Medbh McGuckian's The Flower Master as a Critique of Female Modernism
by Lesley Wheeler
In her first full-length volume, The Flower Master (1982), Medbh McGuckian alludes to the women poets of modernism, especially H.D., with a mixture of attraction and hostility. For a start, although McGuckian insists in her interview with Susan Shaw Sailer that her work is "almost totally autobiographic" (113), this collection's dedication ("for my mother / without my father") may be read metaphorically as demonstrating a strong orientation toward female literary ancestors. In fact, this volume shelters a world of women: aunts, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, frustrated governesses, wet nurses, even Beatrix Potter and Mary Queen of Scots (in "Mr. McGregor's Garden" and "The Heiress," respectively). Many poems invoke McGuckian's ambivalence toward those women; "The Mother," for example, depicts the title character as natural yet confined, familiar yet incomprehensible. "Fossils," strongly echoing the imagery of Marianne Moore's "The Paper Nautilus," focuses a "straightened gaze" at McGuckian's apparently sterile, androgynous predecessors with a similar mixture of awe and reprimand. Laura O'Connor comments that both Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and McGuckian rely on "the enabling myth of the disabling mother," citing "hostile, rather than nurturant, mothering" as their impetus to art (McGuckian and Ni Dhomhnaill 609-10).
This biographical observation applies well to McGuckian's treatment of this female modernist legacy. In particular, several factors connect The Flower Master with another first collection, H.D.'s Sea Garden (1916), divided as these books are both temporally and geographically. Both volumes express their concerns with literary and sexual fertility largely through flower imagery: each describes a garden whose particular beauties define the poet's esthetic project, and each manipulates flower imagery in original ways to comment on the meanings of femininity. In fact, both collections mention flowers, plants, fruits or seeds in every poem but one ("The Wind Sleepers" in H.D. and "The `Singer'" in McGuckian). Thomas Docherty has cited Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil as an influence on the Irish poet's project, but both the similarities in subject between the volumes and certain allusions within individual poems suggest that The Flower Master is also rooted in H.D.'s groundbreaking book, although largely repudiating its predecessor's approach.
While McGuckian seems to allude to Anglo-American modernism, and occasional ecstasies in her poems (such as "Smoke") do suggest Sea Garden's pursuits of the divine, for the most part the Belfast-born poet sounds drastically unlike the Pennsylvania native. The geographically loyal McGuckian enmeshes her speakers in family relationships; in contrast, the expatriate American wanders alone or with a band of initiates along an apparently Greek coastline. McGuckian's tone is often discursive or wry, her free-verse lusher than H.D.'s spare, short lines, although both value image over clear statement; certainly the former's cryptic pieces seem at least as coded as any imagist fragment. Finally, McGuckian claims a value, or at least a tolerance, for inherited notions of womanliness that H.D. critiques sharply throughout her work.
The likenesses and differences between these books and these writers emerge through a close look at the title poem of The Flower Master in relation to H.D.'s Sea Garden. "The Flower Master" particularly revises "Sheltered Garden," a poem that provides the antithesis to H.D.'s title image. "Sheltered Garden" implicitly describes the discipline of conventional femininity in withering terms, preferring the dangers of the sea's harsh weather to carefully tended flowers screened by garden walls. H.D.'s poem desires escape from confined Victorian womanhood to modern sexual liberation.
In contrast, "The Flower Master" deliberately embraces a similar sheltered space. The poem's first-person plural speaker obediently engages in her lessons: "we come to terms with shade, with the principle / of enfolding space." In fact, the immediate "master" of the poem seems to be neither Baudelaire nor H.D. but a teacher of ikebana, instilling the principles of Japanese floral arrangement. Stella Coe, in her study of ikebana, uses the term "flower master" itself to refer to an expert in this discipline (22), and McGuckian's references to the Japanese festival of moon-viewing and to the tea ceremony confirm the allusion. "The Flower Master"'s students learn how to bend seasonally appropriate plants into designs, and create the symbolic correspondences which this art often suggests.
The meditative function of ikebana, in fact, illuminates the entire collection in interesting ways. Directing would-be practitioners, Coe writes, "the way to proceed is to let your insight guide you. You want a direct, non-analytic expression of the theme in the simplest terms possible" (129). McGuckian has described her poetic purposes as follows: "I just wanted to get the experience, or the meaning of the experience, not the experience itself, because the experience itself was nothing...I just hope that other women can reach into it and feel that their own life was somehow ordinary enough to be reflected there" ("Interview" 112, 115). Her works rarely present clear situations, coherent speakers, or consistent narratives; their purposes remain oblique, so that the poems can resemble little tokonamas enshrining their evocatively arranged sprays.
Even so, "The Flower Master"'s very allusions to ikebana intersect with the poem's modernist lineage. McGuckian's speaker studies under "the school of the grass moon," a translation of Sogetsu-ryu. Although ikebana originated as a masculine discipline performed by priests, noblemen, and warriors, recent centuries democratized the pursuit and created new versions (Coe 22-3). Sogetsu, founded in the 1920s, "has a wide following both in and outside Japan, possibly because it is the most easily translated into the language of other cultures." It emphasizes individuality and originality in creating arrangements; its founder, Sofu Teshigahara, has been called "the Picasso of ikebana" (Coe 23). These dates and qualities coincide roughly with the innovations of imagism, the modernist movement arising in part from H.D.'s early poems, and advocating an elegantly minimal free verse.
Though embracing rather than rejecting bowers, "The Flower Master" does share some qualities and images with "Sheltered Garden," just as the larger volumes correspond in certain points. Each eroticizes its garden; the students in the contemporary poem, for instance, "stroke gently the necks of daffodils / and make them throw their heads back to the sun," and collect plants with suggestive names like "sweet / sultan, dainty nipplewort." McGuckian's "sea-fans with sea-lavender" invoke H.D.'s many sea-flowers, and both poems suggest an autumnal mood, H.D. through ripening fruit and McGuckian through the mid-September festival of moon-viewing. These similarities, however, frame the essentially contrary stands the poems adopt. Placing her "scissors in brocade," eschewing the wild breakage H.D. imagines, McGuckian's speaker espouses gentleness and tradition. Even the form of "The Flower Master" resists its predecessor's. McGuckian avoids symmetry and creates a tripartite arrangement in loyalty to ikebana's esthetics (these Japanese arrangements consist of three main lines), but she also returns to meters the imagists eschewed (Coe 43). "The Flower Master" adheres to a rough pentameter, irregularly rhymed, while "Sea Garden" depends for its rebellious music on jaggedly uneven lines and verses.
McGuckian is no formalist, and her experiments certainly build on the "papery legacies," as "The Flower Master" puts it, of previous women poets including H.D. However, the differences between these two prominently titled poems suggest how widely their attitudes toward gender diverge. While H.D. celebrates a harsh, androgynous beauty, "The Flower Master" thrives in sheltered space and admires the delicacy of its shade-loving specimens. While "Mid-Day," the fourth poem in Sea Garden, laments "hot shrivelled seeds" scattered over pavement in a strong image of writer's block and/or miscarriage (CP 10), McGuckian's collection seethes with fertility, depicting numerous crowded, feminine houses and greenhouses; collecting various nests, seeds, and children; citing moons and milk-fevers. "My womb is almost my brain," McGuckian has declared ("Interview" 121), identifying her literary inspiration with her reproductive function, insisting on the femaleness of her writing as deliberately as H.D. adhered to those ambiguous initials.
Patricia Haberstroh aptly reads McGuckian in light of ecriture feminine (124-5). Certainly these poems are deeply rooted in female sexuality; they also, as reviewers Tim Dooley and Christopher Benfred have noted, align themselves with decorative crafts and domestic places deeply associated with women in nineteenth and twentieth century Western culture. In her published conversation with Gaelic poet Ni Dhomhnaill, McGuckian speaks of multiple experiences with sexual discrimination and laments the absence of women authors in her coursework, and in an earlier interview she states her aspirations for equality of opportunity for women. However, she quickly qualifies her identification with feminism:
You know, if you're too demanding for your freedom then you are going to destroy your home. I'm for feminism as long as it doesn't destroy in woman what is the most precious to her, which is her ability to relate and soften and make a loving environment for others as well as herself...Sometimes there is something in feminism that demands you to be almost masculine and that's what frightens me a bit about it, or to sort of repudiate reproduction...I find feminism attractive in theory but in practice I think it ends up influenced by lesbians and very lonely and embittered and stressed and full of hatred. (Sailer 121)
McGuckian's homophobia illuminates even her literary differences with H.D. The Irish writer's program for contemporary poetry seems to be a recuperation of essential femininity, in reaction to how key modernist women undertook marriage and motherhood: bisexual H.D. married and bore a daughter, but her marriage quickly shattered and she raised her child in an unconventional way; Moore's sexuality remains ambiguous. "Poets of this generation," theorizes McGuckian about her own contemporaries, "are the pioneers of women who've survived birth, survived multiple births, in order to write about it. And maintained the marriage relationship. I think the complexities of holding all these irons in the fire and keeping your inwardness intact are immeasurable" (McGuckian and Ni Dhomhnaill 606). In The Flower Master, McGuckian inverts H.D.'s central gesture of divorcing womanhood from domesticity, but even in so doing the former declares her debt to Sea Garden's scenes, vocabulary, and erotic passion.
Benfrey, Christopher. Parnassus: Poetry in Review. 12.2 and 13.1 (1985): 500-12.
Coe, Stella. Ikebana: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to Japanese Flower Arrangement. Woodstock NY: Overlook P, 1984.
Docherty, Thomas. "Initiations, Tempers, Seductions: Postmodern McGuckian." The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland. Ed. Neil Corcoran. Chester Springs, PA: Dufour Editions, 1992. 191-212.
Dooley, Tim. "Soft Cushionings." The Times Literary Supplement 4090 (2 Aug. 1981): 952.
Haberstroh, Patricia. Women Creating Women: Contemporary Irish Women Poets. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1996.
H.D. Collected Poems: 1912-1944. New York: New Directions, 1983.
McGuckian, Medbh. The Flower Master and Other Poems. Loughcrew, Ireland: The Gallery Press, 1982.
___. "An Interview with Medbh McGuckian." Ed. Susan Shaw Sailer. Michigan Quarterly Review 32.1 (1993): 111-27.
McGuckian, Medbh and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill. "Comhra, with a Foreword and Afterword by Laura O'Connor." Southern Review 31 (1995): 581-614.
BIO: Lesley Wheeler is an assistant professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA since 1994. Her book-length study of poetry by American women, The Poetics of Enclosure, is under consideration at a university press. She received a summer fellowship for that project in 1996 from the American Association of University Women and has an article on Gwendolyn Brooks forthcoming in Callaloo, and an essay on Dickinson forthcoming in an interdisciplinary collection, Nature, Woman, and the Artifice of Politics. She has published essays on Rita Dove, and her poems have been published or are forthcoming in America, Gathering of the Tribes, Northeast Journal, Critical Matrix, and other journals. She lives in Staunton VA with her husband and two-year-old daughter.