-- House Stuff
-- Heat Dream
Artwork and Photography
-- Mistry Trees
-- Let it Begin
A Review of Kathleen McCracken’s
Double Self Portrait with Mirror: New & Selected Poems (1978-2014)
Editoria ex Machina 2014
by Margaret Crawford
Kathleen McCracken’s Double Self Portrait with Mirror: New & Selected Poems is a compilation of her work from a lifetime of writing. Written in two languages, English and Brazilian Portuguese, this collection introduces Brazilian readers to her poetry. The organization of the poems as textual mirrors, with each poem duplicated in English and Portuguese, heightens the reading experience, with both textual and visual impact. Medbh McGuckian’s preface is filled with glowing accolades of McCracken as a writer and educator, paralleling the link the poet has created in her travels between Canada and Ireland with the link the translation creates between Canada and Brazil. Double Self Portrait with Mirror is an intriguing text, and every reader will find at least one poem that draws their attention.
Relationships are a central theme in McCracken’s work. Perhaps her most curious relationship is with the mustang, revealed in a series of two-line couplets pulled together in “Mustangs.” McCracken’s mustang is a shape shifter: horse, man, sometimes car, sometimes fighter plane. Her prose introduction to the poems, “Mustangs: A Preamble,” is a valuable introit, explaining the evolution of the poems and the background behind each one. Although the prose and poetry draw strength from the unity McCracken creates between the two, each can be read apart from the other. Ironically, the prose easily competes with the poems for the reader’s interest. The clarity and fluidity of her prose expository fills in the gaps of unity and meaning that the reader may be struggling to find in the mustang poems, as well as pointing out the relevance of the poems, for “We are all mestenos in the New World.”
While all McCracken’s poetry is worth reading, some poems stand out above the rest, particularly the ones about her father, William Edward McCracken. At the top of this group is “The Finger Bird” and “Canadian Sleep.”
“The Finger Bird” captures the poignancy of a relationship between grandfather and granddaughter who are brought together through kinship, but separated by age and distance. The pair constructs a common language with the finger bird. Born out of “one too many / birthdays, Christmases / New Years spent apart,” the finger bird rises phoenix-like from the remnants of a traditional family relationship to herald something new, but no less rich: “Just outside her sight lines / he’d play it, meaty thumb and index / tip to tip tap tapping / a silent lingo she caught the drift of / instinctively and ran with it / feathers streaming / through ecstasies of giggles.” The finger bird allows grandfather and granddaughter to establish a bond that is strong enough to overcome the barriers of separation. This strange bird leads them through childhood and into adolescence “to this place now where aged sixteen / fingers flashing she talks to him / in sign languages.” Bridges built in an earlier time continue to be used, and time and space are once more overcome as “that private, long distance connection” is kept “irreversibly open.”
“Canadian Sleep” writes the life of William McCracken as a poem, beginning the story in July 1942 and bringing it to a close in July 1998. McCracken organizes this chronological approach into distinct sections; divisions are established through markers of time, such as “January, 1947” and “June, 1984,” and the corresponding physical divisions of the text. These divisions emphasize the existence of each section as an event or events that are part of a larger span of time. McCracken blurs the lines between past and present by using tense to show the war, not as a series of events, but as ongoing scenes in her father’s life. War experiences are written in the present tense: in “July, 1942,” it is “Today” and “the North Atlantic / is a vault between us”; in “December, 1944,” her father is “holed up / in Nijmegen pastureland”; and in “February, 1945,” her father is “In Edinburgh, in The North Briton” with his brother, “Wes, whose hands I have not seen / in two and a half years.” Other events are looked back on as belonging to a past time: “It was an act of the will / such as neither my heroic father / nor my brave brothers / nor even my death defying sisters / could have called up.” The actual event is written in the time it happens, however: “The tank blossoming / in a calendula of flame / and my bare hand / prising the iron turret hatch / open / open / open.”
“A Geography of Souls” talks about the ordering of life as a written script. McCracken positions the fluidity and patterning of writing into the physical world, juxtaposing strokes of writing with the movement of human bodies: “Your handwriting reversed / in the concave mirror / its shy surfaces / garlanded with winter / discloses a fluid calligraphy / millrace, aqueduct, the tidal draw / of underwater caves / where swimmers go to drown / their bodies inscribing / the lightest stroke of all.” The language of nature is kin to the language of writing; the shared cursive lines are expressed through tangible physical movement that can be captured in similar fashion. Each is distinctive, but bears the familiarity that marks their kinship. In paralleling writing with other physical movement, McCracken brings unity and purpose to the natural world; writing is a way to understand the order of the world, and to position this order in relation to otherness: “What goes unnoticed / in the writing on the wall / in every disquisition / on the species of love / or the nature of missives / makes up a geography / of souls, a code / all colour and deepline –.” McCraken shows that while stories in nature differ widely, the collective narratives fit into a stable and united pattern.
Double Self Portrait with Mirror: New & Selected Poems draws in two languages, but speaks to a broader audience in the mirroring process. McCracken’s themes are universal and timeless. Although the images she creates are of specific people and places, they are not limited to those snapshots, but can also be expanded to cover wider scenes. This is especially important in a text that must span two languages and two cultures.