In the foreword to his Obra poética, Jorge Luis Borges talks about literature's magic ability to "recover a past or prefigure a future." Or, he says. Well, the Newfoundland poet Carmelita McGrath, in her second collection of poetry manages to do both simultaneously, with disarming ease. Her goal is no less than to resurrect those ancestors who migrated to the new world, to pay homage to their fortitude, and to discover the lessons they have to teach us. She vows "to imagine the sounds their tongues will make,/ the colour of their eyes." Refusing to romanticize their lives, she searches with lucid intensity for the details of their everyday existence, trying to glean from these their hopes, their dreams, those intangibles that enabled them to survive wretched circumstances.
The capricious opening poem, "Touring the Manor Houses", expresses her frustration at the focus always being on the owners of the manor houses:
Excuse me, but I'd rather not see
another broad room
where stippled light
released through leaves reveals
the desk where he wrote that famous tract on
her garden room
where her hat hangs
Rather she wants to see the slop buckets, the flatirons, the room where the laundry was done,
the small white attic rooms
where the women whose features I bear
unpinned their hair with reddened hands
and dreamt of lovers
coming to them over fields
of August hay.
The tone is irreverent, impatient, almost strident, and yet the softening effect of the last three lines allows her imagined predecessors some respite from the drudgery of their daily lives.
In "Annie, Telling Stories", she revels in the resourcefulness of the women who preceded her: Annie, who turned her hat backwards and then inside out when it wore out, who made wool from moss and transformed old lace curtains into a first communion veil for her daughter. Tying one end of a rope to her waist and the other to her baby's cradle, "she'd knead the bread and rock him with the rhythms of her/ labour, two actions synchronous, without interruption."
"Gone Girl" is an elegy to one of the nameless lost on the journey from the old world to the new. Unmarried, in her third trimester of pregnancy, the only evidence of her existence is a journal entry by the ship's physician. McGrath brings her to full-bloomed life through this fragmentary reference.
In the seminal title poem, she again uses quotes from journal entries, ancient and modern, as springboards into the lives of those caught in transition between the dead-end of the old world and the uncertainties of the new. In one section, she examines the gravestones of those who didn't survive the passage-women and children, mostly. She enumerates the dreams of their men for land or orchards or boats of their own, implying that the women were sold a bill of goods, were made to suffer for the ambitions of their men.
Interspersed among the reconstructed lives of her ancestors are poems about the impending arrival, birth, and infancy of McGrath's own daughter, who points the way to the future, that new world not yet inhabited. In several instances, the pregnancy and birth are compared to a long journey by sea, fraught with the same kind of danger, the same kind of hope. Occasionally, a note of cynicism about the way things are done creeps in, as when she speaks of the doctors who perform C-sections before holiday weekends. Perhaps they could learn a thing or two from the practices of midwives like her grandmother:
my grandmother, the midwife,
birthed a community
and turned her hands also
to washing and laying out the dead. Her hands
were a circle, holding life and tying the ends.
These people seemed to have a perspective, an hard-earned savvy about what matters, that later generations are lacking.
"Out of Place" documents the longing for a sense of place, the greatest loss of those forced by financial considerations to leave their homes for new lives in Toronto and points west. The past is repeating itself. McGrath understands both sides: the desire for roots and belonging, and the sense of adventure moving brings. Still, she implies that we have let down these people who came before us, betrayed their sacrifices and their dreams. Her quest is for the continuity that connects past, present, and future, generation to generation. She attempts to educate her daughter in the old ways so she can better appreciate the new, understand its cost:
I show my daughter the grave
of my grandmother of the circles, tell
of the birthing
of the laying out of the dead,
two washings with life in the middle.
To the New World can be taken as descriptive of the journey to a new continent, or as a toast to that hope for a better life, or as a welcome to the future being forged by feminism. In the second half of the book, which is more personal, McGrath demonstrates a flair for humour and satire. "State of Grace" reveals the precocious adolescent who fantasized about running off with a grown man, of sinning her way to freedom. Caught between the religious precepts instilled in her and her own sensual nature, she resents having to confess every second Saturday for being human, and begins to see religion as a ploy to limit the self-determination of women. In "The Half-Life of Taffeta", she whimsically explores the stages of existence of a black dress, whichwould fit only half of her now:
it had gate-crashed, trespassed, high-stepped
been worn with all the shoes danced to dust
across boundaries of countries, continents,
carried on ships, in cargo bays on planes
and once, just once,
squashed in a briefcase to a clandestine adventure
that, even now, only two people know about
Surely, she speculates, taffeta survives somewhere, must have a half-life of its own, like plutonium, capable of making us remember our former selves. In one poem, the ghost of a cat put to sleep is invoked with the same gusto as the ghosts of ancestors.
McGrath excels at juxtaposing the historical with the personal to bring history to life and infuse the personal with an aura of historical significance, and she is sensual, funny, refreshingly irreverent, and politically subversive while she's at it. At once hard-headed and soft-hearted, she accepts the weaknesses and foibles of the human race without losing faith in its future. Progress depends not only on the innovations and improvements added by later generations, but also on incorporating the hard-won wisdom of the past into the warp and woof of the present. These are poems which are carefully thought out, finely crafted, and lovingly rendered.
Pat Jasper is a Toronto poet, second-baseman, and duplicate bridge player.