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The High Caul Cap Paperback – November 30, 2013

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Editorial Reviews


"The title The High Caul Cap suggests the complexities and layers of the poems--the caul with which the lucky are born; the caul that was the mother's amniotic sac shrouding the baby; the caul through which the baby first sees the world; the caul that is kept on the mantelpiece to protect the child from drowning; the 'High Caul Cap,' an Irish set dance; the caul that is the cap we wear every time we think and remember and associate; the caul that bears us through life and death." (Lois Marie Harrod, Literary Mama)

"McGuckian's collection of elegies written, mostly, in presumptive anticipation of her mother's death is wreathed in a stilled, willed intensity of observation…" (Jordan Smith, Antioch Review)

"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 death, of memories, of bonds which are not broken." (Anna Livia)

"Symbols begin to gather meaning through rereadings and a constant tweaking of the inward voice of the meticulous reader…Craft, to McGuckian, encompasses concealment and exploration, as well as agitation and repose…The poems circulate in a heliocentric universe, biding their time like ceili dancers." (Sameera Siddiqe, Singapore Review of Books)

"The poems in The High Caul Cap were written during the long illness of the poet's mother, whose eventual death haunts the volume, and they present the relations of mothers and daughters with great complexity, not simple nostalgia or factual memorization…The presence of death can have its own beauty, and the eponymous poem of The High Caul Cap offers us an image of a time in love with endings…McGuckian typically uses elaborate, complex images and situates her characters in situations both oneiric and, sometimes, straightforward. She stitches her images closely together, creating a rich, almost baroque tapestry of loss and difficult love, even as ultimately 'there is no peace: / no function for the heart to serve / the dear, the best-known face.'" (Magdalena Kay, World Literature Today) --Culture Northern Ireland

The caul, An cul in the Gaelic, refers to an amniotic sack, once thought to be a lucky charm for sailors against drowning out at sea, while in Gaelic and Celtic musical traditions it refers to a score performed by various folk musicians. These give rise to McGuckian s slow, elegaic dance of words and images. Words and phrases in McGuckian disclose a sense of morose but delectable air.

McGuckain s involuted style of writing, while occasionally troublesome, does have its merits. Symbols begin to gather meaning through rereadings and a constant tweaking of the inward voice of the meticulous reader. The fifty-four poems here embark on a slow dance with These Latinized Snows, a poem that behaves as a preface/to an experience (11) dedicated to a vivacious woman McGuckian s late mother. The intense unreadability of the poems are testament to the messy street debris or the stretch marks on the trunk of an aspen (11), which the poetess gathers for the dance and which the subject of the poem, the woman or eva, is about to break into (11). The unreadable snow, a prayer-like snow, like a far grander blanket, is the composition to which her dance is imminent (11). She constantly reiterates images of light and the grave, as if pointing to the inconceivable unreadability of death itself. Craft, to McGuckian, encompasses concealment and exploration, as well as agitation and repose....

McGuckian s giddy flair for casting lament into a festival of images is alchemic. Time stands still and takes on various miscalculated airs of being out of joint. In She Wears the Sky, for example, her mother, she says, remembers the next five days as twelve .

As well as the distortions of time, McGuckian invokes a host of anamorphic imagery to frame an illustrious new place, a safe place, which is also a secret place where loss and absence linger free and love resides. The Ocean River, for instance, presents a mirage of double stillness of river sounding echoes of her personal angel."
Compounding shadows with light, the language ripples with chant[s] and incantations, much like a Manichean dream in monochrome. The poem is left with a she-wolf s lust and restlessness, and more than just the movements of words on a page, float up and gather around in conversation with the reader.

The titular poem encapsulates McGuckian s tribute to art as salvation from the dying of the light. The visual effects of lyric culminate in a beautiful stanza:

An immense red blossom, whose name
stops just in time, is the last
for light; she pulls herself along like
a broken
cricket, past the lifeless houses. (45)

Where masters of prose enable words to dance off the page, McGuckian liberates the dance itself. Her poetic prowess harks back to modern masters like E.E. Cummings, John Ashberry, and Rainer Maria Rilke. McGuckian does not reveal her sources, but says that they are incumbent to reading her poems: I like to find a word living in a context and then pull it out of its context. It s like they are incumbent to reading her poems: I like to find a word living in a context and then pull it out of its context. It s like they are growing in a garden, and I pull them out of the garden and put them into my garden, and yet I hope they take with them some of their original soil, wherever I got them (Blakeman, Irish Studies 67). This poem is followed by Sunburst in E Major, which acts as a resounding tribute to The gods who are partly about praying especially at this time of the year, and plucks the chords for a Dionysian spectacle (48). The poems circulate in a heliotropic universe, biding their time like ceili dancers. --The Singapore Review

Traditionally in Irish poetry the subject of the mother imbues in the author a certain kind of filial piety. Recall Seamus Heaney s Sunlight , a poem that transforms the process of his mother cooking scones into an almost religious experience, or Patrick Kavanagh s In Memory of My Mother , which elevates the deceased parent into a mythical, saint-like figure.

In the poem The Blood Trolley from her latest collection, The High Caul Cap, Belfast poet Medbh McGuckian takes a different approach from the two aforementioned poets. When discussing the difficult relationship she experienced with her mother, the poem opens by declaring: My mother I did not know at all.

By the third verse, McGuckian has placed her dead mother in a setting that closely resembles the Warsaw Ghetto. As anxiety increases, and the dream slowly progresses into a nightmare, the reader is transported into a Dantesque inferno, alongside the poet's mother.

'Now she seems to be driving / a vehicle with a large skull in front / Or walking a skull on a leash / through marshy riches. I have touched death / with her white bonework, seen dark / things as bright, enchanted by the pleasant / shadow of the rich Christ, saying Peace / Peace, when there is no peace.'

After the death of her mother who suffered a long and painful illness McGuckian tells me that she experienced a sudden flurry of nightmares. These might explain where the ominous images that repeatedly crop up in these poems come from.

'It can be very frightening when someone has died and then you begin to dream about them, or think about them in your subconscious mind,' says McGuckian. 'In that poem, I used imagery from the Holocaust, putting my mother in this kind of hell.

When someone dies, you naturally fear for them. You ve got their body in a grave somewhere, and that helps you to locate them physically. But then you ask yourself, "Are they in heaven or are they in hell?" And I went through those two options in this poem. Eventually I have my mother in heaven, but I have her going through hell first.'

McGuckian recalls that the majority of the poems included in The High Caul Cap were written before her mother died. Writing and reading those poems helped her to come to terms with the inevitability of her mother's death as the illness worsened.

'Cathartic is the word I think would best describe the feeling I had when I wrote these poems. They dealt with my mother s illness and helped me go through that day-by-day. And yet all the time she was sick she kept a very serene presence. I was trying to convey that in the poems the sense that she was very beautiful, and very controlled, despite everything that was happening to her.'

The poems also enabled McGuckian to reassess the complicated nature of the relationship that existed between mother and daughter. 'There was a lot of misunderstanding,' she admits, 'and a lack of communication.

'My mother was a very proud and difficult woman. Growing up, I found I could not talk to her about anything that was going on with me emotionally. But in these poems I am able to do that. I address her as if she was very open, like she could relate to me in the way that I would have wanted her to.'

While much of McGuckian s work tends to begin with small autobiographical details, her poems typically branch out into the symbolic, the metaphoric. There are echoes in The High Caul Cap of the 19th century French symbolist poets, such as Mallarmé and Rimbaud, particularly in the way that the language often meanders into the abstract.

McGuckian isn t intentionally trying to be difficult she is quick to point that out. Rather she simply believes that the language of the mundane and the vernacular should not be used directly to construct a poem. --Culture Northern Ireland

About the Author

Medbh McGuckian was born in Belfast in 1950, where she now lives with her husband and four children. A graduate of The Queen s University Of Belfast with B.A. and M.A. degrees in English, and where she studied with Seamus Heaney, she was the first woman to be named writer-in-residence in that university, where she now regularly teaches. She is the author of over a dozen volumes of poetry.
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