Catherine Phil MacCarthy

Photo credit: Stephanie Joy.
Photo credit: Stephanie Joy.

Catherine Phil MacCarthy  has published five collections of poetry, and a novel. She was born in Co. Limerick and studied at University College Cork, Trinity College Dublin, and Central School of Speech and Drama, London. She taught at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) and at The Drama Centre, University College Dublin, before turning full-time to writing in 1999.


She received the eighteenth Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry of the University of St Thomas Center for Irish Studies in 2014. She is a former editor of Poetry Ireland Review (Numbers 57, 58, & 59), Writer in Residence for the City of Dublin (1994), and at the Department of Anglo-Irish Literature, University College, Dublin (2002). She has also worked as guest writer at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology, and at St. Patrick’s College and is a freelance tutor in Poetry and Creative Writing.

Q: The American poet, Jane Hirshfield, once said: “Poems let you accept the multiplicity and complexity of the actual, [to] navigate the unnavigable, insoluble parts of our individual fates and shared existence.” Do you agree? Are there any particular literary figures (or other artists) who have been important to you over the years? 


A: Yes, I agree that poems allow the space to breathe, arise often from wonder and a quest to understand, and depend on an inner life that cannot be insulated from the political and social world around us. At the moment I’m reading W.S. Merwin’s The Moon before Morning and I’m struck by how the poems celebrate “the unrepeatable present” and how looking at the sky and the wind upon it delivers such depth: “the trades / are back…offering their samples of cloud / each the only one of its kind / and each of them changing even / as it is offered only once…” (Offering). The poem captures a single human consciousness alone in the world observing the everyday of the changing sky. Moya Cannon’s Two Ivory Swans takes a longer view and is an exemplary imaginative feat that celebrates humanity and the natural world when she finds two, tiny, carved whoopers “emerged strong-winged / whooping / to fly across our time” from twenty thousand years ago. Dedication, a poem Milosz wrote at the end of the Second World War asks: “What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people?” 


Jane Hirshfield’s book of essays on the generative energies of poetry, Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise, is a source, as well as her deeply meditative poems. Writing came to me in 1985 and 1986 when I was living in London, an adult student at Central School of Speech and Drama. With a heightened awareness of an Irish accent, a rural childhood and a memory bank of places and people that came vividly to life. I was interested in directing plays. The understanding of role and voice I gained there connected me to myself at some deep level. I like listening, so the poems were often drawn out of silence and the desire to put words on the unspoken. It was a year of first poems and stories, and of seeing plays, everything from Under Milk Wood and Bailegangaire to Hamlet and King Lear. After that, while teaching drama, came several years of apprenticeship as a writer. Eavan Boland’s presence and her workshops in the late eighties were and still are an inspiration, along with her poems, and her book of essays, Object Lessons. The poems of Yeats and Seamus Heaney are in my pocket since Central and I love Finders Keepers. I participated in a writing course with John McGahern, who said “I write to see and often quoted Flaubert, “writing comes from strong feeling and ends in clear thinking.” That year in London, I came across the paintings of Frida Kahlo, and Berthe Morisot, and the sculpture of Camille Claudel and their life stories. Daughters of the House (2019) started from reading about Irish women artists who went to Paris at the end of the last century. 


Q: For all the observational precision and care of your poems, they often seem to billow with what I’d like to call an openness: towards art, desire, pain, memory. The First Rod: Mackerel at Inis Oírr seems to salvage, quite beautifully, a passing summer ritual from loss and forgetting, allowing it to gleam again “with silvery light.” In a very different way, Lucy’s Song approaches the terrible silence and violence of Lucy Partington’s murder, in 1973, with painful grace (“Sister, my sister, your love is mine, / I move with you...”). Perhaps I’m wide of the mark, but to me it seems that your poems have an in-built resistance to the idea of shutting the door on life (and other lives), reaching instead for continuity or communion. Is this the case?


A: Thank you for your careful readingThe First Rod: Mackerel at Inis Oírr begins: “Cast the line off the pier / summer nights / into black stillness, / read the dusk blind, / Atlantic waters at full tide.” The poem reimagines an experience of catching a fish one evening after sunset, with my children. That process of tuning in, and paying attention, is a parallel for the process of making a poem. Both the sense of the unknown, and the surprise, “where a shoal / in its own sweet hour / clots and ripples a current / to the hands,” are essential elements in the creative process. The sea is an image of the unconscious. On the one hand, the lines celebrate Inis Oírr and that pristine world that struck me twenty years ago. On the other, those lines reflect the waiting and patience involved in the act of writing, and hopefully, the transformation that takes place in the making of a poem when a first line, and a sound pattern comes and the emotional tug beneath it clarifies into an image. Because it is easy to lose the impulse and the clarity. That initial wordless, formless place is an essential journey in the process of creativity. And one that may be easily disrupted. One may cast a line for a poem as well as a fish, and the intuitive dimension is essential. 


To answer your second question, I wrote Lucy’s Song after reading an interview with Marian Partington in the Sunday Times Magazine in 1995. I was struck both by the courage of her response to a situation that was horrific. She invited readers to honour her sister by writing a poem, or a song, to restore the person who was taken. Lucy Partington’s remains were returned to her family twenty-two years after her death. No ordinary funeral was possible. 


The material required me to go beyond subjectivity, and my quest was to create a public poem using an elegiac form. Several details struck me vividly. The young woman was an under-graduate student in English at Exeter University and last seen alive waiting at a bus stop, on her way home from college. She was in the process of applying for a post-grad and the application was found in her bag. It’s easy to imagine this can happen to anyone. The imaginative leap the poem makes is to give the twenty-one-year-old a voice. The speaker begins: “Uncover my bones, long dead and clean, / The moon of my skull that gleams in the mire, / Hold me to your breast, carry me unseen /...”.  The poem is a prayer in the form of a villanelle and enacts a ceremony. The speaker becomes a participant in the ritual of laying her to rest. 


Q: You’ve been described as a poet of epiphanic moments and liminal states or spaces; in your work, what seems at first to be a passing glimpse will invariably open up whole vistas of feeling and understanding. Suntrap, for example, has an old man showing “a magnifying glass” to a young, bored child, eventually trapping “the sun on newspaper” and “angling it / closer” until “it smoulders and takes fire, / and I learn for the first time how to burn.” Do you agree with this interpretation of your poetry? How would you characterise your recurring concerns as a writer? 


A: It’s for reviewers and critics to provide a critical response to poems and evaluate them. I’m gratified if they open a window and bring insight. Liminality, the space between two worlds, is the holding pattern for poems in The Invisible Threshold. We cross borders of experience all our lives. The moment of falling in love for the first time, desire, giving birth, becoming a parent for the first time, and when children leave the nest, glimpses of climate change. These are the liminal spaces captured in The Invisible Threshold. My sister passed away in September, 2008, following an illness. The death of a sibling brings deep sorrow and an awareness of mortality, along with a sense of the uniqueness of each life. Sometime, around the same time, a scientist friend who was much more aware of habitat depletion than I was then nonchalantly said, “So what, if the human race becomes extinct?” Her question shocked me, made me think. Night Sky imagines a walk one frosty night under the stars, deep in the countryside and seeing a star “scorching headlong // over the western rim. / Yet, up above the heavens are / crammed with constellations like // so many freckles jostling for place. / Could it be sometime / we are not there, // gone without trace, / planet earth, an empty house, / as the face of night prevails…” (from The Invisible Threshold). Doire Press has just published a collection called Empty House, poems that address climate change. The pandemic is a liminal place, and planet earth is going through its own pandemic with the loss of animal and plant species, natural habitats, and rising atmospheric carbon levels. For a poet the question is what can one do at a practical level? And how to deliver experiences in poems that bear witness, lament, celebrate rather than offer polemic?


You quote the title poem, Suntrap. The collection Suntrap highlights a preoccupation with the act of looking, and the tension between the quest for illumination and the act of discovery. During the writing of Suntrap, I corresponded with the Australian poet Aileen Kelly, after she visited Ireland in 1999. We exchanged poems and critical readings over several years.  I published my novel, One Room an Everywhere in 2003, and it was a steep learning curve in clarifying viewpoint and the handling of time in a narrative. I was interested in exploring the distance in a poem between the speaker or implied persona, and the self. I came across a line in Mary Oliver’s poem, Entering the Kingdom’, where her dream is To learn something by being nothing / A little while but the rich / Lens of attention. It’s close to Keats’s idea of via negativa. 


Q: Following from the previous question, I wonder if there’s an ethical element in the kind of poetic attention your work cultivates and exemplifies. By illuminating what is supposedly marginal and delicate in life at large – by establishing a zone of recognition (in the poem) that encompasses these – can poetry serve, in a small way, as a paradigm for living? Perhaps that’s a grand claim, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. I have in mind here a piece like Now I See Them Everywhere', which was inspired by a potted ginkgo tree: an ancient genus, specimens of which survived the USA’s atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August, 1945. 


A: These are great questions. I came across a gingko tree in Jardin des Plantes in Paris, in what started as a physic garden. As you mention gingkoes were the only form of life to survive the bombing. At the end of the poem, the tree speaks: “All day I look at the path / I am a doorway through the Ice, // a window on Hiroshima, // a seedling fossilized in rock that preserves me.” I think art may be to our psychological and spiritual life what medicine is to the body. If it is any good, it speaks the truth. Poems engage with reality and they deliver experiences of what it is to be human. We watch films, or read novels, see plays, view exhibitions, read poems, to explore life more deeply, to reflect and understand. To become more present to ourselves and the world around us. And in the process to be enriched, and sometimes healed. From over twenty-thousand years ago, humans have been creating images with paint and carving. They are what is valued from ancient civilizations. Poems deliver images of the first intensity, and poetry is concerned with essences.


Q: Finally, I’m conscious of the fact that we’re now several months into a global pandemic, and Ireland has begun 2021 with another lockdown. How has the past year been for you, creatively or otherwise? Has your view (and general pattern) of writing/reading changed at all? And how does the prospect for the future look, from where you’re standing? 


A: Writing is solitary, so I am used to working from home. The pandemic is like an extended residency. It’s a privilege to own your own time. In many ways, it’s a humbling experience. Meeting a friend for a take-away coffee has become an occasion. As well as walks and cycles. I’m working on a collection of new poems, and on a Selected Poems, and am reading for South Dublin Libraries on Poetry Day Ireland 2021 (Thurs 29th April). 

More of life is coming through screens. In addition to living with the consequences of a pandemic, we are visited with apocalyptic scenes of climate disaster, and civil wars, that many people across the world are living with.  

Catherine Phil MacCarthy // March 2021