Trodden Before, Patricia McCarthy, The High Window Press, 2018, 82 pp, £10.00 (paperback)
Our age is rich in lyric poetry; no age perhaps has been richer. But for our generation and the generation that is coming the lyric cry of ecstasy or despair, which is so intense, so personal, and so limited, is not enough.
– Virginia Woolf, ‘Poetry, Fiction and the Future’, 1927
Patricia McCarthy seems to have taken Virginia Woolf’s advice to heart, and concentrated her considerable powers on writing a long poem which, although lyrical in places, avoids that ‘cry of ecstasy or despair’ which to my mind is too ubiquitous in poetry today. The objectivity of the narrative (the poem tells the story of a relative’s army career in Asia, as well as her own experience of living in the East) ensures the poem avoids what Jack Clemo called ‘the weight of the ego’, ‘the isolate self’, breaking the chains of self-preoccupation by steering clear of introspection, providing what McCarthy calls ‘fathoms deeper than the depth of a mind’. In this way a larger circle is described than might be found in the smaller compass of the lyric. The method, if that is not too blunt a word for so finessed a style, a style that is both fluent and lively, enables a force of sanity to be maintained throughout, mitigating any possible hysteria, holding chaos at bay, what Germaine Greer calls (in her short book on Shakespeare) ‘the intrinsic ordering principle in apparent disorder’.
The poem, as McCarthy tells us in a note, was inspired both by a report written by her relative who was a colonial soldier and by the poet’s own residence in Asia, and is therefore, she writes, ‘a mixture of fact and fiction’, her imagination creating ‘what he didn’t inscribe’. There is a polyphony of voices in the poem (those of the Irish soldier Eugene McCarthy, his wife, other colonials including the explorer Gertrude Bell, the Persian poets Hafez and Rumi, various officials) resolved by one voice (the poet’s own) telling the story, building the details into a synthetic whole, providing a large stability to the work. The poem is not just a succession of fleeting lyrical moments then (as most volumes of poetry seem to be today) but a sustained narrative, holding a whole world up to the light (catching the soldier’s passion and pride primarily) comprising a collection of thirty-nine sections (plus a Prologue) forming one continuous story.
The ordering principle approaches the musical, with exposition, recapitulation, variation, and repetition of keywords and phrases, as in a symphony. This continuous musicality encapsulates the totality of the characters’ experiences, not just as fragments but as a wide narrative sweep, a wide geographical arc, all the time following what Basil Bunting called ‘the music of the ear’, without resorting to the makeshift form of the prose poem, always an easy way out, one suspects. The quiet, regular rhythm she establishes (sometimes speeding up, sometimes slowing down the tempo) matches the proportion and symmetry of the overall imaginative recreation which is the poem: nothing within it is dissipated or lost. The inconsistencies of life are held in balance, as much as one would expect to find in a good novel, and the architecture of the poem is such that it does not preclude the necessary local variety of voice. In this way that self-colloquy which is too dominant in verse today is avoided, the poet speaking from more than one centre, creating a larger outline, a broader aspect, what McCarthy calls ‘a bigger place than the insular’:
To speak of voyages at sea on inland tides,
where boats were sculpted from picked-over ribcages
of horses, camels and men . . .
the desert with its whirling dervishes whose dance was an art . . .
wading with snakes in rivers.
Although the narrative has an overall structure McCarthy does not overlook the necessity for the rich detail required of any substantial poem. There is a strong thread of sensuous pleasure running throughout the work, with vivid, down-to-earth images (‘jigsaws of deltas’, ‘surf knotted with lace’, ‘the mouth’s primeval cave’, ‘the percussion of hooves’, ‘sandlayered time’) celebrating what the poet terms ‘the fresh fifth element of ecstasy’, demonstrating that eye for what Thomas Mann called ‘reverent particularity’, a poetry of facts. So it is the grace and clarity of the writing are quickened by images and metaphors which are fine, evocative and lifelike. The poem being a creative recreation of her relative’s journal, fusing family tradition and history, the journal provides the ground-bass or groundwork of the narrative, recasting the story imaginatively, showing us a character with wide experience and a fine intelligence. There is a briskness and bravery about it all which celebrates a life of nobility and endurance. The poet regards herself as ‘the underwriter of his diary’, a journal kept ‘by moonlight, twilight, candlelight, flares’, on ‘camel, horse, on foot’ by this Irishman who ‘became a native, at last, of sand’. She celebrates the ‘spit and polish, polish and spit’ of army discipline, his mastery of Classical horsemanship – no dependence on reins: the art of Xenophon’ – that he taught his troops, his engagement and marriage. The virtues lauded are those of discipline, obligation, self-respect, a life full of action and stress, defying the odds:
Scholar of the invisible, as he was, astride whatever moved,
able to speak any tongue: Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto,
Gujarati. In his whispers Oíche, Chiúin, Oíche, Naomh…
Quetta, Nushki, Dalbandin, Duzdap. He covered them all:
jungles, deserts as, on his chosen camel, he sat tall
carrying, with the caravan, six chagals of water, at full gallop
in relays, a hundred miles to re-hydrate those about to drop.
Girth galls, saddle sores — the foam of sweat a trail,
white as a mirage of a spring, swirled up every vertical.
And the men, semi-demented, on their knees, ghost hands
scooping out, for some water-god, more and more sand.
We have other vignettes of Colonel McCarthy, of his wedding, of absences and reunions, of him missing his wife, trying to keep his imagination in check whilst campaigning in difficult conditions, and a moving portrait of his wife coping with rumours that he has been killed:
I would have left my heart in your body,
she wrote, while your pulse beat in mine.
I would have given you all my words
and silences. Now I make love with memory —
no wish to be reclaimed, re-invented, apart,
only to stay in you, on you, beside you —
without a label, address or identity,
saved in the treasury of your heart.
The celebration of the camaraderie of the soldiers (some of whose exploits have been shamefully forgotten), the extolling of the virtues of self-control and dignified reserve, the endurance of famine and drought, all build up a picture praising the ethos of an active life, and the overturning of that irony and casual scepticism which so often besets our age. The poem merges familial and cultural concerns in a narrative which bridges the centuries, melding east and west in the manner of Gertrude Bell, Charles Doughty and Basil Bunting, but in a contemporary and urgent manner. Western traditions rub shoulders with, and sometimes oppose, Oriental customs in a unique and compelling story. Hafez and Rumi are to be found sitting next to the great Gaelic bards in the context of a sustained elegy to a fascinating family member who reminds one at times of T.E. Lawrence.
At one point in the narrative we catch the soldier’s pride and passion as he thinks of his wife back home in Ireland, recalling at the same time his native landscape:
Yet the drenched grass has a light all its own
which ascends, spring-green and bright,
to read by when candle and sky fail.
In the poem the soldier’s life and the poet’s own experiences segue into a theme of cultural assimilation (‘a cauldron of myths’ as McCarthy calls it). The narrative energy of the poem matches the energy of the central character’s life and actions, respecting his courage, honour, ability, intelligence and imagination, in his journeys and campaigns across Asia.
At certain junctures within the poem McCarthy portrays the affinities (and differences) between oriental and occidental cultures in the wider landscape of the poem, ‘the native oaks, ash, and horse-chestnuts’ of Ireland contrasted with the ‘jasmine, frangipani, bougainvillea’ of India, ‘the jute, mustard/and paddy’ of the latter with the ‘spring-green’ of the former, ‘the desert’s voice’ contrasted with the Atlantic’s, a place where tigers and Irish pub brawls meet.
It is the wealth of detail between seemingly opposing forces and cultures that gives the poem its strength, showing how unifying elements are often stronger than divisive ones, of how two worlds can be integrated. Here we have a shared humanity of cultures and languages then, a landscape ‘of re-built ruins and buried treasures’. However varied life may seem, its elements are often the same, ‘Gaeilge and Hindi sharing the same roots’, the same ‘ancient hungers’ and persecutions, their seemingly contrasting myths sharing the same search for transcendence. So it is Hindu and Celtic traditions fuse (Varuna, god of the oceans, is compared with the Irish sea-god Lir) and so too are their religions (the hymns of the Veda are interwoven with the Book of Kells) to celebrate ‘a timeless God of all creeds’, a place where Eastern and Western mysticisms (with their implicit principle of peace as humankind’s greatest need) coalesce:
He held her book like a missal,
tracing over the original lace of lines
the parallel sayings of Meister Eckhart:
In the time of roses, no individual exists
But is part of the eternally existing:
Minstrel, cup-bearer, water and clay. . .
east to west, west to east, the images
ornate like Persian paintings. . .
Come hither, oh Hafez, and sing again!
At one point the soldier converses with his wife in the form of a ghazal borrowed from Hafez. This, together with entries from his journal, quotations from the Arabic and Persian poets (and from various Gaelic sources) form springboards, or stepping-stones, for the poet’s structuring of the narrative. So it is that seemingly ‘alien histories’ are linked together in a cultural matrix. The cursives of the Lindisfarne Gospels and of the Book of Kells are likened to the intricate weavings of Persian art and poetry, for instance, like ‘the thorn trees bent/into humble cursives by the gales’, the Lady of Sorrows with Kali, and Ireland, the ‘soft land of sorrows,’ is seen as being in sympathy with Arabia Deserta, land-locked peoples and sea-faring cultures brought together under one imaginative arch.
Throughout the poem wars and battles are fought, forgotten skirmishes recalled, ‘war-cries’ heard, incidents of ‘gun-running’, guerrilla tactics and desert campaigns noted, the brutality to the Irish of the hated ‘Sassenachs’ recorded. The collapse of the Empire (its ‘burning straw’) is stressed along with the retrospective shame of colonialism, especially in the section which covers the Irish Famine (although it is evident too in the poem’s Prologue, entitled ‘Treated Like Dirt’), the epigraph to which quotes the brutal and callous words of Sir Charles Trevelyan, then Head of famine relief for the British government: ‘The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated… The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people’. Colonial guilt and shame are also part of the poem’s pattern then, and McCarthy’s work is an antiphon to such nineteenth century ruthlessness, as is the portrait of her kind and gentle forebear (‘cynical of colonialism’ himself as it turns out) on active service in Burma, Afghanistan and Moulmein. She notes that the British authorities in the twentieth century were at times just as unheeding of their own soldiers’ dependents’ needs, quoting again from Colonel McCarthy’s diary: ‘All this time Sheila [Síle in Gaelic, his wife] had to exist on the money she got from the sale of the car which by this time had run out. She had no word of me other than an Ordnance Officer who said I had been killed’.
At various points in the poem we have vignettes of ex-pats buying horses, going to the races, playing ‘bridge, polo and golf’, ‘filling godowns/with crumbs of hope’ (akin in some respects to the tone of the novels of Paul Scott) living circumscribed lives amongst ‘pedestals/now dust’; and the final section of the poem enacts a sense of liberation and freedom from mastery of all sorts, especially that of Empire. Throughout the poem we have seen Colonel McCarthy breaking in horses, but now back home in Ireland (at the end of the poem, at the end of his foreign campaigns) we find him and his friends observing a horse race:
the sand on the beach, scattering inland and back out to sea; all colours
and sizes, jockeyless and ridden, broken and unbroken, some straddling
their riders, freed from rules, from mastery, from finishing posts. And
from the cage of any dominion.
These horses are akin to those in Edwin Muir’s poem of that name, freed of space and time, living in their own mystic realm ‘as if they had come from their own Eden’, and their ‘free servitude still can pierce our hearts.’
To write a long poem is a brave undertaking in the present publishing climate when it seems (like the writing of poetic drama) somehow impermissible (though there are exceptions, albeit less successful—one can think of Craig Raine’s History, Robin Robertson’s The Long Take, Daniel Hoffman’s Middens of the Tribe, and Angela Ball’s Quartet). It is as if we had become inured to the lyric form and the academic pursuit of excessive analysis since the time of the New Critics who, for example, could not abide the long poems of Robinson Jeffers. The Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid talked of ‘the ampler scope of the long poem’, and it is just such a scope or span Patricia McCarthy has captured in Trodden Before. Her narrative puts the long poem back on the map in a cinematic sweep that suits the wide geography and large time span of her themes, in a style which sits well with the art of the storyteller. It is a poetry charged with meaning and civic values, demonstrating Augustan values of self-control, dignity, poise and composure unusual in contemporary poetry. In his last poem-sequence, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, Geoffrey Hill wrote that ‘straight narrative may still be possible’. Patricia McCarthy’s poem proves that it is. The telling rhythmus of the poem emphasises the significance of a real tradition that, as Stravinsky noted in The Poetics of Music ‘is not the relic of a past that is irrecoverable; it’s a living force that enlivens and informs the present.’
It is part of Patricia McCarthy’s achievement in this volume to make of the long poem not an eccentric undertaking but something which belongs to the mainstream, recapturing some of the territory lost to the novel and the cinema. Fact and fiction weave seamlessly together as in McCarthy’s earlier sequences such as Rodin’s Shadow, Letters to Akmatova, for example, demonstrating that the long poem can still flourish in an age given almost wholly over to prose. Trodden Before gets the long poem back into the ascendance, catching the flow of life beneath the words. It certainly might be one way of winning the general public back to the reading of poetry.
(A final note: there are two printing errors on page 75 of the text. The Roman numerals XXX should read XXXVII, and XXXII should read XXXVIII.)
Words by W.S. Milne
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