Joan McBreen


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Journeys of self-discovery
Review by Marco Sonzogni, The Irish Times, Saturday May 31st, 2003

Poets, explicitly or obliquely, often refer to the physical topography of the "real world" to map the spiritual geography of their inner landscapes. Literary criticism has coined graceless terms such as "objective correlative" and "subjective correlative" to outline such a writing strategy.

Poetry's "credibility", as Seamus Heaney put it, lies in "its truth to life, in every sense of that phrase". This simple yet complex remark is appropriate to introduce the latest collections by Irish women poet Joan McBreen.

Joan McBreen's third collection, Winter in the Eye: New & Selected Poems, collates her recent poetry and a selection from her previous two books, The Wind Beyond the Wall (1990) and A Walled Garden in Moylough (1995).

Her poetry, too, revolves around the meanings of and relationships between outer and inner landscapes. The closing lines of 'Poem in Autumn' (words that "burn through the blood,/ cold as gulls inland from the sea") and of 'The Other Side of the River' ("The river moves on its course,/ leaving me to forget myself or learn my place") are characteristic of this geographical and existential short-circuit.

Atmospheric changes, even when unexpected, are therefore the "logical" channels (sometimes too predictably so) of emotional changes. These connections, however, remain consistently crucial. They allow the poet to achieve a distinctive, comforting harmony between what happens and where and why it takes place.

The reader can immediately detect and partake of what could be termed the poet's cathartic acceptance of the "facts of life" - illness and los, as well as familiar places and home, are dominant themes in her new poems. McBreen addresses them with honesty and voices them with an elegiac gentleness that gives her readers a sense of almost therapeutic tranquillity.

This is, perhaps, the reason why her personal stories are ultimately perceived and understood as universal ones. Poems such as 'The Terminology of Love', 'London in December' and 'Poppies in Dominick Street' (with its final lie reminiscent of Montale: "and a field of poppies/ mad with light") are fine examples.

In 'Crediting Poetry', his 1995 Nobel Lecture, Heaney gives credit to poetry because it "can make an order as true to the impact of external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of the poet's being". Distinct voices in contemporary Irish poetry, Rosita Boland and Joan McBreen have precisely this in common: their poetry testifies to the inner laws of their beings.

Marco Sonzogni is a critic, editor and literary translator.

The Irish Times, 2003.