Medbh McGuckian's The High Caul Cap is a new collection of over fifty poems with the intriguing title that refers to the old tradition of keeping a preserved caul, a membrane that can cover the newborns head. above the Irish hearth as a charm against drowning. It also served as a symbol and reminder of the birth bond. 'The High Caul Cap' is also the name of a traditional Irish Ceili dance.
Medbh McGuckian, a native of Belfast where she teaches, has won numerous prizes for her poetry. This collection published by The Gallery Press is presented with a beautiful Jennifer Trouton painting on the cover 'Huddled Masses V', a piece of heavy, elaborately embroidered draped silk.
Enigmatic and full of symbolism of nature and the maternal , these are poems that demand several readings to delve into their meanings. With many references to her own mother who "For every line on her forehead I counted the church bells" this is a collection that draws you in to that very intimate mother/daughter relationship with all its inherent difficulties.
In "Her Everyday Comportment" we are exposed to the painful lines, "There were days a few weeks ago when she was impossible/ to reach: today she is findable...", and in "She Wears the Sky";
"I gaze into the sealed eyes of my mother,
seen, not visited, not forgotten,
in the centre of her own picture,
In her rare low moods
She remembers the next five days as twelve"
The music and movement in"Sweet Dream Just Before Christmas" is one of those poems that just cries out to be recited, the sound of the words beating in your head as you read them, almost rapping at the word play, "One night she thinks she sleeps, the next not./ She has the God virus, outside the non-God box," and "a lightword, childword, wordflesh of his beautyglory,/ yes, we know, we know, or his glorybeauty."
The hard words of "Seated Woman" are affecting in their honesty of how a parent-child relationship can change and be so challenging: "Her cheek clenched like a leathery butterfly,/ She remains hard to love, heartless sometimes/ as fruit painted sullen red on coffee cups,...". What a wonderful description of the old silk wrinkled skin.
And the sadness of decline is charted in "Dormition: Madonna with Trees": "Our mother, who never seemed to sit down,/ takes nothing but broth;/ She has crazed eyes, her singing voice out of tune"
Medbh McGuckian deals with her mother's death directly in the poem "The Blood Trolley" and then beautifully in "Notebook of Sleeps":
"Happily, still quick,
my mother departed to God,
her last sleep scented
by the herbage of her breast,
the faint red roof of her mouth
and her grave with its leafy lips."
There is beauty and stillness in Medbh McGuckian's poetry. I am already finding myself thinking of lines again in my head as I move about, and return to be sure of exactly what I feel she is conveying. Some revealing themselves slowly, others with strong questioning words of wisdom, such as "Receiving Non-rebirth": "How do we question rocks forever in one place?/ I take their silence for granted,". Yes,how do we? And why don't we?
The strength of Medbh's final poem, "The Flower of the Moment of What Comes Easily", in particular the final lines, are words that linger with meaning and truth long after you have closed the page:
"When someone refuses to meet
one's eyes, in the long now,
across my face stripes the forever
tangible gaze of my late mother."
A moving collection, one that will be returned to frequently for further insight and revelations.