Lorraine has won many awards for her poetry and hundreds of her poems have been published in journals and anthologies, both in Australia where she lives, and internationally.
Her latest collection, Blood Plums was published by Walleah Press in 2014.
The following short lecture was delivered by multi-award winning poet Ross Gillett at the Art Gallery of Ballarat at the launch of Blood Plums .
It’s a pleasure to launch this beautiful book
You’ll find in Blood Plums page after page of finely crafted poems, bringing us a world challenging and beguiling. Love, death, childhood and old age, emotional damage, tenderness, grief, loss, birth – it’s all here. But one of the most remarkable things about this poetry is its incisive, clear-eyed view of this world. Lorraine McGuigan’s clear- sighted, unsentimental, courageous sensibility is unwavering in this book.
Going with that of course is a strong thread of humour, including a quiet black humour in the presence of death ─ there’s even a poem about black humour (December Morning) and the very last poem in the book is about a graveyard joke, literally.
There are many threads in this book which will repay close attention ─ you could start with the extraordinary opening poem Mothers ─ 1957 and pursue the thread of motherhood and childhood, and be hugely rewarded. In fact the first three poems are formidable achievements on the subject of motherhood, and I want to focus briefly on the third poem Delivery to point up another of the McGuigan strengths: the superb imagery at work in the poetry.
DeliveryHe always came on Fridays, hobnailedboots clacking down our brick path,past the bins and chooks pulling weeds.I would hold the back door open andstep aside, the immense cold he carriedwafting in his wake. I shivered as he easedthe sugar-bagged block off his shoulderand prodded it into place with a steel hook.This old man whose name we never knewWas the only person to set foot in our sunroom or anywhere else. Give them an inchand they take a mile, my mother warned.The day he didn’t come was winter-coldand mum locked the door, returned oneshilling and sixpence to the tea caddy.Later we heard that the iceman diedgripping the reins of Molly, his carthorse.One block remained on the tray.
That sense of coldness falling all over the child is intensely, physically real, but also works marvelously as an image of the child’s emotional predicament. Read the poem please.
The poems I want to dwell on at more length are towards the end of Blood Plums. They are poems which deal, I think, in a really complex and unique way with death, with the relationship between the dead and the living, with what’s going on when we remember the dead or when we sense their presence. And in this context we should note that the book is dedicated firstly to Lorraine’s late husband Kevin, whose absence really does haunt this book.
Which leads me straight to a poem that Michael Sharkey on the back cover rightly recommends: The Question on page 60.
The QuestionHow will we know each other – afterwards?A Cancer patient to a friendMy lover’s absence is more realthan his presence ever wasand now I ask this question too.If there is a hereafter and we arefaceless, bodiless, what on earthcould trigger recognition? Not asingular scent of skin, armsreaching out to hold.No, confirmed sceptics that webecame, we are destined neverto reunite. Perhaps comfort liesin fifty years of memory savedfor moments like this. Awakein our bed warmed by a notionof you, bodying forth from theshadows: my latter-day Lazarus
I could spend a long time on this poem, but I just want to draw attention to the amazing opening lines: “absence more real than presence ever was”. An extraordinary moment, I think ─ painful, revelatory. And what the poem goes on to do is to delicately and persistently establish the deeper reality of absence, even as it flies the kite, as it were, of the dead lover’s presence. Even as the voice speaking to the dead lover creates a sense of his presence, that voice also carries the knowledge of his absolute absence. No final consolation, but a knowing acceptance of whatever comfort is possible.
There’s another part of the complex emotional equation being worked out in these poems:
ReflectionsFor forty years I saw myself through John’s eyes. Idid not age. Joan Didion, ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’I too saw myself through another’s eyesbut he is no longer here to tell mereassure me that I still exist. To himI was the girl of fifty summers agoalthough he, my mirror, sometimesreflected a person I did not careto recognize or ever become.This December morning I bend to a mirrorto face what five years exactly have writtenon my skin. As I speak to himof grief, its persistence, my breathon glass blurs my image.
The living woman in this poem is not sure of the solidity of her own existence, and the poem ends with an image that enacts that self- generated doubt. “As I speak to him/of grief, its persistence, my breath/on glass blurs my image.” Her own breath, her own solitary life if you like, blurs her image of herself. if our partners are our mirrors, then with their deaths our own reality becomes hard to see, to know. Which takes us to the final poem I want to focus on ─ Familiar — two pages on, on page 65. (Although notice the opening stanza of the intervening poem The Word – so many of these poems deal with barely perceptible, briefly glimpsed presences.)
FamiliarAnd so you still appeara fleeting, teasing presenceindistinct, yet familiar.My memory clingsto the idea of you.Nothing makes sense,you staying youngas I rapidly age. Would youwant to know me?Once you walked rightthrough me and I almostdropped your urn.I was dusting it, removingcobwebs. I felt nothing.This was a dream.And now in our gardentoo far away to answermy call, I see you besidethe roses, busy. LaterI find a neat pile of leavesscarred by blackspot.And I think,anythingis possible.
And then the glimpsed figure of the loved dead man busy at the roses. I’ve used the word ghost once. but I’m wary of it in the context of these poems It’s not a word, or a notion, that the poetry at this point really urges on us at all. This is not primarily or essentially about a supernatural incident it feels incredibly natural, in fact a more intensely natural event than life normally throws at us. The presence of the dead man arises out of the garden, which is the private version of the natural world that the living woman and the dead man shared ─ or share, should I say.
But there’s another reason that this poem doesn’t, in the context of the poems around it, read like a ghost poem in the traditional sense. The incident in Familiar strikes me as partly about the presence of the dead but also, and more profoundly, about the intense reality of absence. This and the related poems don’t seem to me to be about grief ─ they’re not poems of mourning or lament ─ as much as they are meditations on absence itself. And they are all the more moving for that, I think.
Remember the opening line of The Question ─ ”How will we know each other – afterwards? Well in Familiar I think we see this disturbing proposition demonstrated. The figure busy at the roses is absence made palpable, more palpable than the remembered presence and more palpable than the presence of the living poet. There’s a complex vortex of emotion created in these moments. We are moved, disturbed, baffled even, brought up against the edge of what we can know about the relationship between the living and the dead, between presence and absence. It’s amazing poetry.
But even here, typically, LM leaves us with a haunting sense of affirmation. At this point the world of these poems is a complex of intangibility, absence and momentary presences, but it’s not the presence ─ or the absence ─ of the dead that haunts us as much as the sense of possibility itself. Those last lines of Familiar ─ “And I think/anything/is possible” ─ embody a wondrous ─ we ARE in the presence of true wonder here ─ hard won, fully felt moment of insight, the sort of achieved insight that marks the very best poetry. We should thank Lorraine for it. These are the sort of poems that launch themselves. I consider Blood Plums already launched. Thank you.
Ross Gillett is a multi-award winning poet who taught English at Melbourne and Monash Universities during the 1970s.