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  • Forging Intertextual Encounters with Death:Medbh McGuckian's The High Caul Cap
  • Shane Alcobia-Murphy

When constructing each of her poems, the contemporary Northern Irish poet Medbh McGuckian selects, modifies, and juxtaposes extracts from other (often unacknowledged) texts. "I like to find a word living in a context," she has stated, "and then pull it out of its context. It's like they are growing in a garden and I pull them out of the garden and put them into my garden, and yet I hope they take with them some of their original soil, wherever I got them."1 In a sense, this is a much a matter of "graft" as of "craft": what is taken from the quoted text takes root and grows in the quoting text. Her appropriative methodology allows her not only to inscribe within her own poems the psychodramas of female literary authorship, and thus learn from the experiences of her foremothers on how to circumvent patriarchal power, but also to write from an enabling distance about the conflict in Northern Ireland.2

However, in her 2012 collection, The High Caul Cap, she adapts texts and engages in ekphrastic rewritings in order to come to terms with the loss of her mother, Margaret McCaughan. 3 Although the sources themselves compensate for the silencing propensities of grief, their collage-like arrangement within her poems results in a nonstandard collocation of phrases that mimics the symptoms of pathological grief, thereby intimating to the reader its disordering and dislocating nature. Her elegies are not just significant for the ways in which they seek to overcome both the traumatic nature of her grief and the limitations of the poetic medium in the face of death; her elegies also constitute self-reflexive meditations on her own poetic practices. In her work, McGuckian adopts, co-opts, and appropriates sources in order to engage in a paragone with precursors. She seeks to exorcise the anxiety of influence and exercise the creative reformulation [End Page 124] of enabling poetic credos, manifestos, metaphors, and other poetic formulations. Death, as an experience that is ultimately unknowable, has long been a thematic concern for McGuckian. In a 2003 interview, she observed that

Death is always a crux around which I write. It's the only thing you can be sure about, but it also brings you up so short against everything. Death is what poets are supposed to define, not deal with death or even understand or to cope with it, and not give answers but just meditate, not on death but on life as curtailed by death, or broken by death and whether it is just broken or whether it is broken completely.4

Clearly, McGuckian considers it intrinsic to her vocation as a poet to consider issues of loss, grief, and the concomitant consolations of religious belief; time and again she has explored the functions and limitations of conventional rites and obsequies. But her own mother's demise resulted in a period of intense mourning and disabling sorrow for the poet, during which "she experienced a sudden flurry of nightmares":

It can be very frightening when someone has died and then you begin to dream about them, or think about them in your subconscious. . . . When someone dies, you naturally fear for them. You've got their body in a grave somewhere, and that helps you to locate them physically. But then you ask yourself: are they in heaven or are they in hell?5

Two core components of the syndrome known as "traumatic grief"—"separation distress" and "traumatic distress"—can be discerned here: first, the poet's intense preoccupation with thoughts of the deceased and second, her irrational searching for the lost object of her affection.6 Yet both are displaced into the realm of dreams because the death has not been psychologically processed; it has not been "experienced," as such. As Susan Lieberman states, "the traumatic response blocks the integration of the experience and the comfort of placing it, psychically, in the past"; instead of retaining a coherent and stable memory of the event, "the individual is left to perpetually relive the event as an unresolved present."7 At this stage, McGuckian can...


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