WORDSMITH Geraldine Mitchell at Custom House Studios, Westport, last week, with her new poetry collection, ‘Mute/Unmute’. Pic: Conor McKeown
Geraldine Mitchell’s fourth collection of poetry maintains the high standards she set herself with her debut collection, ‘World without Maps’, which won the Patrick Kavanagh Award. This collection, beautifully produced with arresting cover artwork, ‘The Garden of Gethsemane’, by the highly regarded Westport artist Mags Duffy, and with an eye-catching poem on the back cover, stands out among books on the poetry shelf this Christmas.
The author is not afraid to waltz with darkness. In fact, two out of the three sections are titled ‘Pour Out the Dark’, where a distilled and carefully brewed understanding of the unknown is presented to us under the spotlight. These poems are well earned, the poet having arm-wrestled with the elementals until the cold dawn suggested another day. This confrontation with the existential throws up poems of candid honesty and authenticity, as in ‘Pieces of String’:
The path to morning is a broken line
tracing the spine of a country road
meandering through fog, a rain drenched
map, nothing left to set my compass by,
to gauge how far I’ve come or remind me
of anything I met along the way.
Clocks aren’t much use
on edgeless days. Blurred numbers roll
like a throw of unmarked dice, ricochet
from the baffled corners of the house,
conjuring the handless clock in
Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, a film
my parents brought me to when I was ten.
This first section of the book contains themes returned to in the latter section: climate change, injustice and the fragility of the sacred world all around us. She knows this world intimately. It is not a romantic, hazy, impressionistic version but a realistic celebration as in ‘Island Life’, where after the first few lines the reader is under no illusion about the author’s understanding of the difficulties associated with living on the edge, reminding me of the documentary about Inishark and the man carrying the bed frame on his back to the boat.
In ‘A Question of Pitch’ the birds don’t just appear in groups they are “skelfed from the undergrowth in slivers of orange and gold” – what a celebration not just of the event but of the words chosen in the poems, how they too fly. It is this unconditional love and knowledge of the natural world that provokes the justified anger at the way we are losing species and causing suffering to those who are most vulnerable. She is direct about this as is appropriate, as there can be no room for interpretation or any confusion.
Poetry can often be accused of not addressing contemporary themes, but not so in this case. Take ‘This was Not the Deal’, for example, where apocalypse is hinted at, or, in the third section, ‘Making a Fist i.m. Jamal Khashoggi’, reflecting an acute awareness of injustice in a world that is getting smaller by the day. There is the ‘Memo to Ministers Responsible for Housing and Immigration’ and the poignant ‘They Come and They Go –Tuam 1925-1960’, lifting the mirror to the society that allowed cruelty and exclusion and continues to.
The second section, with the title ‘Such Silence she Fell Into’, is very different as it is dedicated to the poet’s great-aunt, also named Geraldine, who lost her mother in childbirth. The introduction to this section is fascinating, and we want to know more about this woman who eventually took her own life.
The poet too is grappling with scraps of information and imagines her into a life, with a hand outstretched to bridge the time, she asks us why some people are muted and others not, some silenced and others not. It seems to have been so common in those days, the loss of women in childbirth and its effect on the subsequent generation. (My own grandmother died one hundred years ago in childbirth and nothing is known about her.)
Italicised evocations of distilled emotions are set beside the more routine, and with an impossibly small amount of detail a life is fleshed out, celebrated. There are questions too as to why her life adopted its trajectory.
As a talented pianist, Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music, London, and governess to a family in Warsaw, there are so many voids to be imagined. Only a leather suitcase and a photograph with Rouen, May 1930, written on the back remain. This is where the blind silences are inhabited by such words as:
old stories sift
by the unexpected
These poems bloom in the conscious mind on subsequent readings, and although there is darkness, primarily because of the existential challenges our world is facing, there is a quest for truth and justice. An almost mathematical precision and forensic knowledge of language is used to excavate light on the far side of this darkness, which gives this collection a refreshing relevance. It’s a Christmas present that will keep giving long after the others are forgotten.
Award-winning Westport poet Ger Reidy has published three poetry collections and a collection of short stories. He also chairs the Board of Directors of the Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar.