- “I Could Read It Like Leaves”: Communion of Languages in Paula Meehan’s Geomantic
Throughout her oeuvre, Paula Meehan has paid much attention to the tragic condition of oppressed people, including women and the financially destitute, all of whom are often evoked in conjunction with the precarious situation of the natural environment. In her twentieth-century volumes, the matters of economic deprivation and social injustice, also on the part of the Catholic Church, come to prominence, as in “The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks,” which focuses on the church’s “toxic language of evasion and hypocrisy.”1 In The Man Who Was Marked by Winter (1991), the role of poets across the ages has been that of “representative spokespersons of the oppressed and vulnerable communities,” even if Meehan is hesitant to accept that role, instead frequently “emphasiz[ing] the limitations involved in presenting herself as a spokesperson.”2 While it would be disingenuous to claim that her work has undergone a major change—especially as Meehan has noted, in regard to frequently being dubbed an urban poet, that “[she doesn’t] see the city and the human beings and non-human beings in the city as apart from nature that nature ends where man-made material looms”—it seems there has been what she herself describes as “a gear shift” in her twenty-first-century work, particularly in the last two collections, Painting Rain (2009) and Geomantic (2016).3 In them, the issue of environmental degradation is brought to the fore with an increased urgency. Given the breadth of her preoccupations and the degree to which they intertwine in her poetry as well as in interviews, “addressing her work fully,” as Kathryn Kirkpatrick points out, “requires an expansive ecocritical frame, one that [End Page 62] acknowledges the interconnections between exploitative economic systems, social inequities, and environmental degradation.”4 The “ecocritcal frame” that has so far been applied to reading Meehan’s poems includes the work of cultural theorist Carol Merchant as well as of ecofeminist thinkers like Rosi Braidotti, Val Plumwood, Maria Mies, and Vandana Shiva.
The starting point in considering Meehan’s ecologically attuned work is the critique of “the cosmology of a capitalist patriarchal world system which defines freedom as the transcendence of nature, a transcendence available only for a few and at the expanse of the Others.”5 This condition of capitalist exploitation is characteristic for the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger period. Meehan has increasingly noted in interviews that
So many of our vulnerable ecosystems were (are still) under threat from mindless turbo development. Late century capitalism run riot. Now that the boom is over and we’ve gone into recession and the government is using taxpayers’ money to bail out the banks, we may have a breathing space to estimate what’s been lost through the unmediated and rampant greed that characterized both planning and building in nineties and noughties Ireland. In there too is the “Sean Bean Bocht,” poor old mother Ireland with her four green fields—“each one is a jewel” as the song tells us, only now she’d more likely sing about her four green sites. House and site for sale was a common advertisement, whereas before you’d have House and garden for sale. In fact you’d be afraid to stand still too long in case someone built an apartment complex on your head.6
This general anxiety over the fate of the environment is given a still sharper expression in the 2009 interview with Jody Allen Randolph, in which Meehan states that “the ravages of turbo development in the last decade have meant enormous loss, erosions of rich biodiverse fields and the communities they sustained,” adding, “I think the big loser [of the Tiger-period boom] has been the environment. There are ecosystems and marginal zones that will never recover.”7 Compared to her earlier interviews, the 2009 conversation with Allen Randolph exudes a sense of grief for the condition of nature.
The above remarks about the destruction the Irish environment has suffered are made in reference to her celebrated poem “Death of a Field,” which opens Painting Rain: “The field itself is lost...