The next few poems make clear a part of the book’s project: to revivify the forgotten lives of humble women.
The method of revivification in “Mise Eire” is identification with those women. At the start of the poem, the poet asserts she won’t return to Ireland (“where time is time past”). Her roots in the country are brutal. She is the prostitute plying her trade outside the garrison, practicing “the quick frictions.” She is the immigrant on board the Mary Belle, holding her half-dead baby to her, “mingling the immigrant/ guttural with the vowels/ of homesickness.” I am not satisfied by the poem’s method because the identification is incomplete and unconsciously condescending. According to the poet, the immigrant “neither knows nor cares” that
a new language
is a kind of scar
and heals after a while
into a passable imitation
of what went before.
This last stanza describes the poet’s superior knowledge and powers, a sense of superiority not mitigated by that throwaway concession that the immigrant does not care for such hifalutin ideas. The strategy of the poem also subordinates the identifications to the poet’s self-justification for not returning to Ireland.
In “The Oral Tradition,” the poet overhears two women talking about a great-grandmother who gave birth in the fields to a child “without blemish.” The fragments of talk catch the poet’s imagination, and she realizes that women’s talk is an “archive” of such women’s stories. The story gives her “a sense/ suddenly of truth,/ its resonance,” like the singing of the wheels of a train traveling over “iron miles.” I think the poem weaves together successfully the great-grandmother’s story and the poet’s immediate context: after a poetry reading, preparing to leave by train. The five-line stanzas feel more substantial, less sing-songy, than the ballad quatrains; the short lines sound appropriately colloquial though they can rise to lyricism.
“Fever” is my favorite of the three poems. It is conceptually and imaginatively more ambitious; it is also genuinely moving. The poem begins by describing the different ways in which fever was conceived in the past: what remained after the ague was over; what had to be shaken out of “the crush and dimple of cotton”; what had to be beaten out of the flesh of a girl who was seen kissing by the river; what was burned alive in back gardens as if it were a witch. From bonfires going out “in charred dew,” the poem turns suddenly to describe the poet’s grandmother who died in a fever ward, younger than the poet is, leaving behind five orphan daughters. She also left behind “[n]ames, shadows, visitations, hints.” From this “half-sense of half-lives,” the poet determines to reconstruct “the histories I never learned/ to predict the lyric of,” on the hypothesis that
. . . what we lost is a contagion
that breaks out in what cannot be
shaken out from words or beaten out
from meaning and survives to weaken
what is given, what is certain
and burns away everything but this
exact moment of delirium when
someone cries out someone’s name.
The grandmother’s half-forgotten story is a fever itself that can break out in words and meaning, and challenge the status quo. It is also a fever that can reduce us to empathy for a stranger. The rhetoric in the last two stanzas is magnificent.