Honoured and thrilled to receive this generous close reading of my collection, by Abigail Ardelle Zammit. I hope you’ll indulge me if I post it here. Ach, I can’t resist! Besides, it’s also a great example of how to write a review. 🙂
Ghost of the Fisher Cat by Afric McGlinchey (Salmon Poetry)
Review by Abigail Ardelle Zammit
Appears in Issue 58 of Ofi Literary Magazine (Mexico)
Poetry is often considered to be difficult because it challenges the mind to pin down language into units of limited signification, opening it up, not only to plurality, but to the bizarre, the surreal and the unexpected, where the word is more connotation than referent, the verse more music than signification, the whole poem more like a symphony than the unravelling of some secret meaning. The extent to which poets play on this subversive use of language varies enormously, but in Afric McGlinchey’s second collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat, the reader is often at the far end of the spectrum where the juxtaposition of unusual metaphor and conceit, the surprising lexical connotations, the tight stanza forms and highly-charged line breaks demand the reader’s trust in the poet’s ability to inspire feelings, sensations and emotional turbulences, even when the meanings or narrative layers are not immediately cohesive.
Occupying a liminal space between fable and reality where the dead and the living converge, it is necessary for these poems to reach towards a linguistic and thematic otherness. In ‘Shadow’ therefore, which comes with a nod to Hans Christian Anderson, it might be less important to pin down the speaker and the mysterious ‘she’ who moves ‘to the sun’ than to savour the beauty of the sexual pull ‘towards/the body of the world’, the delicious tearing following ‘a catapulting leap’ where the speaker, simultaneously cat and human, discovers ‘passion’s bounty, a lover’s tongue’. In this poem, the recurrent motif of open windows suggests an escape into a surreal space where the characters can merge into their shadows or their ghostly incarnations, but also where the writer can swim into the embryonic freedom of her creative self.
In ‘Slow Dancing in a Burning Room, ‘ John Mayer’s love song allows the first person narrator to ponder why she is attracted to ‘the unknown / of the known’, to savour her lover’s proximity, feeling her heart’s push against his body. She must move around ‘blindly’, vulnerable to the light and the openness that freedom brings: ‘the doors, both back and front / are still open, and the yellowwood floor / is glowing’. Even in the well-executed villanelle, ‘Alchemy of Happiness’, which is dedicated to the poet’s son, the boy ‘flies through doorless rooms / across a private ocean’; imagining this joie de vivre is more rewarding than trying to pin down the precise question that his body asks, or the way it ‘gives an answer’ as the young limbs float into the airy space of childhood and half-tamed wilderness. The poem is indeed a ‘song of slanted movement’ because of its circular re-telling and reaffirmations and its refusal to pin down meaning. In the poem that precedes it, ‘The Importance of Being’, the epigraph from Wilde suggests that the soul can soar beyond human comprehension, so that in trying to imagine its metaphysical orbit, one has to talk of ‘slanting rain’; once again, the conclusion is an indirect commentary on the role of the imagination:
takes him far beyond
these four-walled days,
floats his soul
through this tiny window
Doubtlessly, ‘Ghost of the Fisher Cat’, which comes toward the end of the collection, continues the trajectory of the very first poem, ‘Cat Music’ – the transformation from cat gut to violin strings – which is also the exploration of art’s capacity for transcendence. The poem starts with a rhetorical question – ‘How to describe the topography / of the imagination?’ Despite the speaker’s directions to the readers: ‘Let your eyes go soft,/ sense peripherals / like an animal tracker’, there will always be those whose mind’s eye does not capture the ghost-cat, ‘her sinuous spring, back / into the shadows’ for this is always a fleeting moment and mental conjuring is not for everyone:
You didn’t catch her?
Well, there are always losses and gains
as with any fishing expedition.
It requires a certain leap of your own
to jump out of one world
and into another.
Sometimes, we are told, it is just ‘A Matter of Persistence’: again, the conditions must be propitious, light and weather being a recurring feature in this collection: ‘aftermath of rain’, ‘certain slant of streetlight’. So the lads in the poem become merged with the superstitious young vigilantes in ‘Familiar’, the ones who drowned Dom Perlet’s diabolical cat. In this poem, the black cat is reincarnated, struggling ‘for days and decades / until this evening’s new constellation – lynx’, and the mind picks up its half-presence, tenuous but real enough to acquire the charge of a ghost story. The way the poem moves rapidly from observation, to narrative, to conversation – ‘just an illusion’, scoffs the taller one to his staring friend’, is very much indicative of the poet’s own attempt to break into the reader’s world, pointing at that ‘bristling, vivid, green-eyed / density’, which is so clearly visible to her that she wants to gift us a glimpse of it, as if lifting the veil onto some other world.
That this kind of seeing is bitter-sweet, making one subject to suffering and vulnerability, is also a thematic concern. The man in ‘The Glass Delusion’ has to protect his glass-body from breaking; in this reading, he is not merely a self-absorbed individual who forgets his duty towards the society where he belongs, but an artistic soul who has to live with the terror of isolation; he is a fragile presence made alien and invisible as a result of his heightened sensibility: ‘though you see right through me / like the glass in that window, I remain invisible?’ It is why the poem is followed by ‘Pareidolia’, the tendency to perceive a meaningful image in an apparently random visual pattern; it is these seers who carry within them apocalyptic fears of otherworldly proportions so that even the setting sun becomes a metaphor for a collapsing world: ‘the arc / of the sun, in the silent moment / before the plummet’.
What this kind of vision entails is a keen awareness of otherness in all its forms, not least its political ramifications. The fisher cat, together with his owner, the alchemist canon, might lend themselves to contemporary migrant narratives because they also represent whatever seems foreign or alien to a particular society; the vigilantes may be an expression of the callousness or cowardice with which we destroy that which we fear, particularly when it appears strange or uncanny. In ‘I is Not Always Me’, winner of the 2015 Poets Meet Politics competition, the female speaker is an immigrant and a victim of racism, but what hurts her the most is the erosion of her own identity because of the violence of linguistic imposition:
In Advanced, we talk about erosion,
cliffs giving way, landing in the sea.
I think of how a foreign language percolates your own
until its idioms even permeate your dreams;
that’s not acquisition, but erosion too.
The speaker is very much like a poet, safeguarding the silence inside her head, seeking the tranquillity of river banks, recuperating her primal language from the flotsam of loss. If McGlinchey too is a migrant and lifelong traveller, then she can better understand what it is to live in so many places and never to belong, a theme which is played out in ‘Blink’, where no house is a home. Moreover, she is less prone to judgment when confronted with difference or seemingly bizarre behaviour. In fact, in ‘Holy War, the speaker could very much be Joan of Arc, ‘traitor, heretic, idolater’ who refuses to ‘betray’ her Voices, just like the poet who has to conjure the voices of others in order to sing variously in couplets, tercets, sonnets, villanelles, free verse and a variety of structural possibilities. Because the language she uses is so multi-referential, the title and the conclusion of the poem may remind readers of all those others, the suicide bombers, for instance, who, like the Maid of Orleans, are utterly convinced of salvation through martyrdom and self-sacrifice:
Though thick stone walls, I hear the bells again,
lifting me beyond this earthly fear. Like death,
my fate is certain, and Paradise awaits!
This is a writer who, like Karen Blixen (who features in the epigraph to ‘Contact’), can truly understand why ‘God and the Devil are one’; it is this subversive destabilization of a well-established dichotomy that allows her to play with language in the way she does, albeit a bit too madly at times, as in ‘Fin de Siècle’ where the speaker can ‘tweak’ God ‘out of you / like Medusa’s hairbrush snarl’, but alluringly enough to keep us engaged in her unique poetic language. It is in poems like ‘Sonnet in B Major’ that the powerful rhythm and oomph of her language are most apparent. As readers, we must hold our breath and accept the speaker’s invitation to Promethean courage, doing ‘magic, like feral creatures turning quick to a language,’ which is full of auditory energy:
A wet black semi-quaver opening up
the fanatic eye of an arbitrary Icarus.
Oh, these bells. But I digress.
If we must die, ingloriously, let’s first
rise up like snakes from the monumental pit.
This review originally appeared in Issue 58 of Ofi Literary Magazine, edited by Jack Little.
To order a copy of Ghost of the Fisher Cat, please click on the link: http://www.salmonpoetry.com/details.php?ID=380&a=221
Dr Abigail Ardelle Zammit is an English Literature at the University of Malta (Abela Junior College). Her most recent poetry collection is ‘Portrait of a Woman with Sea Urchin’ (Sentinel, 2015).