Friday, 14 January 2011

Twelve Beds for the Dreamer, by Máighréad Medbh / Catfish, dir. Ariel Schulman & Henry Joost

How beneficial or detrimental to the reading of the poetry is personal acquaintance with the poet? I have known Máighréad Medbh for some years, as a fellow poet and as a colleague, as well as in a social context. While reading her latest collection Twelve Beds for the Dreamer (Arlen House, 2011) I found it difficult to keep my awareness of the circumstances of her life from entering the reading of the work.

I began to write these notes while waiting for the lights to dim for a screening of the film Catfish. Unlike The Social Network, this is a film about Facebook and its considerable impact. And it raises questions about lots more besides: identity, deception, life vs. art, invention, dreams vs. reality… But mostly I see it as being about the idea of personas, an individual’s separate and variable faces, about the fragmentation of the self.

At times, Máighréad Medbh’s poetry sizzles on the page. It is fearless and it is elemental. It is unapologetically feminine, intellectually agile, and it derives from the body. As might be expected from the work of someone primarily identified – for better or for worse, there’s little she can do about that now – as a ‘performance’ poet, there are great rewards in reading these poems aloud. There are turns of phrase and linguistic somersaults that delight. And the collection glitters in its tight unity: as the poet notes in her introduction, this is a quasi-scientific attempt to record her dreams at each stage of the moon’s monthly cycle – while staying more faithful to poetry than to astrology. A sense lingers that this book is the record of a journey out of the domestic – of an un-domestication, or a de-domestication. I’m not sure which.

Am I subconsciously reading these poems as autobiography? How much do we gain or miss by knowing the poet personally? When she writes as the poetic ‘I’, we know that this is not the ‘I’ of the historical person Máighréad Medbh speaking: at most – even in the work of the most ‘confessional’ of poets – this may be an approximation of a particular facet of her. Do the poems in which the speaker addresses a ‘you’ or invokes a ‘she’ achieve a distancing effect? Both ‘you’ and ‘she’ appear closer to the Máighréad Medbh I know – and not because of any specific pieces of information relayed. How many versions of ‘Máighréad Medbh’ are writing here – if any at all? The question seems to be one of construct.

I’m not totally convinced that Catfish is as pure a documentary as it purports to be. After all, isn’t it a film about artifice? For me it makes no difference whether it is ‘real’ or a hoax. Whether one knows ‘the truth’ about how the film was made, the personal circumstances of Yaniv Schulman specifically or of Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, whether Angela Wesselman-Pierce really exists as we see her or whether she was in on the project from the start – this is all immaterial. The crucial thing here is whether the film’s themes and the questions it attempts to raise are constructed in a persuasive manner.

The main one of these seems to be whether Facebook (or any social network) forces its users to appear as the sum of their fragmented selves – a rather reductive state. Or, as it simultaneously seems to promise, whether they can be as many different parts of themselves – or the person(s) they have invented – as they want to be. I emerged from both screening and book with a heightened awareness that what remains undeniable is the body itself, corporeal matter – which is the medium we respond to the world with. That our perceptions begin and end in the body. These are issues that would speak to anyone with an online presence – and more generally to anyone who has more than one way of addressing the world. Which is not just poets, filmmakers and artists, but practically everyone.

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