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Wake Forest
University Press

Wake Forest University Press

Dedicated to Irish Poetry

Wake: Up to Poetry

"The act of poetry is a rebel act."

Poem of the Week — “On Cutting One’s Finger While Reaching for Jasmine” by Medbh McGuckian

“On Cutting One’s Finger While Reaching for Jasmine”

She talked about the aboutness of life, the eternal
false illumination of the leftover nights, her lavender-
skirted self who paced around the tousled
bedroom, the otherwise good you.

She incessantly made Os, Os of all sizes,
Os inside one another, always drawn backwards
in lilac ink by her beckoning finger,
on fine paper, gilded and musked.

Ramrod straight in her harp-backed
horse-grey chair, she beheld the most beauteous
scrawl of the same love as never
floated to the house as if rainwater

captured in the water-whipped square
from thundering icequakes and the smaller
curves of a river missing its valley
were the one place a flying creature could feel safe.

–by Medbh McGuckian, from her upcoming book The High Caul Cap


Categories: Irish Poetry, Irish Women's Poetry, Medbh McGuckian, Poem of the WeekTags:

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  1. Harry says:

    Why does this poem not grab me (not that a poem necessarily always should, but the tone and approach of this poem is like a great many recent poems that I read which fail to engage me…)? I'll try to explain why, as an exercise in reading if nothing else:

    “She talked about the aboutness of life, the eternal…”

    There we have two great, big fluffy philosophical/metaphysical non-things right beside each other at the very start: 'the aboutness of life' and 'the eternal'. Such broad and indistinct concepts are not, to me, a good way to draw the reader in at the beginning.

    “false illumination of the leftover nights,”

    …still pretty fluffy/fuzzy, and we've already spent a lot of words. What exactly is 'false illumination' (spiritual/ actual?) and what are the nights 'leftover' from? I think the poet could have been more specific and offered more concrete things that were more effective to express whatever meaning is intended. This all could be (possibly validly) defended as being dreamlike, or suggestive, but I would suggest that that quality is better achieved with well crafted images (and I use that term in its broadest sense i.e. not just visual images), so that the reader can do his/her own thing with it all.

    “her lavender-
    skirted self who paced around the tousled
    bedroom, the otherwise good you.”

    Again, given the start (or non-start) of the poem, the ambiguity about who's who is just coming across as ambiguity to me, it is not having any more challenging or inviting effect as I am not yet engaged/involved. Is this the intention of the poet? 'Lavender-skirted' is quite suggestive, as is the tousled room, but it's taken quite a while to get this much.

    “She incessantly made Os, Os of all sizes,
    Os inside one another, always drawn backwards
    in lilac ink by her beckoning finger,
    on fine paper, gilded and musked.”

    How does one 'make' (would 'draw' make more sense here) Os backwards, does the poet mean they are drawn anticlockwise? Again, there seems to be an absence of precision here.

    “Ramrod straight in her harp-backed
    horse-grey chair, she beheld the most beauteous
    scrawl of the same love as never
    floated to the house as if rainwater”

    After a more promising start in this stanza, the 'she beheld' line gets us going on a very convoluted sentence which doesn't seem to do much given its length and obscurity. I think things can be left very open to the reader in a similar-ish way, but it can be done more effectively, in a way that gives the reader challenging specifics that do not appear to be convoluted, unfocused images.

    “captured in the water-whipped square
    from thundering icequakes and the smaller
    curves of a river missing its valley
    were the one place a flying creature could feel safe.”

    I don't feel the poet has justified this jump in imagery ending up at (again, a non-specified/ indistinct) 'flying creature' in an (inner/metaphorical?) landscape. Maybe I missed something of resonance that would have justified the leap from indistinct, broad concepts ('aboutness of life' and 'eternal false illumination'); to the O maker; to the person in the chair; to the landscape and unspecified flying creature?

    My own current feeling about this poem is that the poet has not clarified the intention in writing it and so the reader (or me, at least) is not convinced (or effectively mystified) by it, in the same way that an actor playing a part in a play will not convince the audience if he/she does not know exactly the intentions of their character as contained in the language.

    Anyway, that went on a bit.

    Regards,

    Harry.

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