In gratitude to Paula Meenhan

I have been neglecting this blog for a number of reasons that are of little consequence here.

My return to writing here is prompted by two events. One is the death in a car accident of Judy Tucker, with whom I set up LAND2 back in 2002. The other is the arrival of Paula Meehan’s The Solace of Artemis. The first left me feeling numb and disbelieving. The second has undone that numbness and brought me close to tears. This is an appreciation of a woman whose poetry means more to me than I am able to say.

In an essay that I’ve had to abandon, I wrote that Paula Meehan’s biography, read literally, might be taken to number her among those individuals with a peripatetic and multi-centred relationship to place. But what emerges from reflecting on her biography and work together places her differently. (I’m drawing primarily, but not exclusively, on her 2016 Ireland Chair of Poetry lectures, Imaginary Bonnets With Real Bees In Them, and her 2022 poetry collection The Hungry Ghosts).

Meehan was born to working-class parents in Dublin. Her parents periodically went to London in search of work, so she spent time both there with them and in Dublin with her grandparents. The family later returned to Ireland to live in Finglas, a north western outer suburb of Dublin. Expelled from school there she again lived with her grandparents in an inner city Dublin suburb. At seventeen she began her studies at Trinity College Dublin, during which she took a year out to travel through Europe. After leaving college she again travelled widely in Europe. took up a teaching fellowship in the USA, and later returned to Dublin. She’s travelled, given readings, and taught in Ireland and internationally. She currently lives in Dublin but also spends time on the Greek island of Ikaria. Despite life-experience that can clearly be identified as “peripatetic” and “multi-centred”, it’s easy to imagine a literary publicist claiming that she’s “really” at home in Dublin. Both categorisations, while not simply “wrong”, would neglect the complex and tensioned sense of place that I find in her texts.

One aspect of this relates to a “Dublin” that brings the now absent city of her forbears, childhood and youth into the present. A historical sense of place that has a visceral sense of decaying inner city tenements and social housing, of streets populated by a now absent community that includes her great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, friends from her youth, neighbours, her family’s landlord, and the nuns who taught her and whom she defied. The ghost-haunted “Dublin” of her lectures, of five poems in For the Hungry Ghosts and over thirty in the anthology As If By Magic: selected poems. (Not to mention the eleven in the Museum section of the new book).

The presence of this “Dublin” haunts her work, offering both the poet and her readers a vivid, if absent, “home place” constantly revived and deepened. Attending to the absent city of her grandparents’ childhoods in Monto, at the time the largest red light district in Europe, its reality becomes present to her, despite never having been spoken of by her family. It’s perhaps unsurprising then that, once she felt confirmed in her vocation as a poet, she went back:

‘…home to the deep filthy breath of the river, back to the turf-smoke of north inner city Dublin, the smell of my childhood, to a decrepit room on the elegant Georgian crescent of Beresford Place, on the banks of the river I have loved above all rivers … ‘.  

Nowhere in this do I find evidence of the ‘nostalgic associations’ with “roots” the geographer Edward Relph refers to in his discussion of types of placed-ness. Meehan’s “Dublin” appears marked both by the clear-eyed, unsentimental, tone of her poetry and by her social activism – I refer to her running workshops in the community, in prisons, and in recovery programs.

The publicist evoked earlier might argue that the poet’s roots place her in the mid-twentieth century Dublin of the Catholic, working-class poor. But that would be to ignore her relationship with the Greek island of Ikaria, mythologically Dionysus’ birthplace, which she identifies as a ”home” in the poem The Island. An “Ikaria” that appears to ground Meehan’s mythic sense as it’s developed since, at sixteen, she began studying with the classicist W.B. Stanford. Drawn to the island by W. H. Auden’s description, in Musée des Beaux Arts, of Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, for whom the island’s named, it satisfies her belief that she’s ‘genetically predisposed to live where lemons grow, where the olive grows, in the bee-loud glades and mountains where the bees feed on wild oregano and pine …’. Additionally, it’s on Ikaria that she feels able to:

‘…meditate on the nature of failure, on our contraptions that plunge to earth, again and again and again, but were worth the lift into the blue rapture of what is, after all, inner space. Whatever the cost. For we use the myths as mirrors, as we use dreams, as we use poems’.

Her “Ikaria” appears to place her need for a sensuous portal into the metaxy, the inner space-between, the “thin place”, created by poetry, and out of which both poetry and dreams appear. A “thin place” where the powers of mythic imagination can meet and be reconciled with the presence of her absent, yet hungry, ghosts.  

This brief speculative account of Meehan’s “placed-ness” as I understand it, for all that it is inevitably reductive, suggests that Meehan’s “Dublin” and “Ikaria” might be taken as poles of a tensioned arc between the historically extended community of the “Dublin” of her “roots”; and an island that sensuously grounds her imaginative “flight”; the “thin place between” where she is equally aware of the limitations and failures of such “flight” in ways that echo the thoughts of the poets Don McKay and Miroslav Holub. This productive tension between our need for “roots” and “flight” is a significant part of what I find so valuable and so deeply moving in her poetry.