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Review of Paula Meehan's Painting Rain - Wolfgang Gortschacher, Poetry Salzburg Review , No 17 Spring 2010

Painting Rain is Paula Meehan's first collection since Dharmakaya, also published by Carcanet in 2000. It is accompanied by a special double issue of the scholarly journal An Sionnach (AS), published in autumn last year, which celebrates and critiques in eighteen essays and one interview, as guest-editor Jody Allen Randolph points out, Paula Meehan's 'poetic choices, her playwriting, and the social and ethical commitments that underlie both.' (AS, p.5)

Originally from Dublin's north inner city, Meehan has always been aware, as she told Luz Mar Gonzalez-Arias in an interview, that her native town 'was incredibly well-mapped in literary terms. But, yet, my city wasn't. (...) So, although there were all these maps I still felt rudderless in terms of my own life.' (AS, p.36) In his poem 'It takes trees in summer' Brendan Kennelly defines Meehan's stance in poetic terms: 'James Joyce would love to meet her / (...) because she could take him/to avenues parks squares lanes/he bypassed, didn't bother with' (AS, p.25). In the central sequence 'Six Sycamores' she takes her readers to such a site and thus achieves the aim, defined in her interview with Randolph, of  'integrat(ing) (her) work as a private memorialist with an impulse to express collective memory' (AS, p.260). It was commissioned by the Office of Public Works on the occasion of the opening of the Link Building between number 51 and number 52, on the east side of St Stephen's Green, Dublin, in 2001.

In order to mirror 'the architectural complexity and the ornamentation of the houses themselves' and 'what they stand for, the ascendancy class, the class privilege of the whole colonial adventure', Meehan decided to experiment with the sonnet, as both 'house and poem are received forms that can be re-inhabited and are re-inhabited' (AS, p.261)
In a technique that she somehow shares with Armantrout, she juxtaposes these sonnets with short monologues by ordinary people who are not stake holders, 'unornamented in plain speech with its own little dramatic vignette out of a life.' (AS, p.262)  In the titles of these monologues, which are based on naval time, the poet is keeping a log. For example, in '12.53 Third Sycamore' the persona is self-effacing which makes the juxtaposition of a poor outsider's voice with the sonnet for 'Number Fifty-Two', built in 1771 by the banker David La Touche, all the more striking, urgent, and dramatic:

spare a few bob mister
a few bob for a cup of tea  
any odds mister
spare change please
help the homeless missus
a few pence for a hostel
god bless you love
spare a few bob mister

Thus Meehan enables her readers to eavesdrop on what she calls 'a conversation between the casual throw-away vernacular of the little pieces and the more tightly wrapped language and ritualized energy of the sonnets.' (AS, p.262)

For Meehan, 'the family can be a powerful prism, and gives you a freedom to explore your whole culture through those intimate relationships.' (AS, p259) It is an enlightening experience to read Heaney's 'Digging' alongside Meehan's 'Cora Auntie' in which the maternal line is retrieved and retained by replacing the spade with the sequin:

Sequin: she is standing on the kitchen table.
She is nearly twenty-one.
It is nineteen sixty-one.

They are sewing red sequins, the women,
to the hem of her white satin dress
as she moves slowly round and round.

Sequins red as berries,
red as the lips of maidens,
red as blood on the snow

in Child's old ballads,
as red as this pen
on this paper

I've snatched from chaos
to cast these lines
at my own kitchen table -    (p.39)

In Painting Rain, Meehan once again manifests her 'strong sense of landscape, community, and selfhood as the triangulation' for her work. '(T)he concerns', she claims in an interview with Randolph, 'are global and always have been.' (AS, p.264) In the anti-pastoral poem 'Death of a Field' Meehan's persona becomes the 'professional memory of the tribe' (AS, p.268). Meehan relates to what she calls 'one of poetry's oldest functions' which for her 'is to not just memorialise place, but to translate a place into language so that it can be an archive in itself but also a measuring stick for future change.' (AS, p.267)

                            I'll walk out once
Barefoot under the moon to know the field
Through the soles of my feet to hear
The Myriad leaf lives green and singing
The million million cycles of being in wing

That - before the field became a memory map
In some archive on some architect's screen
I might possess it or it might possess me
Through its night dew, its moon-white caul
Its slick and shine and its profligacy
In every wingbeat in every beat of time

Her persona uses a romanticised style that might, in its diction, rhythm, and phonological quality, remind one of Dylan Thomas's 'Fern Hill'. However, in the final poem, 'Coda: Payne's Grey' (p.96), Meehan admits the impossibility of the poet's task to capture nature's movement in words. In her poem the painter's paradoxical effort to contain nature on canvas, to capture nature's movement and define it in stasis, is revealed:

I am trying to paint rain

day after day
I go out into it

drizzle, shower, downpour

but not yet the exact
spring rain

warm and heavy and slow

each drop
distinct & perfect

The final poem leads Meehan's readers back to the title of the collection and explains the epigraph from the Diamond Sutra: 'Words cannot express Truth. / That which words express is not Truth.'

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