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‘Private Relations’: Selves, Poems, and Paintings—Durcan to Morrissey

Abstract and Keywords

In his collection Crazy About Women (1991), Irish poet Paul Durcan describes himself as an artist preoccupied with ‘picture-making’ and poetry. He is willing to assimilate the range of his artistic commitments to the private world of his affections, and to extend this equation to the rapport between word and image. An important line in the collection is: ‘Art is private relations – not public relations’. Durcan's poetry provides a useful starting point for assessing the role of painting in contemporary Irish poetry. This chapter examines private relations, selves, poems, and paintings, focusing on the variously unconventional poetics of Durcan, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, and Sinéad Morrissey. It explores both the nature of the rapport between poetry and painting, and whether the relation between word and image confronts us mainly with cases of conflict and rivalry.

Keywords: Paul Durcan, Irish poetry, paintings, selves, word, image, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, private relations, Sinéad Morrissey

In a preface to his collection Crazy About Women (1991), Irish poet Paul Durcan (1944–) refers to ‘picture-making’ and poetry as ‘the two preoccupations of my life’, and defines himself, therefore, as an artist with ‘two spouses’.1 The passage shows Durcan's willingness to assimilate the range of his artistic commitments to the private world of his affections, and to extend this equation to the rapport between word and image—in the particular context of a collection that integrally consists of poems about paintings. Durcan's stance on that dual assimilation is possibly epitomized in a line that emerges later in the collection: ‘Art is private relations—not public relations’.2

Durcan's poetry provides a useful starting point for a study of the importance of painting for contemporary Irish poets, and it does so in three interrelated ways. First of all, his writing shows a persistent and programmatic focus on the visual arts: besides the many pictorially derived poems that punctuate his work, two of Durcan's books were planned as responses to museum collections and indeed published by the institutions in question—the already mentioned Crazy About Women (which addressed paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland), and Give Me Your Hand (1994, National Gallery, London). Secondly, the particular terms in which Durcan addresses the visual arts in order to develop his poetic fictions of gender and human bonds make his writing a signal example of the much-discussed interest that Irish writers from different backgrounds have taken in family settings and their potential for conflict. (Indeed, as pointedly noted by Edna Longley, ‘genealogical obsessions … pervade Irish culture’, and even ‘Irish history (p. 283) remains … a family affair’, reflecting, among other factors, the contributions made by the island's major religious traditions towards a massively patriarchal social culture.)3 Thirdly, Durcan's work offers clear-cut examples of the tendency for poetic appropriations of pictorial art to acquire a self-referential dimension, highlighting the close mutual implication between the word-and-image relation and the poems’ chosen themes—which, in the cases to be discussed, derive from the world of the family and private affections.

Thematically and culturally, this implication has often attracted attention. The ‘long-standing system of connections’ involving painting and love narratives is a central theme in Wendy Steiner's Pictures of Romance, while Norman Bryson has provided arguments for a gendered perspective on the history of looking and narrating—the agency of male ocular and discursive power vis-à-vis the passiveness of female objects.4 But the very language of criticism has foregrounded the implication, since assessments of the fraught relationship between verbal and visual forms of artistic expression have often resorted to tropes of gender, generation, and interpersonal relations. From the Renaissance onwards, one of the most popular metaphors applied to the arts in European culture construed poetry and painting as siblings, the ‘sister arts’.5 The (apparent) stringency of current academic discourse has not prevented the use of similar tropes. The ‘protracted struggle for dominance between pictorial and linguistic signs’, for which W. J. T. Mitchell claims a prominent position in the history of culture, is construed as analogous to human relations, in particular when ‘the central goal of ekphrastic hope’ is described as ‘the overcoming of otherness’.6 And erotic analogies underlie James A. W. Heffernan's claim that ekphrasis (‘the verbal representation of visual representation’) is dominated by ‘representational friction’; the allure of metaphors drawn from human bodily experience is even more blatant in his remark that ‘ekphrasis is dynamic and obstetric: it typically delivers from the pregnant moment of visual art its embryonically narrative impulse’.7 This use of the trope of pregnancy derives from a foundational text for the theme of word versus image, Lessing's Laocoön (1766), the source of a famous notion that underlies Heffernan's remark: that painting is characteristically static, an art of space that represents the single instant, as against poetry, an art of time that can capture the plot-like flux of human experience.8

(p. 284) This essay will suggest that such approaches to the word-and-image relation prove highly productive when applied to the variously unconventional poetics of Paul Durcan, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, and Sinéad Morrissey. It will focus on moments in which their poetic writing seeks the benefit of indirection and derives additional imaginative impulse from representations found in another artistic medium. Such moments yield critical insights into both the nature of the rapport between poetry and painting, and some of the defining tensions in the poet's immediate culture; and those insights may take the form of tentative answers to a few recurrent questions. Does the relation between word and image confront us primarily with instances of conflict and rivalry, or rather with forms of coalescence between verbal and visual resources? Further, in what measure can poetry's ambition to address the visual extend or inflect the traditional description of the lyric as a representation of the ‘speaking’ self, a space for subjective revelation? The poems considered below prompt such broad critical questions in close connection with culturally more specific issues, such as the (already mentioned) Irish tendency to highlight bonds and emotions associated with family settings, with some emphasis on the position of women. This representational preference deserves to be considered both in the light of specific traits of Irish culture, and with regard to its own intriguing assimilation to the rapport between verbal and visual.

In the poetry of Paul Durcan, the pervasiveness of what he has provocatively described as ‘private relations’ was already clear from his earlier collections, punctuated by titles that combine the (often very ‘public’) pictorial reference with the poet's characteristic iconoclasms: ‘The Collaring of Manet by a Dublin Architect in the National Gallery’, ‘Fuckmuseum, Constance’. Both these poems appeared in Jesus Break His Fall (1980), and they confirm Durcan's penchant for making the pictures yield narratives that concern troubled familial or conjugal scenes. These range from the necrophiliac delusions of the philistine ‘architect’ who press-gangs Manet ‘to do a portrait of my dead wife’ laid out ‘nude on the formica topped kitchen table’;9 to a realization of overlooked or ignored identities, troped as a pictorial misreading that combines with an epiphany in a museum setting: ‘Then suddenly, after 10 years, I realised she was she/When she mistook me for an abstract painting in Room 3.’10

Savage satire overwhelms some of Durcan's picture-based narratives of family, love, and marriage, sometimes running the risk of compromising the denunciation by excessive keenness. Durcan's readiness to equate patriarchal oppression (even male desire) with fascism is certainly striking, but it carries a potential element of overkill: as in ‘The Perfect Nazi Family is Alive and Well and Prospering in Modern Ireland’—included in Jumping the Train Tracks with Angela (1983)—a humorous but bitter refraction of Adolf Wissel's painting of a Farming Family from Kahlenberg (1939). Neither is this strategy limited to poems with such stentorian titles, themselves instances of Durcan's rhetorical strategies; it is also pursued in more conventionally announced ekphrastic pieces, such as those that borrow the painting's own title followed by the ‘after’ formula that signals (p. 285) the poet's indebtedness to his pictorial source. Examples of this include ‘The Jewish Bride—after Rembrandt’ and ‘The Vision of St Hubert—after Breughel’: both from The Berlin Wall Café (1985). ‘The Jewish Bride’ reads a fictionalized piece of twentieth-century history into Rembrandt's seventeenth-century painting, interweaving the Holocaust's murderous anti-Semitism with the voyeuristic violence of the (would-be? potential?) rapist, confessed in the first person: ‘my swastika eyes’, ‘my jackboot silence’, ‘my gestapo voice’.11 In Durcan's writing this confessional tone is all the more blatant for its combination with a transparent autobiographical account (a narrative of the dissolution of the family, pervaded by male guilt). The effect of this in ‘The Vision of St Hubert’ is that Hubert's Pauline tale of redemption, placidly evoked in the painting, is overwhelmed by the poem's scenario of marital mayhem:

  • I decided to hunt down my wife:
  • Gauleiters of Revenge revved-up in my veins
  • I will put the fear of God the Führer into her
  • And smear the walls of her bedroom with the blood of her children12

Compared to this, the family narratives that Durcan continued to privilege in his two collections entirely devoted to paintings can be described as serene—despite the continuity of the themes of dysfunction, abuse, and disintegration. Both Crazy About Women and Give Me Your Hand offer reproductions of the paintings next to the poems that they prompted, which may help explain a relative downtoning of Durcan's departures from his pictorial sources. The poet's ‘versions’ of the paintings may still be dislocated in time and space, but the fact that the word-and-image relation is supported by a coexistence in the space of the book (rather than by evoking an absent picture) means that Durcan's refigurations of his named and displayed sources are not so radical as to prevent readers from acknowledging the poem as a rendering of the painting.

Some pictorial genres prove especially enticing for Durcan's narrativization of family scenes and women's predicaments. A case in point is the conversation piece: examples include, in Crazy About Women, ‘Man with Two Daughters’, ‘An Interior with Members of a Family’, or ‘Mrs Congreve with Her Children’; in Give Me Your Hand, ‘A Family Group in a Landscape’, ‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’, and ‘The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly’. To the extent that Durcan's accounts of such pictorial scenes are often humorously outlandish vis-à-vis more conventional readings, his proneness to iconoclasm (etymologically and literally ‘breaking icons’) becomes even more strikingly literal when his pictorial referents are sacred art—as is the case with paintings of the Holy Family.

Durcan's appropriations of the Holy Family tend, as always, to extract them from the temporal and cultural framework of their production and bring them close to the poet's time and concerns—ethically, politically, artistically. ‘The Marriage of the Virgin’, the opening poem in Give Me Your Hand, brings a fourteenth-century painting to bear on (p. 286) the unequal marriage between a young woman and an old man, a standard topic in literature dealing with traditional rural life in Ireland (as portrayed by Patrick Kavanagh, for example, extolled by Durcan as an admired predecessor).13 However, the poem's emphatic anachronisms also involve construing Christ's sacrifice in the light of present-day politics, economics, and ethics—as diverse as the sinister ‘protection’ one buys from gangsters, and the issue of gay rights. Further, ‘The Marriage of the Virgin’ involves a meta-artistic, self-referential challenge: in this verbal figuration of a visual figuration, the white marriage that binds Mary to Joseph is troped as ‘abstract’—Mary declares, ‘I come to him abstract’.14 To the extent that ‘abstract’ opposes ‘figurative’, the erotic is, by implication, brought to bear again on the representational design by suggesting that figuration (which envelops ‘Mary's’ intriguing statement), by entailing a focus on the body, involves desire and coupling.

In ‘The Marriage of the Virgin’, Mary is given the prerogative of appearing as the fictional consciousness through which Durcan appropriates and refigures the painting—a cognitive female point of view and vocal stance which, extracted from an ineluctably patriarchal dispensation, is itself a counter-cultural statement.15 The most memorable example of this penchant for playing with unexpected perspectives and voices from such a canonical genre is probably ‘The Holy Family with St John’, a poem in Crazy About Women on a late fifteenth-century painting. The speaking voice and the cognitive focus are identified in this case with a peripheral, diminutive male figure in the background, disclosed as an autobiographical projection when he derives his fascination for the family scene from his condition as ‘a man without a family’ (a predicament that has recurrently characterized Durcan's confessional writing).16 This figure, who is barely in the picture, has nonetheless the privilege of viewing the scene from the front, like any external onlooker; indeed, this is the only perspective that allows him to note the painting's peculiarities in the light of present-day figurative expectations and attitudinal commonplaces. Ostensibly voiced from the edge of the painting, Durcan's poem plays with yet another shift in focus. Both the appropriated title (‘The Holy Family with St John’) and the painting's spatial arrangement give central importance to the shared childhood of Jesus and John, their touching hands troping a mystical relay. However, the central and larger part of the poem echoes the curious ‘affinity’, the apparently meaningful eye contact between Joseph ‘and his donkey, conversing with one another’ as they approach from the background, along a winding path. The suggestion that man and donkey are engaged in male bonding, ‘the husband … confiding about his sensational spouse’, daringly brings the erotic implication into the framework of the paradigmatic white marriage, enhanced by the donkey's famed potency. The provocative centrality that Durcan's (p. 287) poem accords to the animal is confirmed in the interrogatio that closes the poem: ‘What is it that a donkey sees in a man?’ Earlier, Durcan's persona avows, ‘I revel/In the human family's animal beauty’; this may be no more than a sobering reflection on the communality of Creation, but it can also suggest that the extension of Durcan's ‘private relations’ beyond the borders of the species involves a hybridization of aesthetic perception.17

(Un)holy families, disturbing erotic insights, hybrid forms: this combination is both recognisable and prominent in the work of Paul Muldoon. Such shared elements in their representational range only enhance the fact that Durcan and Muldoon have been read as epitomizing the ‘differing formal procedures’ that have come to characterize a postmodern moment in Irish poetry, respectively north and south of the border.18 In Muldoon's case, a pervasive fascination for hybrid beings and borderline experiences is matched by his formal preferences—such as his taste for quotation, pastiche, and parody—and confirmed in his critical readings of texts that foreground ‘the ideas of liminality and narthecality’.19 Muldoon's interest in equivocal identities found an early focus in his collection Mules (1977), where literal reference to the hybrid equines in the title coexisted with a variety of metaphorical approximations, the range of which included family identity and autobiographical implications (e.g. in ‘The Mixed Marriage’). Unlike Durcan's rhetoric of confessional candour and emotional intensity, however, the personal layer of reference in Muldoon's poetry tends to be approached only indirectly, and the mediations that characterize his slanted writing have on a few memorable occasions found their formal match in his poems about paintings.

Muldoon's ekphrastic practice has focused, on at least two occasions, on pictures featuring couples of a more or less unusual nature. His collection Moy Sand and Gravel (2002) includes ‘Anthony Green: The Second Marriage’, originally commissioned for A Conversation Piece, a collection compiling ekphrastic poems and reproductions of the paintings they address. Muldoon takes Anthony Green's faux-naïf wedding scene of a middle-aged couple, posing in their finery against a garish and over-furnished living room, and makes it yield a narrative of transgression and punishment—which denies the couple the status of ‘blushing bride and … nervous groom’ and reads their worried stiffness as that of ‘a pair of con artists summoned before/a magistrate inclined to throw/the book at con artists’.20 The poet's construction of the scene as courtroom drama makes the poem an arrogation of judicial authority, with ironical implications for the intermedial relation: the verbal appropriator of a pictorial scene—an artist drawing on the figurative resources of another artist—uses the prerogative of poetic utterance to impute an illicit appropriation of goods to the mute subjects of a ‘conversation piece’, the rather gauche-looking couple that he dubs ‘con artists’. The ironical and self-referential import of this narrative of transgressive possession and transmission also relates closely to the secondariness (as against originality or singularity) that marks both painting and poem: (p. 288) the most immediate sense of The Second Marriage as the title of Green's painting is only too clear in the bride and groom's lined faces, but Green has consciously painted this (quasi-parodic) wedding scene after a hallowed precedent, Van Eyck's Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife.21 Muldoon's poem after Green's painting makes his ‘Second Marriage’ doubly so, but the title acquires a particular resonance in Muldoon's work, both for its congeniality with a poetics that thrives on rewritings, and for a specific precedent in his oeuvre—another poem after a painting that one might call his ‘first marriage’.

The poem in question is ‘The Bearded Woman, by Ribera’, which first appeared in Mules and is arguably the collection's ‘most powerful family image’.22 It ostensibly describes the peculiar seventeenth-century painting named in its title: indeed, when a poem appropriates the title of a painting it invites an assumption of equivalence, suggesting that the verbal representation will fully stand in for the pictorial object in the reader's experience. This assumption is particularly forceful when the painting is not reproduced next to the poem, although (paradoxically) it may constitute an additional stimulus for the reader to look for a reproduction and assess the supposed substitution. Muldoon's poem on José de Ribera's painting duly describes the woman who sports a ‘luxuriantly black’ beard and virile face, but also exhibits a ‘bared … pap’, breastfeeding a baby; and it explores her contrast with a ‘willowy and clean-shaven’ husband, ‘in the shadows’.23 The painting is construed as surpassing anything else in freakishness, but also as eliciting the informed reaction of the visually cultivated observer who acknowledges the weird appeal of ‘this so unlikely Madonna’ and provocatively asks: ‘Might this be the Holy Family/Gone wrong?’24 This question certainly sees Muldoon partaking in the ‘deconstruction’ of ‘Catholic Ulster’ through a slanted, refracted confrontation with its iconography.25 At another level, the question interrogates the painting with regard both to object and medium: it postulates a dysfunctional family, as much as a breakdown in representation, a wayward or incompetent attempt at a pictorial genre in sacred art.

This generic dimension alerts us to a strategy that proves surprisingly common in ekphrastic writing: a pluralization of the pictorial referent, as a poem is found to address more paintings (grouped by genre or object of representation) than the one it explicitly acknowledges.26 Further, the sense of norm that underlies Muldoon's hypothesis of (p. 289) ‘wrong[ness]’ prompts readers to check the poem's visual source and consider two sets of relations: between Ribera's painting and ‘authentic’, conventional examples of the Holy Family; and between the painting and Muldoon's verbal rendering. The latter assessment will allow readers to note the poem's deviation from key features of its ostensible object: the husband as depicted by Ribera is admittedly secondary to the painting's title figure, but he is an integral part of the composition, without whom the ‘Holy Family’ analogy could hardly be offered, and not the effete figure that Muldoon describes as intruding, ‘Between mending that fuse/And washing the breakfast dishes’, in the space dominated by his full-bearded wife. This shows Muldoon deliberately refiguring Ribera's grotesquerie in the light of late twentieth-century discourses on identity and gender—but he does so with an ambiguity of sense and purpose that brings this ekphrastic exercise into the range of his poetics of parody and pastiche.

In Mules, ‘The Bearded Woman, by Ribera’ was flanked by ‘Blemish’ (about a woman with ‘one brown and one blue eye’)27 and ‘The Merman’, ensuring a close connection between flawed but celebrated nature, hybridity, and intermediality—a connection above which hovered the rhetorical question that opened the book's title poem: ‘Should they not have the best of both worlds?’28 Muldoon's more recent writing, and in particular his collection Horse Latitudes (2006), has confirmed the critical view that, in his poetry, ‘states of suspension or indeterminacy … are the logical extension of the concerns of Mules’,29 and it has proved that this extension is assisted by the poet's curiously persistent interest in equine imagery and the visual arts. Before dealing with horses verbally, Horse Latitudes conjures up the beasts through a pictorial mediation: the book's cover reproduces George Stubbs's Mares and Foals without a Background (c.1762).30 Stubbs's title proves particularly apt: it associates the representational limbo of a blank background with the primary sense of Muldoon's title, as glossed in a blurb: ‘an area north and south of the equator in which ships tend to be becalmed, in which stasis if not stagnation is the order of the day, and where sailors traditionally threw horses overboard to conserve food and water’. However, suspension and stasis, combined with a lack of background, are hardly what readers would associate with the book's title sequence, once its rationale is understood. ‘Horse Latitudes’ is crucially about the terrible dynamics of war through history, since its nineteen sonnets—all beginning with a ‘B’, but excluding the telltale Baghdad (the Iraq war is the public crisis that prompts and underpins the sequence)—are all named after battles, although any representations of the events evoked by the titles tend to be temporally and spatially dislocated. Against a backdrop of centuries-long slaughter (the common lot of humans and equines on the battlefield), the cryptic, intermittent narrative of a haunted love relation unfolds—beginning with ‘Beijing’.

Indeed, in the sequence's first sonnet the male persona awakes ‘beside Carlotta’ (his lover), views her ‘terra-cotta’ body and is reminded of the massive artistry of ‘those (p. 290) thousands of clay/horses and horsemen’ in Emperor Qin Shihuang's mausoleum, set in a millenial rigor mortis that no ‘cajoling … musicians’ can break. Paradoxically, the main reason why the stasis of funereal sculpture prompts a comparison with the woman's sleeping body is that she is doomed by an ominously dynamic process: ‘Proud-fleshed Carlotta. Hypersarcoma’.31 Muldoon's peculiar phrasings for referring to the woman's breast cancer are part of the structure of concepts and images that hold the ‘Horse Latitudes’ sequence together. A sarcoma is a malignant tumour that grows from ‘connective tissue’ (OED); prefixing it with ‘hyper’ foregrounds the rampant verbal surfing and conceptual connectivity that energizes Muldoon's poetics—while it mirrors and glosses the phrase that opens the line, since ‘proud flesh’ is also a form of abnormal growth, a keloid scarring that often affects horses. The human-equine analogy, launched by the allusion to the clay horses and confirmed by this cross-species diagnosis, underpins the sequence's private narrative; gory anticipations of Carlotta's surgical mutilation find an eerie antecedent in the discovery that, against an earlier war scenario, ‘Her grandfather's job was to cut/the vocal cords of each pack mule/with a single, swift excision’.32 Concomitantly, Carlotta's ordeal becomes a trope for a sick world order: when the male persona spots ‘on her breast a Texaco star’,33 the denunciation of ‘crude oil’ deals served by war becomes conflated with the superpower's military emblem; both logo and emblem are mirrored in the star-like expansion of cancerous tissue as visually revealed by medical technology, made into the deathly object of an ekphrasis. In the face of such raging dynamics, the couple's ‘highest ambition’ can only be ‘simply to bear the light of the day/we had once been planning to seize’.34 Eschewing the active carpe diem zest for a passive serenity provides another angle on the analogues sought in art—the emperor's ‘horses and horsemen’, Stubbs's equines ‘without a background’; and it enriches the thematic tension in ‘Horse Latitudes’ between movement and stasis, while once more defining the range of ‘private relations’ as the ethical and emotional platform from which the public crisis is approached and represented.

This interpenetration of public and private in fact provides a useful contrast with some of the recent poetry of Ciaran Carson, who has also written about war scenarios by drawing on the shared or analogous fate of humans and horses, while engaging in ekphrastic exercises. In Carson's Breaking News (2003), equine imagery epitomizes those battlefield atrocities whose known and represented victims are almost always human. Poems such as ‘Horse at Balaklava, 1854’ and ‘Some Uses of a Dead Horse’ derive their rhetorical impact from a tension between the terseness of Carson's clipped-line diction (which in this collection starkly contrasts with the extra-long lines that characterized much of his earlier verse) and images of an inhumane evisceration. Curiously, such brutality cannot be represented without resorting to a (human) surgical simile, as the horse is ‘ripped open by/a shell … as by a/surgeon's knife’, in ‘Horse at Balaklava, 1854’.35

(p. 291) However, a proper perception and verbal expression of the animal's living energy also requires a human mediation, that of visual art—since it cannot but be troped as ‘the picture of life’.36 This reflects a cultural inevitability (animal beauty construed as such only by resorting to previous human constructions of such beauty), but also, more specifically, the frequency and intensity with which, throughout history, horses became the object of artistic representation. Of the three paintings ekphrastically addressed in Breaking News, the one selected for the cover (Théodore Géricault's The Farrier's Signboard, aka The Blacksmith) depicts a rampant stallion held, with some difficulty, by the farrier.37 The closing lines of Carson's poem on this painting connect the scene with the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars, but all that precedes it concerns the artistic process, showing the poet's fascination with human control, through art, over animal power. This fascination is here manifested both with regard to the human figure in the painting and to the artist's hand, which painted the ebullient and dynamic scene onto a notoriously harsh surface:

  • roughly carpentered
  • gap-jointed
  • boards38

A yearning for emulation is undisguisable, through the suggested homology between this and the formal austerity of Carson's verse in Breaking News. With the exception of this inter-artistic dimension, there is little scope for the representation of ‘private relations’, and their defining impact on the self, in this book. Instead, it is the aforementioned combination of an intermedial design, the transparency of personal poetic ambition, and the understated rhetoric of Carson's short lines that arguably retains a lyrical quality in Breaking News, balanced against the collection's prevalent emphasis on a history of wars, and its memorialization in the Belfast toponymy.

Medbh McGuckian is hardly indifferent to the themes of conflict and remembrance, and yet the range of her representations has sometimes been seen as contained within a ‘feminine’ world of the domestic space, and of obliquely worded ‘private’ emotions. As so often is the case, however, such apparent placidity can become a standpoint from which to approach ‘public’ concerns. This strategy has had its clearest expression in a note appended to the title poem of Drawing Ballerinas (2001), dedicated to a ‘schoolfellow and neighbour’ killed in the Troubles: ‘The painter, Matisse, when asked how he managed to survive the war artistically, replied that he spent the worst years “drawing ballerinas”. ’39 This is also one of many explicit painterly references in McGuckian's poetry, which includes titles such as ‘The Sitting’, ‘Self-Portrait in the Act of Painting a Self-Portrait’, ‘Sky Portrait’, and ‘Picasso's Windows’. This interest is sometimes extended to other ways of visually apprehending and recording the real, as with two poems from The Face of the Earth (2002) in which the pictures can be X-ray images: ‘Reading the (p. 292) Earthquake’ and ‘Studies of Her Right Breast’. They inflect the tendentially erotic character of other representations of the body in McGuckian's poetry; when the memory of ‘gentle/processions to churchyards’ is introduced, the imagery of sickness is compounded by mourning and existential discomfort.40

This representational complex, based on a female bodily presence which becomes visually/pictorially mediated, can be recognized in its wealth of possibilities in ‘Hazel Lavery, The Green Coat, 1926’. The poem, included in Drawing Ballerinas, ostensibly addresses a portrait of the celebrated second wife of the author, the painter Sir John Lavery. Hazel Lavery was famous as a high-society hostess in early twentieth-century London, but she also contributed to the conditions that led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, by making her husband's studio the setting for some of the negotiations.41 Her presence in the Irish historical and (specifically) visual memory was, however, to be best ensured by a rare and memorably mundane development: one of her husband's portraits of her was chosen to figure on Bank of Ireland notes.42 Hazel Lavery thus became a singular epitome of desire, both amorous and material, in the Irish imagination: having given herself to famous leading men of contemporary Irish history (Michael Collins, Kevin O’Higgins—with both of whom she had love affairs),43 she also lent her face to the country's new currency.

However, McGuckian's ‘Hazel Lavery, The Green Coat, 1926’ is an extreme case of the indirection that tends to characterize the relation between ekphrastic poems and the paintings’ historical or biographical circumstances—or, indeed, their figurative traits, which readers of the poems may not easily infer. In spite of the descriptive promise in the poem's borrowed title, even the apostrophic gesture of the opening lines concerns the painting's emotional effect on the poet, rather than the addressee: ‘Agreed image, of your open self, your personhood,/do not put me into a sadness like your own’.44 In fact, the poem's second stanza implicitly devalues literalness in representation by praising the painter's ability to represent ‘your inner sun’, ‘a real hearbeat and a lucid mind’, rather than (just) the death-bound nature of ‘a body degrading into matter’. And this defines the conditions for artistic emulation: the highest ambition of portrait artists (to depict the inner life of their object) is cited in order to be implicitly equated with the lyric's vocation to represent a subjectivity—traditionally, through the poet's self-representation.

McGuckian's enactment of such a design is hardly ‘traditional’, though, and its particularity is mediated in several ways. The self is approached and represented through a pictorial mediation; historical references to which the poet is hardly indifferent are mediated through the portrayed's implication in them; and (fundamentally) the resources (p. 293) employed towards representing the self, impacted by the painting and its ballast of memory, consist largely of other texts and images. Critical consideration of McGuckian's work has duly noted her rampant intertextuality, which characteristically operates through glossing and unmarked quotation.45 Visual (re)sources extend this practice, and (just like the appropriated texts) have their possible meanings altered by partaking in a grid of ‘private relations’. In the Lavery poem, McGuckian's range of references can be seen to include a few expected sources—biographical accounts, W. B. Yeats's allusion to ‘Hazel Lavery living and dying’46—but also highly unexpected incidental references (of a kind that can only be identified in the age of electronic search engines). Thus, the glamour of the socialite's luxury garments is ironically equated with a false mortification, ‘the whitish patina of verdigris and rose/carmethian that begging soldiers forge/on the eight hanging days’, an allusion to the fairground environment of public executions at Tyburn, in eighteenth-century London.47 And this ironical view of the ‘green coat’ from which painting and poem derive their titles also resorts to tropes from military history, when the coat's equation with ‘armour’ is combined with an obscure allusion to Napoleon's legendary ability to survive his horses—again, an equine, battlefield image: ‘it is as though you actually wore armour,/with nineteen horses killed under you’.48

Saluting Hazel Lavery's resilience is one of the ways in which sympathy is balanced against strands of irony and a hint of satire throughout the poem, and this also bears on the poet's ability to identify with the subject (in spite—or because—of the apparent dimensions of futility and incoherence in her biography). A passage addressing Hazel Lavery's ‘sense of chastity’ might appear to be on the side of irony, but the lines in question are in fact about an empathy: ‘Your sense of chastity/starts a shape in me attached to life at all/four corners’.49 These lines are about a creative consequence, an artistic relation troped as engenderment, but they are also about ethics, and this perception becomes more incisive if and when readers are able to realize that the passage includes an unmarked quotation from Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.50 The very inclusion of this remark from a writer who stood for some of the perplexities faced by the intellectually independent woman in predominantly patriarchal environments, acquiring iconic status in women's studies, queries the assumptions of frivolousness that would (p. 294) seem to inhere in Lady Lavery's all too public life.51 This implicit vindication of the socialite's dignity also chimes with the suggestion of guilt on the poet's part that transpires from a passage in the poem's first stanza: ‘I am using your heated body with its/easy mark of beauty’; and some of the poem's imagery comes close to representing Hazel in sacrificial terms, a latter-day saint of sorts.52 The combination of these traits entails an artistic and ethical purport that seems to counter Clair Wills's contention that ‘[McGuckian] presents women's experience as unknowable and therefore useless’.53

A sense of legacy and example binding women writers arguably connects McGuckian and Sinéad Morrissey, the last poet to be considered in this essay. This is crucially manifested by an inclination to pictorialize reality from a perspective that is emphatically female and grounded in a private (often domestic) circumstance. A case in point is provided by Morrissey's Through the Square Window (2009). The title alludes to a feature of the former British TV show for children Play School (in which the presenter prompted viewers to glimpse what was through a round, square, or arched window); in broader terms, however, it proposes a collection of poems as successive instances of a framed outlook, and draws on an obvious but nonetheless persuasive mutual troping—the window frame vis-à-vis the bounded pictorial space. Further, the title poem equates the poet's locale with the emblematic landscape of Dutch Golden Age painting, itself an epitome of the interface between the private scene and the public gaze: ‘The clouds above the Lough are stacked/like the clouds are stacked above Delft.’54 This equation with the skies of Vermeer or De Hooch might suggest a rather ponderous approach to visual representations, but Through the Square Window in fact announces itself visually through an image of girlish irreverence: the book's cover reproduces a 1950s photograph entitled ‘Girl about to do a handstand’.55 The playfulness that this seems to promise is balanced, however, by darker scenarios: one has to progress no further than the book's opening poem, ‘Storm’, to find a ‘Gothic’ environment combined with a reference to a ‘stranded/little girl in the photographs/growing sorrowful’.56 In a variety of tones, indeed, the collection recurrently seeks the mediation of images, proposing the self as a complexity that is visually troped, and visually pluralized in feminine shapes: ‘I have been my own kaleidoscope—five winter-bleached girls on a diving board, ready to jump.’57

(p. 295) Ostensibly placid familial scenarios underlain by an indefinite, sometimes ominous sense of trouble: these are conditions in which both Medbh McGuckian and Sinéad Morrissey have taken an active writerly interest. There is also an additional coincidence in that both McGuckian and Morrissey have written about portraits by John Lavery of women in his household. Morrissey's own poem is about a picture of the painter's daughter, Eileen (born of his first marriage), said to have been rather peripheral to the Lavery household both before and after his father's second marriage (a phrase that has tended to recur throughout this essay).58 Morrissey's choice to address Lavery's ‘Eileen, Her First Communion’, and to select the portrait for the cover of her collection Between Here and There (2002), therefore brings her ekphrastic poem into a particular layer of self-reference in her writing: that which concerns the formative consequence of the poet's stark perception of exclusion, reflecting biographical data that range from an unusual childhood amid Belfast's sectarian landscape, to the dissolution of the family home and the wanderings of her adult experience.59 ‘Eileen, Her First Communion’ carries out the already familiar strategy of thwarting expectations of a close match between the two representations (visual and verbal), and it does so through a dislocation in time and circumstance. This is clearly announced from the surprising opening line—‘Years later, after the painting, we planned her wedding’—which makes the later moment the object of the poem, and implicitly construes it as symmetrical to the earlier ceremony evoked in the title.60

When the poem positions itself ‘after the painting’, the formula involves more than derivation, announcing rather the ekphrasis of another (yet unpainted) scene. Nonetheless, the conceit of Morrissey's piece may depend on the perception of a calqued pattern: readers are bound to note how closely Eileen, in the actual painting, resembles a child bride—the implication being that the later ceremony (coupled with the first communion in the visual record of a family girl) would somehow be a ‘second marriage’. This poem that departs from the portrait of a communion girl to envisage the scene of her wedding, against a background of domesticity and sisterly solidarities (manifest in the ‘we’ of a plural female persona), has a sacral, liturgical drift, but also an undercurrent of ‘old panic’ and ‘desperate’ thoughts.61 And these various dimensions converge in the Christian but also ghostly trope that Morrissey applies to the fictionalized moment when a wedding dress is prepared for a fitting—also the moment when Eileen connects the two polar events on which the poem hinges:

  •    On the third day my sister
  • and I raised a dress in her absence
  • that made her terrified. Too similar,
  • was all she said.62

(p. 296) Panic is overcome; and yet the wedding day, rather than embraced with the delight of anticipated happiness, seems to be met with the unfaltering ‘resolution’ that a tragic figure might bring to an inevitable ordeal, providing a bleak ending to this poem about a painting that would seem designed to evoke a response of endearment. These are ‘private relations’ that spell oppression and malaise, rather than emotional and experiential enablement.

The poems considered above can reasonably be described as epitomizing their authors’ characteristic voices—from Durcan's public, iconoclastic mode of address, and Carson's brooding review of dire historical scenarios, to the distinct modes of indirection and understatement that mark Muldoon's ironies, McGuckian's (inter)textualized obscurities, and Morrissey's poignant encounters of self with world and otherness. The various pieces share a fascination with the additional expressive possibilities that the intermedial design brings to their diverse poetics; what is more, they confirm, in the variety of their fictional elaborations, the ‘dynamic and obstetric’ capacity (nurturing and delivering the pictures’ narrative embryo) with which Heffernan has credited ekphrasis.63 They also offer reiterated examples of the dual process into which W. J. T. Mitchell analyses ekphrasis (a ‘conversion’ of visual into verbal, followed by ‘the reconversion of the verbal representation back into the visual object in the reception of the reader’),64 the corollary of which is that the painting's visual recomposition in the reader's consciousness is bound to yield a radically different image. Thus, verbal narration does not harness meaning by bringing the stability of rational discourse to bear upon the (possible) ambiguities of the fleeting, visually captured moment; on the contrary, it causes additional instability, by challenging the apparent determinacy of figurative representation. But these instabilities also become closely bound up with recurrent themes in contemporary Irish poetry—family and generation, the difficult borders between intimate and public experience, challenged gender roles, and the perplexities and oppressions faced by women. The doubts and anxieties posed by the ‘private relations’ that become the object of representation find a correlative in the undecidability of the word-and-image rapport: is it predominantly about contention or composition, agon or ‘sisterly’ mutuality? It is this conundrum that Peter Wagner has in mind when he refers to the ‘Janus face’ of ekphrasis: it ‘promis[es] to give voice to the allegedly silent image’, and yet strives ‘to overcome the power of the image by transforming and inscribing it’.65 Recognizing the productivity of this tension in the work of these five Irish poets, as a distinctive feature of their diverse poetics, is also to acknowledge their active contribution to an age-old rationale for discussing texts that rise to the ceaseless challenge posed by pictures.


(1) Paul Durcan, Crazy About Women (Dublin: The National Gallery of Ireland, 1991), pp. x–xi.

(2) Ibid., 23.

(3) Edna Longley, The Living Stream: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1994), 152–4.

(4) Norman Bryson, Word and Image: French Painting of the Ancien Régime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 46, 92 and passim; Wendy Steiner, Pictures of Romance: Form Against Context in Painting and Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), 55 and passim.

(5) The notion has often been critically explored with regard to various moments in literary and cultural history, as in Jean Hagstrum's classic The Sister Arts. The Tradition of Literary Pictorialism and English Poetry from Dryden to Gray (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958). For more recent remarks on its fortune in European culture and thought, see W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986), 42–3, 156.

(6) Mitchell, Iconology, 43; W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 156.

(7) James A. W. Heffernan, Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 1, 5, 19.

(8) Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, trans. Edward Allen McCormick (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 78 and passim.

(9) Paul Durcan, Jesus Break His Fall (Dublin: Raven Arts, 1980), 33.

(10) Ibid., 43.

(11) Paul Durcan, The Berlin Wall Café (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1985), 41.

(12) Ibid., 69.

(13) See his sequence of poems on Kavanagh (opening with ‘Surely My God is Kavanagh’) in Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil (London: Harvill, 1999), 127–42.

(14) Paul Durcan, Give Me Your Hand (London: Macmillan/National Gallery, 1994), 9.

(15) On Durcan's representations of women, their cultural implications, and their relation to feminism(s), see Ruth Padel, ‘Spin’, in Colm Tóibín, ed., The Kilfenora Teaboy: A Study of Paul Durcan (Dublin: New Island 1996), 122; Longley, The Living Stream, 214–16.

(16) Durcan, Crazy About Women, 11.

(18) Longley, The Living Stream, 196–7.

(19) Paul Muldoon, To Ireland, I: The Clarendon Lectures in English Literature 1998 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 5.

(20) Paul Muldoon, Moy Sand and Gravel (London: Faber, 2002), 32.

(21) See the editorial notes in Adrian Rice and Angela Reid, eds., A Conversation Piece: Poetry and Art (Newry: The National Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland/Abbey Press, 2002), 147. For a more detailed reading of this interpictorial relation, see my ‘Couplings: Agon and Composition in Paul Muldoon's Ekphrastic Poetry’, Estudios Irlandeses, no. 0 (Barcelona: 2005): 58–66.

(22) Tim Kendall, Paul Muldoon (Bridgend: Seren, 1996), 57.

(23) Paul Muldoon, Poems 1968–1998 (London: Faber, 2001), 57–8.

(25) Longley, The Living Stream, 52.

(26) For a more detailed critical reading of ‘The Bearded Woman, by Ribera’ from this particular perspective, see my ‘Of Beards and Breasts, Baldheads and Babies: Muldoon's Mongrel Families’, in Beyond Borders: IASIL Essays on Modern Irish Writing, ed. Neil Sammells (Bath: Sulis Press, 2004), 178–90.

(27) Muldoon, Poems 1968–1998, 57.

(28) Ibid., 67.

(29) Clair Wills, Reading Paul Muldoon (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1998), 136.

(30) Paul Muldoon, Horse Latitudes (London: Faber, 2006).

(31) Ibid., 3.

(32) Ibid., 21.

(33) Ibid., 9.

(34) Ibid. 3.

(35) Ciaran Carson, Collected Poems (Oldcastle: Gallery, 2008), 437.

(37) Ciaran Carson, Breaking News (Oldcastle: Gallery, 2003).

(38) Carson, Collected Poems, 459.

(39) Medbh McGuckian, Drawing Ballerinas (Oldcastle: Gallery, 2001), 15.

(40) Medbh McGuckian, The Face of the Earth (Oldcastle: Gallery, 2002), 36.

(41) Sinéad McCoole, Hazel: A Life of Lady Lavery 1880–1935 (Dublin: Lilliput, 1996), passim.

(42) Indeed, her picture remained the notes’ watermark until the euro brought the demise of the Irish punt. See, 43 (last accessed 28 September 2009).

(43) McCoole, Hazel, passim.

(44) McGuckian, Drawing Ballerinas, 34.

(45) See Shane Alcobia-Murphy, Sympathetic Ink: Intertextual Relations in Northern Irish Poetry (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), 43–91 and passim.

(46) W. B. Yeats, The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1956), 602.

(47) McGuckian, Drawing Ballerinas, 35.

(48) Ibid. For the Napoleon reference, see (last accessed 28 September 2009).

(49) McGuckian, Drawing Ballerinas, 34.

(50) Woolf writes: ‘Imaginative work … is like a spider's web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. … But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that those webs are not spun in midair by intercorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering, human beings, and are attached to the grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in’; A Room of One's Own [1929] (London: Granada, 1981), 41; my emphasis.

(51) The relevance of this has to be considered in the light of McGuckian's sometimes controversial relation to feminism: see Thomas Docherty, ‘Initiations, Tempers, Seductions: Postmodern McGuckian’, in The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland, ed. Neil Corcoran (Bridgend: Seren, 1992), 191–210; Kimberly S. Bohman, ‘Surfacing: An Interview with Medbh McGuckian’, Irish Review 16 (Autumn/Winter 1994), 95–108.

(52) McGuckian, Drawing Ballerinas, 34.

(53) Clair Wills, Improprieties: Politics and Sexuality in Northern Irish Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 68–9.

(54) Sinéad Morrissey, Through the Square Window (Manchester: Carcanet, 2009), 32.

(55) On the critical relevance of the covers of Morrissey's earlier collections, see Elmer Kennedy-Andrews, Writing Home: Poetry and Place in Northern Ireland, 1968–2008 (Cambridge: D.S.Brewer, 2008), 260–1.

(56) Morrissey, Through the Square Window, 9.

(57) Ibid. 19.

(58) McCoole, Hazel, 37.

(59) See Michael Parker, Northern Irish Literature, 1975–2006: The Imprint of History, vol. 2 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007), 157; Kennedy-Andrews, Writing Home, 256–7.

(60) Sinéad Morrissey, Between Here and There (Manchester: Carcanet, 2002), 15.

(63) Heffernan, Museum of Words, 5.

(64) Mitchell, Picture Theory, 164.

(65) Peter Wagner, ed., Icons-Texts-Iconotexts: Essays on Ekphrasis and Intermediality (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1996), 13.