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.
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.
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.
In an interview with J.P. O’Malley in Culture Northern Ireland, McGuckian explained “:Poems are very much part of the unconscious mind,’ she adds. ‘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.”
Reviews of The High Caul Cap, Irish edition:
“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
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.