“Sometimes I hang on to a branch with one hand
and a twig with the other”
– Maureen McCarthy
In an age where the internet and social media bring reams of information cascading onto our computer screens with the tap of a key, it’s hard to imagine that one of Canada’s best poets could be overlooked. But… it happens.
Maureen McCarthy is a case in point. She’s not on the internet and she never does readings, so she’s not all that well known. You can still get her books from her publisher (Harbour) or abebooks.com, but you’d be hard-pressed to find them on bookstore shelves. Yet at the very least, her last full collection, Sneaking through the Evening, really should be there alongside the high-profile poets whose best books are routinely stocked.
Her work reminds me of Robert Bly’s leaping poetry, the way her images wander about, making unexpected connections among seemingly unrelated objects and events. Reading a Maureen McCarthy poem is, for me, like starting off on a journey with no map, no planned destination – yet somehow always arriving at just the right spot.
The lines quoted above open her most recent publication, Nine Steps to the Door (Alfred Gustav Press, 2013). In the afterword (all chapbooks in this series feature a commentary by the authors about their work), McCarthy tells us that she began the poems:
“… with words and images I hoped would go somewhere. I wanted them to be like a simple phrase of music, elusive and moody. … I have tried to work in the deep themes in a fleeting way, and I hope they resonate with an emotional truth if not a logical one.”
I think she achieves this beautifully (and often with a deliciously subtle sense of humour). Here’s the full poem:
Sometimes I hang on to a branch with one hand
and a twig with the other
while my feet sink into streams and bushes blow.
It’s then I worry about my dress
my wallet, my bag of sugar buns –
Yes, I like the comfort of a sugar bun
the protection of a wall.
I like to watch the wind nip into graves
and slide out the other side
calling ‘you go your way, I’ll go mine.’
I like to feel my blood pulsing
in my veins
and sluicing down into my well of dates and cares.
McCarthy isn’t one to churn out books (her four full collections were published between 1980 and 1999) – she writes slowly, deliberately; revising, sometimes for years, until she is fully satisfied with each poem. Fingers crossed, her fifth collection will be out soon. Her chapbook was available only to those with a subscription to the Gustav series, and these poems, which I hope will be in the new book, warrant a much wider audience. In the meantime, while I wait for her next book, I’ll continue to savour the poems she’s already given us.
The poem is reprinted with permission from the author and the publisher. To learn more about Maureen McCarthy, please visit Harbour Publishing.
Sandy Shreve’s fifth poetry collection is Waiting for the Albatross (Oolichan, 2015). Her previous books include Suddenly, So Much (Exile Editions) and Belonging (Sono Nis Press). She co-edited, with Kate Braid, the anthology In Fine Form – The Canadian Book of Form Poetry (second edition forthcoming from Caitlin Press in 2016), edited Working For A Living, a collection of poems and stories by women about their work (Room of One’s Own) and founded BC’s Poetry in Transit program. Her work is widely anthologized and has won or been short listed for several awards. Born in Quebec and raised in New Brunswick, Sandy lived in Vancouver, British Columbia for some 40 years and now makes her home on Pender Island, BC. Visit her website.