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Rockabye by Patricia McCarthy (Worple Press)

Rockabye by Patricia McCarthy (Worple Press)

‘tapestries of sound’

The story of Philomela is of course known principally from Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and perhaps then is known widely from T.S. Eliot’s use of the tale in the second section of The Waste Land in which ‘Above the antique mantel was displayed / As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene / The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king / So rudely forced’. This remarkable new collection of poems from Patricia McCarthy is dedicated ‘For battered women, whoever and wherever they are’ and its ‘Prologue’ is titled ‘Writer’s Block’:

“Decade after decade the nib hung,
poised like a buzzard to attack the page,
but no word formed in longhand cursives.
Gagged, it seemed, by a tarred rope,
or caught in a stutter, without a tongue,
she was nervous of clearing the blockage.”

Towards the end of this multi-layered canvas of poems, they are by no means all dominated by a testimony to the resurrection of abuse, we discover ‘Philomela’:

“Was it so terrible what you underwent
that you could not recover your song
stolen by the male that did you wrong?”

The question here is of course to do with sound. When King Tereus tore out Philomela’s tongue so that she would be unable to tell of her ordeal at his hands she turns to tapestry: to sew her story in silence. The poet weaves a poem in a similar manner, word by word, revealing line by line those thoughts which would otherwise remain buried deep within us. Like a shark’s fin the printed words surge above the whiteness of the page to reveal to the reader a sense of what is lying and moving beneath the surface. The poem externalizes what is hidden:

“from the thicket where your shyness hides
your talent far surpasses what you hear,
yet stays day and night unappreciated inside?”

That opening ‘Writer’s Block’ uses an image of the pen that the poet may well have found in Arthur Golding’s late sixteenth-century translation of Ovid, a volume which was to so influence William Shakespeare:

“…..the cruell tyrant came
And with a paire of pinsons fast did catch hir by the tung
And with his sword did cut it off. The stumpe whereon it hung
Did patter still. The tip fell downe, and quivering on the ground
As though that it had murmured it made a certaine sound.”

In Patricia McCarthy’s poem the outrage done to Philomela has struggled to surface for years and the poet has been aware of that silence for far too long. The tapestry of sound which weaves its way throughout this book can be heard in the poem which echoes the title of the collection, ‘Rockabye grandfather’:

“Rockabye, rockabye, rockabye rock
I see you on Facebook cradling
a grandchild that could have been mine.

Such tenderness, care as you rockabye,
rockabye, rockabye rock.”

The rhythm of the child’s nursery rhyme which accompanies the shared delight of adult and baby, a feeling of security despite the well-known conclusion to the wind’s blowing of the rocking cradle, is thwarted. The harsh line ending of ‘rock’ brings a stony ending to what is offered initially as delight; “tenderness” and “care” are juxtaposed with that rhythmic inevitability that McCarthy has brought to the poem. This is a poem of the “broken bough” and the “baby that did fall”.
This sense of poetry rising out of the past, central to ‘Writer’s Block’, is placed alongside a quotation from Jung: “The sea is the favourite symbol for the unconscious, the mother of all that lives.” Language, like that shark’s fin piercing the waves, brings to the surface what has been long hidden. The poem ‘Childless Woman’ concludes that “Even if / you did / Shy away from hushabyes once, now you would not. / Too old to carnival into motherhood, poems are all you / can beget.” It is impossible for me to not recall that deeply moving poem by Ben Jonson ‘On my First Sonne’ who had died very young:

“Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say here doth lye
BEN JONSON his best piece of poetrie.”

Ian Brinton 7th October 2018

One response »

  1. Pingback: November News – Readings, Prizes, Reviews | Worple Press

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