The High Caul Cap, Medbh McGuckian, Wake Forest University Press - Cover by Nathan W. Moehlmann, Goosepen Studio & Press - BooksPage

Medbh McGuckian: The High Caul Cap (Kindle)


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The High Caul Cap is both the name of a traditional Irish air and a symbol for the link remaining after birth between mother and child. The caul was superstitiously regarded as a good omen and so kept at the hearth as a preservative against drowning.  This symbolic gesture helps us to fathom the watery imagery in this new volume, which traces the decline and death of the poet’s mother.
The High Caul Cap
Medbh McGuckian’s writing is always profoundly sensual, but now, with the maternal body at stake in its meditations, the physical takes on supernatural powers.  Poetry relies on the senses for proof much as the doubter relies on touch to be convinced of the miraculous. Mother-daughter relationships move down the generations (“I discover a photograph / of my beautiful sculpted daughter” from “Corner of Field with Farm”) trying to establish the exact nature of their love.
The High Caul Cap
As in many of McGuckian’s books, blue is a sacred color (of the Madonna, the sea, the sky) and saints and angels appear throughout the volume as though to remind us of how the masters used such icons to transform their myths into art.  McGuckian uses these icons to grieve for, interrogate, and transform her late mother’s “tangible gaze” into poetry.
The High Caul Cap
In an interview with J.P. O’Malley in Culture Northern Ireland, McGuckian explained: “Poems are very much part of the unconscious mind…They push up through the ordinary language that we use in every day life. …in poetry, language moves the way it does in dreams, where everything is superimposed very rapidly on everything else. In dreams, the language can be soothing and reassuring, because people are nourished by their dreams.”
The High Caul Cap
Reviews of The High Caul Cap

“The title The High Caul Cap suggests the complexities and layers of the poems — the caul with which the lucky are born; the caul that was the mother’s amniotic sac shrouding the baby; the caul through which the baby first sees the world; the caul that is kept on the mantelpiece to protect the child from drowning; the “High Caul Cap,” an Irish set dance; the caul that is the cap we wear every time we think and remember and associate; the caul that bears us through life and death.” Lois Marie Harrod, Literary Mama 

“McGuckian’s collection of elegies written, mostly, in presumptive anticipation of her mother’s death is wreathed in a stilled, willed intensity of observation. … ” Jordan Smith, Antioch Review

“The musical references of these central poems and pre-christian allusions throughout the book uncover the primal instincts which the death of a blood relative evokes. The cycles of birth and death are everywhere in this collection. There is the recognition of loss, but also a continued presence of the dead, of memories, of bonds which are not broken.”  Anna Livia Review

“”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).

“Symbols begin to gather meaning through rereadings and a constant tweaking of the inward voice of the meticulous reader…. Craft, to McGuckian, encompasses concealment and exploration, as well as agitation and repose…. The poems circulate in a heliotropic universe, biding their time like ceili dancers.” Sameera Siddiqe, Singapore Review of Books

“The poems in The High Caul Cap were written during the long illness of the poet’s mother, whose eventual death haunts the volume, and they present the relations of mothers and daughters with great complexity, not simple nostalgia or factual memorialization…The presence of death can have its own beauty, and the eponymous poem of The High Caul Cap offers us an image of a time in love with endings…McGuckian typically uses elaborate, complex images and situates her characters in situations both oneiric and, sometimes, straightforward. She stitches her images closely together, creating a rich, almost baroque tapestry of loss and difficult love, even as ultimately ‘there is no peace: / no function for the heart to serve / the dear, the best-known face.'” Magdalena Kay, World Literature Today


Seated Woman

Her cheek clenched like a leather butterfly,
she remains hard to love, heartless sometimes
as fruit painted sullen red on coffee cups, as mallows
fossilized in silver wire against the gold couch.
All but speechless, she is mildly grazing the dry
re-wilded air, the clouds’ salinity,
her face in sliding light skimmed
from the inexhaustible street like rain-fed rice.
Her taupe dress is too flat to be a room,
too brown to be outdoors, but hyperlucid
as the windfield that rubs shoulders with you,
as if you were running your hands through a climate.

The High Caul Cap 

Additional Information

Publication date:

September 1, 2013