‘To enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we are transformed. It is no accident that in Shakespeare’s comedies, people go into the greenwood to grow, learn and change. It is where you travel to find yourself, paradoxically, by getting lost.’
Roger Deakin, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees (Hugo Hamilton, 2007)
At poetry workshops, when a writer has finished reading their work and the rest of the group are still re-reading and processing, four words are often blurted into this space:
‘And that really happened.’
Perhaps it has to do with the discomfort of a silence, the unease of waiting for a response and a need, conscious or unconscious, to reinforce the credibility of the work. To me, factual basis is irrelevant in a poem. The rendering of events as they occurred may be good journalism or memoir, but a poem requires something more. To become a poem, the facts must pass through a crucible, they must be transformed.
When invited to consider my poems published in Issue 10 of The Lonely Crowd, I thought about the process of submissions – of deciding which poems are ready to go, what might seem like a good fit for a journal, of throwing in a curve-ball, something a little left-field. Variety is key to catching an editor’s eye, but now I wondered what, if anything, those poems had to say to one another? What did they reveal about my own preoccupations? What alchemy had occurred?
We have a birth poem, typically a time of joy, viewed through a dark fairy-tale lens (‘Root’), and the incongruous inhabitants of a nest (‘At the Heart of Every Stone, A Bird’). Are they stones that dream of flight? Or birds, bewitched? There are the observations, perhaps incantations, of a woman ‘squaring’ a relationship with an absent lover (‘Quadratic Love Song’) and the brutal work of a woman transforming herself from the mundane into the mythical (‘On Being an Angel‘).
The theme of women – their bodies, what they are or aren’t allowed to do with them – is one I have been writing about for some time, along with the idea of mothering, of nurture, of absence and loss. Over decades, Irish women have been vanished into the Magdalene Laundries, Mother & Baby Homes, forced marriages or spirited away to England and the US. They, and their children, are Ireland’s Disappeared. Ours is a history of silences.
Magical realism is the thread that ties these poems together. More than that, it furnishes a landscape and language, to explore difficult ideas, those we cannot examine directly. These poems are all drawn from life, but removing them from context, placing them in an altered reality, allows the fundamental strangeness, the disorder at work, to become amplified. Fairy tales have long been a means of exploring the darker recesses of the human experience.
In ‘Root’, ‘Doctors gas my mother/and she baulks,’ speaks to the lack of say women have faced in their dealings with our healthcare institutions (most hospitals in the Republic are operated/managed by religious orders). In the fairy-tale forest, children are often lost – Red Riding Hood, Hansel & Gretel, Babes in the Wood etc. – but, here, it is the mother who is vulnerable and wanders into the leafy darkness.
The nest in ‘At the Heart of Every Stone, A Bird’ was part of a children’s game played in the street, caught in a photograph on Instagram. The poem embraces the child’s logic of a stone as an egg, as would-be bird, but also considers its constraints – the absence of mothering, of nurture, and the forces of nature versus its own presumed desire for change. Sometimes, a poem is simply asking yourself what would happen if the most unlikely thing were true.
‘Quadratic Love Song’ wrestles both with the inevitable vagaries of love and the more prosaic constraints of iambic pentameter, in an attempt to create a ‘true’ sonnet. I’ve written many sonnet-ish poems – I like the idea of ’14 lines and I’m done’ but always resisted the mechanical constraints and the tum-te-tum rhythm. Here, I knuckle down. As with the other poems, there is absence and longing, a hint of magical intervention – ‘A book, a bell, a tooth, a cup, a bone’ – but with the narrator wisely choosing to temper her own expectations rather than compel a lover.
‘On Being an Angel’ returns to the theme of female autonomy via photographer Francesca Woodman (1958-1981), whose work features women’s bodies disappearing into nature or the decay of abandoned buildings. Her Angel series shows a woman photographed against two large sheets, hung as wings in a dilapidated Italian warehouse. The preoccupation with absence in her work is made even more poignant by Woodman’s subsequent suicide by jumping, aged 22.
The sheet/wings in her Angel photographs, for me, raised the spectre of the Magdalene Laundries, where women were punished by the Catholic Church for the choices they made with their bodies and spent their lives in absentia performing forced labour, as penance. What tortures did they endure to piece themselves back together? What flights, what escapes might they have imagined? In Angel, I wanted the work these women never asked for to arm them with the tools of their redemption.
In writing this, it occurs to me the woman at the end of Angel could very well be the same one from Root, not lost but emerged from the forest; who, having passed through the crucibles of the flesh, transforms herself into light. Poems, like forests and fairy tales, are places to grow and change.
You can read Angela T. Carr’s poems in Issue Ten of The Lonely Crowd, available here. Listen to Angela read ‘Root’ from Issue Ten here. See The Lonely Crowd this weekend to listen to Angela read more from the new issue.
Angela T. Carr’s debut collection How To Lose Your Home & Save Your Life won the Cork Literary Review Poetry Manuscript Competition in 2013. Her work is published in journals in the UK, Ireland and the US, and has been placed or shortlisted in competitions including The London Magazine, Bristol Poetry Prize, Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition and Aesthetica Creative Writing Award. Originally from Glasgow, she lives in Dublin.
Image © Angela T. Carr, 2018. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2018.