I got to know Gaynor Kane through mentoring her as part of the Irish Writers One-to-One Mentoring programme. I was delighted when she asked me to introduce her second collection, Memory Forest, at its Bangor launch in the Carnegie Library on Saturday, 11 January. It was a lovely afternoon. Gaynor was preceded by Trish Bennett, who read a couple of poems from her new (Stickleback) micro-collection, also published by Hedgehog Poetry Press. Then, after my introduction, Gaynor did her own wonderful reading. It was great to hear the poems in her own voice, after I had spent time with them and got to know them, both individually and as they synergised within the covers of the book. It’s a wonderful collection. Below is what I had to say about it:
MEMORY FEAST by Gaynor Kane
‘A second collection is always something to celebrate. It marks the poet’s success in persisting with her chosen vocation. But when that collection is as ambitious and accomplished as Gaynor Kane’s Memory Feast, it also evokes great admiration and pleasure.
Robert Frost said that “Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom”. In Memory Feast, the reader is drawn back again and again to poems that interconnect and interact, often in surprising ways, to make wisdom and delight indistinguishable. Each poem plays its part in creating a poetic ecosystem grown out of the same soil. That soil is the poet’s meditations on death. This is a somewhat daunting subject for a collection of poetry. However, as the critic Georg Lukács said – he was writing about novels but I think the description is apt for this collection – “What draws us is its mysterious ability to warm a … life with death.” That is the paradoxical achievement. In these poems, death, funerary ritual, and memorialisation, sing of transformation.
Audre Lorde has described death as “the final silence.” However, Memory Forest challenges this characterisation; personhood, the singular self, is not annihilated by death. The dead, the-soon-to-be-dead, and their witnesses are all given voice. Funerary ritual becomes a synthesis and culmination of the individual. We are the inheritors, and our dead are not forgotten. This sense of continuance evokes comfort and celebration, as well as sadness. And while grief, loss and mourning are inevitably present, what also emanates powerfully from this collection is an intimate sense of connection: between different times and traditions; between old customs and new rituals; and between family and friends, different generations and indeed different species.
Memory Forest commands an impressive range of sources and customs. Gaynor does not confine her reflections to familiar Christian observances. She also ranges across the neolithic, to both ancient Greek and Egyptian myth, Norse legend, and different practices from India, Madagascar, Korea, and the Philippines. This wealth of diverse traditions makes reading these poems an education as well as a profound delight.
Memory Forest is bracketed by the poems AFTER LIFE, and NORTH SEA DISCOVERY. Each of these describe release into the fluidity of water. But in AFTER LIFE, there a dance between sea, sky and fire that is elemental. This is a poem that takes itself seriously because it knows the seriousness of its subject. It is stately and formal. It opens imperatively:
Build me a Viking longship
symmetrical shallow hull,
oak clinker, iron rivets,
fiery dragon figurehead.
As features strongly throughout Gaynor’s work, this is language of technical detail that revels in the skill it takes to build or make something; and further suggests how labour can be transformed through acts of ritual, to something profounder. The language segues, and I quote, into how the: Burning boat will begin / my voyage to Odin; that is, to the hall of the slain under the protection of a god, who is also the magician associated with poets. Here then, is this poet setting out her stall. She utilises the rituals of an ancient culture; she locates the ceremony in Belfast Lough, that is, she situates precisely; and moreover, both implicitly and explicitly, she describes people gathering to support each other as they perform ritual acts that honour the dead. Finally, she affirms how how that makes the magic. Or, to put it another way, how the sensory and physical, with community, is foundation for the spiritual.
Gaynor’s authoritative voice is rooted in the particular. She is a poet who observes closely and she understands the power of simple description. Listen to this evocative portrayal of the horses in TRADITION:
Plaited tails, the smell of leather and Brasso,
oiled hooves shine, the clop of shoes shifting weight …
The slow pace and sensory detail draw us in, simultaneously preparing us for and allowing us feel the emotional impact. The same is true for the collection as a whole. The ordering of the poems takes the reader on a journey, to meet a host (and I use the word advisedly) of different responses to loss, or the prospect of loss; the result is that it feels like the poems are talking to each other across culture and time, through different people. The reader is left comforted, assured, and often smiling.
The collection showcases Gaynor’s skill in handling different poetic forms and devices. An example, grounded in the traditions of funerary incantation or litany, is the poem BURY ME – UNDER GOOGLE SEARCH RESULTS (note the sly humour), which opens:
bury me in my boots where I fall
bury me low (with soul) out on the lone prairie
The poem continues, rap-like, and we are carried along, charmed by the novelty and the repetition; until at the close, the tone shifts to a more personal note enhanced by a biblical allusion:
bury me next to you
a man will be buried treasure
Returning to the idea of transformation, or more aptly, translation in terms of its source meaning ‘to carry across’. Every poem of Memory Forest is both representation and act of translation, as a life is carried across into death, and variously memorialised. Different beings and conveyances herald or do the actual carrying. The customs of other times and places are translated into a modern context. The result might look bizarre to contemporary local eyes as acknowledged FAMADIHANA:
a sight it would be
for folk on the Glider …
THE TREE SEED POD describes a newly invented funerary practice, but grounds that invention in the past by connecting it to the Greek legend of Daphne; it also foreshadows the traditional Philippine tree burials in a later poem, LAST WALK IN THE FOREST. Together, these two poems convey a vital aspect of Memory Forest: the parallels across culture; and how, in diversity, these rituals, rich in allusion, deeply resonant, affirm our common humanity.
The speaker of the poem SUM WISH UPON A STAR is clear on why new rituals need to be adopted or invented. This poem opens with the declaration:
I won’t go to Heaven:
I can’t believe it exists …
and closes with a promise that in looking at the night sky, and I’ve shortened the quote:
you will see
correlating changing values.
To be obedient to changing values, that is, to listen to them, traditions may have to change; and new ones may have to be created.
Heroism is another important feature of these poems, especially the heroism of ordinary people. The dying person in LAST WALK IN THE FOREST is the one that: pulled back the bark door behind himself – in other words, closed his own coffin. The stoicism of many voices reveal strong-minded, but modest individuals, who don’t expect too much from either life or death. Thus, in PRE-PLANNED, the reader is instructed:
Go to the Co-op,
find my coffin chosen,
funeral paid for.
Order only one wreath;
A determination to cause as little bother as possible is poignantly suggested by the poem DON’T WASTE MONEY ON ME:
Bury me in the box
no fancy mahogany coffin
or costly compostable casket.
These voices act as counterpoint to the poems, or parts of poems, that have a more elevated register. People memorialise themselves unconventionally, for example, as a vinyl record. Their tone is understated and direct, often self-deprecating or irreverent. Humour is present in the swerves of expression that send themselves up, sometimes quite literally as in the poem CINDERS which closes with a request that:
… as the coffin
descends to the retort
The Final Countdown.
There are many other aspects of Memory Forest that I could talk about: how sudden tragic events can capsize the most meticulous planning; the roles of animals as emissaries and harbingers, or as mourners themselves; the linguistic grace of a poem like SAMSARA; and the stunning illustrations and artwork, which complement the poems so perfectly, and make the whole book such a physically beautiful object. Memory Forest shows Gaynor’s ability to serve her material and bring her talent into the light. She is a poet growing in confidence and maturity, and definitely one to watch.
The final poem, NORTH SEA DISCOVERY, returns to the medium of water to, with deep resonances for our times, resolve some issues of identity, continuance and memorialisation raised by earlier poems. A presumably drowned man’s dead body has transformed as it feeds the life of the sea. The language is ornate and gorgeous, the imagery vivid:
Living reef, growing, budding, flowering
on death warmed up by flame shells.
We are left pondering:
who he is, what he has been,
But these questions are answered by what he has become:
… a universe – sunfish, stars, asteroids,
a big bang of pink and purple fireworks.
Thus, out of death, grows more life; diverse, beautiful and complete. What a celebratory conclusion to a remarkable collection.
Thank you Gaynor for this poetry.’