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Boeke | Books > Resensies | Reviews > English

The Suitable Girl reaches the heart


Madri Victor - 2011-05-19

Untitled Document

Title: The Suitable Girl
Author: Michelle McGrane
Publisher: Modjaji Books
ISBN: 9781920397265
Price: R130.00

Click here to buy a copy from Kalahari.net.

It should be clear from the start that this is not so much a review as a discussion, or a contemplation on what makes poetry enjoyable, and whether my latest read, The Suitable Girl by Michelle McGrane, counts as “good poetry”.

Robert Frost said, “There are three things, after all that a poem must reach: the eye, the ear, and what we may call the heart or mind. It is most important of all to reach the heart of the reader.” Michelle McGrane’s third collection of poetry, The Suitable Girl, does exactly that. Dealing with themes such as grief, gender issues and society’s constantly changing expectations of women, these poems show the reader a world that is sensuous, strange and laced with mythology as well as, at the same time, familiar, disturbing and concrete. It cunningly comments on the expectations of women as portrayed in modern-day media. It speaks to our fears and ignorance. Our time is not as far removed from that of Augusta Fabergé, Marie Antoinette or even Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason, all of which feature in this collection. Society still has very distinct ideas about what is suitable or not.

The title, The Suitable Girl, refers to an earlier poem with the same title which acts as a key to this collection. Unfortunately the poem was not included in this volume of poems.

The suitable girl is not temperamental, 
does not throw tantrums, have rages 
in public places, 

or swear. 

She does not take drugs or 
stay out late, she is the daughter 
of family friends. 

She does not phone you drunk 
in the middle of the night or ignore 
your calls, she does not 

make you happy.

Thus the title should be read ironically: a suitable girl can be so boring. The mysticism lies in the unsuitable, the untameable; and the unmentionable. McGrane’s “girls” send postcards from the moon (“Lunar Postcards”), dream of “sticky-sweet mango strings caught between my teeth” and float on “a celestial conflagration of saffron frangipani” (“Bertha Mason Speaks”). While imprisoned, without hope, in a house she has “a quiet hour/ in the garden” (“Impatiev House, July 1918”) and must also endure the imprisonment of an unsuitable body (“Skin Offerings”) and a society which can lace a “whalebone corset so tightly I can scarcely breathe” (“The Remise of Marie Antoinette, aged 14”). But these are the women whose lives, whether historical, fictional or actual, both shaped their own interior landscape and changed our view of the world. They are heroic, seductive, brave, bewildered, heartbroken, afraid, silenced, tired, joyous, aloof, bewitching, and untouchable. And they pull the reader right into that emotional web. How can one stand untouched? They accentuate a sometimes distorted image we have of the suitable girl, as well as the unsuitable girl. They overwhelm you, bewitch you and leave you with the realisation that we seldom see beyond that which society chooses to show us, and that this disconnects us form the truth.

Now that you’ve heard Jane’s side of the story, what I wish to tell you is this:

That once I had hoped to be happy with my cold, dour-faced husband
somewhere in the periphery; that, in retrospect, the day he came for
me was the day my island spirit deserted me; that the exile from my
ramshackle green home caused something within me to tear adrift [...]

(From “Bertha Mason Speaks”)

The strongest poems in this collection are those that clearly deal with women’s issues. But this is not only a collection of bewitching suitable and unsuitable girls from history, mythology and fiction. There are poignant poems on the death of a father and the feeling of loneliness and loss this brings to a daughter (“January Triptych”, “Wearing Silence”). Also the inability of a girlfriend to understand and come to terms with the choices of an anorexic friend (“Skin Offerings”). It portrays the wife who wants to disappear: “Finally, I was free to disappear/ the day my husband/ brought the young brush cherry home” (“Bonsai”), the girl who carries “the music” of a one-night stand with her (“If you are lucky”).

Now the question: Is it good poetry? For Robert Frost poetry must reach the eye, ear and heart of a person. I believe poetry must evoke some sort of emotion for its reader. “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” That’s Emily Dickinson’s opinion. I agree. Good poetry, of course, must show technical mastery, with cunning word play, good rhythm, etc. It must open a new way of looking and listening. But it must also, according to Frost, touch the heart of a reader, not because of its technical competence, but because the themes within poems resonate with something from our own lives. With A Suitable Girl McGrane bombards the reader’s eye and ear with scent, colour, texture, and movement. The poems vary in style and tone, some being lyrical and detailed, others sharp, concrete and to the point. But they all act as a spotlight on the beauty and bewitching of the ordinary, and the magical, strange and dark things which fascinate us for exactly that reason. (One of my favourite poems is “Thirteen ways with figs”.) With her powerful descriptions and clever use of words from specialist lexical fields McGrane conjures up a sensual world filled with bewitching rhymes and rhythms. This is a poet who is a master of the musicality of words, who clearly understands that a poet, whether male or female, is a witch, always casting a spell on the reader.

Robert Frost, who stated the importance of reaching the heart of the reader, also said, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” Michelle McGrane is a shrewd observer, not only of the concrete but also of emotion.

A Suitable Girl has been one of this year’s enjoyable reads.