The Long-Lived Love of Longing
on Patricia McCarthy’s Hand in Hand
‘Touch me – in order to be lost in
the angelic silences Brendan preferred
after the white bird’s singing, restoring
apocalypses of the untranslatable word.’
‘… fingers crossed
I was left with no clothes befitting a wife
and myself on my hands, as afraid of staying
with you as of drawing apart….’
Patricia McCarthy’s latest book, Hand in Hand, a collection-long sequence versioning the mythos of Tristan and Iseult, is a rich storehouse of legend and lore, myth, history and religion, among other telltale things. The book, we learn early on, has been in the works for over four decades; so, it’s no wonder that this collection should be so earthed and grounded in research (worn lightly though) and long-lived consideration; and that, in particular, it should be evoked by a voice that is highly unitive and assured, while in the due business of giving voice to the various dramatis personae of this iconic tale. And the poetry itself is just as rich, by way of chosen idiom throughout (using flora and fauna, place and personage, myth, material history, lyric and plot) as the authorial conception from outside the frame of the actual, concrete verse.
All that said, this is a book primarily about love and desire, and that particular modality of love and desire that is longing. One of the opening epigraphs signals this: Denis de Rougement is quoted as saying that the lady of ‘courtly love’ might just well be, as much as other mythic female divinities, ‘anima’, ‘man’s spiritual element, that which the soul imprisoned in his body desires with a nostalgic love that death alone can satisfy…’ This early signpost I think captures the essence of this book’s weave of deeply urgent sentiment. Indeed, as per McCarthy’s ‘Prologue’, her signal triumph in this work of reimagining is not necessarily to add anything to the material tale, but rather to work-up her own take on the ‘psychology’ of the characters, their emotional and/or imaginative truths. After all, what is that version of love and desire that is longing, but a present love that lives always dying? Whether with the beloved or not, and in this tale, of course, the lovers are together and sundered, their Platonic oneness (to be detailed below) is, as we might expect, an impossible kind of love. In this way, psychologically as much as philosophically, McCarthy is able to pinion a very human truth, man to woman, woman to man: namely that perfection in love can’t exist, except in or through death. And this, not only in the sense of death as an image of impossibly-lived completion, but also as an image within the living of how absence is at the core of true love. While with one’s true lover, one feels loss, always, at the prospect of losing such perfect union; and without the lover, one’s longing brings the absence, staying absent, into presence, continually, obsessively. Either way, to live ‘in the moment’ of perfect union, while a nice ideal, escapes even the truest of mortal paramours. And of course, speaking of mortality, a third sense of love as equal to death, from outside the frame of the reimagined living personages (and a sense tying in a way the first two together) is the fact that we only have lasting mythoi of such deep-set longing like Tristan and Iseult, because, history or myth or in between, such tales needs must have taken place in the past. The very ability to re-imagine, and even recursively, needs the past as past, material to work-on, work-up – but also needs the care of the poet in and for the process of that same reinvigoration.
Let’s start with the Platonic oneness of these iconic lovers. It may seem a pat notion, but McCarthy gives life to this notion with real and compelling force. The lovers here are at the extremity of their love, and of love sub specie aeternitatis. Here, opening ‘Donor’ half-way through the book, I’ll jumpstart this theme by citing generously:
Take my blood for your veins,
its high tides, sediments and stains
for the letting of yours at this grief.
Take my eyes for their belief
in the life that remains to be lived.
Take the unused parts of me
to match the unused in you, that we
might progress, outside time,
to an untouched, still youthful prime,
scorning the years we have not shared.
Take the beats in my pulse to rhyme
with yours in a mixture of knell, chime
and thrum, for we need to experience
every complex, turnabout tense –
reinventing ourselves without armour.
These verses speak for themselves of course. But at the midway mark of Hand in Hand, they pick-up on earlier notes of a similar vein, so to speak. In ‘The Kiss’ early on: ‘Not only faces but every curve interlocks / as they alter into each other from one root.’ In the next poem, ‘In The Open’, we close with: ‘Though unearthed, our limbs changed into branches / on the moss floor, holding our strata up like banners / to the meridian sun at our hearts’ shared core.’ Then, close-on, ‘Shape-Changer’ does it again: ‘… No one has / what we have as we invent flames // for fire, songs for water. I am now / the woman I never knew I was // or could be, unable any more to stay / separate from you than land from sea.’ Much later, in ‘Feathered’, a lovely pinning couplet runs: ‘where lovers writhe with slippery fish / and sinewed hands skin each boned wish.’ Here, fantasy and the real marry musically and thematically. Even in the voice, very late-on, of ‘Isolde’, the second one, married to Tristan in the wake of the first, ‘Iseult’, in a marriage unconsummated, the scorned woman offers her blessing to the two parted lovers, as follows:
…. You can’t see me genuflect
nor hear me mutter mea culpa, culpa
culpa when I bow my head to take on
your death in my life while you embrace
a new life in death.
This ‘blessing’ here in fact typifies as well one of the most interesting psychological features of this book, nobility and generosity of spirit. Most of the characters are of course high-born, but that’s not quite the point at hand. The obverse side of the lovers’ eternal love, the wounds and the jealousies of the spurned, be it King Marc or Isolde of the White Hands, are articulated in ways most of the time that show their vulnerabilities. This in fact makes them more sympathetic than a different take on this legend might have enacted. Because, by showing so powerfully their vulnerability, McCarthy is also showing different facets of her presiding themes, as already detailed, love, desire, longing. In ‘Marc’s Lament’, for instance, we open with:
With nights off from days,
I perfected my vision of her
in the blind eye I turned
on our long store of griefs.
Following-on, in ‘Marc Alone’, his loneliness evokes again nothing but sympathy in the reader. ‘I won’t stir at those senses / falsely untwisting from ditches / as winds play out their passions / to the oldest of forest twitches, // longing only for what they have.’ That last line, a paradox that bends back – from the longing quenched, if only briefly, of the others – to indicate Marc’s own reactive longing:
I will believe what I want, still.
Yet, expecting less, I won’t bleed
over the bed in the cave where
my look has so much need…
Then, in ‘Marc’s Blindness’ his vulnerable jealousy is registered again in a way that is compelling and of interest, in so far as he is not the main paramour, hero, but the jilted (betrayed, even) lover. He wishes, ‘In blended oils’ to be ‘re-made, / young as Iseult’s new lover, / sword-strength – his, mine, the same.’ Any pride he may possess is defeated by his sincerity here, and this makes him as generously portrayed as the implicit generosity of spirit evinced by his showing the truth of his feelings. Moreover, this poem, which is in part about insight when sight is lost, ends on the ‘unheard-of keys, / they might compose, in different parts, / a lyric-less song from it.’ As against Tristan’s famed ‘Harp’, Marc voices his loss, and without self-deceit or undue violence. Indeed, he is resigned in ‘Marc Resigned’. ‘Hostile: the body housing me.’ ‘I have hard-earned the heart – / trusted or not – never ages, yet fears / Time as it speeds up…’ ‘… I am giving / my last fibres to the roar of rutting stags / whose antlers interlock in a pattern for me, / my sadness to the eyes of does.’ Or then, take, now, ‘Isolde of the White Hands speaks of the other Iseult.’ She is addressing Tristan. While ‘Her hand in yours – under mine,’ it’s as if:
… that place in your heart is a person –
neither ghost nor ghoul – beckoning
your eyes to green again the faded,
and to escort me, through long shadows
of her fingers into that first vision
where I would be the woman.
And in ‘Celibacy’, Isolde of the White Hands says, ‘Here even the silence is a eunuch.’ The jilted lovers in this tale bare and bear their wounds as openly as if they were trophies of consummated love. This feature of McCarthy’s reimagining proves one of its most salient successes. And there are other instances too. One small example, part of the plot, comes in ‘Brangane to Iseult’, where Brangane sacrifices her virginity on behalf of her lady, ‘Iseult’, by pretending to be her in the bed of King Marc, ‘the old man’ entering ‘my secret centre, / unreceptive as a desert.’ Even the comparatively low-born can be noble.
But back to the main love story, hand in hand. ‘Iseult’s Hands’ say to Tristan, ‘I’ve known you always,’ so that he may follow them, her hands, ‘tentatively at first / then boldly through the torchlight / that defines rebels by imprecision…’ And then, next in line, in ‘Tristan’s Hands’, so to speak, Iseult’s hands are: ‘Coddling suns,’ breaking ‘through tanglewoods / in frosted countries, following // their own hunches.’ This intimacy is almost as whispering as the stage directions (‘Tristan whispers’) given by McCarthy before the small lyric ‘Iseult’s Rescue by Tristan.’ Tonality and attitude are keys to McCarthy’s characterizations.
Indeed, to return to the notion aired in ‘Harp Song’, of the ‘untranslatable word,’ we learn in an endnote, one among many informative glosses serving the book, that McCarthy is influenced by the anthropological truth (Lévi-Strauss), that music precedes, as it preceded, words. And this, it seems to me, is a comment on and for poetry, lyricism. Closing ‘Tristan’s Hands’, unlike Marc’s ‘lyric-less song’, Tristan sings:
Fate is fate, they say –
but we embark in your harp,
your hands its sails dyed
with dark and day: man’s
unfurling from your heart.
The music of love (heart) redresses the tensions of ‘man’s oldest contradictions’; as if to say that the kind of true or eternal love that is the tenor of this book is more semiotic than articulable. In her Lyric Cousins, a monograph using music and poetry as mutually-informing analogues, Fiona Sampson ventures a transcendental space for ‘poetry.’ She argues that poetry – while never possibly extant without ‘poems’, in all their actual specificities – is still somehow more than the sum of all the poems, and all the words of all the poems, past, present and to come. And it is the musical and/or semiotic element essential to poetry, that makes it something more than, beyond, the sum of all poems, ever; the musical inkling that spurs and spears-through poems is something before and through and beyond the actual words, whatever they were or are or will be. And in so far as the harp (lyre) is Tristan’s trusty tool, as well the heart of his beloved, it would seem that this love is also a kind of longing that embodies absence as much as presence; a longing in the music that serenades above and about and through the words of the paramours and/or those of the surrounding figures, but is never fully pinned or pinioned by the addled words themselves. The music of love like a small death, breach, within life. This is what love is like when you find yourself with your lover, ‘flung together without mind’ (‘Idyll in the Forest’).
And so, this book is very much about enchantment, as well as, of course, its paramour, disenchantment. Charm, thus, is spoken like this at the end of ‘Late Autumn’:
… Last now
the first leaves to have known us
in their spring fall upwards
into a fifth season for reinvention
by the Merlin you are in my eyes.
But then, much later in ‘To Solomon’ the lover sings about the loss now of song:
My beloved has not come to me
despite our talent for ecstasy.
The horses have lost their wings.
I no longer believe in this Song
of Songs that could sing me.
This love, so living here, was always bound to be impossible. Near the opening of the book, omens tell. In ‘Hove-to’ we’re gifted a proleptic comment, regarding the sad and fated skein for the eponymous lovers:
From gulfs and tropics, waves appear –
to applaud his feet effortlessly walking water,
dissolving the rocks of duty from which
a dream to be quelled is born….
Just preceding, and again one of the opening notes, on the ‘Voyage from Wexford to Cornwall’, we read with premonition of ‘what’ (like ‘walking water’) just ‘cannot be’ (their incumbent love) as remaining, but ‘only / to the percussion of gales. Iseult Tristan / Tristan Iseult, man to woman, woman to man.’
Hand in Hand is a journey through the vagaries of courtly love. And yet, it is, like all worthy poetry, deeply prescient to the reader today – in so far as longing and love and desire stay prescient features of human experience. In one of the books of one of the many figures featuring in the endnotes of this collection, Carl Jung (famed for his own rigorous take on ‘anima’), Aspects of the Feminine, Jung speaks of the feminine as being a ‘container.’ We all know this from everyday life: the feminine in us suffers more, because it feels more; and in doing so, must contain more. It seems to me that the characters in this book, a book often animating the inanimate to speak of or with feeling, sentience, are able on the whole to contain the uncontainable, because McCarthy herself is their ultimate repository, as they come-alive off the page, reimagined with a new incisiveness.
Omar Sabbagh is a widely published poet, writer and critic. His latest book is Morning Lit: Portals After Alia (Cinnamon Press, March 2022). His Lebanese verse narrative, The Cedar Never Dies, is forthcoming in 2022 with a new literary publisher, Northside Press; and a collection of his published short fictions, Y Knots, is due to be published with Liquorice Fish Books in Autumn 2023. Currently, he is Associate Professor of English at the American University in Dubai (AUD).
Patricia McCarthy: Five Poems from Hand in Hand
‘FROM SWERVE OF SHORE TO BEND OF BAY’
From swerve of shore to bend of bay,
the only castles I wished to inhabit
were sculpted by my childhood hands
in Brittas, Curracloe and Silver Strand.
On hardened sands I translated lines
of receding tides – for suns, moons
and gulls to read. I wanted to stay
from swerve of shore to bend of bay.
I clung onto manes of rushes on dunes
that humped their backs like bolted horses
rocking along with the dolphins’ play
from swerve of shore to bend of bay.
From Baile Átha Clíath, Dún Laoghaire,
Bray Head, Greystones, Kilmichael Point:
I never wanted to go away
from swerve and bend – but I had no say.
TRISTAN’S VISIT TO ISEULT
I am coming over sea-mountains
with skins of longings and sights
of untellable things for your cauldrons.
The distant thunder is my precursor,
warning of anxiety somewhere. The sky
is trying to obscure me in its glowers.
Yet the cuckoo is on my side,
commentating on my position in the odds
against me. One remark it confides
repetitively, though you know I am making
progress on fishes’ routes, now and then
in the leas offered by Neptune resting.
Every league I navigate will ask
how you are, every fathom between bedrock
and surface for you labour. If I could,
I’d twist the flying peaks like ears
so they fall down at your feet as if
from vultures’ beaks with gifts of lace
and cheeses. You will have to make do
with laying fires in the grate on my traces –
your bones latticed into kindling
until, wiping off abrasives of salt
and light, over sweetmeats I confirm
our own lands I took with me, sailing.
(of Isolde of the White Hands)
At my weight the bed opens its legs
to woodworm, and down escapes from
pillows to struggle with moths against
walls writhing into shapes of impotency.
Here even the silence is a eunuch
whose falsetto voice catches between
my sheets and the darkness falling
untouchable with stains of menstruation.
Its fruits, shrunk by snakes and trees,
eat me down to a seventh original skin
worn, like a savage, over my clothes.
I’d prefer images of Sodom to Tiresias
filling his pockets with edicts from
straight-backed pews under which women
off the street hide their genders,
teasing my dormant body from my head
into old lurchings. If age preceded
youth, I might have practised retreats
from the infernos madonnas left
in bound breasts – to open places.
But as desires hold duels for orgies,
and cocks fight over dawns, floods
fill the arks in my blood where
frustrations, in pairs, wait for land.
Feathered the birds with the sharpest beaks
that drop more spells into stitched-up nets
where lovers writhe with slippery fish
and sinewed hands skin each boned wish.
Feathered the sky with its white cirrus clouds
that predict the fair but indicate change
where, on witches’ besoms, angels fly
over a woman left waiting, not knowing why
feathered were oars that broke in the calms,
and winds ripped up sails normally filled
where, astride every shore, a women still waiting
craves solitude’s strength, yearning abating.
Feathered the heels on uneven ground
where saddles lie strewn, riders gone.
Feathered the birds with the sharpest beaks
Feathered the sky with its white cirrus clouds
Feathered the oars that broke in the calms
Feathered the heels on uneven ground
where Iseult turns in circles, round and around.
(Iseult of the White Hands)
Forest and orchard return to me.
Alone without light, let me see
idols shattered, reflection-less rivers,
desires face-down, afloat without fever,
hope and despair cast off like lovers –
stemmed no longer the blood of nature
green-fast through tangled veins. Now
without knowing, let me know how
the heart’s intelligence mixes its water,
fire, earth and air into mortar
to bond, with gypsum, stones of my strength
when I pull into infinity a horizon’s length.
Let shivers of timothy, rye, campanula,
speedwell, mudwort – and parabolas
of wings wreathe me in tenderness.
In my timespin, time is timeless.
As barber-surgeons bleed me –
cluysters cleanse me, grant mercy
for Armorica, Wales, Cornwall to blend
into one, the orison my godsend.
Patricia McCarthy is half Irish, half English. After Trinity College, Dublin, she lived in Washington D.C., Paris, Dhaka, Kathmandu, Mexico. She has lived for many years now in the countryside in East Sussex and was Head of English at Mayfield School. She won the National Poetry Competition in 2012 and has received other awards and prizes. This is her eighth collection. A pamphlet, A Ghosting in Ukraine, is to be published by Dare-Gale Press in 2023. She is the editor of Agenda poetry journal and a Fellow of the English Association.