imperfect in direction and control. A few poems were slight, incomplete. Meehan’s work is often said to straddle lyric poetry and narrative. ‘Straddling’ can be an uncomfortable position. Two shorter poems, ‘Shoes’ and ‘The Mushroom Field’, both tell a potent story but also focus sharply on the bare bones of pain. These poems bring the two poles of her work closer together.

There are also new directions here, of which ‘At Shelling Hill’ perhaps represents one experiment and ‘The Wolf Tree’ another. In different ways, these are both meditative poems, not primarily ‘telling a story’. The latter is an ambitious poem about pain and the human spirit and our relationship to nature.
It struck me as a tentative but an interesting sketch of where the work may be going.

Previous review of 'Painting Rain'... To the Paula Meehan page... To the 'Painting Rain' page...
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