July 01, 2008

‘Initiations, Tempers, Seductions: Postmodern McGuckian’

Thomas Docherty offers some interesting insights into the Northern Irish poet, Medbh McGuckian, in his essay, ‘Initiations, Tempers, Seductions: Postmodern McGuckian.’ Docherty begins by discussing the seemingly pointless nature of McGuckian’s poetry, but this is not a criticism. Rather Docherty is aware that ‘[t]he verse often reads as if the language itself, a language devoid of a consciousness, were directing it’ (Docherty 1992: 191). Docherty notes that the ambiguity about language also applies to identity as ‘it is difficult to locate any single location from which the poem can be spoken’ (192). Docherty sees this ambiguity as a kind of ‘blank phenomenology’ where ‘the relation between the speaking Subject or ‘I’ and the Object of its intention is mobile or fluid’ and ‘instead of a stable “persona,” all we have is a potential of personality, a voice which cannot yet be identified’ (192). Docherty’s reading of ‘a postmodern McGuckian’ suggests that ‘her writing offers a way of breaking away from the “place-logic” which is central to the formulation of a national culture, tradition or lineage’ (192).

In studying this breaking away, Docherty notes that McGuckian is often concerned with ‘initiation rites’ and ‘transgressions of borders or boundaries’ (193). These are not geographical borders but ‘symbolic borders, such as the boundary between infancy and adulthood; the border between an Edenic garden and a secular world’ (193). (Later Docherty writes of McGuckian’s focus on ‘puberty, a shift from infancy into adulthood, from “non-speaking” (infans) into a voice’ and he notes how her poetry often forms around ‘a mythic moment of a beginning or birthing’ overlapping pregnancy with ‘the mythical; biblical beginning in the fall from grace’ (194).)

McGuckian rejects ‘the kind of explicit or mythic politics found in other contemporary Irish poets’ and instead she adopts ‘a “French-born” idea, le temps perdu’ which is complemented by ‘a governing figure of “seduction” or temp-tation’ (193). Docherty summarises:

A postmodern sublime lies available here. We have the necessity of a transgression, the idea of a breakthrough across some threshold of perception, together with the recalcitrance which the transgression provokes: this is the pleasurable pain of interpretation in McGuckian. It is like the seduction of a letter unread, a letter which remains tantalisingly visible or within its envelope; but the tearing open of the envelope reveals that the letter is not there after all: what we thought was a meaningful missive turns out to be a pattern on the envelope. (200)

The play on temp is extended when Docherty notes ‘the linguistic slippage between “tempt” and “temporal”’ in McGuckian’s poems (201). This creates another aspect in which poetry becomes ‘a call to a critical historicism: not just an awareness of time past, but an awareness that one must “disappoint” the history or narrative seemingly determined by time past: time past must be misplaced, perdu’ (204).

Most of all though, McGuckian’s poetry is characterised by seduction, which Docherty describes as ‘taken in a sense close to that proposed by Baudrillard: it is not simply a sexual event; rather, it describes a state of relation between powers or forces, and one which explicitly excludes production. Production here would mean the end of seduction’ (205). In focussing on seduction as an ongoing, endless process, McGuckian ‘questions the modern belief of availability in identity’ (206).

This rejection of certainty is described by Docherty as ‘a turn towards nomadism. towards a chosen ground, which is, strictly speaking nowhere in particular’ (207). McGuckian is then ‘[a]lways in flight’ and her poems ‘are never foxed in historical time or geographical space: their meaning is always untimely, never present-to-themselves, and hence never “available”’ (207). In adopting this poetics, Docherty suggests that McGuckian is more like the nineteenth-century decadents or the twentieth-century surrealists than Irish poets. This outward looking set of influences also concords with McGuckian’s linguistic strategy in which she combats her Anglo-Saxon words against those of other idioms: Malaysian, African languages, Polish, Spanish and Persian. Using this kind of language ‘suggest[s] an alienation in McGuckian’s own relation to her language’ and ‘[t]here is no single governing Logos, no monotheology of Truth here, no originary language’ (208). McGuckian ‘does not live between English and Gaelic, but between English and the languages of Europe, Asia, Africa’ (208).

Such linguistic instability smacks of surrealism according to Docherty, yet McGuckian tends more towards the superreal than the surreal. Recalling Baudrillard’s theory of the postmodern simulacrum, Docherty wonders whether McGuckian ‘can question the very principle of reality itself by its parodic duplication’ (209).

Reality in her writing constantly slips away , leaving a reader to puzzle where she or he stands. Her sentences meander from éstrangeté to bizarrerie, dislocating metaphor and being ‘easily carried away’ in this language which is dictated by no consciousness, and leaving a reader stranded in flight from multivalent realities. (209)

Docherty Thomas. 1992. ‘Initiations, Tempers, Seductions: Postmodern McGuckian.’ The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland. Ed. Neil Corcoran. Bridgend: Seren, 1992. 191-211.

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