‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’: Not a curse, an aspiration

Slow Mysteries by Monica CornishMonica Corish,
Slow Mysteries,
Dublin: Doghouse, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-9572073; RRP: €12

Monica Corish’s poems celebrate liminalities.  Singer-crafted darts turn a girl into a woman (‘Becoming Visible’); an election defeat  turns a sober woman into a tipsy Cailleach (‘Cailleach’); the lighthouse keeper’s transfer of sexual allegiance from the sea to his waiting wife on the mainland (‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter’). This poem offers a genealogy in which an unusual occupation, that of the keeper of the light (probably the Tory Island lighthouse), explains the passion of  begetting:

Where are you from?
From women who loved for the blue of their eyes
Their sea-struck, rock-bound men.
From men who had forgotten
the taste of their wives.
from women filled on the first night home
with the nameless passion of waves.
From the burning thirst-hunger of men
who were belly-deep, bones-deep, balls-deep filled
with wave and rock and wind and salt.
From women whose husbands’ first wife was the sea.

These songs that sing of the west of Ireland (Knocknarea of legend is her parish) avoid conventionalities, clichés, the overly familiar. But mostly, they are domestic poems in which the ordinary is touched with sacredness.
But this is modern Ireland and young women get to Nairobi and Rawanda and Istanbul where they encounter ‘the shock of the sacred’. Her account of a massacre site in Ntarama (Rawanda), in a half-ruined church works through simple but chilling images:

A baby-blue baby’s sandal
still cradling your baby bones.
I gasp
And the smell of terror enters my bones.

She assumes the role of witness, the one who is unafraid to detail the horror. The chief challenge, far exceeding the horror of the stench of the dead,  is the knowledge that the Interahamwe, the Death Squads are ‘my brothers, my sisters, my self.’ The witnessing devised by the survivor of the terror, ‘the man with the bullet wound / still visible in his forehead’, is grotesque: ‘the lime-bleached skeletons … draped with trousers and shirts,/bright skirts and kitenge’ (wax-printed cotton cloth) remain unburied, displayed in room after room, ‘An unintended art installation’ (‘Ntaramba, Fwanda, 1999).  As she steps over the lintel that separates bourgeois realities from ultimate terrors, she demonstrates with a lucidity that bespeaks her pain and self-consciousness, the ways in which to survive:

In the car
driving back into life
someone begins to speak
of everyday things,
begins to cope,
begins to tidy away
the shock of the sacred.  (‘Murambi’)

The collection has the shape of a life. The first section, ‘Learning to Swim’, focuses on childhood in the west of Ireland. ‘Facing into the Fire’ deals with her mature years spent in troubled Africa, often in war-zones. The last two sections ‘Drinking Tea with Angels’ and ‘Earth in our Palms’ deal with a life-changing injury, learning, after years of frenetic professional excitement, to move into a more meditative gear, ‘Negotiating with the Angel’ is one way she styles it.  This post-injury period seems to colour the entire corpus, as the poet seeks out the inner quiet and mystery of ordinary things. An amusing poem deals with stopping the busy-ness that distracts, and learning to attend to an Angel who drinks tea with her. He is magnificent in his feathered-ness: every feather seems ‘muscled, each/with its own source of strength and fire.’  He is ceremonial and quotidian at once and his quiet presence teaches her the unexpected:

It was harder to wait,
now something was being waited for.
(‘Drinking Tea with Little Ceremony’)

This collection gives us religious poetry in a different key. It’s often quite quirky and whimsical.  ‘Cassiopeia on the saxophone, Orion on the guitar, the Great Bear on the drums’  rewrites Genesis in a very modern idiom. God as a female calls the pray-er ‘Honey’; God in his male form is a ‘lusty God’ who ‘rolls together in the mud’ with his female other to create the universe, while Cassiopeia plays a sax, Orion a guitar and the Great Bear on drums, proclaiming

All I need from you, girl, is your dancing shoes
and your breathing body.

This collection breathes deeply and dances with the joy of creation.  It would make a good Christmas present for someone who lives in the fast lane.

Frances Devlin-Glass