In Shelmalier, Medbh McGuckian’s most ambitious collection to date, elegies and laments for disturbances of the day fit a previous whirlwind moment, the insurgence of United Irishmen in 1798. Five sections accommodate insistent voices of ghosts from the past, the Rising itself, the quelling of that rebellion through executions, incarcerations and violent losses. A number of shorter poems add energy and urgency to the book’s growing awareness of the fact of a buried tragedy. Ultimately, Shelmalier is a book of consoling art and lasting meaning, at once a memorial and an example for our time.
Taking her title from the Wexford fishermen who became gunmen in the Irish rising of 1798, Medbh McGuckian carries the sea changes in language she has elsewhere wrought in bodily tropes of waves, tides, liquidity, and blueness into poems where “the long, long dead / steer with their warmed breath / my unislanded dreams.” In poems that warm history into the living and breathing voice, McGuckian transforms the rebels’ “still unused voices” into “soon-to-be-living words” (“Rose Trellis”) that may yet resonate in an island where hope itself remains difficult two centuries later.
‘Medbh McGuckian’s latest volume of poetry, Shelmalier, reveals the poet continuing her explorations of the relationships among language and the (usually female) body and inner and outer realities, at the same time that it seems to mark a new and exciting stage in her poetic life.’ — Helen V. Emmitt, Irish Literary Supplement