There's No Place Like Home
Gethsemene Day by Dorothy Molloy. Faber, £8.99.
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Irish poet Dorothy Molloy’s first collection, Hare
Soup, was widely reviewed as being her both first and last book: aged
62, she had died of liver cancer just a few weeks before its publication
in January 2004. Now, however, we have a second collection, put together
from the poems unpublished at the time of her death, many of them about
the illness itself—notably the title poem, in which she awaits lab
results (and presumably a prognosis). I’m not sure if all these poems
were written after the poems in Hare
Soup, or whether they were all new. I’m not sure it makes a
difference. There are a few poems in the first collection that hint at
dark times coming. But for Molloy, dark times were nothing new.
The manifestations of illness and death in the body seem a natural
extension of her subject matter: almost her entire poetic vision seems to
be channelled through the self-as-body, and particularly in the bodily
interruptions of self: blood, sexuality, death. Of course, in Molloy the
flesh is made word—and the biblical reference here, in its inherently
pessimistic reversal, is apt. In the course of this collection, bits of
the liver, uterine fibroids (“fruits of the womb”), her pubic hair,
even her heart, are alien or lost:
heart lives in my
I know it’s there.
now the rogue will often
and leave me
in my scarecrow
It’s so unkind.
Mavis the cat bites off her own tail in sexual frustration, being already
“short a few tits.” A dog is spayed in “Curette”—the curette
being the instrument that would have, kindly, left the dog intact. The
bits of the body that remain cause endless grief and trouble:
night the itch was a witch
her switch in there.
twitch of the sphincter no salt
balm could repair.
(Of course, I love this one: the last time I saw such a relentless rhyme on “witch” it was from another Dorothy.) It’s a cruel world, and death is in life. The villanelle “Bones” begins:
feel the bones that will lie in my grave;
have for me a close familiarity;
live inside me, snug in their enclave.
This constant death—peering inside the body to see what will fail first,
like a macabre “Incredible Journey”—combines with the sort of
mystical magic that informed poems like “The Infant of Prague,” in her
first collection. Indeed, many of these poems seem to bear out the effects of a
specifically Irish Catholic upbringing on the rather strange, intense
child Molloy must have been. In “Death by Poisoning,” about the family
dog, Bracken, possible causes
of death are discussed—a rat; meat dropped by a crow—but it is the
fairies who seem the most plausible:
The changeling’s dead.
We left her in a sack
for fairies to reclaim,
bring our dog back.
She never came.
The child’s perspective crops up here in poems about adult male
sexuality, as in the first collection: “I pretend he’s a friendly old
dog when he jumps in / beside me and rests his white head on my knee. /
But I find I can’t slap him away when he opens his flippety- / flap . .
This collection contains none of Hare
Soup’s rather ecstatically sexual poems. In one poem, “Maria” is
creepily and superstitiously desperate for another baby. In another,
Molloy has a bath, where “between my upper thighs, the bivalve
seethes.” Unavoidably, poems like this seem to owe a noxious debt to
poets like Sharon Olds, and the women who went before her carving out a
niche for poems about “female experience.” Molloy presents the body as
almost a barrier between herself and the world, as when people take her
for a “girl” and assume they know what that means; usually, of course,
they’re wrong; and this is all very well, as far as it goes, which is
not, in my view, very far. It’s hard to think of a male poet who writes
about how misunderstood he is on account of having a beard, or hairy legs,
or his brain in his willy. But Molloy’s work—and I have no idea
whether she would have called herself a feminist—strikes me as more
interesting than that.
Presenting us with her very own fixated binocular-view of the
misappropriation, Molloy becomes an almost Gothic character. Of the same
generation as, say, Germaine Greer or Gloria Steinem—and two years older
than Eavan Boland—she seems to share more territory with a Brontë. It
can’t be easy now, and it really can’t have been easy a few decades
ago, to be a young woman poet in Ireland. Ireland has stronger cultural
interests vested in poetry than many other countries do, and it is
swarming with virile young men all wanting to make their mark. Dublin is
no San Francisco: in the “poets’ pubs” the hard-drinking, womanising
ghosts of Behan and Kavanagh still loom very large. Eavan Boland has
written of the inability of a female poet to exist within some of the
conventions of Irish poetry, especially to externalise the female identity
of mythic “Ireland” so as to occupy a male space in relation to it.
Knowing nothing about Molloy as a person—and indeed I have never seen so
much as a quote from, much less an interview with, either her or her
husband—one could imagine that Molloy’s fixation on the body, her
expressed experience of sexual identity, and the fact that she published
her first book at sixty, suggest the difficulties of the enterprise.
Any poem Molloy had written would have been a physical experience, in any case. Her very language is rooted in the body, and has a satisfying texture in the mouth. I have been puzzling over her particular approach to the poetic line, and the way it works with its lengths and stops, its enjambments and its caesurae, on her particular syncopation that picks up and drops metre almost foot-by-foot. This metric-line-splitting is a tic one often sees in free verse whose author has, it seems, not bothered to listen, and can’t hear it; it serves as a sloppy remnant of metre, or as an unconscious confirmation that the Formalists are right: we really do think in iambic pentameter. Thus, lines already quoted above can be read like this: “My heart lives in my chest. I know it’s there. / But now the rogue will often disappear, / And leave me stranded in my scarecrow mind.” In Molloy we know it is a considered effect, partly because she is so deliberate a writer (note how the rhymes, which are internal rhymes in the published poem, fall neatly at line-endings in the “metrical” reading), and partly because of its slightly annoying quality (in common with her habit, more pronounced in Hare Soup, of ending poems with a flourish, on a stand-alone last line), lending to drama. However, this aural disjointedness, the effort it takes to keep with her personal rhythm, is responsible for much of the echo left behind by Molloy’s poetry.
It strikes me that Molloy’s poems were conceived almost as little
bodies. Like her, the poems have quite noticeable skeletons. Because of
this, Molloy can’t “throw out a line” as, say, fishermen do. Her
lines stop, start, pick up speed and then have to carry on in the next one
down, and are punctuated by a very distinctive use of brisk, flat vowels
and clacking consonants. This is her own music, and it is the thing that
makes these poems work despite their weaknesses of melodrama,
sentimentality, and the sometimes-lazy diction, which leads to sloppy
imagery like that in the second stanza of “My heart lives in my
house inside my chest is
now—a vacant lot;
weeds grow wild in there,
still heart not come back.
the foundations will be swept
. . .
She annoys me with a slight histrionic edge, almost adolescent, as if she
were the only person who had ever had a hard time. But then, Molloy never
complains. She hardly ever even explains. She presents a clear view
without interpretation, and her viewpoint is so sly, intelligent and
authentic that it commands respect. It is also not, for all that, a
joyless or humourless view. For Molloy, the joy is in being herself, in
seeing the world as she does, and in making these poems.
The book ends with a poem called “Life Boat,” Molloy’s own Noah’s Ark. This story is intrinsic Molloy territory, in its darkness (which is both simple, to do with the fact of destruction, and psychological, dealing with questions about one’s right to existence) and also in its Sunday-school message of redemption, hope, continuance. It can (of course; all poems can) be read as Molloy’s creative manifesto. Busily she shores these fragments against her ruin. The poem begins, “I made an ark out of my skull, an upturned hull . . .” and continues: “. . . till suddenly / dark stirrings / of my mind released the beasts within: // the onocentaur, oversexed, came rushing in; the manticora / grinding / all its teeth . . . For forty days or weeks or months or years, I waited / for the waters / to subside. The creatures in my cranium increased / and multiplied . . .” till at the end: “And lo, God’s gifts / lay scattered / all about:” And I’m not going to tell you what the gifts were. You’ll have to read the book.