Mary Noonan’s Stone Girl reviewed by Ruth Sharman
Stone Girl by Mary Noonan. £11. Dedalus Press. ISBN: 978-1910251485
The landscape of Mary Noonan’s Stone Girl is constantly shifting, and not just in geographic terms. This is a world of blurred boundaries, veering between water and stone, between past and present, rootedness in reality and the strangeness of dream. The poet’s father, as a young man, waits with his mates for the arrival of the Evening Echo and the day’s racing results, and is pictured after his death, “on arrival / and then nightly”, eating apfelstrudel in the best coffee house in Vienna. Her dead mother is back in present-day Kensington, her new court heels ringing out on the pavement as she makes her way to the tube, while Cork City is conjured up as a flooded Elysian Fields, a post-apocalyptic expanse of watery green.
Intimations of death are everywhere – in the black piranha fish and invading moths that inhabit the opening poem, in the mortuary bees of the intriguing “Bee Salon” and the perch dished up in a fancy restaurant but once swimming free, his whole body attuned to the honking of Canada geese overhead. In a setting worthy of De Chirico, the poet’s own dead are seen processing through the empty spaces of a silent bullring, accompanied by “the dead / yet to come, their names refusing / to be written in the sand”. Things move relentlessly towards disintegration, only too ready to disappear down the rabbit-hole; the “reckless” globe keeps spinning, threatening to suck us into its waters or hurl us into the ether, marking the fragility of our tenure on this earth.
In an online resource (“Writing Better Poetry”), Noonan comments on the potential tedium, for both reader and writer, of “writing endlessly about yourself and your life”. The fact, however, is that the closer Noonan focuses on the personal in her poetry, the stronger that poetry becomes. The poems about her father’s dementia and death, and those anticipating the loss of her long-time partner (the poet Matthew Sweeney, who died of motor neuron disease in 2018), are the beating heart of this collection and have an urgency which the cooler, more leisurely ekphrastic poems – her homages, for example, to the artist Paula Modersohn-Becker and the sculptor Camille Claudel – cannot perhaps by their very nature hope to acquire. A poet as emotionally deft as Noonan, and as confident in her choice of language, knows how to achieve just the right distance from her material to give the personal a universal resonance, and homes in unerringly on the most heart-breaking detail.
It is hard to imagine anyone writing a better poem about dementia – her father’s determination to “corral” the letters of the newsprint he reads and rereads, the notes he writes to himself on endless scraps of paper that litter the house, and the sorrow of failing to say goodbye to that earlier long-lost father who would come “bounding” up the stairs to see her when she was sick as a child. How much emotional weight that one word carries, in its position at the line break, how much energy and consequent loss, and how poignant the contrast with the old man who “spends hours swaying on his wasted hip”. Many of us will remember our own father comforting us in similar ways, the cool hand on our forehead – before we are swept from this reassuringly familiar image into the chillingly surreal “I wish I’d said goodbye, / before the ancient shape-shifter came to build / his nests of lint, his hillocks of gristle.”
“Vanishing Act” conjures up the complex and terrifying world of her father’s memory loss, his mind like a labyrinth of interconnecting rooms “where the dead move freely / in the antechambers” and where “long-dead fathers / are always just a staircase away” – a place where the visitor is as lost as the father who can make little sense of these visitations. “Into the Night” introduces, so casually, that poignant detail of her father shaving off his eyebrows along with his cheek bristle – an oblique reference to his failing mind – while a litany of strong, precise verbs – “fling… row… shuttle … rattle… tilt … keel… propel yourself on, / slashing the wind, and the dark” – denotes his apparent sense of purpose and the stubbornness of a man whose answer to death is a “wild refusal” (“Like an Orange”). All the more powerful, then, the poem’s final lines: “You don’t know / where you are going, or why.”
Equally moving are the poems relating to, or directly addressing, Noonan’s partner of seven years, Matthew Sweeney. Poets are often encouraged to believe that a poem is never really finished, always in process; but it is hard to imagine “Gare du Nord” as anything other than the poem we see in front of us, or to imagine that a different ending could have had more impact than the unabashed simplicity and directness of these crushing final lines:
Do you really think I could look again
at these end-of-the-line pillars and porticoes,
these blind granite women, remembering you,
and not myself be turned to stone?
Stone is one of the materials Noonan revisits over and over. It is the oppressive substance of the Caryatids’ burden; it is Paris, “city of stone”; it is the gravestone against which her ailing father rests his cheek – life and death potently juxtaposed. And in “The House That Will Never Be” it is the “rock carved in terraces rising from the sea” upon which this impossible home is built – the home the poet imagines sharing one day with her dying partner, perched high above the world, in an impossible future. Stone here has no more substance than air, and the fragility of the vision is brought sharply into focus through tiny brilliant details, like the lamplight perceived as “a shepherd’s fire / at the far end of a dark field”, the rail of wooden pegs to hold their “battered straw hats / and baskets”… “battered” of course – wearing out, but lived in, used.
The final – perfectly placed – poem in the collection offers a vision of water as potential transcendence. And the poems themselves are also of course a form of transcendence of time and loss, a gift to the living and a tribute to the dead. Martina Evans remarks that “Every Noonan poem is a true performer which begs to be read aloud” and repeatedly, as I read this collection, I did indeed find myself wishing I could hear the poems read aloud in Noonan’s own voice. An Irish lilt can seem something of an unfair advantage when poetry is read aloud, but we could readily forgive Noonan that small advantage when her raw material is so very good.
Ruth Sharman was born in south India and came to live in England when she was six. She read Modern Languages at Cambridge and now lives in Bath, where she works as a French translator. Birth of the Owl Butterflies, her first full-length collection, was published by Picador and her second, Scarlet Tiger, won Templar Poetry’s Straid Collection Award for 2016. She is currently working on a third focusing on two recent trips to India in search of her roots.