Personal Choice 86
The studied poverty of a moon roof,
The earthenware of dairies cooled by apple trees,
The apple tree that makes the whitest wash . . .
But I forget names, remembering them wrongly
Where they touch upon another name,
A town in France like a woman’s Christian name.
My childhood is preserved as a nation’s history,
My favourite fairy tales the shells
Leased by the hermit crab.
I see my grandmother’s death as a piece of ice,
My mother’s slimness restored to her,
My own key slotted in your door -
Tricks you might guess from this unfastened button,
A pen mislaid, a word misread,
My hair coming down in the middle of a conversation.
Medbh McGuckian (1950 - ) is a poet from Northern Ireland. She was born the third of six children as Maeve McCaughan to Hugh and Margaret McCaughan in North Belfast. Her father was a school headmaster and her mother an influential art and music enthusiast. She was educated at Holy Family Primary School and Dominican Convent, and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1972 and a Master of Arts degree in 1974 at Queens University, Belfast. Maeve McCaughan adopted the Irish spelling of her name, Medhbh, when her university teacher, Seamus Heaney, wrote her name that way when signing books to her. She married a teacher and poet, John McGuckian, in 1977.
An incredibly beautiful skein of imagery and figurative language. An almost perfect poem. And how many times when I have presented this poem to students have they asked ‘But what does it mean? What is it about?’ I always find myself answering ‘You are asking the wrong question of the poem’. Is there a more stunning line of poetry than the first line anywhere? I teach this poem for a variety of reasons – none more valuable than the difference we see immediately with prose. There is no narrative here, no story – only startling images of a personal encounter with the poet as she slowly turns herself as a precious gem with all its facets on display to our delight, surprise and perhaps concern and dismay. In fact, a poem that might represent a cathedral with many entrances we might visit again and again through different doors.