The characters Martina Evans has created in her 74-poem-long sequence of dramatic monologues Now We Can Talk Openly about Men (Carcanet) (actually two sequences of 39 and 35 poems), feel so real that it comes as a bit of a surprise not to be able to google Kitty and Flora Donovan, Babe Cronin and Eileen Murphy and find out more about them on Irish history websites. Although based around the factual killing of a British sergeant at Mallow Barracks, County Cork, in 1920 and subsequent military reprisals, the story/stories are entirely fictional. But somehow Evans has turned these short poems (only a couple cross over onto a second page) into what feel like primary sources of data about the characters and their time; Bernard O’Donoghue calls the book a “remarkable document” in the blurb on the back cover for a good reason, the poems have the feeling of authenticity and legitimacy that the word suggests). Her ability to replicate on the page colloquial Irish rhythms and phrasing has been commented on before (John McAuliffe has called the style “talky, jumpy, gothic”), and it draws the reader in from the beginning of the first poem:
I was in a weakness. I couldn’t stand up,
leant back against the wall like a drunkard.
Was that Himself I’d seen on the back
of a Crossley tender on Main Street?
Here it is not just the use of the sobriquet ‘Himself’ with all its connotations of indignant but ingrained respect for ‘the man of the house’, but also the second line, which is a participle clause to the second-half of the first, using the spondee leant back to evoke strongly not only an Irish cadence, but a female Irish cadence of the middle-twentieth century (I don’t claim to be an authority on female Irish cadences of the middle-twentieth century so I stand ready to be corrected, but this is how it sounds to me). Such careful attention to the narrating characters’ voices is maintained throughout.
It is in part the very believability of the authentic-sounding voices of Mallow seamstress Kitty Donovan in the first sequence and former stenographer from Dublin Babe Cronin in the second that creates a sort of ‘narrative veil’ over the real central characters of the story: Kitty’s strong-willed daughter Flora Donovan and, even more so, the rebellious and impetuous Eileen Murphy (who is also the link between the two sequences). Rather than reading poems about women in the Irish War for Independence, we feel we are witnessing the period of the war through them. But the veil is also generational because we are in effect looking at the younger characters through the eyes of the older – Kitty is Flora’s mother who has an increasing addiction to laudanum, and Babe (also with an increasing dependence, on whiskey), is an older resident of a Dublin hotel who is in love with – or at least infatuated by – the younger Eileen. The older women’s addictions are another gauze between the reader and the younger characters and the action of the piece.
Each poem is, in a sense, akin to a chapter of a novel, and there is narrative drive both within the poems and between them, but as they are poems, i.e. stand-alone entities and in this sense equally analogous to paintings, they serve as much as windows onto moments, thoughts, memories and feelings as narrative blocks. As the chronology of events progresses, each poem, each line, builds on our impression of Kitty’s and Babe’s mental states (or their memory of their mental states), so we emerge with the two older women’s psychologies fore-fronted and emphasised (the extravagant use of colour in the first sequence and monochromatic second add significantly to the difference between the two women here) and all the actual events are filtered through this. In short, cultural history and folk memory are the currency of these ‘documents’, as opposed to the history of statistics and other written records.
All this goes to making the already enigmatic title, Now We Can Talk Openly about Men, even more abstruse: these poems are not, primarily, about men; and very little in them is talked about openly; even what is discussed in direct terms is hidden behind this ‘narrative veil’. In fact, the men who are directly involved with the action are almost always either not actually there (Himself), masked (the Tans who attack Eileen), or dressed in a disguise (Donnacha); alternatively, they are (like Mr Bloom and Captain Galway) only briefly sketched in character. Little open talking here. Is the title ironic then? In part it is, I think; but there is more going on that that. Occasionally men are seen clearly and almost demonically (Himself’s “red eyes” in that first poem; the Tan as Eileen rips off his mask and shouts “I’ll identify you in court!”) and these moments are often marked by direct speech, also something which seems to pull them clear of the above-mentioned obscuring veil. In the final poem, and dying in bed from consumption, Eileen says “Mrs Donovan taught/me darning & fancy darning. I could/do the Peacock’s Eye but all I darned was/men’s socks & they were always on the run.” At the end of her life Eileen seems to find a melancholy clarity within her half-delirium (conjured by that blurred and dreamy repetition of “darning & fancy darning”) as she recognises her relative importance to the men and women in her life, and the difference in how capable they thought her – how much they valued her. She is, at last, speaking openly about men – and in doing so it is disappointment she is expressing.
The title was apparently a phrase used by Evans’ mother after the poet’s difficult divorce, and thereafter it served as a ten-syllable phrase to get this extraordinary work of art (mostly decasyllabic, or thereabouts) underway. So it is, on top of everything else, a practical departure point for a work that will I imagine be discussed and written about for a long time to come.
After writing the above, I discover that Eileen Murphy was the name of Evans’ cat who featured in a well-known (although not by me until now) earlier poem “The Day my Cat Spoke to Me”. On my original reading I had not considered the surreal, psychological angle of the poem as an exploration of Evans’ own inner-world. Having recently read and written about, Sophie Collins’ criticism of male critics’ inability to allow women credit for creating art free of their own autobiography in Who Is Mary Sue? I resist this reading. But I will enjoy returning to Evans’ book to think more about it.
Now We Can Talk Openly about Men is published by Carcanet, and is available here.