Un­mask­ings, dis­ap­pear­ing acts and iden­tity trap­pers

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - John McAuliffe

It won’t help if I tell you this but it might. I was mak­ing this mask for the chil­dren. I was hold­ing the white face in my hand, its un­der­side around my palm. I was paint­ing it. It was not at all fright­en­ing. But as I was do­ing it I was think­ing, This is in­ter­est­ing. This is like a phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of

what I do. I mean: what I do daily in my room. I held the face in my hand and painted it. Then I tried it on and said What do you


So be­gins Mask, one of the out­stand­ing po­ems in Tara Ber­gin’s bril­liant new col­lec­tion,

(Car­canet, £9.99). Ber­gin won both the Shine and Sea­mus Heaney First Col­lec­tion prizes for her de­but, This Is Yar­row, in 2014, a book in

Marx The Tragic Death of Eleanor

which her com­mand of voices and abil­ity to gen­er­ate dra­matic mo­men­tum seemed ef­fort­lessly con­vinc­ing. So too her new book. Mask dwells on the un­canny power of po­ems to put a fin­ger on anx­i­ety and cri­sis and, some­how, stand back and ad­mir­ingly dwell on this achieve­ment.

That poem con­tin­ues:

Ev­ery­one squealed and screamed. They all wanted to make one. Some of the paint got on my hair. No one cared. Soon all the kids had made a mask. They put them on and went around

scream­ing. Some of them got paint on their hair. No one cared. They were both them­selves and

strangers. That’s all they wanted.

Ber­gin likes to try on masks, but she un­der­stands that it is not the mask so much as the act of mask­ing and un­mask­ing which is po­tent. And if the “paint” rubs off on the poet, so much the bet­ter.

One of a num­ber of po­ems about “tam­ing”, Tamer and Hawk, speaks to the op­po­site dilemma, of be­ing trapped in a sin­gle iden­tity:

The bird is wired with lit­tle bells. It won’t take fright: It doesn’t want to hear the jin­gle-jan­gle,

does it? No. The tamer keeps the hood on. That’s right.

And Ber­gin’s masks in this book, which the poet can slip on and off, in­clude other “trapped” fig­ures, one of whom is Eleanor Marx, daugh­ter of Karl, so­ci­ol­o­gist and trans­la­tor of Flaubert’s Madame Bo­vary, whose death, by her own hand, was modelled on that of Madame Bo­vary.

The im­age of the hand re­curs, and, in The Giv­ing Away of Emma Bo­vary by Sev­eral Hands, Ber­gin presents us with six trans­la­tors’ ver­sions of one line of Flaubert’s novel:

If he asks me for her I’ll give her to him. If he asks for her, he shall have her. If he asks for her, I’ll give her to him. If he asks me for her he can have her. If he asks me for her, I’ll give him her. If he asks me I shall say yes.

It reads like a puz­zle – the pro­nouns switch­ing places, com­mas ap­pear­ing and dis­ap­pear­ing from one ver­sion to an­other – but Ber­gin’s ar­range­ment is de­lib­er­ate: the cli­max is the fi­nal line, from which Bo­vary (“her”) has been en­tirely re­moved.

It is the kind of dra­matic era­sure Ber­gin con­sis­tently no­tices, not just in the Marx po­ems but in other sce­nar­ios the book de­scribes, where we en­counter a hair­dresser, a bride, Hansel and Gre­tel, Jane Austen, Strind­berg’s Miss Julie, and a whole se­ries of char­ac­ters we only know by their first names ( Ber­gin has a ge­nius for such nam­ing, and for ti­tles, as in Mak­ing Robert Learn Like Su­san).

The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx might sound gloomy and, as a t i t l e, even mock-Shake­spearean, but it is an ex­hil­a­rat­ing read, dar­ing, orig­i­nal and very funny.

Al­ready short­listed for the For­ward Prize, along­side the work of Ber­gin’s older and more es­tab­lished peers Sinéad Mor­ris­sey and Michael Lon­g­ley, it would be no sur­prise to see it win. A book this good and this en­joy­able ought be part of every reader’s sum­mer read­ing list.

There are era­sures and ab­sences too in Elaine Feeney’s (Salmon, ¤12), era­sures Feeney is deter­mined to coun­ter­act.

“I spent one full hour con­vinc­ing some friends that women said po­ems in Ire­land be­fore / Ea­van Boland”, she writes in His­tory Lessons. “The women friends are sus­pi­cious. / They have English de­grees.” Feeney’s talky hu­mour and chutz­pah (see that verb in “said po­ems”) are nat­u­rally fit­ted to rais­ing is­sues, in­clud­ing the Tuam mother and baby home in a poem which knows but will not lis­ten to the in­struc­tion, “Close over the con­crete slab, quickly, blank your thoughts, bless your­self.” ( The Har­vest)

The book ex­plores darker, more au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal ar­eas, too, in po­ems about ill­ness. The ti­tle’s re­sponse to trauma is an in­junc­tion: “surf the waves rise into them / ride out of them,” she tells her read­ers, and


the verb is more­over a re­sponse to the cen­te­nary of the Easter Ris­ing, an in­her­i­tance of which she is scep­ti­cal in Oak, which de­clares, “I’d like to spend Easter 2016 / bird­watch­ing on the Isle of Wight.” Siob­hán Camp­bell, t oo, in

( Seren, £ 9.99) laments a gapped, dis­con­tin­u­ous tra­di­tion. The Shame of our Is­land is, she writes, “that we killed the wolf. / Not just the last / but the two be­fore that.” But the poem’s shame and anger lead her to ask, “Is this a wolf with its bared teeth / and its lairy smell / and its fet­lock tipped with white? / Is this wolfish?”

In packed, jan­gling lines, Camp­bell ad­mits dis­com­fit­ing (“lairy”) words and im­ages, which pre­dict apoc­a­lyp­tic nat­u­ral catas­tro­phes: bees are “A brouhaha / if ever you saw one. Tu­mult of ab­sence, up­roar of lack” . . . “Cas­trati singing in our ears while we swel­tered”.

And the po­ems, like Feeney’s, are sit­u­ated in a pub­lic, na­tional con­text, which of­fers an al­most for­mal struc­ture for their ex­pe­ri­ences: “In this genre be­ware of a creep­ing nos­tal­gia. / Noth­ing grows re­sent­ment bet­ter than an acre of stones. / An is­land pass­port might land you a tax haven. / Then again it could cost you an arm and a leg.” ( In their high cheek­bones run the veins of a na­tion)

Sig­na­ture Heat

Tara Ber­gin likes to try on masks, but she un­der­stands that it is not the mask so much as the act of mask­ing and un­mask­ing which is po­tent

John McAuliffe’s fourth book is The Way In (Gallery, 2015). He teaches po­etry at the Univer­sity of Manch­ester’s Cen­tre for New Writ­ing

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