Squeezing the Day

Patrick McGuinness, Blood Feather

Cape Poetry, 70pp, £12.00, ISBN 9780224098311

reviewed by Tim Murphy

There is an adage to the effect that one of the most difficult subjects for a writer is their own family. The idea is that blood ties serve to obfuscate and divert, and thus truthfulness or insight are unreasonable expectations in literary representations of a writer’s own kin. There is, however, a vast body of excellent literature that defies this logic, and this now includes Patrick McGuinness’s first poetry collection for thirteen years, Blood Feather. McGuinness has previously authored two collections, two novels, and also a non-fiction book, Other People’s Countries (2014), concerning in part his mother’s native Belgium. In Blood Feather, McGuinness again writes about his mother, this time in a slim but powerful volume comprising three parts that address his maternal relationship and his grief after his mother’s illness and death.

The first part (and one of the poems) is titled, ‘Squeeze the Day’, a variation of Horace’s Carpe diem. We learn that McGuinness’s mother raised him in England in a language other than her own — she ‘spoke French and was ill at ease in English’ (‘Factory for Sad Thoughts’) — and language, voice, and speech are key themes in this multi-layered book. Of his mother’s aggressively fastidious tidying and ‘clearing up’ around him, McGuinness writes:

She broke the tenses inside me,
made me live like I was evaporating:
told me I would never be
my own contemporary.

The rhyme of ‘never be’ and ‘contemporary’ here is an excellent example of the attention to poetic craft found throughout the collection, but this attention never supersedes the poet’s honesty. McGuinness’s father was Irish but the poet does not indulge in a stereotypical Irish retrospective adulation of the family; instead, he forthrightly takes on the darker side of his family background. ‘Family as Failed State’, for example, refers to ‘the banana republic of blood’, and ‘Mother as Spy’ portrays his mother as out of place in her married, maternal role: ‘in deep cover, embedded in my motherhood, my marriage, / the things they see but which I’m something other / than’ [emphasis in original]. The idea of the poet as a ‘factory for sad thoughts’, in addition to featuring in the poem with that title, also appears in ‘Child-Narrator’, a poem that describes the unhealthy adultification that McGuinness experienced. The poet-as-child rejects the role of factory worker but is ‘promoted’ by his mother to ‘foreman’: even though his own sorrows were ‘entry-level’ and he ‘didn’t have the words for hers’, she nonetheless ‘made me her narrator / before I could become my own’, thus imposing a strong psychic connection on the poet:

In company I was ashamed of her accent.
I laughed along with the others as I hid my own.
But my laughter reached her umbilically,
the sonar of my distancing only she could hear.

Something of this poem’s fraught scenario around expression is reiterated in ‘Sure Things’ — ‘the few things I’m still sure of’, which are such that, when spoken aloud, leave the poet ‘not [knowing] who’s speaking’; and in ‘Poetry’, the prose poem that opens the collection’s second part and which offers this ‘pretty good definition of poetry’:

You start out silent, then borrow someone else’s voice and try to fit it to your mouth. It doesn’t work. You keep trying until finally — yes! — there it is: you have your own voice.

But now it’s the mouth that’s no longer yours.

In psychological terms, this is a characterisation of a particular approach to writing noted in regard to men who have difficulty separating and individuating from the mother. Samuel Beckett is a prototypical example. McGuinness’s ‘Child-Narrator’ concludes by observing that most of what his mother meant was expressed occasionally ‘as tears / that rolled singly down her cheek’; and then this unequivocal final line: ‘I am still bent around their curves.’ The quasi-devotional ‘Mother as Bird’ compares her to a sparrow (‘She left in her hundreds, left me alone in her thousands, / and when her wings opened they closed the sky.’); and in ‘Mother as Hostage’, when she is in care, the poet is unsure over the phone if she is affected by her illness or her medication, until he concludes: ‘Though I should know by now / they’re both the same, / just another suburban couple: / an illness married to a drug.’ The image in ‘Tired Metaphor’ is the ‘river of death’, worked subtly as the river ‘[sips] from the tributary / of her dying’ and ultimately ‘[smooths] itself out and [rolls] on’.

Blood Feather’s second part, ‘The Noises Things Make When They Leave’, depicts a dehumanized post-industrial landscape, as for example in the Morrisey-esque, ‘Factory Town’, with its closed factory and nondescript days: ‘The week became a distillation / of all our Sundays.’ The barren vista is fleshed out in poems like ‘The New Shopping Centre’, in which the ‘corporate Ozymandias surveys / his honeycombing galleries of brands’, and ‘Travelodge’, which ends with this powerful symbolism:

The television is a furnace burning local news.

You are breathing wardrobe-air.

The plastic kettle rages and wants to know who’s there.

Telephones and telephone conversations feature throughout the collection and ‘Landline’ is a wonderfully observed ode to ‘the phone, the flex, the pigtail-coil / where we made our rings and knuckledusters / as we talked’. One of a cluster of poems concerning Belgium in this part is ‘Prose Between Stations’, which begins with this pitch-perfect and then humorous imagery:

Things seen/heard from the top floor of the Brussels/Luxembourg Inter-City Express (only the train is fast — life inside and out takes place in some other zone of time, as thickly weightless as footage of an astronaut cooking breakfast between planets):

At Ciney, a bull nonchalantly mounting a cow (this is outside the train) as the cow

grazes on, pestling mouthfuls of grass with a slow swing of her jaw. She chews in time to his slack thrusts, each one hovering effortfully at the edges of itself, as if pulling into and out of Velcro.

‘Prose Between Stations’ concludes by declaring its constituent ‘raw material’ will refrain from ‘[becoming] a poem’, and McGuinness refers again to the gap or journey between raw material and poetry in the final section of Blood Feather, a ten-part poem titled, ‘After the Flood: A Journey in Diversions’. In prefatory lines, we learn that the ‘notes’ that constitute this poem are written in a receipt book with carbon paper making a copy on the page beneath, and in the final ‘Diversion’ — titled ‘Arrival’ — the poet wonders ‘if this is still a poem, / and if it even wants to be’, before considering ultimately, ‘how ceci n’est pas un poème, and how it is, / and how I dragged it across languages to make it so.’

The multiple references to poetry’s nascent states in the latter half of Blood Feather emphasise further the poet’s struggle to individuate vis-à-vis his mother. The outcome is perhaps uncertain as the closing ‘After the Flood’ sequence was written on the anniversary of her death, which was also her birthday: ‘the day she short-circuited the tenses, / made the current flow both ways’. In ‘Brussels-Midi to Villiers-Ville’, McGuinness refers to ‘the grammar / of [his] grief, spreading like a verb / through its declensions’, and when in ‘Sambreville’ the poet considers himself a ‘stuck record’, he wonders if he is ‘the stylus or the vinyl’ — he suggests his mother’s dispiriting viewpoint in parentheses: ‘(Your answer: I am the scratch.)’

Blood Feather speaks sensitively to the potential for complexity and ambivalence in male maternal relationships, and in addressing the author’s own experiences so honestly, it is a brave book. The poems are also extremely well-crafted, and their accomplished use of a broad range of poetic registers serves to underscore how the author’s love for his mother co-exists with the need to cope with the damage caused by their relationship. Overall, a highly recommended collection.

Tim Murphy is an Irish writer living in Spain. His first poetry collection is Mouth of Shadows (SurVision Books, 2022).