Review: Catherine Walsh – The Beautiful Untogether

The Beautiful Untogether is a long poem, a sequence of fifty-nine septets, ending in a longer, less structured distillation of the themes of the collection. The whole entity is self-aware of the problem of communication and accuracy, regular syntax often breaking down, flow stunted to the point of near-incomprehension.

Starting off with the image of a yellow notebook, the speaker struggles to transfer their thoughts from the mind to the page, lamenting this failure. It is unclear initially whether this is the fault of how we receive and translate conscious experience, or whether this is a shortcoming in language itself.

+++hey you can collapse a sentence
+++phrases beat residually to
+++points of advance no such
+++meanings imagined is intent
+++requisite to a mechanical skill

Walsh’s themes are reminiscent of Beckett, with a narrator not only bewildered by their predicament, but also with how to report on it. The speaker here seems to find a mote of comfort in dismissing “latent plagencies” as “a made up story”, something Beckett’s characters are fond of creating in times of distress. However, whereas Beckettian quandaries are often enclosed and concentrated – isolated figures inside boundaries presenting the issue of humanity – Walsh takes more of a free range approach. Consequentially, the language is looser, constantly feeling as if it wants to break out of these restricted blocks of seven lines and ramble.

At times, the tone is playful: we get the parenthesis “(and apparently this line is a deliberate omission)”, as well as “dislike of pretension pervades”, which we can take ironically for the most part in both senses. Elsewhere, it is sinister and fraught, to the point of defeat: “are we madder | attempting belief in any cure”. We are presented with a mind working overtime to try and stall encroaching dread by analytic thought.

+++i can hear I can sense
+++i can hear a sequence of
+++sensations in an instant
+++linking experience these accidents
+++struck through non-chronology
+++keep going disillusionment
+++may be inherited responsibly

A solution on how to make sense of these perceptions is sought in love, in music, in nature, something more primal and truer than what civilisation has led us to. The speaker is caught between this “vertebrate world” and “its invertebrate forbears”, yet concludes “we | are here far more than we are not”, a note of mixed resignation and hope: we are here so we should make use of what ‘here’ is, despite its pratfalls, yet ‘here’ is preferable to ‘nowhere’ (unlike Beckett).

The poem moves on to mourn our state of being, and question our ways of life: “what qualities have we lost in this | hybrid endeavour survival”. The Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam unexpectedly takes centre stage, the discovery of 796 infants and toddlers in a mass grave proving problematic not just for language, but for humanity. How are we to address and comprehend such horror? Given that Walsh has painfully pointed out our own ability to communicate, it is in the face of such tragedy that the poetry finds its true bearings. Walsh allows for outrage, but moves beyond it to show concern, compassion and heartache, as well as damnation.

+++a human temerity gone
+++any god a convenience as
+++scapegoated messenger to prop
+++foil demagogues self-disinvested
+++of responsibility killings
+++struck off as ardour imagine judge
+++x loved them violently to death

There is a question posed here as to whether art is capable of responding to such events. In the literary arts, we expect language to be elevated, to find the appropriate words and perform the necessary actions equivalent to accurate portrayal. Walsh seems sceptical of this –

+++how art walks
+++actually tells us only
+++that it’s capable
+++of throwing shapes
+++or being thrown

– yet understands that art is a natural and undeniable response to the problem of living: “communication enjoys shared | clinging to where there is going”. The Beautiful Untogether is not an easy read – which might be suitable, given its themes – but should be applauded for attempting to bite off and chew these big issues of being and responding. As the title suggests, there is plenty of schism, yet still plenty to wonder over too. At times, the writing will throw you with its jump-cut movements and disconnections, akin to avant-garde musician Captain Beefheart’s ‘exploding note theory’, guidance on how to play his music: ‘Play it like each note has no relationship to the note before or after it – like bombs bursting in air.’ Walsh’s “mesh of affective information” will leave you feeling shell-shocked, but for all its hard-hitting action, if you don’t like your poetry at least a little experimental, its force might be lost on some readers.

The Beautiful Untogether is available to read online and download for free from Smithereens Press.

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