“playfulness and love of lexical esoterica”

Gathering Evidence, Caoilinn Hughes, Carcanet, £9.95
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

While reading Gathering Evidence I was reminded of something once said about modernism, that one of its aesthetic goals was to ‘delay the process of comprehension’ in a given poem. It may have been Bakhtin who said this, but don’t hold me to it if I’m wrong. These are not lyrical poems that offer up their meanings easily, but questing thought-processes that work on the interstice between perhaps an older bardic form of poetry and scientific advancement and discovery.

Poets since Wordsworth at least have been doing this, but Hughes’ work reminded me most of Veronica Forrest Thomson for its playfulness and love of lexical esoterica and Hugh MacDiarmid, particularly in his long poem In Memoriam James Joyce where we have to read through passages of flatness or scientific dryness to make the moments of insight or poetic observation all the more worth savouring. For instance in ‘Looting Roses’ an old woman’s face is ‘like a library shelf / (all dormant romance and discoloration)’. Also in ‘The Moon Should Be Turned’ Hughes describes cancerous cells in a political light and this reminds me closely of MacDiarmid’s ‘Ex-Parte Statement on the Topic of Cancer’.

While I’m trying to compare Hughes’ work to others, this is difficult in itself, because I get the impression she is wryly dissatisfied with the ways in which people respond to the modern world and try to live in it. In ‘Snake Creeps Through the Grass’ the speaker listens to a tramp in the park complain about kids who stole his hat, while nearby people do Tai Chi, and there is a great sense of inadequacy in ‘new age’ ways of dealing with things:

I don’t point out that the Tai Chis did nothing to intervene;
that their ‘cloud hands’ seemed to wave the thief off lovingly.

Also, in ‘This Is What Makes It Go Bang’, a poem which reads like a set of instructions for making bullets and then extends the analogy to poems, we seem to be in war-time conditions, but this is only tacitly suggested:

Insert the decapping rod,
then tap the top to rid spent primer.
You will need a soft-faced mallet,
if you can acquire one.

I feel that Hughes’ poems do read in a highly topical light for their passionate engagement with the past and I admire how they mix heritage, history and the present so winningly and wittily at times:

I imagine the counties to be like dusty library copies of Beowulf;
spines cracked to smithereens with no one to commiserate
since all the kids who have to read Seamus Heaney translations
on their Kindles, which are not as good for making fires as they sound.

Being a sufferer myself, one of the poems which struck me most here was ‘Cynophobia’ and this poem, like others in the collection, hints at a much darker, more direful end of human experience. The evidence Hughes seems to be gathering is not unlike that of Wordsworth’s ‘spots of time’, the foxing and markers of experience, but these are all Hughes’ own:

It started when my mother dropped me off at driveway’s end in a rush.
Birthday candles blinked from a distant window: someone else’s wish took                                                                                                        flight.
It started then, between a black Labrador, and a locked door: the                                                                                    extinguished lights.

Bill Manhire describes Hughes as an ‘alchemist’, yet I am always suspicious of these terms that seek to mysticise the job of the poet. By ‘alchemist’ I take to mean she can transfer the base-metal of some rather heavy or clunky lines (such as in ‘Pacific Rim’) into moments of real transformative power, and the collection does this, not always (for instance the villanelle ‘We Are Experiencing Delay’ seems contrived), but enough to convince the reader with the rich and varied evidence in front of them.

Richie McCaffery

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