Medbh McGuckian Sept 3, 2008 17:09:24 GMT 2
Post by moira on Sept 3, 2008 17:09:24 GMT 2
MEDBH MCGUCKIAN’S “MAST YEAR”
By Joyce Nower
(The following is one of four revised excerpts from a three-part article on Irish poetry published in my column “Intersections” in The Alsop Review.
The four excerpts include poems by Eavan Boland, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Nuala NÍ Dhomhnaill, and Medbh McGuckian, all four born in the Forties and Fifties of the last century. Further poems by these poets may be found in Contemporary Irish Poetry, Ed. Anthony Bradley, University of California Press, 1988; and Modern Irish Poetry, Ed. Patrick Crotty, The Blackstaff Press Limited, Northern Ireland, 2001.)
In Ireland, a small land of rivers, rocks, mountains, and trees, where wind, clouds, and rain appear and disappear within moments, and temperatures flutter up and down in the bat of an eye, and special rock configurations have time-honored sacred connotations, and where the urban scene has yet to obliterate the countryside, nature is an obvious focus, and the animistic impulse - a tendency to give soul or spirit to the natural universe – is a natural component of that focus.
Medbh McGuckian’s “The Mast Year” begins as a botanical guide to trees, but gradually extends botany into sociology and mythology. The term “mast year” applies to a year in which certain trees produce a superabundance of nuts, and thus a density of seedlings, an occurrence which takes place every four to seven years. Through a choice of anthropomorphizing verbs and nouns, the poem opens up into a sociology of trees, that is, how they relate to each other and to the plant life at their base, and then extends to our sisterly perception of them. The oak and pine seem “eager”… “to populate new ground”; the beech “can carve itself an empire” and “makes an awkward neighbor”; the birch “fosters/Intimacy with toadstools, till they sleep/In the benevolence of each other’s smells.” One final touch of the magic wand via the word “Lammas” takes us to a celebration of fecundity or “first fruits,” with Christian and pagan overtones.
Although for a time poets in America were cautioned not to personify nature, I feel these poems record accurately how humans interact with trees: we know they are animate, and we feel a kinship with them. I have always attributed this feeling to the empathetic imagination; but whatever its origins, it bubbles up abundantly in contemporary Irish poetry. Whether or not we maintain that “a spirit” literally dwells within is another matter, but it seems that our relationship to trees, and nature in general, is more animistic than we often care to admit. Personification is a comradely and, even for the Twenty–First Century Western rationalistic temperament, readily available form of the animistic impulse.
Medbh McGuckian, born in Northern Ireland in 1950, was graduated from Queen’s University. She has won awards for her various publications – in pamphlet, anthology, and book form - and is a writer-in-residence at Queen’s University.
A good introduction to her life can be found at tinyurl.com/4yyq45.
Photo: © paul sherwood
The Mast Year
by Medbh McGuckian
Some kinds of trees seen ever eager
To populate new ground, the oak or pine.
Though beech can thrive on many soils
And carve itself an empire, its vocation
Is gentler; it casts a shade for wildflowers
Adapted to the gloom, which feed
Like fungus on its rot bedstraw leaves.
It makes an awkward neighbour, as the birch
Does, that lashes out in gales, and fosters
Intimacy with toadstools, till they sleep
In the benevolence of each other’s smells,
Never occupying many sites for long:
The thin red roots of alder vein
The crumbled bank, the otter’s ruptured door.
Bee-keepers love the windbreak sycamore,
The twill of hanging flowers that the beech
Denies the yew – its waking life so long
It lets the stylish beechwood
Have its day, as winded oaks
Lay store upon their Lammas growth,
The thickening of their dreams.