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TWELVE BEDS FOR THE DREAMER:
Jennifer Matthews reviews Máighréad Medbh's new collection
Jennifer Matthews was born in Missouri (USA) and has lived Ireland since 2003. Her poetry has been published in Mslexia, Revival, Necessary Fiction and Poetry Salzburg, and anthologised in Dedalus's collection of immigrant poetry in Ireland, Landing Places (2010). She has read her work at the the Heaventree Poetry Festival (Coventry, UK) and as a guest poet with 'Catch the Moon' (Cork, Ireland). Poems are forthcoming in Foma and Fontenelles and Cork Literary Review.
Twelve Beds for the Dreamer
(Arlen House, 2011)
ISBN: 978 1851 320 189
Buy from author's website
On the cover of Twelve Beds for the Dreamer is the image of an astrological chart, possibly belonging to the author (as she is listed in the cover image credit as the astrologer). The wheel of it contains symbols, markers of measurement, a pantheon of numbers and degrees, with a cat’s cradle of connections between the signs at the centre. It evokes both the mysticism and the science contained in the book, and shows a brave vulnerability in the way publishing one’s DNA sequence might feel vulnerable.
In an introductory note, Máighréad Medbh explains that the collection evolved through recording her dreams “in relation to the moon’s monthly passage through the twelve zodiacal signs”. Twelve Beds includes sections of three to six poems for each sign, beginning with Cancer and ending with Gemini. The length, 128 pages, is only slightly problematic and seems to be a trend amongst poets and publishers lately. Medbh's work here is characteristically emotive and stunning, however there were a few pieces such as ‘The Emerald Pool’ or ‘Mages of Surge’ that weren’t quite as sharp as the others and weighed it down a bit.
Although I am personally sceptical about astrology, I am a big believer in the creative accessing the subconscious to enrich their work—something Medbh does expertly. Her latest collection is most definitely mystical, but never away with the faeries. The themes of astrology become structures for her poetry, similar to the way that the constraints of formalist poetry (sonnets, villanelles) are used to focus work.
Something I’ve admired about Máighréad Medbh's poetry for a long time is the sheer rhythmic drive of her language. She’s had deserved success in the slam poetry world, but I’m even fonder of her pieces on the page as they warrant a second or third reading to be taken in completely. Take ‘System’:
Knowledge can be gained in mazed or simple ways:
maybe by the folding of legs,
the circling of thumb and ambition finger;
certainly in pleasure explosions—
one on one makes two times on the table;
yes, knowing you,
knowing a lift-off,
knowing the first rocket.
The collection exists in a dreaming place which incorporates all the loneliness, love, sex, death and anxieties that inhabit it. It’s an in-between place where you’ll run into aliens, Athene, angels, Medusa, monstrous lovers, cowboys and even a cheeky cameo by Nick Cave. The darkness is intense, but not overwhelming—it is held at a distance which is manageable for the reader and she keeps us interested with her potent imagery. In the nightmare-driven ‘Night on Valencia Island’:
Dark feeds on livers of children,
sours the food in stomachs,
bores holes behind the lobes,
winds craftily into spaces
that were safe inside the eyes.
Later she chillingly describes the sea as a “convulsing jelly” that wants “bodies to sponge it before it sets”. This preoccupation with anxiety and loss makes sense in an exploration of dream-time, which is a sort of little death itself in the absence of control and consciousness. Which bring us to sex—and she writes it very well. No sodden shellfish imagery here, thankfully. Instead she gives us what poets should, the truth and the unexpected. Like anxiety about looking down to “see your legs, not pfeiffer’s/ more like badly mashed spuds” or the sensuality of “secrets...deep red and full, / like the inner parts of rhubarb tarts and purple plums”.
My favourite section was the final one, Gemini, in which every poem sent me right back to the top of the page to experience it again. It explores the tangle that is "two-ness", the fallacy of seeing yourself in others or using them to complete you. (Or even more, the struggle to reconcile ‘you’ and your image of yourself.) Take ‘Exacting’:
I wait here whipped by sudden storms,
in the hope that sometime I’ll look in the water
and from it will emerge a four-dimensional replica,
who will tell me by her knobbled bark,
her inner movements and her servitude to time,
how my sap rises,
why I lean this way and not the other,
why my seeds are beyond my control.
Twelve Beds for the Dreamer is one of the better collections I’ve read this year and well worth the purchase for its emotional wisdom, gripping images and dark, vulnerable truth.
©2011 Jennifer Matthews
Matthews poems at Poetry International Web
Yank Refugee in the PRC (blog)
Other reviews by Jennifer Matthews in Southword