LYRIC COMPANION Medbh McGuckian “The Sitting”

My half-sister comes to me to be painted:/ She is posing furtively, like a letter being / Pushed under a door, making a tunnel with her / Hands over her dull-rose dress. Yet her coppery / Head is as bright as a net of lemons. I am / Painting it hair by hair as if she had not / Disowned it, or forsaken those us sparkling / Eyes as blue may be sifted from the surface / Of a cloud; and the questions my brisk / Brushwork, the note of positive red / In the kissed mouth I have given her,/ As a woman’s touch makes curtains blossom / Permanently in a house: she calls it / Wishfulness, the failure of the tampering rain / To go right into the mountain, she prefers / My sea-studies, and will not sit for me / Again, something half-opened, rarer / Than railroads, a soiled red-letter day.

from Modern Irish Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Patrick Crotty (The Blackstaff Press, 1995)

FRAME OF REFERENCE We are pointed to the idiocy of selving in communication that is prior to the determination of this or that formulation of selving or community. There is an intimate singularity that is prior even to the particular self, though the determinate and self- determining selving do particularize and concretize it. This intimate idiocy does not betoken a kind of autism of being, nor does it mean that any communication of its significance to others is impossible. This idiocy is rich with a promise, perhaps initially not publicly communicated, and yet available for, making itself available for, communicability.
WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 57.

As the norms and structures of democracy continue to be challenged from within by the President, the study and enjoyment of poetry feels more and more irrelevant. The opposite however is true, because lyric witnesses an “intimate universal” beyond the so-called universals of classical thinking. Beyond the formula of truth, falsehood, right, wrong, beauty, ugliness, and so on, is how lyric reveals to the reader the happening of the real, finite other. This non-thing thing emerges as we read a lyric mindfully. This column is devoted to the way of the lyric, which I call the lyric narrative.

The nihilism of our times depends on the idea that ideology makes the idea of truth redundant. There can be no truth of a process called reading a lyric independent of the ideologies entertained by the poet at the time of composition. Contemporary poets are aware of this nihilism. They play along because ideology is essential to how we read now.

Since Crotty’s anthology appeared, Medbh McGuckian has become an institution. Her mastery of contemporary ideologies, discourses that give voice to sophisticated critique, is legendary. But more impressive to me is her uncanny way of showing the disorderly order that makes possible the very medium of the lyric.

This somewhat obscure thesis is illustrated by a poem from the second of her thirteen-and-counting books. While sensitive to feminist and other discourses, “The Sitter” gets at the root of lyric, the selving process whereby the poet’s voice rises from the plurivocal setting that is always already in place. Some nihilism deny that any such voice is possible. We adopt William Desmond’s themes to expose the archaeology of the self/other dynamic more original than ideology.

“The Sitter” is powerful enough to distract me from the chaos of today. I find it thrilling. Shrewd, funny, upsetting, ultimate perplexing in the way it shows me the self-determining energies of a human individual in struggling to maintain some control over the image of itself. The struggle bears witness to the irreducible identity of what we call the “finite other.”

Since her reception in, say, 1995, McGuckian has been compared to Rilke and Stevens. The playfulness toward the subject of “The Sitter” suggests why. Following on the objective setting we have “a letter being pushed under a door,” a metaphor still active in the last line.

The voice of the poet — we are made aware of a doubling in progress by the identification of the sitter as the poet’s half-sitter—continues to attend to the equivocities of the image, how just watching the sitter as she sits suggests multiple possibilities, many conventionally beautiful and so unacceptable to the fierce autonomy of the sitter herself. One can’t blame her. Not only a feminist would bristle at the painters highjacking of the process of selving, but any person aware of her own essential difference. Call it with Desmond — see THE FRAME OF REFERENCE — the “intimate idiocy.”

so the sitter resists, and a dialectic develops between her and her artist. The dialectic expands the issues from the ravishing beauty of her head of hair to the red of her kissed mouth, to the grander issues of rain and railroads.

Something has gone off the rails. A shrill uncompromising voice has replaced all the other values of this work of art. The dialogue between artist and sitter has broken down. Readers of lyric have been half-expecting this breakdown because it has to happen for there to happen the singular voice of the lyric, that is of the other that is other to thought itself, the finite other. All the “infinite” aspects of thinking as it goes on and on are checked and frustrated as the voice of the lyric itself rings free, “something half-opened, rarer / than railroads, a soiled red-letter day.”

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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