Review: Maria McManus – Available Light

Maria McManus, Available Light, Arlen House, p94,
ISBN 978-1-85132-187-2

Available Light is – to begin with at least – a book about birds, but not in the way you might immediately imagine. Outside of Hitchcock or Hughes, McManus’s theme derives from the ancient Roman practice of augury, the observation of birds in flight, determining omens and divine approval, or disapproval, from their movements. In her introduction, McManus remarks than “Augurs were the conduits and interpreters of the impetrativa (requests from the people to the gods) and oblativa (messages sent from the gods to the people)”. It might seem like a curious topic, but this is more than just a gimmicky framing device for the collection. Alongside natural imagery, wondrous descriptions of wrens, starlings, etc., McManus is also dealing with the very human practice of fervent requests and selfless dedication, ubiquitous and timeless facets of our human condition, bringing together ancient approaches with contemporary living.

McManus’s preferred method of exploration is largely through sequences of short pieces, as seen in The Cello Suites and Aill Na Searrach/The Leap of the Foals from previous collection We Are Bone. We are fed the narrative bit by bit here, bird by bird, allowed to fly off into tangents, sometimes looping back to our starting point. At times, it can be difficult to determine the singular narrative throughout a piece, repeat readings required, although this should not daunt any inquisitive reader. However, a few more footnotes or introductory notes along the way would be welcome, especially given the lengthy bibliography of consulted texts and some specialist knowledge applied.

On Falling, which does give us a note, about US pilot Joe Kittinger’s world record for the highest skydive, is a highlight of the collection. It imagines Kittinger, Icarus-like in flight, each of its seven sections taking us through a stage of the dive, introduced by the German compound noun, Zugunruhe, concerning the anxious behaviour in migratory birds. It’s a perfect word to match Kittinger’s “perch-hopping fever”, and shows that McManus can really pull off exactitude without compromising creativity.  We see a bird taking flight as it “scoffed at gravity” alongside Kittinger passing the Kármán line (the boundary between our atmosphere and space), the poem succeeding in capturing the marvel of flying, and for a moment, the reader almost feels jealous.

Across the two sections of Impetrativa and Oblativa, McManus creates small points of connectivity, giving the poems greater meaning through intertextuality. Lost mentions ablation, echoing the reference to Starling’s law in Remnant Nomenclature. The lengthy sequence Émigrés ends with a reference to Greek mythology’s keeper of the labyrinth Adriadne, wife of Bacchus, god of wine mentioned in Faolán. Lupo. Wolf., both alluded to as a kind of guide. The observation “All that falling can only happen once | and then it’s over” in Peregrinations echoes the earlier sentiment “Give in. Pain in temporal, | and then it’s over.” Such mirroring suggests that the messages sent and the messages received may not be much different at time, and than we can answer are own questions.

Pergrinations deals with three stories about the death of a bird alongside the migratory paths of the American hummingbird, flipping from North to South and back. A robin dies as it flies into a window, thinking that what it saw was “endless sky”. McManus ingeniously uses the name Nuria here, meaning “place between valleys”, signifying each bird’s own position, between entrapment and flight, life and death. A second story about a bird happens during a job interview.

+++I was serious, reverential,
+++intentional about the task –
+++a tailored form of knee –
+++bending and formality,
+++a message that I would
+++conform, concede, submit,
+++toe-the-line, fit in.

Whereas listing synonyms might reflect on the anxiety of the interviewee, it weakens the poem here, rather than choosing the strongest word or phrase to meet the line’s needs. The same happens in a few other places, where repeating the same meaning in other words only dilutes the impact, rather than building upon the initial strike.

The poem references Tess Gallagher’s poem Sah Sin about the death of a hummingbird (which is well worth looking up itself, from Midnight Lantern, Gray Wolf, 2011) and is bookended by the image of spinning plates, a person struggling to manage a chaotic life. This sticks out uneasily against the core of the sequence, but again, McManus is concerned with balance; we are told “don’t fear anything”, foreshadowing the directives of the later poem Fear.

The collection ends with a third section, Dust, serving as a counterbalance to all the divination and oracle consulting. It’s a comedown, warning us of the folly of fortune-telling (“Uncertainty is our inheritance”) with only obsolescence, decay and death as sure facts (“Silence makes rubble of our houses”). However, despite its grimness, there is an odd comfort to be found, such as in At the Table of the World, reminiscent of the closing paragraphs of Joyce’s The Dead:

+++Our dead stay with us,
+++and swaddle us and hold us close
+++like fearful newborns,

+++and whisper softly to us in the night,
+++for somehow we will suffer
+++just a little less because of it

The poems here recognise sadness and pain, not glossing over heartbreak with trite reassurances, but with offers of respect and support: “Know that you still occupy | some small, forgotten corner of sweetness.” This is the message given back to the requests for help sent out. Across the collection, McManus uses the poems and speakers to play the three parts of Pythia, Apollo and the Athenians who consulted the oracle at Delphi, however constantly homing back to the imagery of birds and nests. The ‘you’ here is not always directed at the reader, and yet we feel drawn into the appeals and responses here, McManus crafting a nest for our affinity, albeit on a challenging perch. These poems are auspices in both senses, prophetic and protective, grounded in reality, yet holding an admiration for the freedom of flight.

Available Light will be launched by Arlen House at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, on Sunday 17th December, 5pm.

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