Andrew Oldham reviews
Nuala Ni Chonchuir
The Juno Charm
Many authors and poets have dealt with dissolution of a marriage; it is territory that asks one to tread carefully and honestly. However, couple this with pregnancy loss – ‘I will visit the rag tree at Clonfert,/pin a baby’s soother to its trunk,’ (taken from ‘An Unlucky Woman’) and fertility struggles – ‘then, after three months,/the heartsick, two-letter slip,/from foetal to fatal’ (taken from ‘Foetal’) and you have something born from pain and loss that is both honest, beautiful and with a sense of gestation. This is how The Juno Charm reads, it is not an exploration of the cerebral, it is demise and growth of one woman’s body, emotions and marriages. It would be deplorable to say that any marriage is purely based on thought, there is a distinct lack of thought in many marriages, ‘You say I am more/canal than river’ (taken from ‘Airwaves’). That the truth of how many relationships collapse can come from the most mundane moments in life, ‘Then I remember/my last red car, and wonder if too much pride in its spanky/redness left it a rusted heap in a Donegal scrap-yard; whether/crashing it started the slow wreckage of our marriage’ (taken from ‘Portrait of the Artist with a Red Car’). This is what makes this collection not just thought provoking, with a depth that shakes the readers’ views on marriage, it makes it a catalogue of lost moments that are honest. Nuala Ni Chonchuir is confessing, a brutal realisation in the poet’s life that there is nothing to hide, nothing that can be hidden from the pen, from the poet’s voice inside and finally, from the reader. Each poem demands a re-reading, time after time, as layers are peeled back and more truths spill out onto the floor before the poet and before the reader.
There is a sense early on in the collection that Chonchuir knows that marriage can be folly. That the poet inside her, knew that beyond all the romantic flushes and rush of first love that her marriage was doomed, ‘Nobody will help us/on our bridal run:/not my sisters,/not his ganger from/the tartan mill’ (taken from ‘To Gretna Green’). Nuala Ni Chonchuir explores the doomed relationship in The Juno Charm by drawing on images from Sylvia Plath, Frida Kahlo, Belle Bilton and Max Ernst. The poet pays penance and in a series of wonderful images, tableaus, motifs and borrowed lines charts the idea of marriage, of pregnancy, of fertility, of being a woman. In the collection there is a fall and rise through images as contrasting as Leda to a simple shop mannequin. There is an intimacy here that does echo Plath and Kahlo but there is more here than either of these women could have contemplated:
I dream of other people’s babies,
ones who refuse to suckle,
so I hand them back to be
cauled in their mother’s love,
but still my baby labours in me,
adding lanugo and vernix
to her cornucopia of miracles,
positing layers of fat
that will insulate her
when she delivers herself to us
in the cool-aired birthing suite,
borne down by my body’s rhythms,
because and in spite of me.
(taken from ‘A Sort of Couvade’)
It is in this poem, and such others as ‘Dancing with Paul Durcan’, ‘La Reine’, ‘Die Schwangere’ and the title poem that the idea of the body comes to the fore but it is more than the ripe flesh, more than brooding or hatching, or ritualistic platitudes males bestow on the idea of birth, of couvades, of the faire la couvade. This is the body in fear, a body unknown, a rippling sense that mother’s suffocate their children, keep them safe, cosset them and rob them of fear, despite how much they attempt to stop this. That this is the ultimate lie we tell ourselves, we do not brood, we sit upon.
Nuala Ni Chonchuir comes to terms with the waning of one marriage, the waxing of another, of pregnancy loss and the uphill struggle of fertility but there is no sense that this is a battle won, no grandeur, only the small losses, the small reflections of the world around the poetry. It is a poet coming to terms not just with how her own body fights against her desires but how her own lies, her own desire to remain ignorant of a marriage in dissolution blinds her to the truth she must face. This is what sets Nuala Ni Chonchuir apart from many of her contemporaries, were some poets fear to tread, Chonchuir has already been there and admitted her faults on page. It is more a peeling away of layers and of the realisation that in the end, when we lie, when we deny our bodies what they crave, we do nothing but destroy ourselves and those around us, ‘Monsieur says if I move,/he will pulp me’ (taken from ‘A Cezanne Nude’). That is the beauty of what is a truthful, intimate and mesmerising collection, its search for honesty.
ANDREW OLDHAM IS A BOLTON-BORN YOUNG BRITISH POET.