Ethna MacCarthy: Poems, Reviewed

No doubt the work of Ethna MacCarthy will be written and talked about for many years to come.

There’s certainly no shortage of interesting angles to approach it from, whether that be a historical or feminist perspective, her relationship and influence on more celebrated poets of the time or even the question of how a widely published writer with three poems selected for a “ground-breaking” 1948 US anthology might be overlooked for so long.

For the average layperson like myself, Ethna MacCarthy: Poems from Lilliput Press will predominantly be about the thoughts and emotions stirred by her poetry, pieces which were published in the likes of the Dublin Magazine and the Irish Times, aired by Radio Teilifís Éireann or – equally as enjoyable – the body of poetry that never made print until now, which also includes a one-act verse play called The Uninvited.

All of the material was conserved in a journal and donated to one of the book’s editors, Eoin O’Brien, after the death of MacCarthy’s husband, Con Leventhal.

Several of the poems within were freehand, some typed, others appropriated directly from the original publications. Set out in chronological order and spanning a 15-year period, the poems have been reproduced as close as possible to how they appeared in the original notebook.

A scholar and a first-class moderator at Trinity College Dublin, MacCarthy taught languages at the university in the 1930s and ’40s before moving on to study medicine. This collection includes a number of such translations, from the work of Stefan George, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza and Rubén Darío, to name a few.

Not only is this an insight into her love of varied techniques and wide-ranging eras of poetry, it might also give us some understanding into the influences that helped develop her own writing style.

Interestingly, one of the translations is of the bohemian Else Lasker-Schüler, whose lifestyle contrasted so sharply with MacCarthy’s own. It’s hard not to imagine every writer toying with the idea of discarding all commitment and completely submerging themselves in their art.

But if there is a sense of regret at following her father into the world of medicine, it isn’t overly apparent in her work. In her poem “MB, BCh, BAO” she refers to her five years of study as an “earthy womb” and there’s an overriding sense that she is reluctant to say goodbye to that time in her life: “Will this red shutter ever rise on my torpidity/ and let my eyes see the bog cotton waving wantonly/ to the striding shadows of the others gone”.

MacCarthy went on to specialise in children’s health and held the role of physician to the children’s dispensary at the Royal City of Dublin Hospital. In the introductory text, editors Eoin O’Brien and Gerald Dawe speak of the influence medicine had on MacCarthy’s poetry, both in a deliberate sense and an instinctive sense.

The poem “Viaticum” transports us to a hospital ward in the depths of night. “The Charity” was written to commemorate the bicentenary celebrations of the Rotunda Hospital, while “The Theatre” centres around a trainee doctor and an experience which must have been inspired by her time as a practitioner in the East End of London or in Dublin perhaps, a city which often gets mention itself, from the “turret tops” of Dublin Castle to the “screaming seagulls” on Grafton Street.

Once described as frank, outspoken and fearless by playwright and broadcaster Denis Johnston, she wasn’t afraid to challenge the hardships of the time and in her poem “Nell Gwynn” she speaks of how this “glamorous” city “clad in shoddy silk conceals her sores with regal air”.

In a role such as hers it must be difficult, if not impossible, to ignore the nature of sickness and dwell on the role poverty plays in this: “In flooded garrets icy cold/ shivering and hungry mothers bore/ their sickly infants, doomed before/ they saw the light, both soon frail flotsam/ on far Lethe’s shore.”

Still, there are sparks of humour throughout and a real sense of playfulness to her writing at times. Like with her poem “The Shrine”, a composition about a cat presiding over her “conquered world” and the many worshipers who believe themselves to be its owner.

But death regularly haunts these pages too, as does a deep connection with nature and the seasons. Spring carries a sense of hope. The “rebel summer days” are greatly missed. And the reader can’t help but feel it a great loss that this poet never had a chance to produce more work in her autumnal years. MacCarthy’s life was tragically cut short by illness in 1959 at the age of 56.

There is plenty to admire in the rich, intelligent and beautiful collection of poems contained in this book, and there are many themes and techniques that might be expanded on, but when it comes to a truly talented poet, it’s best left for the poetry to speak for itself.

“Harlequin” by Ethna MacCarthy

My love is of the moon

pale sequin and velvet cratered depths,

pure light and softest shaggy dark.

Like her he seeks the sun for warmth

to ramble the livid streets from dusk

and barter his tranquillity for tears,

and never knows how good he is

or tired, but fights the sordid strident day

till like a child he rests a little in my arms.

And then the fearful maturation of the light

lifts at his languid head. And so he goes,

to skim the scattered sequins from the pools.

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Daniel Seery: Daniel Seery is a writer from Dublin. A regular contributor to RTÉ’s Arena, his work has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines. His stage play Eviction was a winner of the Shadow of the Rising competition in 2016, and his debut novel A Model Partner, originally published by Liberties Press, is due to be released in the US by publisher Melville House.

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