to be near the mother in her dark place: Medbh McGuckian’s The High Caul Cap


With its talismanic title, the latest collection by Belfast poetess Medbh McGuckian, The High Caul Cap, sets in motion a flurry of gestures. The “caul,” An cul in the Gaelic, refers to an amniotic sack, once thought to be a lucky charm for sailors against drowning out at sea, while in Gaelic and Celtic musical traditions it refers to a score performed by various folk musicians. These give rise to McGuckian’s slow, elegaic dance of words and images. Words and phrases in McGuckian disclose a sense of morose but delectable air.

McGuckain’s involuted style of writing, while occasionally troublesome, does have its merits. Symbols begin to gather meaning through rereadings and a constant tweaking of the inward voice of the meticulous reader. The fifty-four poems here embark on a slow dance with “These Latinized Snows,” a poem that behaves as “a preface/to an experience” (11) dedicated to a vivacious woman—McGuckian’s late mother. The intense unreadability of the poems are testament to “the messy street debris” or the “stretch marks on the trunk of an aspen” (11), which the poetess gathers for “the dance” and which the subject of the poem, “the woman” or “eva,” “is about to break into” (11). The unreadable snow, a prayer-like snow, “like a far grander blanket,” is the composition to which her dance is imminent (11). She constantly reiterates images of light and the grave, as if pointing to the inconceivable unreadability of death itself. Craft, to McGuckian, encompasses concealment and exploration, as well as agitation and repose.

In “The Nth of Marchember,” we see an obsession with infinity in the “seemingly borderless surround” (14). The “she” is an “angel and puppet coming together” in her everlasting absence, “outside, overflying a snowy/border” (14). An imagery of cold and desolation is invoked, where “she” is preserved, along with her “undeadness, her petrified unrest” as of “the ending of time within her” (14). Here is perhaps the eking of time that follows a tremendous loss, and its constant reminder that “it wasn’t worth going to the trouble/ of turning on any more lights” (14). McGuckian’s giddy flair for casting lament into a festival of images is alchemic. Time stands still and takes on various miscalculated airs of being out of joint. In “She Wears the Sky,” for example, her mother, she says, “remembers the next five days as twelve” (27).

As well as the distortions of time, McGuckian invokes a host of anamorphic imagery to frame an illustrious new place, “a safe place,” which is also a secret place where loss and absence linger free and love resides. “The Ocean River,” for instance, presents a mirage of “double stillness” of “river sounding echoes of her personal angel” (67). Compounding shadows with light, the language ripples with “chant[s]” (67) and incantations, much like a Manichean dream in monochrome. The poem is left with “a she-wolf’s lust and restlessness,” and more than just the movements of words on a page, float up and gather around in conversation with the reader (67).

The titular poem encapsulates McGuckian’s tribute to art as salvation from the dying of the light. The visual effects of lyric culminate in a beautiful stanza:

An immense red blossom, whose name
stops just in time, is the last candidate
for light; she pulls herself along like a broken
cricket, past the lifeless houses. (45)

Where masters of prose enable words to dance off the page, McGuckian liberates the dance itself. Her poetic prowess harks back to modern masters like E.E. Cummings, John Ashberry, and Rainer Maria Rilke. McGuckian does not reveal her sources, but says that they are incumbent to reading her poems: “I like to find a word living in a context and then pull it out of its context. It’s like they are growing in a garden, and I pull them out of the garden and put them into my garden, and yet I hope they take with them some of their original soil, wherever I got them” (Blakeman, Irish Studies 67). This poem is followed by “Sunburst in E Major,” which acts as a resounding tribute to  “The gods” who “are partly about praying” especially “at this time of the year,” and plucks the chords for a Dionysian spectacle (48). The poems circulate in a heliotropic universe, biding their time like ceili dancers.

Cathartic as they may be, the poems are also a way of understanding the abstraction which is ‘mother.’ Towards the end, a shocking revelation: “My mother I did not know at all,” jarrs the hitherto comfortable illusion (75). In fact, most of the poems are about some “she” or “woman.” This ‘she’ is like “a swan by day and a young woman by night,” and through this transmogrification, is elusive (79). Mother’s absence, like the “double stillness” of dusk and ocean (67), is then just as “tangible,” as Cummings’ snow, which “carefully everywhere descending,” renders “death and forever with each breathing.”

The High Caul Cap. Medbh McGuckian. County Meath: The Gallery Press, 2012. Print.


“I Am Listening in Black and White to What Speaks to me in Blue’: Medbh McGuckian Interviewed by Helen Blakeman,” Irish Studies Review,11.1: April,2003. 67. Print.

E.E. Cummings. Complete Poems: 1904-1962. ed. George J. Firmage. Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1976. Print.

Sameera Siddiqe

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